Open main menu
"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

The four Gospels narrate how several women, including Mary Magdalene, found the tomb of Jesus to be empty when they visited his tomb to anoint his body with spices and oils.[1] Instead, they met with an angel who told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead.[2]

The empty tomb account is one of several post-mortem appearances of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, which lead to the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to divine status.


Gospel accountsEdit

Mark 16:1-8:

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.

Matthew 28:1-10:

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."

Luke 24:1-8:

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.

John 20:1-13:

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. He asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher"). Jesus said, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

The apocryphal Gospel of Peter:

And in the night in which the Lord's day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders, for they too were close by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, You have preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yes.

— Gospel of Peter, 9-10[3]

Similarities and differencesEdit


  • The event takes place on the first day of the week;[2]
  • The women were the first to learn of the empty tomb;[2]
  • Mary Magdalene figures prominently;[2]
  • The stone that had closed the tomb was rolled away;[2]


  • The time at which the women visited the tomb.[2] All the accounts agree that it was early morning. Matthew 28:1 and Mark 16:2 refer to the dawn or early morning, while John 20:1 notes that it was still dark when they started their journey;
  • The number and identity of the women;[2] Luke names them as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and "the others with them". According to most ancient versions of the gospel of John (and most modern translations) Mary was Mary Magdalene, though the Codex Sinaiticus' version only calls her Mary. No other woman is mentioned explicitly, though when Mary says that she does not know where Jesus' body is, she uses the plural, which may indicate that there were other women with her. In the Gospel of Mark both Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James are mentioned, joined by Salome. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene is with another Mary, presumably the mother of James.
  • The purpose of their visit.[2] Mark and Luke explain that the women were intending to continue the Jewish burial rituals. Matthew merely says that they came just to look at the tomb. John makes no mention of ritual and the apocryphal, heterodox Gospel of Peter claims that Mary Magdalene came to mourn. Rabbi Bar Kappara was of the opinion (recorded in the Midrash Rabbah) that the third day was often the prime point for mourning in those days;
  • The nature and appearance of the messenger(s), whether angelic or human;[2] The prevailing theory of Markan priority would suggest that the original story had a mysterious man in white in the tomb. In Matthew he becomes an angel and in Luke, written for a non-Jewish audience, he becomes two angel-like men. In John's gospel, this part of the account is omitted.
  • Their message to the women;[2]
  • The response of the women to the visitor in the tomb.[2]
  • According to the Gospel of Matthew 27:62-66, the Jews, knowing of Jesus' having predicted his resurrection, had placed a Jewish guard to guard the tomb of Jesus. Scholars L. Michael White and Helmut Koester see the account of the guards in Matthew as an apologetic insertion, an attempt by the writer to explain the Jewish claims that the disciples stole the body which were circulating at the time.[4][5] The guards and the stolen body claims are not mentioned in the other three gospels. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, on the other hand, is more detailed, specifying "Petronius the centurion with soldiers to guard the tomb".
  • According to both Luke and John, the disciples saw grave clothes in the tomb. Luke states that strips of linen were "lying alone", or "laid by themselves", per the Greek, keimena mona, although the NRSV translation uses the phrase—"by themselves"—instead of "alone", and omits the word, "lying". John states that they were "lying", or, per the NRSV, "lying there". These two descriptions may or 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.[citation needed] 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 had 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.[citation needed]
  • The level of detail that the author of the Gospel According to John adds is to former Bishop of Durham Brooke Foss Westcott[6] evidence that the author was an eyewitness. C. H. 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.[7] Schnackenburg 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.[8]


Entering the divine realmEdit

For many people of antiquity, empty tombs were seen as signs not of resurrection but of assumption, that is, the person being taken bodily into the divine realm. In Chariton's ancient Greek novel Callirhoe, the hero Chaereas finds his wife's tomb empty and immediately assumes the gods took her rather than believe she was resurrected or that her body was stolen by grave-robbers.[9][10] In Ancient Greek thinking, the connection between postmortem disappearance and apotheosis was strong and there are numerous examples of individuals conspiring, before their deaths, to have their remains hidden in order to promote their postmortem venerations.[10] Arrian wrote of Alexander the Great planning his own bodily disappearance so that he would be revered as a god.[11][10] Disappearances of individuals to be taken in the divine realm also occur in Jewish literature,[10] although they do not involve an empty tomb. Daniel Smith suggests the empty tomb stories and resurrection appearances in the gospels come from separate traditions, with the former about Jesus' absence or assumption, while the latter were about Jesus' presence. He concludes that the gospel writers took the two traditions and weaved them together.[10]

Testimony of womenEdit

When they return from the cemetery on Passover morning to tell the eleven remaining apostles and those with them, 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 in a world that did not grant credibility to a woman's witness.[2]:p.153 Josephus (Ant. iv.:8:15) writes that Jewish tradition stated: "From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex."

