Sunday, February 13, 2011 Login

The Empty Tomb (4): Gospel of Luke

Continuing now with Luke’s version of the empty tomb story, as compared to Mark:


When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed 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, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I have colored Mark’s words in blue, and that which is unique to Luke in orange. Just as with Matthew, it is quite clear that Luke significantly changed some of Mark’s details while adding some of his own, but in ways that are also different from Matthew’s changes. This cannot be emphasized enough. The authors of Matthew and Luke (I refer to the authors by these names for convenience) wrote their gospels independent of one another, which means that they were not aware of the other person’s work. To learn more about why this is so, see my entry on the synoptic problem. Both authors, however, used Mark’s gospel as a guide, and when they do deviate from or change Mark’s details, they almost always do so in different ways. This tells us that each author, rather than striving to accurately and faithfully record actual historical facts, are instead working based on some internal theological understanding for which the details can be readily changed to more accurately convey their theological opinions. In the previous entry, for example, I demonstrated how Matthew altered some of the details in Mark’s story to better fit a different resurrection theology. Let’s see what Luke has done.

Unlike Matthew, who invented the presence of guards stationed outside the tomb to counter accusations that Jesus’s disciples could have stolen the body, Luke keeps the detail from Mark about the women visiting the tomb for the purpose of anointing Jesus’s body with oil and spices. In Luke, just as in Mark, there are no guards, so the women would not have perceived any issues with trying to approach the body. Luke adds an additional woman, named Joanna, and doesn’t mention the mysterious Salome, instead probably including her among the “other women.” Like Matthew, he probably had no idea who Salome was.

Whereas Matthew altered Mark’s account so that the tomb is still sealed when the women arrive (and thereby setting up his dramatic reveal of the empty tomb by the angel), Luke follows Mark by having the stone already rolled away from the tomb. Luke also gets rid of Mark’s mysterious “young man” and instead replaces him with something more fantastic – not one, by two men and not dressed in a plain old “white robe” but in “dazzling clothes” and speaking as one voice! It is likely that Luke meant for these two men to be angels, because he has the women bow their faces to the ground upon seeing them, perhaps taking a cue from Daniel 10:15Open Link in New Window in which Daniel turns his face towards the ground upon seeing an angel. “While he was speaking these words to me, I turned my face towards the ground and was speechless.”

Of course, Luke also does away with Mark’s unsatisfactory ending, and has the women leave the tomb, not in terror to never speak about this again, but in order to immediately go out and tell what has happened to the eleven disciples and all the rest! Whereas Matthew added a sudden appearance of Jesus to the women upon leaving the tomb to have him personally repeat the angel’s orders, Luke reports that the disciples didn’t believe them. He even has Peter go out to the tomb to check it out for himself, and, not finding a corpse or any angels, returns “amazed” by what he saw. We should not be surprised that Luke’s extension of Mark’s story is not the same as Matthew’s – they are both spurious. However, Luke’s most dramatic change is the way that he completely re-writes the “angel’s” message from what the young man says in Mark. Rather than “he is going ahead of you to Galilee,” in Luke the angels say, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Whereas Matthew followed Mark’s cue and presented the post-resurrection appearances in Galilee that Mark only hints at, Luke has something entirely different on his mind. Instead, he plans on restricting the resurrection appearances to Jerusalem so that he can prepare his readers for the story of Pentecost in the book of Acts (widely believed to have been written by Luke as well). Therefore, he cannot have the angels tell the women to go to Galilee (some 80 or 90 miles north), so he leaves “Galilee” in the speech but changes the meaning of it completely.

Luke follows this by presenting only resurrection appearances in the vicinity of Jerusalem. The first occurs to a few disciples on the road to Emmaus (seven miles from Jerusalem), where Jesus suddenly appears and then disappears before their eyes. At first, they do not recognize him, but when they do he vanishes. Later, they return to Jerusalem to join the rest of the disciples and Jesus suddenly reappears among them once again, saying “Peace be with you.” The disciples, quite understandably, think that Jesus is some sort of ghost or phantasm, so to prove that he is flesh and bones Jesus eats with them. (Luke 24:36-43Open Link in New Window). So is Jesus substantial or not? Obviously, this is left ambiguous. Jesus appears and disappears at will, but then also eats solid food. Luke then invents a new saying for Jesus to justify having them remain in Jerusalem: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49Open Link in New Window). Lo and behold, after Jesus ascends into heaven the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” and later, in the first chapter of Acts, we learn about the risen Jesus “appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:3-4Open Link in New Window). The disciples, for Luke, could not have met Jesus in Galilee, so he changed the meaning of the young man’s speech in Mark, invented a new saying for Jesus to keep them in Jerusalem, and then created appearances there to set up his story of Pentecost. Since Mark originally did not describe any post-resurrection appearances, the change was quite small in his mind. He simply had no idea that another writer would contradict him on this point, and, eventually, that their two gospels would be placed together in a canon of scripture.

Go to Part 5

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm


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