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"entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment" - an image from the Pericopes of Henry II

None of the four Gospels gives an inclusive or definitive account of the Resurrection of Jesus or of his appearances. The Gospels are consistent on the incident, with variations on the visit of women to Christ's tomb. Although Christ's body had been laid out in the tomb after crucifixion and death, the tomb is found to be empty, the body gone, and a young man or angel(s) within the tomb tells the women that Christ has risen.[1] These accounts describe the first biblical references of the Resurrection of Jesus.


Agreements and differences in the Gospels

Agreements in all four Gospels include: emphasis upon the first day of the week, that those who found the empty tomb were all women, the prominence of Mary Magdalene, and attention to the stone that had closed the tomb. The Gospels appear do not agree on: the precise time the women visited the tomb, the number and identity of the women, the purpose of their visit, the appearance of the messenger(s) – angelic or human, their message to the women, and the response of the women to the visitor in the tomb.[1]

Part of a series on the
Death and resurrection of Jesus

The visitors and their purpose

The four canonical gospels all agree that Mary visited Jesus' tomb, though which Mary this Mary is, and whether she was on her own, varies between the texts. According to most ancient versions of John (and most modern translations), Mary was Mary Magdalene, though the Codex Sinaiticus' version of John only names her Mary. In Mark, Mary is Mary Magdalene 'and' Mary, the mother of James, and these two are joined by Salome.[2] The gospel according to Luke, explicitly mentions that the women from Galilee visited the tomb, though it says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and the other women from Galilee, later told the disciples about the visit to the tomb. In Matthew, Mary is Mary Magdalene 'and' the other Mary, presumably Mary the mother of James.

According to John, this visit was on the first day of the week (Sunday, the day after Shabbat, the end of the Jewish week), while it was still dark. According to Mark and Luke it was light. Alfred Loisy believed that the original form of John here was similar to that recounted in the Codex Sinaiticus, and was intended to point to the Virgin Mary as the sole visitor, while later copyists substituted Mary Magdalene so that the gospel according to John matched accounts given in the other gospels more closely. A more religiously conservative attempt at resolving the discrepancy describes Mary making two different trips to the tomb, the first being in the dark on her own, and the second at dawn with a group of women, including the other Mary.

Mark and Luke explain that the women were intending, by their visit, to continue the Jewish burial rituals, though Matthew merely says that they came just to look at the tomb, as if there on the off-chance of something being amiss. John on the other hand makes no mention of such ritual, and the apocryphal, but heterodox, Gospel of Peter claims that she came to mourn, a view favoured by many modern-day heterodox Christians. A rabbi of the time, Bar Kappera, was of the opinion (as recorded in the Midrash Rabbah) that in those days the third day was often the prime point for mourning.

Biblical accounts of the empty tomb

Mary and her companions (in some accounts) are then described by the gospels as discovering the tomb to be empty, though the specifics vary.

The four accounts

  • According to Mark 16:1-8, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome find that the tomb has been opened:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8 (NIV)

  • According to Matthew, an angel in shining garments is seen by Mary and Mary opening the tomb, and the angel tells them not to be afraid since Jesus is risen from the dead:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you. So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Matthew 28:1-10 (NIV)

  • According to Luke, the women discover the tomb has been opened, and two men in shining garments come up to them and tell them not to be afraid since Jesus is risen.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words.

Luke 24:1-8 (NIV)

  • The gospel of John contains the most complete narrative including the appearance of Jesus. Since he was "The other disciple, the one Jesus loved," it is presented as an eyewitness account worded in the third person:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

John 20:1-13 (NIV)

Resolving differences among the accounts

Resolving the differences among the accounts is tied to the resolution of the synoptic problem. The prevailing theory of Markan priority, is that the original figure in the tomb was a mysterious man in white. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the man in white becomes an angel, and in Luke, writing for a non-Jewish audience, to two become angel-like men. In John this is abridged altogether. Scholars who believe that the Mark gospel is a gnostic document, often see the person in the tomb as the mysterious initiate mentioned in the Secret Gospel of Mark, and hence as the Beloved Disciple, identified, by implication, as Lazarus. Such scholars interpret this figure, and his appearances throughout the narrative, not as an historical individual, but as a metaphor for the reader's initiation into gnosticism where he is told to first to give up his worldly life, then dying and being brought to new life, then learning the mysteries of the religion, and finally clothed in white and speaking from a position of wisdom. Most Christians, and almost all scholars pre-dating the discovery of the Secret Gospel of Mark, tend to view that the figure was intended to be an angel.

Some have linked the two angels guarding the tomb with the pair that were traditionally said to guard the Ark of the Covenant, but Wetstein has advanced a thesis linking the pair of angels to the pair of criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus. White or radiant clothing is stereotypically the description of angels in the New Testament, and so very little further detail about their nature could be ascertained. Neither is it possible to identify whether the angels were in the form of men, allowing harmonization with Mark, or whether they took the form of more unusual beings like Cherubim or Seraphim.

The narrative in John between Mary (a) discovering that the tomb is open, and (b) her later witnessing angels inside it, is considered by some to be misplaced. To many it seems illogical for Mary not to have actually looked into the tomb the first time. Mary's presence at the tomb when she witnesses the angels seems somewhat abrupt when the intervening narrative last mentions that she is some distance away. Raymond Brown has argued that the text for John 20 was combined from two separate sources, that John inexpertly interlaced together.

Women the first witnesses to the Resurrection

When the women came back from the cemetery on Easter morning, they brought with them word of an empty tomb and the report that "He is not here but has risen!"

