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.

The passage is full of features worth noting, many of which make it quite 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 of a series of (physical and metaphorical) reversals: 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, the gospel 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, so he would be a natural one to go to, if he was someone with local knowledge. 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 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 questions 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 on the right by Andrew Sach using contemporary clothes!

As the sun rises, and dawn becomes clearer, this disciple sees and believes—but as yet he 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 the dawn of faith, its first rays coming over the horizon, but not yet in its full radiance.

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 (not surprising if, as in the picture at the top, he is carrying a mattock!)—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, and will very soon illuminate the whole world.

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 believing without seeing, 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!

(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.)

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. First, they see physical evidence—the empty tomb, the laid-out clothes—then an understanding of the Scriptures, and finally a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. It is only when all three come together—evidence, Scriptures, encounter—that faith fully dawns.

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34 thoughts on “The empty tomb and the risen Jesus in John 20”

  1. Richly enjoyed this as reading John 20 today following one Bible plan and have shared it. A tiny typo I think. I think you mean “believing without seeing” rather than “seeing without believing” in the third paragraph before you start your conclusion. Or am I wrong on that?

  2. The unified reading of John 20.1ff as Atonement (Yom Kippur) is based on several factors (I have probably forgotten some):

    (1) John’s two angels changing Mark’s one;

    (2) the angels’ precise positioning at each end of the Presence;

    (3) Noli Me Tangere because Torah Atonement regulations instruct that the High Priest not be touched around the time of the ritual – the word means ‘touch’ not ‘hold’ nor ‘cling’;

    (4) robe and turban because these are the High Priestly garments;

    (5) ‘Peace be with you’ [perhaps part of the same scheme – though it comes in the next scene];

    (6) completion of the scheme of 7 main highlighted festivals in the 7 sections of John – though of course the count of Passovers is a separate matter and gives the overall time-span, perhaps 3 and a half years (Marriage; Shavuot a harvest 4 months distance from the harvest proper 4.35; Passover with Bread of Life; Tabernacles; Dedication; Funeral; Atonement) – as further evidence, these are the same 7 as in Rev the earlier work where they appear in the logical order Passover – Shavuot – New Year (Trumpets) – Tabernacles – Dedication – Funeral – Wedding.

    (7) New Year (of which Atonement is part) is a new start as is the Resurrection;

    (8) John is inclined to end his works with the theme ‘The Tabernacle of God is with men’ – this time, predictably, in a realised sense unlike in Revelation – and inclusio with 1.14.

    It is often precisely the most puzzling details that are covered by this. For this reason I often put out a challenge to see if any other unifying theory can ‘explain’ as many details, let alone as many puzzling details.

    • (The one I forgot was Jesus’s entering the Presence of God via ascension, after which it is permissible for Thomas to touch. But then we have sometimes Jesus playing the role of God and sometimes not – but always the role of the mediator High Priest.)

      • To this (9) entering the presence of God 20.17, we add
        (10) theme of forgiveness/atonement 20.23 – particularly the new nature of provision for it post-Temple and after ‘the tabernacle of God is with men’. This passage may be compared to Mark 11.22-25 removal of temple mount and new provisions for forgiveness, and Mark 15.38 tearing of veil.

    • You seem to be referring to an entire framework of interpretation which is in circulation somewhere, but I’m afraid it’s all new to me, and therefore I’m unable to pick up the significance of the angels (#1), and their precise positioning (#2). Can you help here?

      Also, could you please indicate where there is a robe and turban in John 20?

      Lastly, could you please provide references in Revelation to the links with Shavuot, Tabernacles and Dedication? Of great interest if real.

      • It’s probably not in much circulation. Mark Stibbe 2008 penned ‘The Resurrection Code’ (Authentic Media) having recently given a Da Vinci Code talk in which more than half the references were to my Revival Times Dec 2004 article which mentioned the theory (which was original to me c1995-7, not that I was necessarily the first, just the first known to me). I found authors who had previously linked the 2 angels with the Tabernacle and Atonement, and who had linked the Noli Me Tangere with the High Priestly role. I did not find any who previously saw the robe/turban thing. If we take these as the 3 main points (certainly they were the 3 in my Revival Times aside, and in the pre-publicity for MS’s book) then I did not find any author who had seen more than one. MS like all John scholars was aware of the sequence of festivals, and he was more assiduous than most at assuming Atonement must be there somewhere – this logic had been within him even before he encountered my article. Also as a published commentator on John he knew that BF Westcott had linked the 2 angels with the Mercy Seat. When he did encounter my article (in which the main 3 points were an aside) the main 3 points were to him as a John scholar the most interesting part, but were, none the less, left out of his audio presentation which referenced my article more or less throughout. Apart from the aside that he was working on a book on Mary Magdalene – which likely was The Resurrection Code. So this reference ad loc to Mary Magdalene was likely his nod to Atonement/John20 matters – had he spoken about these in the audio talk it would have become very disproportionate as there was so much for a John scholar to say, so he left it out altogether.

