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Peter Kirby Tomb Dependence

Dependence on Mark


We have seen that there is no mention of the empty tomb story in early Christian writings outside of the four gospels. This situation is made worse if the evangelists do not demonstrate any independence in reporting this story. This would be somewhat strange because, were the story historical, it would be reasonable to expect that the author of Matthew, for example, could supplement his story with independent traditions instead of depending solely on Mark. If the later gospels do not evince traditions that are independent of Mark, then the empty tomb story hangs by a slender thread indeed.

The Gospel of Matthew

D.H. van Daalen writes the following:


Matthew’s story of the burial is clearly dependent on Mark. It contains nothing that the author could not have concluded from what he found in the earlier Gospel. The only apparently fresh information, that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57), is, in fact, Matthew’s interpretation of ‘looking for the kingdom of God’ (Mark 15:43).[25]

D.H. van Daalen writes further:


The story of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-7) is dependent on Mark. The names of the women are harmonized with Matthew 27:61 = Mark 15:47, the young man is identified as an angel, and we are told what Matthew thought this angel’s job was: to let the women look into the tomb. Thus it is he who moves the stone, not to let Jesus out but to let them in. His words are paraphrased. The awkward ‘and Peter’ is omitted, and the final words are adapted to Matthew’s understanding of the reference to Galilee.[26]

Reginald Fuller writes about the same passage:


Here Matthew follows Mark, with only minor alterations. He reduces the number of the women at the grave to two only, omitting Salome so as to remove the Marcan discrepancy between the names of the women at the burial and those of the women at the tomb. He chances the motive of the women’s visit. In Mark they come to complete the burial rites (“so that they might go and anoint him,” Mark 16:1). In Matthew they simply come “to see the sepulchre” (Matt. 28:1). Evidently Matthew has felt the difficulty inherent in Mark’s account, according to which Joseph of Arimathea had apparently already completed the burial rites.[27]

Concerning Matthew 28:2-4, Herman Hendrickx writes:


Let us now have a closer look at the following three points: (1) the tomb; (2) the presentation of the angel; (3) the reaction of the women.

(1) The tomb. According to Mark’s account, the women found the tomb open; they entered, saw the young man in white, and were amazed. In Matthew, the two motifs of the removal of the stone and the apparition are combined. The apparition does not take place inside the tomb, and it is the angel himself who removes the stone, thus answering the question raised in Mk 16:3, ‘who will roll away the stone for us?’ (tis apokulisei ton lithon?). Matthew writes: ‘the angel . . . rolled back the stone’ (apekulisen ton lithon). Mark still added in 16:4b, ‘for it was large’, which is intended to explain the reflection but which, in typical Marcan way, comes at the end of the verse. The powerful intervention suggested by Matthew is prepared for in the burial account, where ‘he (Joseph of Arimathea) rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb’ (Mt 27:60).

(2) The presentation of the angel. Matthew is again guided by Mark: ‘a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe’ (Mk 16:5). ‘Sitting on the right side’, an expression which marks the dignity of the young man, easily evokes the image of a throne. Matthew seems to underline the same glorious aspect of what one would almost call an ‘enthronement’: he sat upon the stone (cf. Mt 28:2). As in Mark, the ‘sitting’ of the angel is followed by the description of his garment. The differences are of the same kind as other editorial changes made elsewhere by Matthew (compare, e.g., Mt 3:4 and Mk 1:6). Where Mk 16:5 speaks of ‘a young man . . . dressed in a white robe’, Mt 28:3 has: ‘his appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow’. This redoubling may very well be redactional, as in the account of the transfiguration where Matthew adds ‘his face shone like the sun’ before the description of the garment (compare Mk 9:2-3 and Mt 17:2; the same construction and the same redoubling face-garment as in Mt 28:3).

(3) The reaction of the women. In the description of this third motif Matthew is rather different from Mark, but we find similar re-writings of the Marcan source in other parts of Matthew, and the expressions used here by Matthew can be found elsewhere in his gospel. As we already noted, Mt 28:2-4 is particularly closely related to Matthew’s description of the apocalyptic signs which accompanied the death of Jesus (Mt 27:51-54).

