The empty tomb story in John

The account of the finding of the empty tomb in John’s gospel reads like an eyewitness account rather than anything made up for a purpose. It seems obvious that it is given in the words of someone who was there, in fact “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” This isn’t mythology or propaganda or the evolving understanding of the Johannine community of the significance of the Easter event. It’s the report of someone who experienced something utterly extraordinary and wants to report just how it was:

The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

The account of the meeting of Mary Magdalene with the risen Christ has the same quality, and from the narrative style seems to have been written by the same person. It was evidently someone who knew Mary Magdalene, understood her, and had talked to her and seen the state of her feelings at the time:

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

On the whole, pious miracle stories told by adherents of obscure provincial cults for the sake of signing up new members don’t present moments of the most intense drama, like Mary’s recognition of Jesus, through understatement. Also, I don’t think there’s any ancient writer who did the persuade-through-arbitrary-details thing. So either these events happened as told or a uniquely gifted writer somehow got into the wrong line of business.

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