"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 14 Jesus' Resurrection (Jn 20.1-18)


In chapter 20 of the gospel, we come to the central mystery of the Christian faith - the Resurrection of Jesus. What is meant by saying that Jesus was raised, or that he rose? How did he rise, and what is its significance? We know that at least some people at the time were asking such questions - St Paul was clearly one of them, as 1 Cor 15 shows. And behind the details that the evangelists provide, we can perhaps discern some of the questions that they were trying to answer.

In proclaiming an Easter hope, Mary Magdalen and Jesus' other disciples were not departing from the hopes and beliefs of Second Temple Judaism. Belief in a life after death and even in bodily resurrection was so wide-spread that in the time of Jesus, only the Sadducees denied it. Recall Martha's response to Jesus' reassurance that her brother will rise again: '“I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.”' (Jn 11.24)

These beliefs were based on Scripture. The oldest parts of the Tanakh do not contain them, it is true - they reflect an older belief according to which the dead have a kind of ghostly, attenuated existence below the earth in Sheol. But the later books of the Tanakh and the Greek-language apocryphal books reflect a growing belief that the human soul survived death and would be reunited with the body at the last days.

Disciples of Jesus, like Martha, would have believed in the possibility of resurrection, and they also would have believed that God was just and righteous and thus that God's justice and righteousness would be upheld at the resurrection. Precisely because God is just and righteous, just and righteous human beings must be revealed by God's judgement and be vindicated with resurrection. So in affirming that Lazarus will be raised at the last days, Martha is also affirming that her brother was one of the righteous who will be vindicated by God's righteous judgement.

So we can (and indeed should) locate Jesus' resurrection in the matrix of the beliefs of Second Temple Judaism in which the Jesus movement was formed. What is unusual about Jesus is not that he rises from the dead. Of course he will rise: because he is a righteous person, in fact the Righteous One. God's own righteousness and justice demand that God will vindicate him as Lord and Messiah by raising him from the dead. What is unusual, actually unique, about Jesus is when he rises, he is raised from the dead not in the last days, but nearly immediately after his unjust execution.

Later, mostly Gentile, Christianity will create a trope about the inability of personified Death or the Grave to hold Jesus in their grip, so that he escapes from them and frees the rest of the righteous to join him in their new heavenly home. Although parts of this would be very foreign to the first followers of Jesus like Mary Magdalen, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple, the idea that the Father might act in some extraordinary way to vindicate his righteous Son by accelerating the timeline of resurrection was clearly not. St Paul, writing likely several decades before the BD, referred to the risen Jesus as the first fruits of them that sleep, that is, those who have died (1 Cor 15.20). Jesus, precisely because he was Lord and Messiah, rises first, before any of the other righteous people who have died.1

It is valuable at this point to consider the raising of Lazarus as a contrast.When Jesus raises Lazarus, there is no indication that he has done anything different from what Elijah or Elisha did in the Book of Kings (1 Kings 17.17-22 and 2 Kings 4.8-37) - he has raised a dead person (such raisings are also described in other gospels, eg, the raising of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5.21-14, 35-43). But there is no suggestion that these dead persons have been resurrected. Rather, they have been restored to their previous earthly life, healed of whatever condition caused them to die in the first place. These raisings are in some sense the ultimate examples of healing.

Jesus, on the other hand, has entered another state of being. After being raised by the Father, his body has been altered in such a way that he can enter locked rooms or disappear at the end of a conversation (as we shall see in the next section). Nevertheless, he is something more than a ghost, since he is able to eat and drink. Lazarus exits the tomb with difficulty, still confined by the tight wrapping of his linen grave cloths; Jesus leaves behind the grave cloths and the towel round his head, but is still fully clothed and free to move about when he encounters Mary Magdalen or other disciples. It is because of such contrasts between Lazarus and Jesus that Paul can describe the risen Jesus as the first fruits of them that sleep in 1 Cor 15. 20 - some have been raised before by the power of God and others, such as Elijah, have somehow bypassed death and made their way to Paradise, but Jesus is the first of the new state of being, resurrection, in which all his followers will ultimately share.