The apostles were dismissive. Some have suggested a lack of enthusiasm because the messengers were women. "From women let not evidence be accepted," reads the Mishna, "because of the levity and temerity of their sex."

Theologian Thomas G. Long has offered two other possibilities besides their gender:

  • Perhaps the news of the empty tomb, the resurrection, of Jesus' victory over death was simply too overwhelming for them to believe, too difficult to assimilate all at once.
  • Perhaps any anticipation of the resulting challenge was too great at the moment. Luke's account shifts from calling them "the Eleven" to "the Apostles" ("those who are sent.") Long writes they knew that they would be sent to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. There would be arrests and shipwrecks, outpourings of the Spirit, persecutions and gentiles, stonings and miles of weary travel. If the women were right—that Jesus was risen from the dead, then the story was just beginning for the Apostles.[3]

The tomb

Tomb of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated by some Christians as the place where Jesus was buried.

In John, the angels are described as sitting where Jesus' body had been, thought to be a reference to squatting or sitting cross legged, suggesting that the tomb possessed a raised shelf or ledge, on which the body had been placed. F. F. Bruce argues that the angels, as supernatural beings, were sitting on thin air. John also describes the angels as sitting so that one was where Jesus' head had been, and one where his feet had been, and some scholars think that this clear distinction between head and foot is an indication that the tomb had a built-in headrest, though others believe the writer is just referring to the direction in which Jesus had been placed.

John portrays Mary as stooping to view the tomb. According to modern archaeology, tombs of the era were accessed via doors at ground level which were generally less than a metre tall, fitting the description given to Mary's viewing. These tombs either had a lone chamber for a single individual, or a passage lined with entrances to a number of tombs. Mary is able to see into Jesus' tomb from the outside suggesting the former type. This is considered a traditional view.

The grave clothes

According to both Luke and John, the disciples see grave clothes in the tomb. Luke states that strips of linen were on the ground. John states that they were lying there. These two descriptions may not imply the same thing. Brown has argued that John is using a phrase that actually describes the linen as lying on a shelf within the tomb. According to Luke, Jesus had been wrapped in a shroud, and this became the traditional view. What became of the grave clothes after the disciples have seen them is not described in the Bible, though some works of the New Testament apocrypha do make mention of it. A Roman Catholic tradition describes the shroud as being taken to Turin, becoming the Turin Shroud.

John additionally describes the presence of a soudarium, for the head, that was set apart. A soudarium is literally a sweat rag; more specifically it was a piece of cloth used to wipe away sweat, but in the context of dead bodies, most scholars believe it was used to keep the jaw closed. Tradition holds that the Sudarium was a turban, and that it later found its way to Oviedo in Spain, becoming the Sudarium of Oviedo. Although it may initially seem insignificant, the fact that the item for the head was set apart fundamentally affects Christology. If the head cloth remained in the same location as the remainder of the clothes, and if these remained where the body had been, it implies that Jesus' body was lifted through the clothing, or that Jesus' body de-materialised and re-materialised elsewhere, hence supporting more docetic interpretations. Conversely, it being set apart implies the opposite - that someone took the clothes off in an ordinary manner. Some see this as a direct attack by the author of John on docetism, and the gnosticism that used the synoptic accounts to advocate it.

In more recent times, The possibility that Jesus passed through cloth and dematerialized has frequently been regarded as evidence of divine action by God. This interpretation, however, was not one that existed in the early church, which viewed such interpretations as docetism. Those advocating a more supernatural account have argued that the fact that the soudarium and the other grave clothes were set apart merely reflects the distance of the neck as it is situated between the head and the body, or that it simply means that the cloth was curled in a ball rather than lying flat, i.e. that it was lying in a different manner to the others. Some see this as a very clear attempt by John to rule out docetism.

The level of detail that the author of the Gospel According to John adds to this section is to Brooke Foss Westcott evidence that the author was an eyewitness, but C.K. Barrett disagrees, pointing out that such details are what a modern author adds to a fictional account to give it a feeling of verisimilitude, but that there is no reason to believe an ancient writer would not have these same skills. Dodd argues that, having already reached the narrative climax with the crucifixion scene, these later sections deliberately slow down the narrative to act as dénouement. Schnackenberg interprets the level of detail as apologetic in origin, though he does regard the details concerning the placement of the grave clothes to be an attempt to disprove the allegation that Jesus' tomb had simply been robbed, rather than as an attempt to assert a Christology.

A side issue is whether abandoning the grave clothes meant that the risen Jesus was naked, a view held for example by Kastner.

Historical significance of the empty tomb

Replica of the Empty Tomb at Resthaven Memorial Park in Lubbock, Texas

In the Gospel accounts (John 19:39-42) we see the intervention of influential followers of Jesus such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who take Jesus' body down from the cross and lay him in a tomb. In the Gospel of John the account is marked by a sense of urgency to do this before the coming festival of the Sabbath, during which rest would be observed and no work could occur. It was necessary to use a tomb already prepared as was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Romans, knowing of Jesus' claim of resurrection placed a Roman guard to guard the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 27:62-66). According to all four gospels, the empty tomb led to the revelation of Jesus' resurrection, implicitly in the canonical Gospel of Mark (without the later endings), and explicitly in the other three canonical gospel narratives.


  1. ^ a b Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978 ISBN 0664241956
  2. ^ In the earliest surviving ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, the narrative finishes at this point. The NIV contains this footnote: "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."
  3. ^ Long, Thomas G. "Empty tomb, empty talk. Christian Century, 118 no 11 Ap 4 2001, p 11.

See also

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