We may conclude, then, that the particularities by which Mt 28:2-4 is distinguished from Mark can be explained by other passages in the gospel of Matthew. The account is, therefore, very Matthean in character, but it remains nevertheless so close to Mark that we cannot speak of a Matthean insertion. The present passage does not presuppose any source different from Mk 16:1-8. The Marcan source, however, has been thoroughly edited by Matthew with the help of previous, especially traditional apocalyptic passages of the gospel (cf. the earthquake, the descent of the angel, his appearance like lightning). This means that the details found in Matthew but not in Mark are not to be attributed to additional information about the events, but rather to the particular way in which Matthew edited the tradition he found in Mark.[28]

Herman Hendrickx also analyzes v. 9-10 in detail:


‘And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Hail!”‘ (Mt 28:9a). The phrase ‘and behold’ (kai idou) is certainly Matthean. It is found thirty-three times in his gospel and is very appropriate for introducing an appearance (see Matthew’s infancy narrative: Mt 1:20; 2:13, 19; see also the baptism and transfiguration accounts: Mt 3:16 and 17:3,5). Then the risen Christ greets the women: ‘Hail’ (Chairete). This is a habitual Greek salutation, but nothing prevents us from attributing it to the redactor because, in Matthew’s passion narrative, the greeting has been addressed to Jesus twice (Mt 26:49; 27:29), and in the first instance it has been added to the text of Mark (compare Mt 26:49 and Mk 14:45).

Next, Mt 28:9b describes the reaction of the women: ‘And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him’ (literally, ‘And they approaching held his feet and worshipped him’). The participle ‘approaching’ before a finite verb (here ‘took hold’) is very characteristic of Matthean redaction. It is found fifty-one times in Matthew and almost always points to a solemn moment. It is often followed by an important statement. Here it obviously introduces the women’s worshipping Jesus. The verb ‘to worship’ (proskunein) is also very Matthean. It is typical for the description of encounters with the risen Christ (cf. Mt 28:17), and is often used in the gospel of Matthew, in which the features of the risen Lord break through more clearly, especially in the miracle stories (cf. Mt 8:2, 9:18; 14:33; 15:25). It has been convincingly argued that the phrase ‘took hold of his feet’ should not be understood in line with the risen Christ’s invitation to touch his body (cf. Lk 24:39; Jn 20:27) or with Jn 20:17, ‘Do not hold me’. It describes a gesture of respectful greeting and is in reality nothing more than a way of developing the simple expression ‘and worshipped him’. It serves to emphasize the act of worshipping. The women react to an epiphany of the Lord.

In light of this explanation the following words also become more clear: ‘Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid”‘ (Mt 28:10a). The introductory phrase ‘Then Jesus said to them’, is entirely Matthean. The same should be said of the reassurance, ‘Do not be afraid’. It is very appropriate since the women have just expressed their reverential fear. And so the whole structure appears perfectly parallel to two other passages where the same reverential fear is expressed, i.e., Mt 28:6-18 and 17:6-7.


Mt 28:16-18

Now the eleven disciples . . .

And when they saw him

they worshipped him;

but some doubted.

And Jesus came

and said to them, (saying),

‘All authority in heaven. . . .

I am with you always.’
Mt 17:6-7

When the disciples heard this

They fell on their faces,

and were filled with awe.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying,

‘Rise, and have no fear.’

The really difficult part of the text is Mt 28:10b c, ‘Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’. The women seem to be given once more the same message as in verse 7. Why should Matthew add this after telling us in verse 8 that the women were on their way to deliver the message? And is there no contradiction between verse 7, where it was said that the Lord would be seen in Galilee, and verse 9-10, where he appears to the women in Jerusalem?

To the latter question we should answer that verse 7 spoke of an appearance to the disciples and that in the present composition of Matthew this refers undoubtedly to Mt 28:16-20. Jesus’ appearance to the women is not in contradiction with Mt 28:7. We should even add that this appearance is in line with the words of the angel as Matthew understood them. The special insistence on the Easter message, indicated above, brings us closer to an appearance of Jesus himself to the women, who are not sent to Galilee.