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In the other gospels, Mary is part of a small group of women who come to the tomb. In Mark, this group is made up of Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mk 16.1). Although John's Gospel names no other woman as being with Mary, it is clear from what she says to Peter and the Beloved Disciple in v2 that the evangelist knew the tradition that more than one woman came to the tomb, since she says 'we do not where they have laid him'. Presumably he left out the other women so as to keep the emphasis in the story on Mary Magdalen as the one who sees the Empty Tomb and speaks with angels, who sees and speaks with Jesus and announces his words to the other disciples. Certainly we learn from the details of this story that Mary Magdalen was part of an inner circle of disciples, since she had insider knowledge and expectations: if the body had to be moved for some reason, she expected to know about it; she knew where Peter and the Beloved Disciple were; she knew where the tomb was where Jesus had been laid on Friday afternoon.

In Mark, the purpose of the women's visit to the tomb is to complete the burial preparation that had to be left unfinished because of the approach of the Sabbath. However, in John all the burial preparation is done by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus before the Sabbath began, and no reason for Mary's visit is stated. Perhaps she simply wanted to visit the grave to mourn the death of her mentor and friend.

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It was usual in Judaea at the time of Jesus for rock-hewn tombs to be sealed with an entrance stone - either square or round. The square stones are more common than the round ones, which archaeologists have so far only found on the tombs of very elite families, such as royalty. Professor Urban van Wahlde of Chicago's Loyola University describes such a square closing stone as "something like a mushroom or a champagne cork on its side". He continues:

The part of the rock designed to close the tomb entrance fit into the opening [of the tomb]. The remainder of the rock had a flange so it would rest against the outside surface of the tomb and surround the opening. Any small openings or crevasses around this stone could then be filled with smaller pebbles and mortar to prevent entry by vermin.2

Such a stone would not have been easy to move once it was in place. The expectation would have been that the tomb would not be opened again except to add the body of a deceased family member or transfer bones to an ossuary, so it would not have to be moved often. The fact that the tomb was sealed shut is a good reason to suppose that John's Gospel is correct to state that Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and possibly others worked hard to complete the burial preparations before the start of the Sabbath so they did not have to be finished awkwardly in two stages separated by the period from Friday night to early Sunday morning. In this event, Mary Magdalen and any companions would have come to mourn and grieve for Jesus, not to enter his tomb and certainly not in the expectation of the stone's being removed. We do not have enough information to be sure why Mary Magdalen concluded from the fact that the stone had been moved that someone had removed Jesus' body, as discussed below.

Among the other gospels, Mark and Luke recount the apparent misunderstanding about the reason the women visited the tomb, that is, that they came to annoint the body of Jesus (Mark 16. 1, Luke 24.1) while Matthew, like John, does not mention anointing but says that they came to see the tomb (Matthew 28.1).

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Mary's reaction, even before looking inside the tomb (described in vv11-12), is to suppose that the removal of the stone completely away from the tomb entrance meant that the body had been moved. That would suggest likely hostile actor(s), coming between sunset on Saturday (the end of the solemn Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) and sunrise on Sunday (when she arrived). Joseph of Arimathea and others (such as Nicodemus) were likely at the tomb until that Sabbath began. It is not clear why she thinks anyone would want to do this but it is clear that she thinks that if anyone were supposed to have moved the stone, she would know about it. At this point at least, the Empty Tomb seems to be a cause for consternation rather than a proof of the resurrection!

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Judean rock-hewn tombs of this period often had floors that were sunk below ground level as well as doorways which were not of a height that easily accommodated an adult. Hence someone entering such a tomb needed to stoop low to enter, often using one or more steps cut into the rock to descend to floor level; a standing pit could be cut out to accommodate a standing person. Even to look into such a tomb would require one to lean forward and down to look in.

The inner chamber was usually lined with kokhim (shafts), recesses, or shelves/benches that could accommodate the bodies of the dead, whether wrapped in grave cloths or in a wooden coffin, or ossuaries. John's account seems to imply that the tomb in which Jesus' body was laid was one with shelves or recesses. When the Beloved Disciple peered in he could see that the body was not there and there were linen grave cloths lying on the shelf or in the recess. These would be the same linen cloths that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus bound Jesus' body with, as described in Jn 19.39-40.

