translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
JOHN 20: 1
Now the morning after the Rest Day, Mary of Magdala comes early to the tomb, while it is still dark and sees the stone removed from the tomb. So she runs and comes to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and says to them, “They have removed the Lord from the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and made their way towards the tomb. The two were running together but the other disciple outran Peter and came first to the tomb. Stooping to look inside he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Peter who was following him, came and entered the tomb. He sees the linen cloths lying there, and the sweat cloth, which had been on Jesus’ face, not lying with the other linen cloths but folded in its own place. Then the other disciple, who had come first to the tomb, also entered, and saw, and put his trust in it; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he had to rise again from the dead.
I have previously pointed out this author’s use of the “narrative present tense” which I named the “bantering or wooing tense” because it occurs especially in the narratives of the Samaritan woman and the Lazarus narrative, in contexts where Jesus is conversing with women and being presented as the Messiah, the divinely appointed bridegroom of Israel, the bringer of life. This metaphor is again hinted here, in the story of the resurrection which is especially the story of Mary. This verb tense with its overtones of male/female engagement, even infiltrates the story of Peter, who “sees” the linen cloths lying there.
This delicate strand of revelation is one of the author’s best inventions, presenting the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as a marriage proposal, to which an act of trust is the appropriate response. Perhaps a certain reading of the Song of Songs lies behind this imagery.
I have translated the Greek “first (day) of the Sabbath” as the “morning after the Rest Day” since the common translation “first day of the week” does not contain the association of Sabbath rest with Jesus’ rest in the tomb. All the gospels place women as the first visitors to the tomb, but this gospel has Mary comes alone. Her full back story is not told in the gospel, so the reader is asked to see her as representative of all the other women in the gospel story, of the “daughters of Zion” who are symbols of Israel’s faith and hope, and of all human beings who yearn for the divine bridegroom.
There is a short cut in the story as Mary is not at this point described as looking in the tomb so how does she know that the body has been moved? It is enough for her that the stone has been moved: the loved body has been taken away! The jostling of Peter and the beloved disciple is part of a narrative balancing act , which maintains Peter’s leadership role while giving a special place to the disciple who has influenced this gospel and the community in which it was written. This episode shows the boldness of Peter, but the “trust” of the beloved disciple, which is the crucial response.
The gospels all refer to the resurrection as predicted by the Scripture, but not one of them gives any reference. The commonly quoted passages, Psalm 16: 9-11, Job 19: 25-26, and Hosea 6: 2 are sufficiently obscure to suggest that only the believing community’s profound reflection on the Jewish Bible could have found them. Nevertheless, when the Jewish Bible is interpreted from the standpoint of Jesus’ resurrection, its meaning is shifted in the direction of greater hopefulness.
At this point, I should in honesty state my own conviction that the narratives of the resurrection, both of the empty tomb and of the appearances of the risen Jesus are unhistorical in their events but historical as interpretation of the experience of the first believing communities. For example I do not think that Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty, but I do think that the place of the dead and defeated Jesus in the hearts and minds of the first believers was found to be empty. Indeed it seems to me possible that the resurrection faith of these believers was expressed in a ritual which included a procession to a tomb where worshippers were told, “He is not here,” and which may have included the drama of Mary of Magdala. The details of the disposition of the grave cloths also suggests the stage management of a ritual.
The freedom with which the gospel writers treat the “events” of the resurrection -their accounts cannot be reconciled- indicates to me that they also knew that they were telling stories to match the transforming power of Jesus in the lives of believers.
I hope my conviction is right, for if the only means of transforming human lives is a miracle with a corpse 2000 years ago, Christian faith would have little to offer me, or anyone, now.