All four gospels agree in their emphasis upon the event taking place on the first day of the week and that the women were the first to learn of the empty tomb. All give prominence to "Mary" and attention to the rolling away of the stone that had closed the tomb. There are variations concerning the time at which the women visited the tomb, the number and identity of the women, the purpose of their visit, the nature and appearance of the messenger(s), whether angelic or human, their message to the women and the response of the women to the visitor in the tomb.
The account of John 19:39-42 tells of the intervention of influential followers of Jesus, such as Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night, and Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel of Luke's account says Joseph was "a good and upright man", a member of the Jewish high Council who had not consented to their decision and action to crucify Jesus. Nicodemus brought about seventy-five pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. They laid his body in a new tomb, cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.[Lk. 23:50-53] The account is marked by a sense of urgency in doing this before the Sabbath during which rest would be observed and no work could occur.
According to the Gospel of Matthew 27:62-66, the Jews, knowing of Jesus' having predicted his resurrection, had placed a Jewish guard to guard the tomb of Jesus.
First thing in the morning, the women come to the tomb with their spices, fully expecting to find Jesus' remains. All the accounts agree that it was early morning. Matthew 28:1 and Mark 16:2 refer to the dawn or early morning, while John 20:1 notes that it was still dark when they started their journey.
The four canonical gospels all agree that "Mary" visited Jesus' tomb, though they differ on which Mary and whether she was on her own. The gospel according to Luke relates that the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph of Arimathea and "saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment."[Lk. 23:55-56] Luke names them as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and "the others with them".
According to most ancient versions of the gospel of John (and most modern translations) Mary was Mary Magdalene, though the Codex Sinaiticus' version only calls her Mary. No other woman is mentioned explicitly, though when Mary says that she doesn't know where Jesus' body is, she uses the plural, which may indicate that there were other women with her.
In the Gospel of Mark both Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James are mentioned, joined by Salome.
In Matthew, Mary Magdalene is with another Mary, presumably the mother of James.
When they return from the cemetery on Passover morning to tell the eleven remaining apostles and those with them, they brought with them word of an empty tomb and the report that "He is not here but has risen!" The apostles were dismissive. Some have suggested a lack of enthusiasm because the messengers were women in a world that did not grant credibility to a woman's witness. Josephus (Ant. iv.:8:15) writes that Jewish tradition stated: "From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex."
The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Academic) has the following analysis of the account in Luke:
These women did not go believing in resurrection. They did not go to check and see if the tomb was empty. The fact that they took spices along to anoint the decaying body shows what they expected to find, and this despite six resurrection predictions in Luke. So the first people who had to be convinced of the resurrection were the disciples themselves. They may have belonged to the era of the ancients, but they did not think as a matter of course that resurrection would occur. In a real sense they were the first skeptics to become convinced that Jesus was raised!
Theologian Thomas G. Long has offered two other possibilities besides their gender:Perhaps the news of the empty tomb, the resurrection, of Jesus' victory over death was simply too overwhelming for them to believe, too difficult to assimilate all at once.
Perhaps any anticipation of the resulting challenge was too great at the moment. Luke's account shifts from calling them "the Eleven" to "the Apostles" ("those who are sent.") Long writes they knew that they would be sent to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. There would be arrests and shipwrecks, outpourings of the Spirit, persecutions and Gentiles, stonings and miles of weary travel. If the women were right—that Jesus was risen from the dead, then the story was just beginning for the Apostles.
According to John the visit was on the first day of the week (Sunday, the day after Shabbat, the end of the Jewish week), while it was still dark. According to Mark and Luke it was light. Alfred Loisy believed that the original form of John here was similar to that recounted in the Codex Sinaiticus, and was intended to point to Mary, Jesus' mother as the sole visitor, while later copyists substituted Mary Magdalene so that the gospel according to John matched accounts given in the other gospels more closely. An attempt at resolving the discrepancy in order to preserve the idea of infallibility describes Mary as making two different trips to the tomb, the first being in the dark on her own and the second at dawn with a group of women, including the other Mary.
