The last post laid out the map for our discussion on the historical nature of the empty tomb. We considered the fact that there is skepticism from some circles towards the narratives for the empty tomb, but that there are also some good reasons — namely the discovery made by the women, coupled with what is called the criterion of embarrassment — that may give ample reason to accept the historicity of the event. In this post we will compare the various accounts of the empty tomb, the differences in which have been used by some to dismiss the narratives out of hand. It may be useful for you to have a Bible close by so you can also follow along — don’t take what I say at face value!
First, these empty tomb narratives are unusual for their time because they prioritize women (even some relatively unknown women) over Peter and the other male disciples. Accordingly, all four Gospels narrate that on the first day of the week, after Jesus’ crucifixion, a woman or group of women went to his tomb. The Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — report that the women found the tomb empty. On the other hand, the Gospel of John states that Mary Magdalene discovered the tomb altered, with the stone rolled away, but does it not state whether she saw the tomb was empty (John 20:1). The Synoptics each name a group of three women who went to the tomb. Peculiarly, though some of the names are different — including Salome in Mark, and Joanna in Luke — Mary Magdalene is present in each narrative. In the Gospel of John, all the other women are placed in the background, and overshadowed by the personal experience of Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the tomb. Nevertheless, hints of the presence of other women appear in Mary Magdalene’s use of “we” in her announcement of the altered tomb to Peter and the other disciples (John 20:2).
Interestingly, it is fair to conclude that there may have been many more women who went to the tomb than those who are named in the Gospel accounts. This hypothesis is made plausible by the introduction in each of the Synoptics of a larger group of women just prior to the empty tomb narrative. Mark 15:40 mentions “some women” who watched the crucifixion from a distance, and then highlights three named women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joseph and James (the younger), and Salome (Mark 15:40). Matthew appears to rely on Mark, and reports “many women…[who] had followed Jesus” before highlighting Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 27:55). Luke also seems to pick up the tradition from Mark and mentions “the women who had followed him from Galilee”, who saw his crucifixion and his burial in the tomb (Luke 23:49, 55). However, Luke foregrounds three women at the empty tomb — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James — yet mentions that there were “others with them” (Luke 24:10). Thus, all the tomb accounts included in the Gospels recount a group of women (or allude to them, as in the Gospel of John) who went to the tomb on the first day of the week and discovered it altered or empty.
However, though there are superficial similarities between the empty tomb accounts, there also seem to be apparent contradictions. Do these apparent contradictions mean that the accounts are historically spurious and unbelievable? We will examine just that question in part three.