To the former question whether or not verse 10 is an unnecessary redoubling of verse 7, we should answer negatively. The fact that the command is now given by the risen Christ himself is a new element. Already in Mark the angel referred to a word of Jesus; this is now made explicit by Matthew. It is true that in Matthew’s redaction a greater insistence appears on the proclamation of the resurrection (cf. ‘as he said’ in Mt 28:6) and on the concern to emphasize the authority of the angel who proclaimed it (cf. ‘Lo, I have told you’ in Mt 28:7). But the change can be explained fully only in light of verses 9-10, where the previous promise (‘as he said’) is surpassed by the words which Jesus himself addresses to the women. Moreover, Jesus’ words are no longer a simple promise but an order (compare ‘he is going before you to Galilee’ and ‘tell my brethren to go to Galilee’).

No doubt this is the reason for the appearance to the women. It prepares for the appearance in Galilee in a much more direct way than the announcement by the angel. In Matthew, the correspondence between order and execution is underlined with particular care. This tendency is especially manifest in the final chapter of the gospel. In preparation for the appearance to the eleven disciples (Mt 28:16-20), Matthew omits the special mention of Peter in the angel’s words (compare Mt 28:7 and Mk 16:7), and adds a formal order, given by Jesus personally, ‘to go to Galilee’. The disciples will obey: ‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee’ (Mt 28:16), just as the women previously obeyed the order of the angel, ‘Then go quickly’ (Mt 28:7), and ‘departed quickly’ (Mt 28:8), and Jesus’ own order, ‘go and tell’ (Mt 28:10), as we gan gather from ‘while they were going’ (Mt 28:11).

The only element that has not yet been explained is the rather unexpected occurrence of the phrase ‘my brethren’. However, this term should not be surprising in the gospel of Matthew, which repeated calls attention to the fact that Jesus’ followers and disciples are his brethren. We refer here, e.g., to Mt 12:49, ‘and stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “here are my mother and my brothers!”‘ which is much more explicit than the parallel text in Mk 3:34. At the end of Matthew’s description of Jesus’ Galilean activity and before he formally starts a new section with Mt 13, the parable chapter, the disciples appear as those who, unlike the rest of the people, obey the will of the Father and are, therefore, called ‘brothers’ by Jesus. That the risen Christ now speaks of ‘my brethren’ and orders them to go to Galilee means a new foundation of the discipleship, which is related to what happened before in Galilee and now appears as a final commission which will consist in making disciples of all nations (cf. Mt 28:19).

We should also refer to Mt 25:40, ‘And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”‘ Against the previously fairly generally accepted opinion that ‘my brethren’ refers to all the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned people of the world, there is a growing consensus among scholars that Matthew refers here to the disciples who have been sent to all nations. This interpretation fits well into the current interpretation of a series of other Matthean texts (Mt 10:40ff.; 12:48ff.; 24:9, 14; 25:32; 28:18b-20). We should also note that in Mt 18:15, 21, 35 the title ‘brother’ refers to the members of the Christian community.

The use of the phrase ‘brethren’ has been related to Ps 22(21), which plays an important role in the passion narrative (cf. Mt 27:35, 39, 43, 46). Ps 22(21):22 reads: ‘I will tell of your name to my brethren’. We may also think of Rom 8:29, ‘in order that he might be first-born among many brethren’.

Summing up, we would say that Mt 28:9-10 is composed by Matthew to serve as transition between the account of the tomb and the appearance and commission in Galilee (Mt 28:16-20). Our study of verses 9-10 confirms that Matthew’s version of the empty tomb story does not presuppose any source other than Mark.[29]

Thus, there is good evidence that Matthew provides no new information concerning the burial by Joseph of Arimathea or the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, and there is nothing to suggest the opposite opinion that the author of Matthew had independent traditions at his disposal.


