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. 2 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!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
How do you respond to the shock of an unprecedented event? There is nothing to prepare you, no guidelines or patterns of appropriate behaviour to fall back on. The discovery of the empty tomb is one such event. As with the cross, John’s account relies upon an accumulation of detail to convey the whole narrative.
The first detail we learn is that it is Mary Magdalene who first makes the discovery. This Mary was one of a group of women who supported Jesus and his band of disciples. She is the woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons (cf Luke 8:2) in her home town of Magdala, a middle class fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She must be the source of several of the details recorded here by John, although since she was a woman, a Jewish court would not have accepted her testimony.
If one wanted to concoct a new religion based around the resurrection of its leader from the dead, a much more credible eye-witness would have been preferred. But in the wisdom of God, Mary was indeed the first to discover the empty tomb. Because the resurrection is anchored in the historical world of real events, John simply records what actually happened.
John is also an early eye-witness. Mary discovers the body of Jesus is missing. She runs to tell Peter and John— what else does one do?— perhaps because they are viewed as the communal leaders. Her assumption is not resurrection but theft. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John outruns Peter to the tomb, looks inside but does not enter— apparently insignificant details, but all contributing to the immediacy of the account. This was a ‘crime scene’ investigation, carefully documented.
Peter goes straight into the tomb. The facts are assessed: the tomb is indeed empty, the grave clothes are left behind (presumably with their aromatic spices) and the head cloth folded up separately. If this is the work of grave-robbers, why completely unwrap the corpse? Grave robbers are mercenaries— surely the body of a crucified man is worthless. If thieves wanted simply to identify the body as Jesus’, this task was would only require a partial unwrapping. This, too, makes no sense. There are no signs of a rushed job, of dragging the body outside, of stealth or malfeasance. Instead, Jesus is simply ‘not there.’ Matthew’s gospel includes the account of the guards placed outside the tomb, preventing any external tampering. Whatever happened, it must be an ‘inside job’.
John is first to conclude Jesus has risen. He records that this was the moment, the turning point, for his belief that Jesus was resurrected to life. He had not considered the implications of this, or its expectation embedded in Scripture. He simply believed. Further evidence would be required.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you are indeed the resurrected one. Please grant me such faith as to believe and such insight as to understand all the implications of this world-shaping historical event. Amen