Empty Tomb

The empty tomb is the Christian tradition which tells that the women coming to the tomb of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion found it empty. The story is found in all four canonical gospels, but beyond this basic outline they agree on little. However, the whole death, burial, and resurrection narrative predates the gospels and Paul’s letters via oral traditions. The gospel authors’ usage of standard literary, historical, and biographical compositional practices of their day along with their use of multiple sources account for much of the differences, which were usually over peripheral details.

In the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, considered to be the oldest of all canonical gospels, the women who discover the tomb flee, telling no one, after meeting a young man who he tells them that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee; Matthew introduces guards and a curious doublet whereby the women are told twice, by angels and then by Jesus, that he will meet the disciples in Galilee; Luke changes Mark’s one “young man” to two, adds Peter’s inspection of the tomb, and deletes the promise that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee; John reduces the women to the solitary Mary Magdalene and introduces the “beloved disciple”, who visits the tomb with Peter, and is the first to understand its significance. According to some biblical scholars, the original account of the empty tomb in Mark contained no mention of an angel, the resurrection of Jesus, or his appearances in Galilee, describing instead the women’s coming to the tomb, finding the tomb empty, and fleeing from the tomb in terror and silence.

Graphic Empty Tomb Easter Holy Week Tomb Jesus

Empty Tomb

Gospel accounts

Main article: Historicity and origin of the resurrection of Jesus
Further information: Life of Jesus in the New Testament and Post-resurrection appearances of Jesus


Although the four canonical gospels detail the narrative, oral traditions existed well before the composition of the gospels on the matter. The four gospels were almost certainly not by eyewitnesses, at least in their final forms, but were instead the end-products of long oral and written transmission. Three of the four (Mark, Luke, and Matthew) are called the synoptics (meaning “seeing together”), because they present very similar stories, and it is generally agreed that this is because two of them, Matthew and Luke, have used Mark as their source. The earliest of them, Mark, dates probably from around AD 65–70, some forty years after the death of Jesus, while Matthew and Luke date from around AD 85–90. John, the last gospel to be completed, began circulating between 90 and 110, and its narrative of the empty tomb is not merely a different form of the story told in the synoptics, but after John 20:2 differs to such an extent that it cannot be harmonised with the earlier three.

The synoptics

Mark 16:1–8 tells of the women fleeing from the empty tomb and telling no one what they have seen, and the general scholarly view is that this was the original ending of this gospel, with the remaining verses, Mark 16:9–16, being added later. The imagery of a young man in a white robe, and the reaction of the women, indicate that this is an encounter with an angel. It probably represents a complete unit of oral tradition taken over by the author. The empty tomb fills the women with fear and alarm, not with faith in the risen Lord, although the mention of a meeting in Galilee is evidence of some sort of previous, pre-Markan, tradition linking Galilee and the resurrection.

Matthew revises Mark’s account to make it more convincing and coherent. The description of the angel is taken from Daniel’s angel with a face “like the appearance of lightning” (Daniel 10:6) and his God with “raiment white as snow” (Daniel 10:7–9), and Daniel also provides the reaction of the guards (Daniel 10:7–9). The introduction of the guard is apparently aimed at countering stories that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his disciples, thus eliminating any explanation of the empty tomb other than that offered by the angel, that he has been raised. Matthew introduces a curious doublet whereby the women are told twice, by the angels and then by Jesus, that he will meet the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:7–10)—the reasons for this are unknown.

Luke changes Mark’s one “young man” to two, makes reference to earlier passion predictions (Luke 24:7), and adds Peter’s inspection of the tomb. He also deletes the promise that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples to meet him there, but in Luke the post-resurrection appearances are only in Jerusalem. Mark and Luke tell the reader that the women visited the tomb in order to finish anointing the body of Jesus, but this explanation seems artificial given that it could have been done on the evening of the crucifixion rather than 36 hours later; in Matthew the women came simply to see the tomb, and in John no reason is given. John reduces the women to the solitary Mary Magdalene. The story ends with Peter (alone, not with the “beloved disciple” as in John) visiting the tomb and seeing the burial cloths, but instead of believing in the resurrection he remains perplexed.

The following table, with translations from the New International Version, allows the three versions to be compared. (Luke 24:12, in which Peter goes to the tomb, may be an addition to the original gospel taken from John’s version of the narrative).