The Gospel of Luke

Concerning Luke 24:1-11, Norman Perrin observes:


The first and most obvious thing about this narrative is that it is much smoother and better-told than Mark’s, but then Luke is the most consummate literary artist in the New Testament. The second redactional element is that the young man of the Markan narrative has become “two men in dazzling apparel.” This is more restrained than the parallel Matthean redaction, but it serves the same general purpose. Luke too represents a tradition that had meditated on this world-shattering event for a generation longer than had Mark. But the most interesting redactional element in this narrative is the third, namely, the fact that the message to the women no longer concerns seeing Jesus in Galilee, but is a passion prediction like the one in Mark 9:1.

This is a most dramatic change, and it leads us to check the Lukan versions of the Markan passion predictions and of the promise of Jesus, “I will go before you to Galilee,” in Mark 14:28. If we do this we find that Luke has reasonable facsimiles of passion predictions (Mark 8:31 = Luke 9:22; Mark 9:31 = Luke 9:44; Mark 10:33-34 = Luke 18:32-33) except that the second is abbreviated to “the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” But the promise of Jesus to his disciples has completely disappeared from the Lukan narrative; Mark 14:27-28 has no equivalent at all in Luke. It would have to come after Luke 22:39, and it is simply not there. What has happened is that Luke has simply obliterated all references to the disciples seeing Jesus in Galilee after his death, and he has filled the gap left by this in the message to the women at the tomb by using a passion prediction. This is a bold step and, as we shall see, Luke has very strong theological reasons for taking it.

A fourth redactional change in this narrative as compared to its Markan source is that Luke specifically states that the women fulfilled their trust and “told all this to the eleven and all the rest.” As was Matthew, Luke is very much concerned with the element of continuity between the fate of Jesus and the origins of the Christian church, and he also has no interest in the Markan theme of total discipleship failure. Unlike Matthew, however, he has no account of a resurrection appearance to the women.[30]

I might add that a likely reason that the author of Luke has no account of a resurrection appearance to the women, even though it would be in the Jerusalem environs that Luke preferred, is that a resurrection appearance to the women is the result of Matthew’s redactional hand. Concerning Luke’s preference for Jerusalem, Perrin writes:


But Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70. . . . Indeed Hellenistic Judaism itself perished in the convulsions which followed. But Hellenistic Jewish Christianity survived. It survived because it found a new sacred center in the Christian movement itself: the life of Jesus became the navel of the universe, the place where God was particularly to be found and known.

Luke pursues this theme throughout his two-volume work. He presents the life of Jesus as a sacred time, a time of fulfillment, blessing, and revelation. He presents Jerusalem as the place where Jesus is rejected and the place, therefore, that God himself rejects. But Jerusalem is the place where God himself makes a new beginning, for the rejection of Jesus ends in the triumph of God, the passion culminates in the resurrection, and the risen Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem. The Christian movement starts in Jerusalem, and in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke portrays its inevitable progress to the symbolic center of the world, to Rome. It is the Christian movement itself which in its inevitable progress from Jerusalem to Rome becomes the new sacred center; the members of this movement relate to the sacred time of Jesus, and wherever the gospel of repentence and the forgiveness of sins is preached, there is “the navel of the universe.”[31]

In the words of Luke (24:46b-47), “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentence, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Herman Hendrickx examines the question of redaction in 24:1-12 in detail. Here are some of his notes:


The women prepared spices on Friday evening, but because of the sabbath law they could not go to the tomb before Sunday morning. What is the meaning of these Lucan alterations? It should first be noted that in Luke the women participate more closely in the burial than in Mark and Matthew: ‘The women…saw the tomb, and how his body was laid’ (Lk 23:55). Apparently Luke was embarrassed by the fact that women, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him (Lk 8:3), had not embalmed Jesus’ body on the occasion of the burial itself. As it was now, the burial was not complete, but the women could not help it because the spices had not only to be bought but also to be prepared. They did this the very same evening. But then they did nothing for twenty-four hours because of the sabbath.

