Meeting the empty tomb and the risen Jesus in John 20

The discovery by two disciples of the empty tomb, and Mary Magdelene’s encounter with Jesus, in John 20.1–18, is one of the main options for the gospel reading for Easter Sunday. And it is, in many ways, the most appealing choice, because of its polished literary form, its focus on individuals, and its description of the moments of recognition. Since we now enter the Easter season, it bears continued reflection.

The passage is full of features worth noting, many of which make it characteristic of the Fourth Gospel:

  • The double meaning of timings and descriptions which have both literal and symbolic significance.
  • The selection of individuals to focus on, including one-to-one encounter with Jesus, when there were clearly others present.
  • The repeated ironic theme of reversal, expressed in both implicit and explicit ways.
  • The importance of seeing and believing leading to faith.
  • Literary and thematic connections with earlier passages in the gospel, particularly chapter 1 (the ‘prologue’) and chapter 11 (the raising of Lazarus) as well as chapters 9 and 10.

The narrative begins where the previous part of the story had left off, at the tomb where Jesus had been laid. There is simply no mention, here or in the other gospels, of anything of ‘silent Saturday’; the followers of Jesus rest in grief and silence as Jesus rests in the tomb. Where Matthew and Mark offer absolute time markers (‘after the Sabbath’) this gospel typically uses a relative time mark ‘On the first day of the week…’ The first week of testimony to the risen Jesus (‘about a week later’ John 20.26) matches the first week of testimony in chapter 1.

Mary Magdalene becomes the central figure in this episode, which is interesting since she had made no appearance in this gospel prior to her presence being noted at the cross in John 19.25 (though Luke 8.2 notes that she has been accompanying Jesus for some time in his ministry). Though she alone is mentioned here, it is apparent that she has not come alone, since she tells the men that ‘we do not know’ in verse 4. In the light of this gospel’s focus on individuals, there is no reason to think that this account contradicts the mention of other women in the three other gospels—it is just being selective.

The description of it ‘still being dark’ isn’t really a contradiction to the other gospels mention of ‘early dawn’ or ‘the sun has just risen’, since Mary appears to be able to see the tomb and the stone that has been moved. The darkness here has symbolic importance; in chapters 3 and 4 the contrast between Nicodemus coming in the dark of evening and the woman meeting Jesus in the light of day was less the contrast between faith and unbelief and more an indication of degree of understanding. Mary is still in the darkness of grief, but her understanding of what is going on has not yet dawned.

Mary sees that the stone ‘had been taken away’ from the tomb, using different language from the other three gospels that the stone was ‘rolled away’ (Matt 28.2, Mark 16.4, Luke 24.2). Some have suggested that, where the Synoptics describe a disc-shaped stone, John is describing a more common rock plug that would be dragged away. But there is no need to suppose this; the word used, airo, is a general term for removal, and was the term used for the removal of the stone closing the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11.39, 41.

Here is the first reversal: Mary turns from the tomb and runs to the other disciples. The ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ has traditionally been identified with John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve. He claims to be the one who has written this gospel (John 21.24), but he features only in the second half of the gospel, his testimony focusses on Jerusalem, it makes no mention of James (the brother of John) and it gives little prominence at all to The Twelve. Richard Bauckham makes a persuasive argument that he is a Jerusalem-based disciple, and not one of the Twelve. Mary’s assumption is that someone has come and reburied Jesus in another location; her understanding is still shrouded in the darkness of grief.


There is a sense of excited but anxious hurry in this first part of the story, portrayed in part by Mary running to the Simon Peter and the other disciple, then them running back to the tomb. But it is also created by the constant changes of tense, mixing past tenses with ‘historic present’. Mary runs…and comes…and says, whilst the two men went…and were going…and were running.

There is something of a rivalry between these two, with contrast and reversal threaded through the description of them, something that will be revisited in the final chapter of the gospel. Peter sets out first; then the other disciple overtakes him; but he stops at the entrance, whilst Peter comes past him and goes right in. The language of ‘stooping’ to look in makes little sense in different times and cultures—I cannot think of ever having had to stoop to look at a tomb. But it makes perfect sense in historical context, since rock-cut tombs of this period would have low doors, and you cannot see much without stooping down, and even entering the chamber which broadens out beyond the low, narrow entrance.

The mention of the ‘linen cloths’ (othonia) and the ‘face cloth’ (ESV, NET) or ‘napkin’ (AV) (soudarion) is perhaps the most intriguing feature of this account. The other disciple sees only the first of these, which were used to wrap the body of the dead person; if Jesus’ body had been laid on a shelf on one side of the chamber, with his head nearest the entrance, then you could not see the soudarion without going in to look around the corner. Mention of both of these recalls, once more, the raising of Lazarus, where the dead man comes out walking, with the othonia around his body and legs and the soudarion around his head, which Jesus instructs the people to remove (John 11.44). But there is, of course, no need for any human intervention here: Jesus has escaped the clutches of death and its apparel without any assistance.