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This 'towel' or soudarion in Greek, was literally a cloth or towel used to wipe sweat from the face. It is a loanword from the Latin sudarium, formed from the Latin word for sweat. This particular soudarion has been repurposed, likely to cover Jesus' face as in the case of Lazarus according to Jn 11.44.

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This interpretation goes back to Augustine3 who pointed out that the following verse (Jn 20.9) makes no sense if this verse is taken to mean (as it usually is) that the Beloved Disciple had faith in the reality of resurrection because he saw the tomb empty except for the linen cloths and the towel. Rather it must mean that the Beloved Disciple believes Mary Magdalen is right to say that some unknown person or persons removed Jesus' body from the tomb. Although Brown refers to Augustine's interpretation, he does not accept it, concluding that "the evangelist certainly did not introduce the Beloved Disciple into the scene only to have him reach such a trite conclusion."4 This seems unnecessary harsh on Augustine and his insight, which explains the apparent contradiction between v8 as usually interpreted and v9.

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When Mary peers inside the tomb, she can apparently see the whole length of the recess or shelf that had held the body of Jesus, because she can see two angels at either end of the space - one where his head had lain, the other where his feet had been.

How did Mary know how the body of Jesus had been laid in the tomb? There seem to be two possible answers. One is that Joseph and Nicodemus spoke with some of Jesus' disciples about what they had done with the body during the Sabbath just past and the knowledge was shared. Mary had accurate information about the location of the tomb, after all, so why not information about how they laid him out there? The other possibility is that Mary was, although unnamed, at the tomb on Friday afternoon, working with Joseph and Nicodemus to prepare the body before the Sabbath began. There is, however, no way to decide between these two possibilities.

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In answer to the angels' question, Mary revealed that her realisation that the body was no longer in the tomb only confirmed her original conviction about the removal of the stone - that is, that it showed the body had been moved improperly. She does not seem to have expected any answer from them about where the body had been taken. In fact she does not seem to have yet understood that they were angels, because she does not react to them as though she was dealing with heavenly beings. Perhaps at this point she is so numbed by this fresh loss on top of all the blows of the last several days that she doesn't really care who these characters sitting in the tomb are.

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It is interesting that Mary failed to recognise Jesus. On the one hand, no-one who has seen a person die a horrible death on Friday (and who has perhaps assisted in preparing his body for burial) could possibly expect to see that person alive again on Sunday morning. Although she likely expected that Jesus would rise with the rest of the righteous and just at the last days, she would not have expected him to do so immediately. But she did know the man well, and had perhaps been part of the travelling group of disciples who accompanied him on his preaching and teaching for several years. Nevertheless she does not realise who it is, nor does she think that she is seeing a ghost as the disciples do in Luke's account of an appearance of the risen Jesus in Lk 24.37. It is only when Jesus addressed her by name that she knew him (v16)

Given this lack of recognition, and the story in Luke of the travellers on the road to Emmaus who spend part of a day and an evening with the risen Jesus without recognising him (Luke 24.13-35), is it possible that both Luke and John knew a tradition according to which the appearance of the risen Jesus was quite different from that of Jesus in his lifetime?

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Jesus is shown trying to prevent Mary Magdalen from clinging to him, not because there is something intrinsically wrong with clinging to the risen Jesus, but because he has not yet gone up to the Father. In fact he sends her to "his brothers" - his disciples - to proclaim to them that he is going to their shared Father, who is also their shared God. He is thus fulfilling two statements that he made previously in the gospel. First, that he will return to the Father from whom he came, (eg, Jn 14.12, 28) and second, that his disciples, his followers, will participate in his relationship to the Father, and become children of God themselves (eg, Jn 1.12-13). Mary fulfils her apostolic role by returning to the disciples and announcing to them that she had seen the Lord, and also what he said to her.

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1 See Richard Bauckham, "Life, Death and the Afterlife in Second Temple Judaism", in Bauckham (ed.) 2008 pp 245-56, especially pp 247-52

2 See Biblical Archaeology Review 41.2 (2015) 26, 72–74.

3 St Augustine of Hippo, In Iohannis euangelium tractatus 124, tract. 120.9

4 Brown 1970 p 987