…[v. 2-3]…

Luke drastically shortens and modifies the text of Mark. He omits altogether the women’s questioning as to ‘who will roll away the stone’ (Mk 16:3). He can easily do so since he has not mentioned that a stone had been rolled against the door of the tomb (compare Mk 15:46 and Lk 23:53). He limits himself to a note which is parallel with Mk 16:4, but divests the event of the miraculous character which Mark seems to attribute to it. The women’s perplexity is transferred from Mark’s query about the stone to the discovery inside the tomb. Thus the evangelist gets straight to the point: ‘they found the stone rolled away. . . but. . . they did not find the body’. Luke, therefore, explicitly records the women’s failure to find the corpse. In fact, he seems to contrast the discovery they made (‘they found the stone rolled away’) with the discovery they failed to make (‘they did not find the body’).

According to Mark, the women noticed that the stone was rolled away, and were then intercepted by an angel and invited to inspect the tomb. According to Luke, it was only after they had discovered for themselves that the tomb was empty that their perplexity began. The body was gone: this undeniable, prosaic fact is mentioned before anything else. Here we get a true empty tomb apologetic, starting from the empty tomb. This approach was very important for Greek readers who, unlike Jewish readers, might possibly think of merely subjective visions of Jesus’ soul being in heaven. No wonder that Luke reduces the visionary elements of the account.

…[v. 4-5]…

Mark’s ‘young man dressed in a white robe’ has become ‘two men in dazzling apparel’. There can be no doubt that for Luke these ‘two men’ are angels, as can be seen from the later mention ‘that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive’ (Lk 24:23). The verb ‘to stand by’ (ephistamai) is also found in Lk 2:9, literally, ‘and the angel of the Lord stood by (epeste) them’. Acts 10:30 is an even closer parallel: ‘and behold, a man stood before me in a bright apparel’ (cf. also Acts 11:13, ‘And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house’). The model for all these texts seems to be Dan 8:15, ‘When I, Daniel had seen the vision, I sought to understand it; and behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man’.

We should also note the parallel between this passage and the account of the ascension, where we are told that ‘behold, two men stood by them in white robes’ (Acts 1:10). In both cases the two men serve the function of interpreting an event after it has occurred, and their presence underlines the eschatological significance of the events witnessed. That there are two men instead of one is most probably due to the tendencies of popular story-telling, not to the requirements in Jewish law for witnesses (Deut 19:15), since the two men do not really function as witnesses.

…[v. 6-8]…

Luke evidently had Mark before him, but he has completely re-written the Marcan text. Let us compare the two passages:


Mark 16:7

Go, tell his disciples and Peter

that he is going before you to

; there you will see him,

as he told you.
Luke 24:6-8

Remember how he told you,

while he was still in Galilee,

that the Son of man…

And they remembered his words.

In Luke’s overall theological plan (from Galilee to Jerusalem in the gospel, and from Jerusalem to Rome in Acts), the climax of the gospel must be in Jerusalem. Therefore, he cannot record any appearance of the risen Christ in Galilee without producing an anti-climax. Luke preserved the mention of Galilee found in Mk 16:7, but gave it an entirely new meaning; instead of pointing forward to Galilee as the place where the appearances will take place, he refers beack to Galilee as the place where Jesus prophecied his passion and resurrection. In line with this editorial change he has previously omitted Mk 14:27-28. Thus Luke has simply obliterated all references to an appearance of the risen Christ in Galilee. Instead he refers to passion prophecies such as are found in Lk 9:22, 44, and 18:32-33. The women should ‘remember’ these prophecies; they should realize that it was all planned by God and that in the context of this plan everything is perfectly intelligible.

…[v. 9]…

Luke changes Mark’s ‘and they went out and fled’ into ‘and returning…they’. Though in Luke the women are not given any order to ‘go and tell’ (compare Mk 16:7), they return from the tomb and report their experience (‘all this’) to the Eleven (the Twelve minus Judas) and ‘to all the rest’ of the disciples, a phrase which prepares the way for Lk 24:22-23 by including others with the Eleven. Like Matthew, Luke considers it necessary for the women to tell the disciples, in order to lead into the resurrection appearances which he has added to his Marcan source; but, unlike Matthew, he has no account of a resurrection appearance to the women themselves.[32]

