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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. 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.

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.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 , Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome find that the tomb has been opened:

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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:

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.

The tomb

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 Turinmarker, becoming the Turin Shroudmarker.

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 Oviedomarker in Spainmarker, 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

In the Gospel accounts ( ) 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 ( ). 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.


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