John’s Account of Women Finding Jesus’ Empty Tomb

The readings for Easter Sunday, April 16, , Cycle A, are
John 20:1-9 Acts 10:34a, 37-43; -23; Col. 3: 1-4; John 20: 1-9

It was the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday. The body of Jesus had been entombed late Friday afternoon. On the Sabbath all Jews rested, including the disciples of Jesus. Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell us that the women who followed Jesus from Galilee had watched the burial of his body. Luke notes that the women were preparing spices and ointments to return to the tomb and enclose these deodorants with the body. Matthew tells us that the tomb was newly hewn out of the rock in the same area in which Jesus was crucified, and that the owner of the tomb was Joseph of Arimathea. These tombs were carved, cut, hewn into the side of a hill in porous (soft) rock called tufa. Before sunrise, a most faithful woman disciple of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Galilee, came to the tomb of Jesus, as John writes, “while it was still dark.” To keep animals out of the tomb, a large, round, flat stone was rolled across the entrance of the tomb in a groove cut for that purpose. There was enough dawning light for Mary of Magdala to see that the stone had been rolled back and the entrance stood open.

John does not say that Mary entered and checked whether the body of Jesus was still there. She ran away and reported her discovery to Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” She simply concluded that the body of Jesus was gone, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have placed him.”  Who are “we”? The author of the gospel here betrays his reliance on the tradition in the other three gospels that Mary of Magdala was not the only Galilean woman disciple of Jesus concerned about the empty tomb. John however is intent on emphasizing Mary Magdalene and omitting the other faithful women disciples of Jesus. A valid hypothesis is that by the time John wrote his gospel close to the end of the first Christian century, traditions about the role of Mary of Magdala had outgrown other traditions about the group of Galilean women disciples of Jesus.

The report of the empty tomb was exciting for the male disciples who at this time were still hiding because of fear of arrest as collaborators with a would-be King of the Jews. The fear was not so much of the Romans in Jerusalem but more of the powerful high priestly families who were responsible for the arrest and delivery of Jesus to the Roman authorities.  As Luke’s Acts of Apostles demonstrates, those elites were determined to wipe out these troublemakers.  Now Peter and the other disciple ran toward the tomb. The author points out that “the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived first.” We do not know if John intended anything by this point, unless perhaps that the Beloved Disciple was driven by greater love of Jesus. A 9th century commentator on this passage was of the opinion that the Beloved Disciple could run faster because he was unmarried! Perhaps St. Paul can help us here. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-33 he writes, “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife.”

Since the entrance to the tomb was usually low, the Beloved Disciple bent down, looked in, and noticed Jesus’ burial linens, probably on the shelf or niche on which the body had been placed. There was also the cloth which covered his face separately rolled up. Jesus was a neat house-keeper! Just as the notice about the Beloved Disciple running faster etc. is probably nothing more than a historical remembrance, so also the presence of the various linen cloths. Although no one saw the resurrection, this witnessing to the emptiness of the tomb and the careful arrangement of the linen cloths was important. Simon Peter, (married and therefore slower!!), finally arrived, went into the tomb, followed by the other disciple. It becomes obvious that the author was more favorably disposed toward that “other disciple” than toward Simon Peter. Of that other disciple he writes, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” He implies that Simon Peter remained clueless at this point. Nor does the author tell us just what the other disciple believed, but we may conclude that his intention is this, that the other disciple, the same person as the Beloved Disciple, was the first to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He excuses Simon Peter for his cluelessness, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had risen from the dead.”

Sidebar: Recently at Pope Francis’ request, the feast day of Mary Magdalene was elevated from the classification of Memorial to the classification of Feast. This puts her celebration, her honor-ing, on the same level as the Feasts of the Apostles. Who was Mary of Magdala?

In Luke 8 she is mentioned along with other women “who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities.” Of Magdalene, Luke writes, “from whom seven demons had gone out.” These women provided “out of their means” (financial resources) for what was needed to carry on Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 7, he narrates the story of a “sinner-woman” who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair — an unusual business in any century, and especially in Jesus’ time. Then there was Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus. Pope Gregory the Great, 590-604, combined these other two women with Mary Magdalene  and thus unjustly, without any biblical evidence, morphed her into a reformed prostitute — for the next 1400 years. Only in our time is Mary of Magdala finally getting her due praise as a wealthy, generous, loving disciple of Jesus, who with other women of Galilee supported his ministry.  In the Gospel of John she is the first to see the risen Jesus. She is the first one sent (by Jesus himself) to proclaim his resurrection. To whom? To the Apostles! Let her therefore be honored correctly — the Apostle to the Apostles!