The empty tomb is the Christian tradition that on the morning of the first day of the week (Easter Sunday) women followers of Jesus went to the place where he had been buried, where they found the body gone and the tomb occupied by angels. Beyond this the four gospels agree on very little. Mark, the earliest, ends with the women fleeing and telling no one what they have seen (this was the original ending of this gospel); Matthew introduces guards and a curious doublet whereby the women are told twice, by the angels and then by Jesus, that he will meet the disciples in Galilee; Luke changes Mark's one "young man" to two, adds Peter's inspection of the tomb, and deletes the promise that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee;  John introduces the "beloved disciple" who visits the tomb with Peter and understands its significance before Peter, and reduces the women to the solitary Mary Magdalene.
All four gospels tell how Mary Magdalene, whether alone or accompanied by other women, came to the tomb on the first day of the week following the crucifixion of Jesus and found the body gone. The four were almost certainly not by eyewitnesses, at least in their final forms, but were instead the end-products of long oral and written transmission. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptics, from the Greek word synopsis, meaning "viewed together", because they present the life of Jesus from a similar perspective. It is generally agreed that Mark was the first, and probably dates from c. AD 70, some forty years after the death of Jesus. Matthew and Luke date from around AD 85–90, and their authors, acting independently, used Mark as their primary source. John, the last to be completed, began circulating between 90 and 110; its narrative of the empty tomb is not merely a different form of the story told in the synoptics, but a different story, with a different sequence of events after John 20:2, to such an extent that it cannot be harmonised with them.
The general scholarly view is that Mark 16:1-8, the abrupt ending with the women fleeing from the empty tomb and telling no one what they have seen, was the original ending of this gospel; it probably represents a complete unit of oral tradition taken over by the author. The imagery of a young man in a white robe, and the reaction of the women, indicate that this is an encounter with an angel. The empty tomb fills the women with fear and alarm, not with faith in the risen Lord, although the mention of a meeting in Galilee is evidence of some sort of previous, pre-Markan, tradition linking Galilee and the resurrection. The remaining verses, Mark 16:9-16, which detail the resurrection of Jesus, were likely appended later .
Matthew revises Mark's account to make it more convincing and coherent. The description of the angel is taken from Daniel's angel with a face "like the appearance of lightning" (Daniel 10:6) and his God with "raiment white as snow" (Daniel 7:9), and Daniel also provides the reaction of the guards (Daniel 10:7-9). The introduction of the guard is apparently aimed at countering stories that Jesus' body had been stolen by his disciples, thus eliminating any explanation of the empty tomb other than that offered by the angel, that he has been raised. Matthew introduces a curious doublet whereby the women are told twice, by the angels and then by Jesus, that he will meet the disciples in Galilee (Mathew 28:7-10) - the reasons for this are unknown.
Luke changes Mark's one "young man" to two, makes reference to earlier passion predictions (Luke 24:7), and adds Peter's inspection of the tomb. He also deletes the promise that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee -  in Mark and Matthew Jesus tells the disciples to meet him there, but in Luke the post-resurrection appearances are only in Jerusalem. Mark and Luke tell the reader that the women visited the tomb in order to finish anointing the body of Jesus, but this explanation seems artificial given that it could have done on the evening of the crucifixion rather than 36 hours later; in Matthew the women came simply to see the tomb, and in John no reason is given. The story ends with Peter (alone, not with the "beloved disciple" as in John) visiting the tomb and seeing the burial cloths, but instead of believing in the resurrection he remains perplexed.
The following table, with translations from the New International Version, allows the three versions to be compared. (Luke 24:12, in which Peter goes to the tomb, may be an addition to the original gospel taken from John's story).
|Mark 16:1-8||Matthew 28:1-10||Luke 24:1-12|
|The women at the tomb||Mark 16:1–4
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.
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.
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,
|The angelic message||Mark 16:5–7
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.’”
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.”
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 over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
|Informing the disciples||Mark 16:8
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
|The message from Jesus||Matthew 28:9-10
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.”
|Disciples at the tomb||Luke 24:12
Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
John introduces the "beloved disciple", who visits the tomb with Peter and understands its significance before Peter. The author seems to have combined three traditions, one involving a visit to the tomb by several women early in the morning (of which the "we" in "we do not know where they have taken him" is a fragmentary remnant), a second involving a visit to the empty tomb by Peter and perhaps by other male disciples, and a tradition involving an appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. John has reduced this to the solitary Mary Magdalene in order to introduce the conversation between her and Jesus, but the presence of "we" when she informs the disciples may be a remnant of the original group of women, although since mourning and the preparation of bodies by anointing were social rather than solitary activities the original version probably involved the group of women.
