The Women at the Empty Tomb

James W. Scott

The Gospels begin their accounts of the resurrection of Jesus by relating how a group of women went to his tomb and found it empty. Then they saw Jesus—the first people to do so.

These women had followed Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem. Indeed, when Jesus traveled about with his twelve disciples, women often accompanied them and “provided for them out of their means.” They included women whom Jesus had healed, such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna (the wife of King Herod’s household manager), and Susanna (Luke 8:1–3).

Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem, and his body was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, a rich Jewish leader who secretly followed Jesus. In a nearby garden was a large tomb that Joseph had recently cut out of a rock face for his own use, and there he laid Jesus’s body. A heavy stone was rolled in front of the entrance. All this was observed by Mary Magdalene and other women (Matt. 27:61; Luke 23:55). On the next day (the Sabbath), guards were placed at the tomb—to be sure the body was not moved.

Visiting the Tomb

Early the next morning, during twilight, the women walked to the tomb, bringing spices with which to anoint Jesus’s body. At least five women went there, but each gospel names only some of them. Putting the lists together, we get Mary Magdalene, two mothers of disciples (another Mary and Salome), Joanna, and probably Susanna.

Precisely what happened on that resurrection day is difficult to sort out, because the gospel narratives are selective, usually concise, and sometimes condensed. The account given here is, I believe, in historical order. Information from Mark 16:9–20 will be included; its authority is disputed, but whether the passage is inspired or not, it has historical value.

As the women approached the tomb, they could see that the stone had been rolled away. Mary Magdalene jumped to the conclusion that someone had removed Jesus’s body, and she hurried back at once to inform the disciples (John 20:1–2). The other women entered the tomb and were perplexed to find it empty. But then they saw two angels, who had come earlier and rolled away the stone (Matt. 28:2)—not so Jesus could get out (for the tomb could not hold him), but to scare away the guards and enable the women to enter the tomb.

One of the angels explained that Jesus had risen from the dead and was not there. The angel told the women to report these things to the disciples and tell them that “he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6–7; see 14:28). The women were given this instruction because they were the first ones to visit the tomb. The disciples so far saw no reason to do so.

Matthew tells us that the women “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (28:8). But Mark adds that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). In other words, they decided along the way not to do what the angel had told them to do.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene found Peter and John and told them that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’s body had (evidently) been removed. The two disciples then ran to the tomb, followed by Mary. Peter and John arrived at the tomb and found it empty (except for the burial cloths). John sensed that Jesus had risen, but both men were puzzled and went back to where they were staying.

While the two disciples were returning, Mary Magdalene reached the tomb. She began weeping and looked in, where she saw two angels sitting where Jesus’s body had been laid. She told them that she didn’t know where Jesus’s body had been taken.

At this point, neither Peter nor John, nor Mary Magdalene, fully grasped the significance of the empty tomb. And the women who had originally seen the angels hesitated to bring their news to the disciples. In order to move things forward, it would be necessary for Jesus to show himself to them alive and well.

Seeing and Speaking with Jesus

As Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb, she noticed a man standing near her, whom she assumed to be the gardener. But when he addressed her by name, she joyously recognized him as Jesus. She wanted to be with him, but he told her to report her experience to the disciples, and she went off to do so.

Then Jesus appeared to the other women, who had decided to keep quiet. They recognized and worshiped him, and he repeated what the angel had said: to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen and wanted them to go to Galilee and meet with him there. Their doubts and fears allayed, the women found the disciples and told them what had happened. Mary Magdalene similarly reported to the disciples.

However, the disciples would not believe them. Some have asserted that their report was not believed because it was the testimony of women. But, as we shall see, the disciples had doubts about the reports of women and men alike (Mark 16:14)—and even questioned what they saw with their own eyes—simply because “the miracle of the Resurrection seems incredible to men by its very nature” (Theophylact, ca. AD 1100).

Luke 24:8–11 summarizes the women’s reports to the disciples and their reaction to them. The Greek word in verse 11 that characterizes their reports, as perceived by the disciples, is leros, commonly translated as “an idle tale” or “nonsense.” But this word is used only here in the New Testament and rarely by contemporary writers, so its precise meaning in this passage is difficult to determine. The closest parallel is provided by the historian Josephus, who relates that when he gave an exculpatory account of himself after being captured by the Romans during the Jewish revolt, a skeptical listener warned that his words could be a leros, a made-up story, concocted to win his captors’ favor (Jewish War, 3.405). Similarly, Luke 24:11 should be translated, “but these words seemed to them like a made-up story, and they did not believe them.”

Notice the word “like” in the verse (missing in the ESV, but not in the NIV). The women’s testimony initially seemed to the disciples “like” it was made up, because they couldn’t see how it could be true. But they couldn’t just dismiss it as nonsense, because multiple women whom they knew as dependable followers of Jesus were telling the same story. They awaited more evidence, which soon came.

The Struggle to Believe

Later that day, Jesus appeared to Peter (1 Cor. 15:5). Peter reported his experience to the other disciples, many of whom believed him—but with lingering doubts. Some criticize the disciples for believing a man, but not the women. However, the disciples were more inclined to believe a fellow disciple than anyone else, regardless of gender. Moreover, Peter’s report lent credence to the women’s testimony, evoking the response, “The Lord has risen indeed” (Luke 24:34).

That afternoon, Jesus came alongside two of his followers as they were walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). Jesus opened up the scriptural teaching about the Christ to them, but they didn’t recognize him until he started a meal with them—whereupon he vanished. The two men rushed back to Jerusalem and told the disciples what had happened. Many of them were already inclined to accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, but the story told by these two men stretched their credulity (Mark 16:12–13).

That evening, when the disciples had gathered together, Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and frightened them. He asked them, “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Jesus proceeded to show them who he was—though “they still disbelieved for joy” (Luke 24:38, 41). Thomas was not among them, and when they told him that they had seen Jesus, he refused to believe it. But when the disciples met a week later, Thomas was among them. Jesus again appeared in their midst, and he revealed himself to Thomas, who finally accepted that Jesus was alive, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responded—and says to us today— “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28–29). Nonetheless, when Jesus later met with the disciples in Galilee, there was still some hesitation (Matt. 28:17). The coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2) was still necessary!

The women who went to the tomb were devoted to the Lord and brought the good news of his resurrection to others. Yes, they stumbled along the way, but the Lord graciously helped them up. What Jesus said about the woman who poured expensive ointment over him shortly before his death also applies to each woman at the empty tomb: “Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13).

The author, once the managing editor of this magazine, now devotes his retirement to biblical scholarship. New Horizons, April 2024.

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