Here comes yet another reversal: Peter is the first to see, but the other disciple is the first ‘to believe’. This raises two key questions: what did he believe, and why? Taking these in reverse order, the narrative simply gives the facts of the two pieces of cloth as the reason for the disciple’s belief, without much explanation. (Jo-Ann Brant Paideia commentary, p 267, notes that this is a recognised feature of Latin drama, known as energeia, where the facts are described without any explanation being given. It offers the whole narrative a sense of directness and immediacy, rather the opposite of Hercule Poirot’s laboured explanations of the details in an Agatha Christie novel!) The soudarion is ‘folded’ or ‘rolled up’ ἐντετυλιγμένον, entetuligmenon; Brant and Craig Keener suggest that Jesus, having been restored to life, casually folded it up and placed it down. But the language here is exactly the same that has been used in Matthew 27:59 and Luke 23:53 for Joseph wrapping Jesus’ body up at his burial—and the narrative emphasises that it is separate from the othonia; the implication here is that the linen strips are still in the place where the body of Jesus had been, and the head cloth is still in the place where his head had been. Not only does this contradict the idea that the body has been taken and moved, or robbed from the tomb—it shows that Jesus has been raised to life through the cloths, which have simply collapsed in their place. This is rather cleverly illustrated by Andrew Sach using contemporary clothes!

As the sun rises, and dawn becomes clearer, this disciple sees and believes—but he as yet only sees this sign. He has not yet connected this with the teaching of the Scriptures (which Jesus expounds to the two travelling on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24)—nor has he yet had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. It is faith, but not yet in its fullest form.


With faith half formed, and much still to ponder, the two disciples return to their homes, without yet having a message to share. But Mary lingers at the tomb, still in grief, probably not merely weeping but most likely (in that culture) continuing to express her grief by open wailing. She too stoops and looks into the tomb, and sees angelic figures which she appears not to recognise. Again, there is no particular need to see the descriptions of the angels here as contradicting the accounts of the other gospels, since each is being selective—and angels are able to come and go! Just as Jesus has asked a repeated question of Martha and Mary in John 11 with variations of answer, so we have a repeated question asked of this Mary, with a variation in her answer. ‘The Lord’ in her report to Simon Peter and the other disciple has now become ‘my Lord’; he will soon become ‘my Teacher!’

Having turned to the tomb, she now reverses direction, and turns to see Jesus himself—though the light has still not yet fully dawned. She assumes he is a humble gardener—and there is gardening of a sort involved, as Jesus has taught in John 15. But Jesus adds to the question of the angels a question that he has been asking since the beginning, of the first disciples in John 1.38: ‘Whom do you seek?’ The moment of recognition comes when Jesus calls her by name—for, as we know from John 10.3, ‘the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.’ She responds in the most personal terms; where in John 1.38 he was just ‘Teacher’, now for Mary he is ‘My Teacher’, literally ‘My great one!’ This is an acclamation that will not be confined to one small group, in their own culture and language, but will need to be translated into Greek, the lingua franca of the day, so that all might hear this good news—and so the writer of the gospel provides us with the translation, both of the expression and of the gospel news. Now the sun has fully risen.

In this abbreviated narrative, Jesus command ‘Do not cling to me’ implies that she has flung her arms around him. It is very unfortunate that the episode has mostly been circulated in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation Noli me tangere, ‘Do not touch me’, suggesting either that Jesus was too fragile or holy to touch, or that he wasn’t really physically, bodily raised. But we do here get the first suggestion that Jesus’ ultimate future—and therefore the ultimate nature of faith—is for him to be ascended and to send his Spirit. Seeing and believing are the foundations of apostolic faith, but seeing without believing, based on apostolic testimony, will be the reality for successive generations. The new reality, that God is Father not only to Jesus but to all who believe, so that we are together brothers and sisters of Jesus, is established here but made real by the Spirit (Romans 8.15).

Whilst the other disciple is the first to have believed, Mary Magdalene is the first to bear apostolic witness—and the narrative is emphatic here, that she is the apostle to the apostles. In her grief, she has encountered angeloi, the angelic messengers sent from God; now in her belief she is sent to proclaim, the verb angello, by Jesus himself. In the last great reversal in this narrative, she really is now on the side of the angels!


This whole episode is in an interesting place within the Fourth Gospel. The whole narrative was building to the crucifixion as the moment of Jesus’ glory, his enthronement and his exaltation. What importance does the resurrection have within this theological shape? If the cross achieved everything, if there ‘It is finished!’ what is the meaning of the resurrection?