Architecture of the tombEdit

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

In John's gospel, 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, did not require material support.[12]

Scholarly opinionsEdit

Géza Vermes notes that "[t]he empty tomb and the apparitions are never directly associated to form a combined argument."[13] While the coherence of the empty tomb-narrative is questionable, it is "clearly an early tradition."[13] Vermes rejects the literal interpretation of the story, as being proof of the resurrection,[14] and also notes that the story of the empty tomb conflicts with notions of a spiritual resurrection. According to Vermes, "[t]he strictly Jewish bond of spirit and body is better served by the idea of the empty tomb and is no doubt responsible for the introduction of the notions of palpability (Thomas in John) and eating (Luke and John)."[15]

According to Brown, the body of Jesus was buried in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimathea in accordance with Mosaic Law, which stated that a person hanged on a tree must not be allowed to remain there at night, but should be buried before sundown.[16] New Testament historian Bart D. Ehrman dismisses the story of the empty tomb; according to Ehrman, "an empty tomb had nothing to do with it [...] an empty tomb would not produce faith."[17][note 1] According to Ehrman, the empty tomb was needed to underscore the physical resurrection of Jesus,[19] but is it doubtful that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea.[20] It is unlikely that a member of the Sanhedrin would have buried Jesus;[21] crucifixion was meant "to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible," and the body was left on the stake to be eaten by animals;[22] criminals were usually buried in common graves;[23] and Pilate had no concern for Jewish sensitivities, which makes it unlikely that he would have allowed for Jesus to be buried.[24] The English theologian and historian N. T. Wright, however, emphatically and extensively argues for the reality of the empty tomb and the subsequent appearances of Jesus, reasoning that as a matter of history both a bodily resurrection and later bodily appearances of Jesus are far better explanations for the rise of Christianity than are any other theories, including those of Ehrman.[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ In an earlier publication (2003), Ehrman recognized that "Some scholars have argued that it's more plausible that in fact Jesus was placed in a common burial plot, which sometimes happened, or was, as many other crucified people, simply left to be eaten by scavenging animals," but further elaborates by stating that "[T]he accounts are fairly unanimous in saying [...] that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it's relatively reliable that that's what happened."[18]


  1. ^ Craig, William Lane. "The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus". [1] Accessed 1 Apr 2013
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978 ISBN 0-664-24195-6
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ancient Christian Gospels Koester, Helmut; Trinity Press, (1992) pg 237.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Westcott, Brooke. Commentary on the Gospel of St John. (1881) Classic reprint: Forgotten Books, 2012. ASIN: B008Y9GTH2
  7. ^ Dodd, C.H. The Founder of Christianity. Shoreline Books; New edition (February 11, 1993). ISBN 978-1873229095
  8. ^ Schnackenburg, Rudolf. The Gospel according to St. John. Crossroad (New York), 1982.ISBN 0824503112
  9. ^ Chariton, Callirhoe. 3.3.
  10. ^ a b c d e Daniel A. Smith (2010) Revisiting the Empty Tomb: The Early History of Easter, Fortress Press
  11. ^ Arrian, Anab. 7.27.3.
  12. ^ F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1994) pg 388.
  13. ^ a b Vermes 2008a, p. 142.
  14. ^ Vermes 2008a, p. 143.
  15. ^ Vermes 2008a, p. 148.
  16. ^ Brown 1973, p. 147.
  17. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 98.
  18. ^ Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: "Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus" [The Teaching Company, 2003].
  19. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 90.
  20. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 82.
  21. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 82-84.
  22. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 85.
  23. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 86.
  24. ^ Ehrman 2014, p. 87.
  25. ^ Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 ISBN 978-0-8006-2679-2