Hendrickx states: “Summing up, we would say that, although some scholars tend to reduce Luke’s dependence on Mark to secondary reminiscences, the opinion of those who hold that Mk 16:1-8 is the basic account which by itself sufficiently explains the Lucan exposition enjoys a higher degree of probability.”[33]


The Gospel of John

If there is any gospel that is going to challenge the idea that the empty tomb narratives derive from Mark, it is the Gospel of John. Many scholars believe that John is literarily independent from the synoptics. In this essay, I do not intend to challenge the view that the Gospel of John is literarily independent from the synoptics. But I would maintain that, even if John is literarily independent, the section containing the empty tomb narratives is based on oral tradition that has been influenced by the synoptic gospels.

The idea that the gospels shaped and created oral tradition is not a new one. Raymond Brown, for example, believes that the Gospel of Peter’s numerous points of contact with the canonical gospels can be explained entirely from oral tradition emanating from these gospels. So one must not rule out the possibility that the synoptics have indirectly influenced some of the material found in John. As John P. Meier comments in another context:


…our canonical Gospels not only come from ongoing oral tradition, but also generate ongoing oral tradition. It is also affirmed, quite rightly, that oral traditions did not die out the day after a canonical Gospel was published. But the writing of the canonical Gospels did change the situation. The canonical Gospels – long before they were definitively recognized as ‘canonical’ – were regularly preached on at worship, studied in catechesal schools, and cited strictly and loosely by patristic authors; and so increasingly they lodged themselves in the memory of individual Christians and whole communities. Inevitably they ‘contaminated’ and modified the oral tradition that existed before and alongside themselves.[34]

There is evidence for synoptic influence in the return visit of Mary Magdelene. We have already concluded that the appearance to the women in Matthew is redactional. The author of John describes only Mary Magdelene as a visitor to the tomb, and so it is fitting that the author describes an appearance of the Lord to Mary alone. Edward Lynn Bode makes the following observations about the story:


The synoptic motif of the angels, which was absent in the original visit of Mary to the tomb, is here introduced by the fourth gospel. There are two angels as there are two men in Luke (24:4). However, unlike the synoptics the angels of John bear no kerygma but merely ask Mary why she is crying. In the words of Bultmann the angels are “stage furniture” of no significance. Bernard thinks the angels have as good as no meaning and come from Lk 24:4. Geachter finds a function for the angels in their serving to make clear the inner condition of Mary as evidenced by her response to their question. Brun points out that the synoptic angel message is replaced in John by an appearance of Jesus.

To the angels’ question, made in unison after the manner of Lk 24:5-7, Mary voices her concern for the “Lord.” Both she (also in 20:2,18) and the disciples (20:20,25,28) refer to Jesus as the Lord in this chapter.

When Mary does meet her Lord, at first she does not recognize him – in the same way that the disciples on their way to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus (Lk 24:16). Mary takes Jesus to be a gardener. A real gardener plays no part in the Johannine account although one does have a role in the Coptic gospel of Bartholomew and does appear in later Jewish polemic as connected with taking the body.

The Magdalene does, however, recognize the Lord through his voice – the sheep know the voice of the shepherd (Jn 10:3). As Matthew has Jesus repeating the words, a message, of the angel, so in a similar manner John has Jesus repeating the words, a question, of the angels. Note that Jesus’ second question (Whom do you seek?) mirrors the angelic words to the women in the synoptics about seeking Jesus (Mk 16:6; Mt 28:5; Lk 24:5). The words of Jesus about touching him and about a message for his brothers recall similar motifs in Mt 28:9-10, where the women take hold of Jesus’ feet and receive a message for his brothers. Mary takes the message to the disciples (Jn 20:18). The reference to the disciples as brothers of Jesus appears in John here for the only time in the gospel proper. This might suggest a direct connection with the tradition represented by Matthew and could also possibly be suggestive for Jesus’ words that he is ascending to “my Father and your Father” (Jn 20:17). At the last supper Jesus called his disciples friends (Jn 15:15).