The cross is Jesus’ exaltation. The resurrection is the exaltation of the believer from grief to joy, from despairing doubt to exuberant confession, from loss to blessing. (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia commentary, p 265)

We need to note that the disciples, including Mary, are not witnesses to the resurrection, but to the empty tomb and the raised Jesus. The resurrection is the ultimate reversal of all that has appeared to triumph in the earlier narrative. And the disciples move, by stages, in having their eyes opened and their hearts changed as they meet the risen Lord.

(The illustration is a 12th century Spanish ivory plaque, with the superscription ‘D[omi]n[u]s loquitur Marie’, ‘The Lord said “Mary”‘ I like it chiefly because it looks as though Mary and the risen Jesus are engaging in a dance of joy together, their clothes swirling around them as they dance. It seems to be a great expression of what the resurrection means.)


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7 thoughts on “Meeting the empty tomb and the risen Jesus in John 20”

  1. The contrast between historic presents for Mary and past tenses for the disciples is an interesting point.

    As highlighted by Mark Goodacre at BNTC18, the language on the disciples’ tomb entry is tricksy:
    (4) and the other disciple outstripped Peter in his running and he went quicker/sooner INTO the tomb…(5) but he did not GO INSIDE. (6) Then Simon Peter also came ACCOMPANYING HIM and ENTERED INSIDE the tomb… (8) Then the other disciple also ENTERED – the one who had gone first INSIDE the tomb. Of course, eis contrasts with en in being able to mean arriving at rather than being inside – but this typical conscious-ambiguity has the effect of maximising the other disciple’s priority.

    Reply
  2. I suppose space meant there was no exploration of the significance of ‘the first day of the week’.

    I have recently finished reading Jonathan Sacks “Covenant and Conversation”, which is wonderful series of reflections on Genesis. Genesis 1 is seen as the emergence of order out of chaos, and this is reflected in the six-fold refrain “it was evening (erev) and it was morning (boker)”. Sacks writes:

    Erev in Hebrew means an undifferentiated mixture of elements; Boker comes from a root meaning ‘to reflect, contemplate, seek clarity’.” (p49)

    In John 20 we seem to have the beginning of a New Creation. Starting in the darkess (is this linked to the “and it was night” of John 13:30), the dawn brings clarity to the new situation.

    Reply
    • Yes, certainly, as several have explored. Some of the puzzling details can be best explained this way. ‘Proi’ would pretty much have to imply light (people loosely translate ‘early’ but of course this is the same word used in Septuagint for ‘and there was…*morning*: the nth day’), so then the question is how there can be light ‘while it was still dark’. John thinks theologically rather than nit-pickingly (so his point is not that light and dark are on a continuum – no-one reading chs 1+3 would think he thinks that way). Consequently the idea is that this is a kind of (primal and imitative) miracle: there being light even while it was still dark. This however is just the first in a third 7fold cycle of miracles after the Genesis pattern: Gen 1 (God), then John 2-19 (Jesus), then John 20-21 (Holy Spirit). The creative works/days of John 20-21 are: (1) Light (20.1), (2) Tabernacle/firmament, (3) Spirit /rivers post-glorification (cf. 7.39), (4) belief (Thomas), (5) fish, (6) shepherd, (7) rest/abiding (21.22-3). This supplies all the most obvious glaring felt lacunae from Jesus’s own cycle of miracles ex nihilo (his doing the Genesis ‘works of God’, which is ever the burden of his apologia and self-presentation of his credentials) or remedying of lacks – which were (1) transformed waters; (2) way/distance, followed at once by waters promised in 4.14; (3) food, followed at once by dry land; (4) sight/lights; (5) life; (6) man in image, male and female; (7) rest in grave on Sabbath till third day comes. (I have presented on this in Hawarden and Cambridge.)

      The later miracles begin with an evening one (20.19 – opsias ouses: comparable to Genesis’s hespera) and conclude with a ‘proi’ or morning one (21.4): this recapitulates Genesis 1 ‘and there was evening and there was morning’. Generally otherwise the time of day is irrelevant to miracles, so John is doing this on purpose. Some will have felt the absence of ‘night’ from this primal Genesis recitation. John supplies it with an identical clause (including egeneto): ‘and night was’ (13.30) – which did already look like a premeditated clause.

      Reply
      • The Holy Spirit cycle of works (3rd cycle of 3, and a notably Trinitarian NT pattern) is also equivalent to the promised ‘Greater Works’, so explaining the otherwise puzzling logic of 5.17-23, 14.12. These Greater Works in chs 20-21 are Apostles-Prophets/Preachers-Evangelists-CatechistPastorTeachers-Obeyers/Abiders. And they all proceed from the Ascension and Spirit-Outpouring (Eph 4, John 14). Ephesians looks to have been formative for John’s theology.

        Reply
  3. Thank you so much for this. A really very helpful approach. I wonder if this appears in any booklets or books you have published?
    I really appreciate the blog, thank you.

    Reply

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