        Angels (2 in number) at either end of Mercy Seat in holy of holies.

        Several translations say ‘turban’ for head-covering. Just as with the word ‘touch’, it gets rationalised and changed. ‘Turban’ sounds odd for a headdress among grave clothes. But that is precisely the sort of puzzling detail that joins with the other puzzling details in being unified by this theory. Because the turban was a high-priestly garment.

        Farrer saw a sequence of festivals/rites in the main sections of Revelation, and I think everything is gained by adding ‘funeral, wedding’ at the end. Apart from the fact that this gives a total of 7 evenly spaced. And the further fact that John’s Gospel sticks with the same rather idiosyncratic 7. There is an enormous amount to say, and I fear a summary will leave out much (I generally give a table).
        Passover: Lamb, Easter Lights
        Pentecost: scroll (festival of Sinai) and its seals; harvest 1/2 (144000); winds
        Trumpets: trumpets – with, at the end (end of ch.11) a Day of Atonement bit, since the New Year festival ends with Day of Atonement
        Tabernacles: flight of Israel to wilderness, testing, temporary abode, signs (wilderness wandering featured signs), Jordan river; harvest 2/2 (144000 gathered on Mt Zion, as Israel gathered there at Tabernacles)
        Dedication: bowls, vessels, Antiochus Epiphanes renewed in the beast
        Funeral: explicit funerary lament for Babylon
        Wedding: Epithalamium: Marriage of Lamb and New Jerusalem.

        I have probably forgotten a lot here.

        • I confess I’m not convinced. To mention just two difficulties, a soudarion is not a turban and the two figures either end of the mercy seat are cherubim, not angels. Nonetheless, thanks for taking the trouble with this reply.

          • I will explain my perspective here:

            A: Head coverings:

            (1) A soudarion is a turban inasmuch as a turban or patka is by definition a wound-round improvised head-covering, which is exactly what a soudarion is.

            (2) So close is the identification, that Bible translators have translated ‘turban’ without any reference to the Yom Kippur background.

            (3) Moreover John 20 speaks of linen which is exactly what the 4 high-priestly garments were each made of (Exodus may differ from Leviticus on the girdle only): Ex. 28.39-42, Lev. 16.4. John is not inventing the linen as it was already in Mark 15 and was to be expected.

            (4) John mentions the head-covering and the other evangelists don’t. Coincidence?

            So what we have is a linen wound-round improvised head covering in each case. Semantically, there is a large Venn diagram overlap in what exactly is designated.

            B: Secondly we come to the cherubim.

            (1) This author is more than capable of splicing/melding living creatures (i.e. cherubim) and seraphim in terms of what song they sing (Rev 4). Secondly he is more than capable of rationalising angelic hierarchies so that the unwieldy 4×4 faces of Ezk 1 become the simpler 4 faces/appearances of Rev 4. We also see this same rationalisation and simplification from Zech’s 4 chariots to Rev 6’s 4 single ridden-horses.

            (2) Angels addressing someone is less of a shocker, less startling, than cherubim addressing someone – in fact, the latter would be verging on a literary faux pas.

            (3) Cherubim are winged and angels often apparently are not. But not to John. John can have angels flying e.g. Rev 14.6 angel and his companions.

            Both A and B therefore involve a movement in the direction of the OT base text.

            In general, I have not at any time understood why isolating possible difficulties moves a theory from pole position, least of all when no unifying alternative is being offered. What places any theory in pole position is the quantity of material – particularly puzzling material – that it deals with economically and in a unified manner. Any theory will perforce raise questions, but the way a theory is wrested from pole position is by means of another theory being propagated that deals more economically with the data esp the puzzling data. As ever I am extremely willing to debate the point and open to correction, most of all where new unseen angles can be raised.

