Sunday, February 13, 2011 Login

The Empty Tomb (5): Gospel of John

Let’s move on to the Gospel According to John, the last of all four of the canonical gospels to be written. John seems to pull, in various ways, themes from all three of the other gospels:


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.


Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John’s narrative is so different from Mark’s that I have opted to simply color all of John in red. John decides to focus only on Mary Magdalene, the other women just being superfluous, although later he has Mary say to the disciples “we do not know where they have laid them.” This time, however, Mary does not come to the tomb to anoint Jesus, since John had already claimed earlier that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (a character unique to John) have already taken care of that. “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:39-40Open Link in New Window). Once again, the stone has already been rolled away, but this time there is nobody there to explain to Mary what has happened, so she runs back to tell Peter and the “one whom Jesus loved (another character unique to John). Taking a cue from Luke, Peter and the other disciple run off to the tomb to check it out for themselves and find nothing except the linen wrappings. However, John has switched a detail from Luke. Whereas in Luke it is the women who first believe and the disciples who doubt, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them,” in John it is Mary who doubts “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” and the disciples who believe first, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.”

Mary Magdalene, still doubting, remains in the tomb when two angels in white appear to her but for the sole purpose of asking her why she is crying. They exit the scene and now suddenly Jesus has appeared in the tomb, only she does not recognize him, “supposing him to be the gardener.” One gets the sense that the author of John is taking bits from Luke and Matthew and then mashing them together. In Luke, the angels appear to Mary during her first and only visit to the tomb, so now John brings her back to the tomb so that they can appear to her. Unlike Luke, however, they do not give her any orders, instead merely asking her why she is crying. Switching over to Matthew now, John has Jesus appear to Mary, repeat the angels question, and finally ask her to relay his message to his disciples. Only this time the message is different. In Matthew Jesus orders the disciples to meet him in Galilee, whereas in John Jesus tells Mary that he is going to ascend to the Father soon.

Mark and Matthew write that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee, where the disciples must meet him. Luke writes that they must not leave Jerusalem. In John there is no insistence that he is either staying or leaving but going straight to heaven: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17Open Link in New Window). John then takes Luke’s story of Jesus appearing before them in a house in Jerusalem, where it was not clear whether he was a ghost or a flesh and blood body, and splits it into two episodes: John 20:19-23Open Link in New Window and John 20:24-29Open Link in New Window. In the first episode, the disciples have locked themselves into the house because they are afraid of the Jews, but Jesus somehow gets inside anyway (did he walk through the door?). Here he repeats a line from Luke, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and sides and they all believe. John then writes, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” This is inconsistent with Luke, who writes that the Holy Spirit came upon them 50 days after the Passion during Pentecost. In John, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday.

In the second episode, John introduces the “doubting Thomas,” who was not present in the previous episode. When the other disciples explain what had happened, he doesn’t believe them, and seeks proof. This is clearly a fiction introduced by John for the purpose of teaching a lesson: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’” (John 20:29Open Link in New Window). John, writing his gospel much later than the others, wants to convince his readers (who of course did not see the risen Jesus) that it is even nobler to believe without seeing the risen Jesus for themselves! “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name,” as the author concludes the chapter.

John is a late composition, and his empty tomb and resurrection stories are nothing more than a re-write of all three earlier gospels, along with, of course, John’s own unique perspective. Although typically the favorite gospel among believers, this is secondary literature at best, and historically spurious. All of the resurrection appearance stories, including those later attached to the end of Mark, are nothing more than attempts to improve Mark’s ending by contradicting it. Even the details of Mark’s empty tomb story are not so important as to be open to revision and outright change by later writers. If they knew that they were dealing with a strictly historical narrative in Mark, it is absurd that they would freely alter it as they did. Not only does the basic historicity of the empty tomb story not pass close scrutiny, I would say that it doesn’t pass even casual scrutiny.

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm


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