Mark and Luke explain that the women were intending to continue the Jewish burial rituals. Matthew merely says that they came just to look at the tomb. John makes no mention of ritual and the apocryphal, heterodox Gospel of Peter claims that Mary Magdalene came to mourn. Rabbi Bar Kappara was of the opinion (recorded in the Midrash Rabbah) that the third day was often the prime point for mourning in those days.
Resolving the accounts is a matter tied to the synoptic problem. The prevailing theory of Markan priority would suggest that the original story had a mysterious man in white in the tomb. In Matthew he becomes an angel and in Luke, written for a non-Jewish audience, he becomes two angel-like men. In John's gospel, this part of the account is omitted.
Raymond Brown has argued that the text for John 20 was combined from two separate sources that John inexpertly interlaced together.
Scholars L. Michael White and Helmut Koester see the account of the guards in Matthew as an apologetic insertion, an attempt by the writer to explain the Jewish claims that the disciples stole the body which were circulating at the time. The guards and the stolen body claims are not mentioned in the other three gospels. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, on the other hand, is more detailed, specifying "Petronius the centurion with soldiers to guard the tomb".
In John's gospel, the angels are described as sitting where Jesus' body had been, thought to be a reference to squatting or sitting cross legged, suggesting that the tomb possessed a raised shelf or ledge, on which the body had been placed. F.F. Bruce argues that the angels, as supernatural beings, were sitting on thin air. John also describes the angels as sitting so that one was where Jesus' head had been, and one where his feet had been, and some scholars think that this clear distinction between head and foot is an indication that the tomb had a built-in headrest, though others believe the writer is just referring to the direction in which Jesus had been placed.
John portrays Mary as stooping to view the tomb. According to modern archaeology, tombs of the era were accessed via doors at ground level which were generally less than a metre tall, fitting the description given to Mary's viewing. These tombs either had a lone chamber for a single individual, or a passage lined with entrances to a number of tombs. Mary is able to see into Jesus' tomb from the outside suggesting the former type. This is considered a traditional view.
According to both Luke and John, the disciples see grave clothes in the tomb. Luke states that strips of linen were "lying alone", or "laid by themselves", per the Greek, keimena mona, although the NRSV translation uses the phrase—"by themselves"—instead of "alone", and omits the word, "lying". John states that they were "lying", or, per the NRSV, "lying there". These two descriptions may or may not imply the same thing. Brown has argued that John is using a phrase that actually describes the linen as lying on a shelf within the tomb. According to Luke, Jesus had been wrapped in a shroud, and this became the traditional view. What became of the grave clothes after the disciples have seen them is not described in the Bible, though some works of the New Testament apocrypha do make mention of it. A Roman Catholic tradition describes the shroud as being taken to Turin, becoming the Turin Shroud.
John additionally describes the presence of a soudarion, for the head, that was set apart. A soudarion is literally a sweat rag; more specifically it was a piece of cloth used to wipe away sweat, but in the context of dead bodies, most scholars believe it was used to keep the jaw closed. Tradition holds that the Sudarion was a turban, and that it later found its way to Oviedo in Spain, becoming the Sudarium of Oviedo. Although it may initially seem insignificant, the fact that the item for the head was set apart fundamentally affects Christology. If the head cloth remained in the same location as the remainder of the clothes, and if these remained where the body had been, it implies that Jesus' body was lifted through the clothing, or that Jesus' body de-materialised and re-materialised elsewhere, hence supporting more docetic interpretations. Conversely, it being set apart implies the opposite—that someone took the clothes off in an ordinary manner. Furthermore, the Greek text uses the word entetuligmenon, translated "having been folded up", seeming to imply some intentional action had been taken on the soudarion. Some see this as a direct attack by the author of John on docetism, and the gnosticism that used the synoptic accounts to advocate it.
In more recent times, the possibility that Jesus passed through cloth and dematerialized has frequently been regarded as evidence of divine action by God. This interpretation, however, was not one that existed in the early church, which viewed such interpretations as docetism. Those advocating a more supernatural account have argued that the fact that the soudarion (a head cloth for the dead) and the other grave clothes were set apart merely reflects the distance of the neck as it is situated between the head and the body, or that it simply means that the cloth was curled in a ball rather than lying flat, i.e., that it was lying in a different manner to the others.