        • It seems slightly presumptuous to characterise the theory (hypothesis?) as in pole position. If the characterisation is true, it is only because few others see the need for a theory and there is only one theory at the starting line anyway: one that sees ‘data’ that do not make sufficient sense as they stand and have to be ‘unified’ in order to make sense. Myself, I have never read John 20 thinking that the passage does not hang together as a historical account.

          You do not say which translations translate as ‘turban’. The more literal translations (KJV, ESV, NASB, NIV), which is as far as I have gone to check, do not. The dictionary (LSJ) renders ‘sudarium, towel, napkin’, the Latin word sudarium deriving from sweat. John mentions linen only in the word ‘othonion’, meaning (Strongs) ‘small linen cloth [i.e.] plural strips of linen cloth for swathing the dead’. The word does not occur in any other context in the NT, whereas there are three other words for fine linen. Mark speaks of a young man with a linen cloth (sindon) about his body who divests himself and runs off naked. Evidently he was not a high priest. The same word is used for the cloth or shroud that Joseph used to wrap Jesus’s whole body (Mark 15:46). It clearly wasn’t the head covering that John refers to, more like the Turin shroud, and one can only wonder why it does not feature in John’s account – a puzzle maybe related to your point 4.

          Regarding the cherubim, I don’t share your view that John was one who of his own accord manipulated/simplified the OT. He reports and describes what is revealed to him, what he sees and hears, just as in the gospel he reports what others saw and heard. The cherubim are part of the godhead. With the partial exception of ‘the angel of Yahweh’, angels are independent of the godhead. In the gospel, the beings are stated to be angels; in other gospels, they are described as ‘men’. That is because angels are often indistinguishable from men, except in usually wearing bright white robes. John is not manipulating or simplifying the details, and it is only your theory that would have them be cherubim.

          As far as I know, angels are nowhere described as wings. This comes from pagan and medieval iconography. The one partial exception is Rev 14:6, where an angel is described as ‘flying’ (wings understood). However, the parallel passage to which it alludes is Rev 8:13, where the one speaking is an eagle. Revelation is a weird book, and none of the visionary creatures should be understood as if they were real beings. In terms of objective reality, it is no more sensible to think of an eagle that talks than of an angel that flies Icarus-like with wings. If one wants to know what a horse, or a locust – or even Jesus Christ – looks like, one doesn’t go to Revelation.

          • Thanks for your response. ‘Pole position’ only in the sense of unifying most swiftly the most details, with special reference to the most puzzling details, of which there certainly are particular ones that stand out, and it needs to be explained why these are precisely the bits that the theory would unify (angels not man, 2 not 1, positioning of angels, why this should be thought necessary to mention at all; why be so very precise about the different articles of clothing and their positions, whether they were rolled, folded, etc; why ‘Don’t touch’; why can Thomas be asked to touch later; why Atonement / New Year is missing otherwise from the festivals in John, even though these are neatly spaced out and John likes orderly sections and is somewhat holistic).

            If John does not intend his account to be unified in this way, then his details do seem random at times, with less important things included and more important omitted; also he is a writer of discontinuities which would be better explained if he were a tickbox writer including scores of details one by one in obedience to a preconceived unified plan. It is a normal literary presupposition that writers, particularly great and careful writers, of which John is both, intend their writings to be very unified.

            My theory would not have the angels be cherubim. They would have them be in the place of cherubim, as the closest John could reasonably have gone in the direction of cherubim. BF Westcott, Tom Wright, Rowan Williams – among others – all I believe agree on this ‘ark of covenant’ point.

            On angels flying, our positions above precisely agree. Angels generally don’t fly. To John, however, they sometimes do. In addition to Rev 14.6 angel and his following angels, how do various other angels (chs 10, 18, 20 etc) get from heaven to earth? But that is not necessarily relevant to the present passage.

            The young man running away in Mark 14 gives out a strong Markan message ‘Watch, lest that day and hour come and you be found wanting’ with the extra equally Markan implication that the time in question may even be during the watches of the night, the time of sleeping: evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. The disciples have already been exemplars of failing this test: sleeping, fleeing, denying. The oracle Rev 16.15, which warns of a danger that becomes concrete in Mark’s young man, looks like a later addition to the text and it may arise from reflection on the death of Vitellius Dec 20 year 69 (V being the person I would identify as the false prophet and second beast already mentioned in Rev 16 – making this an appropriate context for the oracle) who was surprised in his hiding place in his bedclothes and hounded semi-naked through the streets. Certainly the ear-cut-off / servant-of-High-Priest theme comes from that same day and precise context (Vitellius’s demise). Dec 69 being immediate historical background for the publication of Rev c.early 70 and later of Mark c.71-2.

