What women were at the tomb on Easter morning?
- Mary Magdalene – not the repentant sinner of popular imagination, but a financially independent woman from the fish-processing town of Magdala on Lake Galilee. She seems to have been the main woman in the group who traveled with Jesus – a sort of chaperone and financial organizer. She is called ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ because Jesus told her to ‘to and tell’, apostellein in Greek. She has been confused with the woman taken in adultery, the repentant woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, etc. But there is no real evidence for this.
- Mary the mother of James & Joseph were followers of Jesus and traveled with him. She was a disciple of Jesus and also, perhaps, a Jewish mother determined to keep an eye on her roving sons.
- Salome – little is known about her, but she is definitely not the young princess who danced for Herod Antipas and asked for John Baptist’s head.
- Joanna, a rich upper-class Jewish woman married to Chuza, an influential member of the staff of Herod Antipas (son of the wicked King Herod who killed the newborns in Bethlehem)
- Probably other, unnamed women – high-class people like Joanna and Mary Magdalene were usually accompanied by their servants and friends.
Why were they at the tomb of Jesus?
In the ancient world it was common for women, usually family members, to wash a corpse and lay the body out for burial. In Jesus’ case, this would have been a difficult task, since his body was heavily matted with dried blood. The women intended to use spices and scented water to smooth the congealed blood and grime from the body (not a task for the faint-hearted). Then they would bind the arms and legs so they were held firmly, and wrap the whole body in a long strip of linen cloth – the shroud.
There were no undertakers – this was the simple, gentle act performed by women for their family members.
What happened when the women reached the tomb?
When the frightened women reached the tomb on Easter morning, they were greeted by an unexpected sight. The great stone that should have covered the entrance of the tomb had been rolled sideways, so that anyone could enter the tomb.
This was not what they expected. On the evening before the Sabbath, they had placed Jesus’ dead body – they were certain it was dead – on one of the stone slabs inside the tomb, and the entrance to the tomb had been firmly closed. But now the body was missing, and the women did not know what to do.
Who stole Jesus’ body?
Normally you would think that someone had stolen the body – Peter? He had a reckless streak and must have been bitterly ashamed that he had abandoned Jesus when the soldiers came to arrest him.
Then their dilemma was solved. In the place where the women expected to find Jesus’ body, there were instead one (Luke says two) beings whom the gospels call ‘angels’, dressed in the ceremonial white garments associated with heavenly beings. Angels? Think of them not as messengers from God, but as the message itself, given and accepted.
What did the women do at Jesus’ tomb?
These were sensible women from various backgrounds. They were not given to flights of fancy. The idea that someone could be dead and then not dead must have seemed improbable, to say the least. What did ‘risen’ mean anyway? They ran back to the house where many of Jesus’ disciples had gathered.
Of course the men did not believe them. Women’s testimony was not given the same weight in a court of law as men’s was, and no doubt the male disciples thought at this moment that that was a good thing. See No Witnesses: so how do we know?
What about Mary Magdalene at the tomb?
Mary Magdalene had not left with the others. When she leaned down to peer through the entrance of the tomb, she saw two ‘angels’ – though what exactly is meant by ‘angels’ it is hard to say.
‘Why are you weeping?’ they asked – rather an odd thing to ask – but of course these words are God’s, and they had a special purpose. They were pushing Mary towards a greater truth than the fact that Jesus’ body was missing. See Doubting Thomas
Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene
But Mary was submerged in grief. She had fallen into a bent-over position, and when she heard a male voice she did not look at the man but assumed it was a worker in the garden surrounding the tombs. Here might be someone who knew something.
She blurted out a question, but when he answered she did not recognise the voice. Only when he said her name, ‘Mary’, did she recognise Jesus. She was overcome with emotion, and grasped hold of him, calling him ‘rabboni’, a Hebrew word meaning ‘teacher’.
What did Jesus do?
Jesus gently disengaged himself from Mary’s grasp. The words he spoke are often translated as ‘Do not touch me’, but a better translation is ‘Do not try to hold onto me. Let me go’.
He was no longer as he had been. She must move on.