The level of detail that the author of the Gospel According to John adds to this section is to former Bishop of Durham Brooke Foss Westcott evidence that the author was an eyewitness. C. H. Dodd argues that, having already reached the narrative climax with the crucifixion scene, these later sections deliberately slow down the narrative to act as dénouement. Schnackenburg interprets the level of detail as apologetic in origin, though he does regard the details concerning the placement of the grave clothes to be an attempt to disprove the allegation that Jesus' tomb had simply been robbed, rather than as an attempt to assert a Christology.
Although the church proclaims the resurrection confidently today, the original witnesses had to be convinced that it had occurred. Resurrection had been promised by Scripture and by Jesus. However, only slowly, grudgingly and methodically did the disciples come to see that it had come to pass.According to Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome find that the tomb has been opened.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.According to Matthew, an angel in shining garments is seen by Mary and Mary opening the tomb, and the angel tells them not to be afraid since Jesus is risen from the dead:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you.
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."According to Luke, the women discover the tomb has been opened, and two men in shining garments come up to them and tell them not to be afraid since Jesus is risen.
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words.The gospel of John contains the most complete narrative including the appearance of Jesus:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.By comparison, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter describes two men carrying a third out of the tomb, with a cross following them and speaking:
And in the night in which the Lord's day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.
When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders, for they too were close by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, You have preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yes.
One well-known defender of central Christian doctrines, William Lane Craig, analyzes sources, summarizes his conclusions and defends the historicity of the testimony of Paul and the gospels concerning the empty tomb of Jesus from a perspective of apologetics as follows:
- Paul's testimony implies the historicity of the empty tomb. Had the tomb not been empty, then Christian theology would have taken an entirely different route than it did, trying to explain how resurrection could still be possible, though the body remained in the grave. But neither Christian theology nor apologetics ever had to face such a problem.
- The presence of the empty tomb pericope in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historicity. Geographical references, personal names, and the use of Galilee as a horizon all point to Jerusalem as the fount of the pre-Markan passion story.
- The use of 'the first day of the week' instead of 'on the third day' points to the primitiveness of the tradition. The proximity of the tradition to the events themselves makes it idle to regard the empty tomb as a legend. It makes it highly probable that on the first day of the week the tomb was indeed found empty.
- The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic. Very often contemporary theologians urge that the empty tomb is not a historical proof for the resurrection because for the disciples it was in itself ambiguous and not a proof. But that is precisely why the empty tomb story is today so credible: because it was not an apologetic device of early Christians.
- The discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable. Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation, in light of the gospels' conviction that the disciples were in Jerusalem over the weekend, why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery. (This line of argument and others is disputed by Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.)
- The investigation of the empty tomb by the disciples is historically probable. Behind the fourth gospel stands the Beloved Disciple, whose reminiscences fill out the traditions employed. The visit of the disciples to the empty tomb is therefore attested not only in tradition but by this disciple.
- It would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty. The empty tomb is a sine qua non of the resurrection. The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus' resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city where he was executed and buried seems to be compelling evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.
- The Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. The fact that the Jewish polemic never denied that Jesus' tomb was empty, but only tried to explain it away is compelling evidence that the tomb was in fact empty.
For many people of antiquity, empty tombs were seen as signs not of resurrection but of assumption, that is, the person being taken bodily into the divine realm. In Chariton’s ancient Greek novel Callirhoe, Chaereas finds his wife’s tomb empty and "All kinds of explanations were offered by the crowd, Chaereas, looking up to heaven and stretching up his hands said 'Which of the gods has become my rival and carried off Callirhoe and now has her instead of me, against her will but constrained by a better fate?'" In Ancient Greek thinking, the connection between postmortem disappearance and apotheosis was strong and there are numerous examples of individuals conspiring, before their deaths, to have their remains hidden in order to promote their postmortem venerations. Arrian wrote of Alexander the Great planning his own bodily disappearance so that he would be revered as a god. Disappearances of individuals to be taken in the divine realm also occur in Jewish literature, although they do not involve an empty tomb. Daniel Smith has recently proposed that the empty tomb stories in the gospels reflect traditions about Jesus' absence or assumption, in contrast to the resurrection appearance stories which were about Jesus' presence. He concludes that the gospel writers took the two traditions and weaved them together.