Mark 16:1-8 Matthew 28:1-10 Luke 24:1-12
The women at the tomb Mark 16:1–4
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.
Matthew 28:1–4
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.
Luke 24:1–2
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,
The angelic message Mark 16:5–7
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.’”
Matthew 28:5–7
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.”
Luke 24:3–7
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 over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
Informing the disciples Mark 16:8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Matthew 28:8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Luke 24:9–11When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
The message from Jesus Matthew 28:9-10Suddenly 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.”
Disciples at the tomb Luke 24:12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.


John’s chapter 20 can be divided into three scenes: (1) the discovery of the empty tomb, verses 1–10; (2) appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, 11–18; and (3) appearances to the disciples, especially Thomas, verses 19–29; the last is not part of the “empty tomb” episode and is not included in the following table. He introduces the “beloved disciple”, who visits the tomb with Peter and understands its significance before Peter. The author seems to have combined three traditions, one involving a visit to the tomb by several women early in the morning (of which the “we” in “we do not know where they have taken him” is a fragmentary remnant), a second involving a visit to the empty tomb by Peter and perhaps by other male disciples, and a third involving an appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. John has reduced this to the solitary Mary Magdalene in order to introduce the conversation between her and Jesus, but the presence of “we” when she informs the disciples may be a remnant of the original group of women, since mourning and the preparation of bodies by anointing were social rather than solitary activities.

John 20:1-10
Discovery of the empty tomb
John 20:11-18
Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene at the tomb John 20:1
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.
John 20:11Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb
The angelic message John 20:12-13and 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.”
Informing the disciples John 20:2So 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!”
Disciples at the tomb John 20:3-10So 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 came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, 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 where they were staying.
The message from Jesus John 20:14-18At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Non-canonical literature

In the Gospel of Peter, an ancient apocryphal work, the story of Mary Magdelene finding the empty tomb of Jesus is retold.


Cultural and religious context

Although Jews, Greeks, and Romans all believed in the afterlife, they differed in their respective conceptions and interpretations of it. Christians certainly knew of numerous resurrection events allegedly experienced by persons other than Jesus: the early 3rd-century Christian theologian Origen, for example, did not deny the resurrection of the 7th-century BCE semi-legendary Greek poet Aristeas or the immortality of the 2nd-century CE Greek youth Antinous, the beloved of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but said the first had been the work of demons, not God, while the second, unlike Jesus, was unworthy of worship. Christians based their beliefs in the afterlife specifically on the Jewish concept of bodily resurrection to form their understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, rather than on the myths of Greeks and Romans.

Composition and classification

Entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment. - an image from the Pericopes of Henry II

“Entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment” – an image from the Pericopes of Henry II.

The composition and classification of the empty tomb story have been the subject of considerable debate. Several scholars have argued that the empty tomb story in Mark is similar to ‘assumption’ or ‘translation’ stories, in which certain special individuals are described as being transported into the divine realm before or after their death. Adela Yarbro Collins, for example, explains the Markan narrative as a Markan deduction from an early Christian belief in the resurrection. She classifies it as a translation story, meaning a story of the removal of a newly-immortal hero to a non-Earthly realm. According to Daniel Smith, a missing body was far more likely to be interpreted as an instance of removal by a divine agent than as an instance of resurrection or resuscitation. However, Smith also notes that certain elements within Mark’s empty tomb story are inconsistent with an assumption narrative, most importantly the response to the women from the young man at the tomb: (“He is risen” Mark 16:6). Pointing to the existence in earlier Jewish texts both of the idea of resurrection from the grave and of that of a heavenly assumption of the resurrected, Dale Allison argues that resurrection and assumption are not mutually contradicting ideas, and that the empty tomb story probably involved both from the beginning.

The absence of any reference to the story of Jesus’ empty tomb in the Pauline epistles and the Easter kerygma (preaching or proclamation) of the earliest church, originating perhaps in the Christian community of Antioch in the 30s and preserved in 1 Corinthians, has led some scholars to suggest that Mark invented it. Allison, however, finds this argument from silence unconvincing. Most scholars believe that John wrote independently of Mark and that the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John contain two independent attestations of an empty tomb, which in turn suggests that both used already-existing sources and appealed to a commonly held tradition, though Mark may have added to and adapted that tradition to fit his narrative. How and why Mark adapts his material is unclear. Smith believes that Mark has adapted two separate traditions of resurrection and disappearance into one Easter narrative.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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