          • You are definitely right about ‘turban’ not being in translations, though an improvised head covering is often thought to be what is described, and this is important in connection with John’s ‘saw and believed’ – what convinced him may have been the fact that the clothes were rolled up and folded in their correct positions for being worn by or covering a human being who nevertheless was now absent.

          • I should say that it seems to me unlikely that the Ark cherubim resembled the Ezk [1,]10 cherubim at all closely, nor have I read writers who thought they did.

          • I’m afraid, Chris my friend, that I have to agree with Steven.

            I’ll separate my points into separate comments.

            First the two messengers [ and I note that Hebrew as with Greek uses a single world for both human and spiritual messengers]. Luke has two, so it is not a Johannine addition. So, is perhaps more required to explain why Matthew and Mark have only one (hypothesis: only one spoke, but Luke spoke to the women who had been there, and so had a more complete picture).

            Both Mark and Luke describe the messengers as ‘man’ or ‘men’, albeit in shining raiment. It seems clear from the OT that cherubim are not like men. If the figures seemed like men, it is very unlikely that they had wings. If we know anything about the appearance of cherubim it is that they have wings. I would also add in Ezekiel 10:14, where in the vision the strange creatures have four faces: a cherub (singular of cherubim, of course), a human being, a lion and an eagle. So, it seems likely that a cherub has a face which is as unlike a human face as is that of a lion or eagle.

            Then there is that it seems the role of the cherubim is rather different from that of the angels, as the names imply.

          • On the high priestly garments:

            Leviticus 16 has the HP donning four specific garments. While one might discount the undergarment, I would think that the sash is important.

            The LXX for Lev. 16:7 uses the word κίδαρις, which LSJ gives as ‘persian headdress’. I would think that if John was wanting to link the grave clothes to the high priest, he would have used the same word.

            Bible Hub gives 26 different English translations for John 20:7 ( None uses the word ‘turban’.

          • On ‘noli me tangere’:

            It is interesting that you chose to use Jerome’s Latin rather than the Greek here. The verb ἅπτω has a range of meanings, according to LSJ. Many of them are rather stronger that the English ‘touch’ would imply. For instance one use is in wrestling – as in a wrestling hold. It can have a sense of ‘grasp’, ‘fasten to’, or ‘cleave to’. They do have ‘touch’ but as ‘affect’ or ‘make an impression upon’. (It was interesting to discover this as the verb is often used of Jesus in his healings – it gives a somewhat different impression from him gently laying a finger on the sick person).

            Then I am puzzled by the relation to the High Priest. I’m not sure of the prohibition of touching him – where is that? However, if the grave clothes are to be understood as the high priestly garments, when Mary encounters the risen Jesus, he has cast these aside.

            I don’t understand your comment about Thomas. What changes between the meeting with Mary, and the meeting with Thomas just a week later when Jesus invites Thomas to touch him? The ascension was still to come.

          • Hi David, hope you and Joy and family are keeping well in lockdown.

            The cherubim in Ex and Ezk have joined wings so have at least that in common. I find no hint in Ex that they are such elaborate creatures as in Ezk.

            On gospel sequence you are assuming John’s posteriority. I have argued extensively that it is the 2nd gospel – another discussion from this one – and certainly Richard Bauckham agrees that it predates Luke. But the main point is that its posteriority would be no more than an unargued assumption anyway, when it would need to be based on something. The only way that ‘the Synoptics’ stand over against John is in content. Not in relative date necessarily. I could set my class a task of writing another Synoptic gospel tomorrow, One can write a Synoptic gospel at any date, before or after John.

            Further, your theory might struggle to find any significance in ‘one at the head and the other at the feet’. Or indeed in the association of this with other atonement and high-priestly themes, which would then have to congregate here by chance, so many of them, despite their failing to do so in other passages and despite the fact that one would have expected John with his sequence of festivals to place Atonement somewhere, preferably somewhere well spaced in relation to the other festivals. Or in the fact that John ends his other narrative ‘The tabernacle of God is with men’.