In his message Jesus speaks of his ascending to the Father. John depicts Jesus at the last supper as speaking of his going to the Father (13:1-3; 14:1-4). This bit of Johannine theology in the resurrection message reminds one of Luke’s inserting some of his theology into the message at the tomb.

Our somewhat sketchy treatment of the appearance of the Lord to Mary Magdalene has been included inasmuch as our interest lies in it as illustrative of material and themes found in the synoptics concerning the empty tomb and in Matthew’s appearance story (28:9-10), which shows a relationship with the empty tomb account. In brief, John’s second visit of Mary shows many signs of being developed by the help of words and themes from synoptic tradition and Johannine motifs found elsewhere. About the only original idea is that of Mary’s crying, something easily suggested by visiting the grave of a loved one.[35]

Reginald Fuller comments on the earlier scene with Peter and the beloved disciple:


The earliest available version of the disciples’ visit to the tomb is briefly summarized in Luke 24:24, where the reason for it was to check on the women’s report of the empty tomb. This story apparently developed in two divergent ways. In Luke 24:12 (assuming the authenticity of the non-Western text) it becomes a visit to the tomb by Peter alone, and in John 20:3-10 a visit by Peter and the beloved disciple.

Underlying the Johannine version is an earlier version whose primary intention was apologetic. Peter sees the grave cloths arranged in an orderly way, suggesting not the theft of the body (cf. Matt. 27:64; 28:13-15 for a different answer) but the miraculous passage of the body through the gravecloths, leaving them collapsed and lying as they were. This apologetic motif further developed in the Gospel of the Hebrews, where the Risen One hands the linen cloth to the servant of the high priest. Its apologetic and legendary character is obvious.

The race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple introduces a theme which will be developed later in the Johannine appendix. This role of the Beloved Disciple represents a distinctly Johannine development, and the whole episode of the race must be regarded as editorial. The race is described curiously. The Beloved Disciple gets to the tomb first, but does not go in. Peter arrives a little later, looks in but does not enter, and observes the details of the situation; then the Beloved Disciple enters and “believes.” This looks like a tentative correction or at least qualification of the primitive view (here transferred, as in Luke 24:12, from Galilee to Jerusalem, and from the Christophanies to the empty tomb) that Peter was the primary witness of the resurrection. John does not dare to displace this tradition altogether, but modifies it to the extent of giving the Beloved Disciple – and therefore the specific Johannine witness – some degree of priority: he was the first to arrive at the tomb, but not the first to believe.

This transference of the rise of Easter faith from the Christophanies to the empty tomb represents the most advanced development of the Easter narratives in the New Testament. Even the Lucan narratives had left the appearances as the primary vehicles of revelation (cf. the long discourses about the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures placed on the lips of the Risen One). The faith of the Beloved Disciple does not lead to any special consequences: he does not even go and tell the other disciples, and when they assemble, in verses 19ff., there is no reference to the fact that one of their number had already come to believe in the resurrection. The whole story is thus short-circuited, a further indication of the redactional character of the race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple.[36]

Several have observed the numerous parallels between Luke and John against the other two gospels.[37] While literary dependence may not be a necessary assumption, can the vicissitudes of oral tradition account for all the incidences in which Luke’s special material or redactional activity has parallels in the Gospel of John? It is not at all far-fetched to suggest that the author of John may have heard readings from the Gospel of Luke and that this shaped much of his thought. At the least, it is possible that John’s source of oral tradition has been affected by the synoptics. Such an explanation would account for the coincidences between Luke and John previously in their Gospels as well as in their final chapters, in which these two evangelists alone narrate appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem.


Contradictions and Conclusions

Many make much fuss over the contradictions between the resurrection narratives, but my interest in them lies solely in their function as linch-pin in the argument that the empty tomb stories are all dependent on the Gospel of Mark. I will not list such discrepancies, not only because this has been done many times before, but more importantly because the matter under contention is not biblical inerrancy. My interest is in understanding the cause of these discrepancies. My theory is that the evangelists freely shaped their resurrection narratives with theological concerns, not on the basis of historical knowledge, and that their few agreements derive from dependence, particularly dependence on the account in the Gospel of Mark for the empty tomb story.