John's chapter 20 can can be divided into three scenes: (1) the discovery of the empty tomb, verses 1-10; (2) appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, 11-18; and (3) appearances to the disciples, especially Thomas, verses 19-29; the last is not part of the "empty tomb" episode and is not included in the following table.
Discovery of the empty tomb
Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene
|Mary Magdalene at the tomb||John 20:1
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.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb
|The angelic message||John 20:12-13
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.”
|Informing the disciples||John 20:2
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!”
|Disciples at the tomb||John 20:3-10
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 came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, 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 where they were staying.
|The message from Jesus||John 20:14-18
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 in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, 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.
Resurrection in Jewish and Christian traditionEdit
The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of Christian faith. Jewish belief in resurrection has very deep roots, but its first clear statement is found in the final chapter of the Book of Daniel, c.164 BCE: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to everlasting shame and contempt"; by the time of Jesus it was widespread, and without the perceived resurrection of Jesus, Christianity would have disappeared like the movements following other charismatic Jewish figures of the 1st century.
The earliest Christian witness to the resurrection of Jesus appears in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, written by the Apostle Paul about 55 CE, and may have originated in the Christian community of Antioch in the thirties:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas (i.e. Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.(1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
The empty tomb seems to be a comparatively late development. It is not explicitly mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, it is possible that "he was raised on the third day" implies it. Elsewhere, in Acts of the Apostles 2:14-36 Peter proclaims the resurrection on the basis of psalm 16 (Jesus will not go to Sheol) and psalm 110 (he will instead be seated in heaven on the right hand of God) without mentioning the empty tomb that he witnessed a few weeks earlier. The earliest Christian tradition was that Jesus was raised directly to heaven and seated on the right hand of God from the moment of his resurrection, with no intervening earthly appearances; Paul sets out this concept - known as exaltation Christology - in, for example, Rom. 8.34; Eph. 1.19-23; 2.6-7; Col. 3.1-4; Phil. 2.8-9, and it is preserved also in Luke 23:43, where Jesus tells the penitent thief, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise". The empty tomb stories arose from the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection belief was held by his followers at a very early date, but it was based on his appearances (as recorded in Paul), on traditions that he had predicted it, and on Jewish scriptural prophecy.
The Greeks and Romans also believed in the reality of resurrection, and Christians knew of the numerous resurrection-events which had been experienced by persons other than Jesus: the early 3rd century theologian Origen, for example, did not deny the resurrection of the 7th century BCE poet Aristeas or the immortality of Antinous, the beloved of the 2nd century CE emperor Hadrian, but said the first had been the work of demons, not God, while the second, unlike Jesus, was unworthy of worship.
Mark and Matthew have Jesus promising to meet the disciples in Galilee; Luke has all the post-resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, replacing one tradition (Galilee) with another (Jerusalem).
Jewish criminals were given a dishonourable and shameful burial in a common grave, without normal mourning, as the Jewish historian Josephus describes: "And after being immediately put to death, he was given at night the dishonourable burial proper to the condemned." It is possible that Joseph of Arimathea, as a righteous Jew, could have arranged for the body of Jesus to be buried in such a common grave, but the story that he placed the body in his own family tomb is likely an exaggeration. For 1st-century Jews and Greeks an empty tomb was a sign that the dead person had been taken into the divine realm. These rapture stories, told always from the point of view of witnesses left behind, described the subject taken body and soul into heaven at the conclusion of life and following the appearance of a heavenly being, whether an angel or God himself, and any serious rapture claim needed at least the absence of a corpse and preferably an empty tomb.
In the gospels Jesus is presented as resurrected in the body, but it is clearly not the everyday body: he is not recognised by the disciples on the road to Emmaeus in Luke (the episode follows immediately from Luke's empty tomb narrative), and in John Mary Magdalene fails to recognise the "gardener" until he speaks to her.
Visionary appearances of the beloved dead are a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon, and there is no reason to doubt the basic historicity of the experiences such as that recorded in 1 Corinthians and developed in the gospels.
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