            I suppose I would call my approach ‘comprehensive criticism’ – trying to see as many angles simultaneously as possible, since only that approach will be maximally true to real life which does indeed have an inordinate number of simultaneous angles. There is probably something comparable in physics – I don’t know.
            Think of it that what I am writing is the synthesis which introduces a commentary not the piecemeal and potentially unconnected verse-by-verse comments which can potentially fail to see the wood for the trees. I don’t believe John, a careful and holistic writer, would have set out to write a disconnected gospel with puzzling unconnected details. In fact few writers would set out to do that. It is precisely the most puzzling (number of angels, position of angels, details about clothing, prohibition on touch, its later reversal, connection of all this with a wider forgiveness theme) that get connected by a single Atonement theory, and that sort of unification is what GUT questers are looking for.

          • It is arguable that the Day of Atonement is not just after the new year. Leviticus 16:29-30:

            ‘This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: on the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work – whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you – because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.

            Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the civil year. That the Resurrection occurs at the time of Passover – the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, the time of the rescue from Egypt, and the new beginning that represents, seems much more significant.

            (Then there is the emphasis on ‘the first day of the week’ – the first day of a new creation).

          • Hi David

            On your points:

            (1) Some of the points were already made by me above:
            -Total of 4 garments -31.3.21 (14.04);
            -Turban not in fact in translations, though in history of interpretation, interpretation of Oviedo cloth etc. – 1.4.21 (17.20).

            (2) John works with the ingredients he has. Mention of actual high-priestly robes would invite befuddlement and charges of non sequitur. He has the existing robes play the roles of high-priestly robes obediently ritually discarded – see Lev. 16.23. What one would search for in an alternative theory would be an explanation for why John does what he does with the garments in the account.
            This point also explains why there is not a total of 4 garments: there has to be continuity with the graveclothes. The two chosen are the two most visible and noticeable; the two that correspond to graveclothes; and the two that give the impression that a human had been lying there.
            And, further, it also explains why no expensive ‘kidaris’ – that would bring discontinuity. The headcloth can play that role.

            (3) I am not emphasising the Latin above any other language but using the traditional title for the scene where Mary Magdalene tries to touch Jesus. It is often traditionally called the ‘noli me tangere’.

            (4) High Priest not to be touched: Lev 16.17 separate yourselves from Aaron, 16.28 general need for ritual cleansing in Atonement ritual before returning to human society.

            (5) Your putting the Johannine ascension after the Thomas episode means it then becomes difficult to explain why Jesus is first out of bounds and then able to be touched. What seems to remove one problem creates another.

            (6) On the dating of Atonement at the end of New Year – you rely on the biblical text whereas we should be looking at how John understood it – for at his time, and earlier, and ever since, Atonement has been the climax of the New Year period. In his Revelation structure, the trumpets are immediately followed, appropriately at the end of the section, by the opening of the heavenly temple and revelation of the Ark 11.19.

            (7) The reason Mark Stibbe fastened onto the idea of Atonement here – and the reason I had found it convincing in the mid to late 1990s – was that we had each been heavily immersed in Johannine ways of thinking, and had come to see John as the sort of author who would want a ‘set’ of festivals, and would not be averse to tricksy ways of signalling them.

            (8) The 7 rites Passover – Pentecost (scroll/seals) – Trumpets – Tabernacles – Enkainia – Funeral – Wedding comprise the chief structure of Revelation, and in the logical order (there is a nod to Purim at 11.10 in the centrepiece). John takes these same 7 over for his gospel but the Creation-Day-related I AMs dictate his new ordering of them. So now we have: wedding (Vine/wine) – Pentecost (on mountain: Sinai festival 4.21; reference to Spirit 4.13-14,23-24; a present harvest 4 months ‘distant’ from subsequent harvest festival is the distance between Pentecost and Tabernacles 4.35; chs 3.22-5.9 are full of above/below ideas) – Passover (bread) – Tabernacles (light) – Enkainia (Renewal/Resurrection/Life) – Funeral (Shepherd who Abel-like lays down his life) – Atonement where tabernacle of God is with men (Door / Access). The other Passovers are important to John in providing the all-important overall count of Jesus’s ministry. (The signs mirror the works of creation; the I AMs differ from the signs to the extent that they have been predetermined by the list of feasts/rites; and the feasts/rites are reordered to provide the most appropriate matches for the I AMs.)

          • I’m grateful for some support. I’ll just add two more comments.

            ‘Do not touch me’. The fact that it was permitted for Thomas to touch a week later suggests that Jesus ascended to his father later that first day – support for this at Eph 4:8, referring to Matt 27:52. We cannot suppose that those raised with Jesus were left in a waiting room for 40 days. It was necessary that he should not have contact with mortal flesh until he had rejoined his father, though for reasons I don’t understand this ceased to matter after that first day. The Ascension of Acts 1 would mark Jesus’s permanent ascension to the Father.

