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. So 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.
He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. (John 20:1–10 – NRSV)
Raymond Browne writes concerning John 20:1-18: “…. there are an extraordinary number of inconsistencies that betray the hand of an editor who has achieved organization by combining disparate material. We notice the following difficulties:
▪ Magdalene comes to the tomb alone in vs. 1, but speaks as “we” in 2.
▪ She concludes that the body has been stolen in 2, but apparently does not look into the tomb until 11.
▪ There is duplication in the description of Peter and the Beloved Disciple:
— two “to” phrases in 2;
— literally “Peter went out … and they were coming” in 3;
— the repetition in what was seen in 5 and 6;
— the contrast between “he saw and believed” in 8 and “they did not understand” in 9.
▪ The belief of the Beloved Disciple has no effect on Magdalene nor on the disciples in general (19).
▪ It is not clear when or how Magdalene got back to the tomb in 11.
▪ Why in 12 does she see angels in the tomb instead of the burial clothes that Peter and the Beloved Disciple saw?
▪ Her conversation with the angels in 13 does not advance the action at all.
▪ Twice she is said to have turned to Jesus (14 and 16).” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (XIII-XXI): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29A), Yale University Press, 2008, 995.)
Early on the first day of the week: “It is remarkable that all four Gospels (cf. Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1) introduce their respective resurrection accounts by specifying the first day of the week, rather than ‘the third day’ after the crucifixion (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3, 4), despite Jesus’ passion predictions (Mk. 8:31 par.). The reason is disputed, but it may have to do with the desire to present the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of something new.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 635.)
while it was still dark: It is hard to believe John would use a turn of phrase like this accidentally. The metaphors of light and darkness, day and night are highly significant for John. So what might we make of this reference? I suggest it is a metaphor for Mary’s limited faith. The full light of the reality of Jesus has not yet dawned for her.
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb: All four Gospels feature Mary in their first resurrection account. Though only in John is she alone.
They have taken the Lord: Scholars believe the use of the word “Lord” here is nothing more than a title of respect. One scholar writes concerning the common practice of grave robbery: “The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common that the Emperor Claudius (AD 41–54) eventually ordered capital punishment to be meted out to those convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies or even displacing the sealing stones. John records no hint of the Jewish allegation that Jesus’ disciples were the ones who stole Jesus’ body (cf. Mt. 28:13–15), but the fact that such a charge could be levelled demonstrates that grave robbery was not uncommon. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did. In distress she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to Peter and the beloved disciple.” (D A Carson, op cit, 636.)
the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself: This detail seems compelling to me. One scholar writes: “The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up; and the fact that two men saw it (v. 8) makes their evidence admissible in a Jewish court (Dt. 19:15).” (D A Carson, op cit, 637-638.)
he saw and believed: There is a good deal of disagreement over the significance of this phrase. Francis Moloney writes: “Some scholars have questioned the significance of the Beloved Disciple’s faith, especially in light of vv. 9 and 29. For example, Nicholson, Death as Departure 69–71, joins Augustine and other Fathers of the Church in seeing the disciple’s belief as an acceptance of Mary Magdalene’s witness. Among others de la Potterie, The Hour 202–207, argues that the faith of the disciple is only beginning and has yet to be fully illuminated (cf. v. 9). Lee, ‘Partnership in Easter Faith’ 39–40, argues that ‘v. 8 has no narrative impact’ and that v. 9 leaves both the Beloved Disciple and Peter in a situation of unfaith not resolved until John 21. Brown, ‘John 20’ (pages 197–198), uses v. 9 to support the claim that Beloved Disciple comes to perfect faith. He not only believed without seeing Jesus but he did not even need the help of the Scriptures. (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 523.) I personally choose to accept Raymond Browne’s conclusion – John has come to perfect faith.
It is easy for us to forget the trauma suffered by those first disciples of Jesus when he was tried, tortured and cruelly executed. When they witnessed Jesus’ end they would surely have felt as though it was the end of everything worth living for. They would hardly have thought of that Friday as “Good Friday”. And the following day would have been one of the darkest in their lives. They would hardly have thought of that Saturday as “Holy Saturday”. The discovery of the empty tomb began to change all that.
These traumatised and devastated men and women, sunk in despair, suddenly became liberated and energised men and women, filled with hope. They were forced to remember and re-think everything about Jesus, especially his death. Cardinal Kasper writes: “If we take the testimony of the New Testament consistently as our starting point and if we make this testimony the basis for the speculative development of our faith in Christ, then we must take seriously the fact that the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions (M Kähler). The cross is then not simply the consequence of the earthly ministry of Jesus but the very goal of the incarnation (emphasis added); it is not something adventitious but the very meaning and purpose of the Christ-event (emphasis added), so that everything else is ordered to it as a goal. God would not have become truly a human being had he not entered fully into the abyss and night of death.” (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, Crossroad, 1986, 189.)
The robbing of tombs was not uncommon in the time of Jesus. Emperor Claudius (AD 41–54) thought it necessary to decree the death penalty for anyone convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies or even displacing the sealing stones. In the light of this historical fact, Mary Magdalene’s anxious cry is entirely understandable when she found that Jesus’ body was not where they had placed it: “So 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’.” Mary has not yet discovered the reality of the empty tomb. That will come later, when she encounters the risen Lord.
For Mary, the emptiness of the empty tomb, initially at least, adds to her trauma. She sees everything when she sees him. The emptiness of the tomb is not the harsh and insensitive work of robbers but the loving and liberating work of God.
Peter and John, prompted by Mary’s report – and probably her agitated state – ran to the tomb, with the younger man outstripping his older companion. We are left to assume that this was a transforming moment for Peter. But John is quite explicit about “the one whom Jesus loved” (himself): “he saw and he believed”.