Bode makes the following observations:


The only Easter event narrated by all four evangelists concerns the visit of the women to the tomb of Jesus. These texts include: Mk 16:1-8, Mt 28:1-8, Lk 24:1-12, Jn 20:1-13. The accounts in themselves present a many-faceted problem, which has been characterized as arising from their palpable differences, frequent contradictions in fundamental matters, evidence of a long development process striving partly to harmonize and partly to express ealier accounts in terms of later convictions. The problem cannot be solved in a few words, but the beginning of a solution will come from a recognition of the themes and views proper to each evangelist.[38]

After describing some discrepancies in four pages, Rev. John T. Theodore writes:


What are the facts? Which statements of the evangelists are correct? Sad to say, none can tell. All that can be said is that the Gospel of Mark, the oldest Gospel, from which the other evangelists drew most of their materials, was used by them with great freedom, and that their disagreements are indicative of the fact that when these narratives were recorded by them there was no definite and settled tradition concerning the incidents around the tomb of Jesus.

This does not necessarily mean that the evangelists tried to deceive their readers. To them each added detail became a conviction, however ill-founded, unverified and unverifiable, until a string of legends was accepted as historical facts.[39]

Thus, the discrepancies between the gospels highlight what redaction criticism explains: the post-Markan gospel narratives of the resurrection are legends and fictions built up around the empty tomb story in the Gospel of Mark. The statement made by James Dunn that the four gospels provide “united testimony” of “at least two or three different accounts” of the empty tomb is wrong.[40] Archbishop Peter Carnley writes:


The presence of discrepancies might be a sign of historicity if we had four clearly independent but slightly different versions of the story, if only for the reason that four witnesses are better than one. But, of course, it is now impossible to argue that what we have in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are four contemporaneous but independent accounts of the one event. Modern redactional studies of the traditions account for the discrepancies as literary developments at the hand of later redactors of what was originally one report of the empty tomb. . . There is no suggestion that the tomb was discovered by different witnesses on four different occasions, so it is in fact impossible to argue that the discrepancies were introduced by different witnesses of the one event; rather, they can be explained as four different redactions for apologetic and kerygmatic reasons of a single story originating from one source.[41]

This part of the argument against the empty tomb story, in itself, has only limited value as evidence against historicity. It might be suggested that an historical account could be supplemented with more historical detail by Matthew, Luke, or John or at least with traditions that can be seen to antedate Mark. This is not done, and so this adds to the argument from silence previously made that the discovery of the empty tomb does not seem to have impressed itself upon early Christian consciousness as a historical event. Furthermore, it could be stated that the tendency of the story is the tendency of a legend, to go from simple to elaborate, and thus that we might extrapolate the tendency of the tradition after Mark to suggest that the tradition disappates into nothing a short time before Mark. But then it might be objected that this is just sloppy thinking. The main value of this part of the argument is to prepare the way for the next. Here it has been explained how the Gospel of Mark has led to the subsequent stories, and now it will be explained how the story came to be in the Gospel of Mark.




[25] Van Daalen, ibid., pp. 20-21.

[26] Van Daalen, ibid., p. 21.

[27] Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 75.

[28] Herman Hendrickx, The Resurrection Narratives of the Synoptic Gospels (London: G. Chapman, 1984), p. 31.

[29] Hendrickx, ibid., pp. 35-36.

[30] Perrin, ibid., p. 60.

[31] Perrin, ibid., p. 69.

[32] Hendrickx, ibid., pp. 39-46.

[33] Hendrickx, ibid., p. 46.

[34] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 131.

[35] Bode, ibid., pp. 82-83.

[36] Fuller, ibid., p. 135.

[37] D. Moody Smith, John among the Gospels: the Relationship in Twentieth-Century Research (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 85-103.

[38] Bode, ibid., p. 5.

[39] Rev. John T. Theodore, Who was Jesus? A Historical Analysis of the Misinterpretations of His Life and Teachings (New York: Exposition Press, 1961), p. 189.

[40] Dunn, ibid., p. 66.

[41] Carnley, ibid., p. 47.

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