            If we were meant to think of the Atonement in John 20, I think we might have expected John to describe the tearing of the temple curtain. It is, however, one of the ‘data’ that he omits to mention it.

          • As mentioned above, I agree with you about the timing of the Johannine ascension.

            It is not Atonement itself but the Atonement Day rite that John is referencing.

            The temple veil would belong to a different chapter and section (the Cross, ch19). But the relevant festival there is Funeral not Atonement. John is highly independent of Mark though knows Mark.

            My main challenge though: this passage has a concentration of motifs that can be fairly easily connected in a non-explicit way to the theme of Atonement Day. By your theory this is by chance. In which case other passages can be found which have a similar concentration of this very precise type of motif. Which other passages are these?

            And my second challenge: to show that John is the sort of writer who does not mind whether he has a full set of feasts or not; and also does not mind whether he makes up a seven or not.

  3. Thanks, Ian, for the guidance and pointing to key elements. A good guide captures interest and increases knowledge. Have a blessed Easter.

  4. No discussion yet about St Mark’s “young man dressed in white” instead of an angel, or two? Leon Morris is good on this in “who moved the tomb”? Or has good scholarship moved on from his suggestion that this could have been Mark himself (an angel of course, in the essential meaning of angelos: “messenger”?)

    • Angels are not necessarily distinguishable in appearance from men, just as the risen Jesus was not – hence Acts 1:10. How otherwise would it be possible to entertain angels unawares (Heb 13:2)?

  5. Marks young man in white is a strange one, but seems linked to his young man who runs away. The young man was wearing a sindon which seems to be a cloth linked to burial, and is what Jesus is wrapped in once dead.
    The white garment in the tomb is now a stole, which is a much finer garment, an upgrade, and the young man is assuredly sitting on the right, in a place of privilege and power.

    Given the crucial message he delivers to the women, I read him as an angelic figure and also representative of or even indicative of Jesus. I am still puzzled why the young man earlier appears in a funeral cloth and when grabbed runs away, as Jesus most obviously could not and did not run away, but maybe we should not tidy up all aspects of this story. I suspect we can get more wrong by being too tidy, than we do from leaving some gaps, but gaps also invite speculation – if only we had been in charge of writing the gospel accounts! And what a responsibility to have to think it through rather than be fed the answers – almost like we are being treated as adults!

    • Hi

      What evidence do you have the ‘young man’s ‘ garment was linked to burial? I understood it to be made from a single piece of cloth which, in a forceful struggle, could be removed relatively easily, unlike our typical clothing of today.



      • suggested by my lexicon, though a fuller check suggests it is in essence a single piece of cloth but it is the word for a burial shroud, the cloth that a body would be wrapped in. Others may find better meaning in their searches?

    • Maybe the key is Rev 16.15. The first young man in white fails to ‘keep’ his garment, he loses it. The second however retains or receives it (so belonging to the number of those dressed in heavenly white robes), and it is of superior quality. Exemplars respectively of the disciple who fails and the disciple who succeeds in keeping the injunction to ‘watch [and pray]’. This second disciple delivers a spoken message for the disciples in general.

  6. Thanks Ian – a very helpful examination of John 20 and the characters there.
    Can I follow up on something you mention in your last paragraph? There you describe the trilogy of evidence, Scripture, and encounter as necessary for faith to fully dawn.
    Apart from v.9 which says that “as yet they [Peter and the other disciple?] did not understand the scripture” there is no mention of scripture in this chapter, I think. And yet the encounters which Mary, the disciples, and Thomas have with the risen Jesus appear to bring them to faith.
    You mention Jesus’ opening of the scriptures on the road to Emmaus in Luke, but that was to different people.
    So I feel I’ve missed the point you’re making about the essential part scripture plays in John 20. Can you help?!

  7. ‘note that the disciples, including Mary, are not witnesses to the resurrection, but to the empty tomb and the raised Jesus.’

    Indeed. This is something that sometimes atheists raise – oh the disciples didnt actually see Jesus being resurrected so how can you believe what they say? But per ‘All the President’s Men’, if you go to bed at night and there’s no snow on the ground, and when you wake up and there’s snow on the ground, you can conclude it snowed overnight even if you didnt witness it.


  8. Any implication that the soudarion is more a handkerchief or towel than a head-covering in John’s conception is wrong because of 20.7 ‘which had been on his head’. John is indicating a head-garment.


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