John 20:1 – The First Witness to the Resurrection

According to John 20:1, the first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene, who visited the tomb very early on Sunday morning. Who is this Mary?

The name “Magdalene” indicates she was from a town in Galilee, Magdal about a mile north of Tiberias. The name means “tower” and is called “fish tower” in the Talmud, perhaps indicating that it was associated with exporting fish from Galilee. The town may have been as large as 40,000 in the first century and predominantly Gentile (ABD, 4:579).

According to Luke 8:2 Jesus healed Mary “from seven evil spirits,” otherwise she only appears in the resurrection stories in Matthew and Mark. Luke only says that demons went out of her, but it safe to assume that Jesus was the exorcist.

According to a sixth century tradition, Mary was the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 (and Mary of Bethany, John 11:1-12:8, Luke 10:38-42). This is possibly due to the fact that Magdal had a reputation for as a sinful town in Midr. Lam 2:2. It is possible that a Jewish woman living in a Gentile town was there to work as a prostitute, although there is no reason to assume that is the case. There is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that she was a prostitute or adulterous, only that she had been demon possessed.

Mary has become popular in contemporary culture as a female disciple of Jesus on the same level as Peter and the Twelve. The real problem for this view is that the New Testament does not present her as part of the inner circle. These popular readings of Mary are based on Gnostic literature, include the Gospel of Peter and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (both date to about A.D. 200) and the Gospel of Philip (third century A.D.), which describes Mary as the disciple whom Christ loved more than all the others.

There is a longstanding Gnostic tradition that Jesus and Mary had a romantic relationship and that they were secretly married and had a child. This child begins a kind of “Jesus dynasty,” a secret line of Jesus which existed for centuries. This sort of thing turns up in the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-mined entertainment. There is little evidence for this, what evidence does exist is strained at best.

Still it is remarkable that this woman is the first to visit the empty tomb in John’s gospel. Since it is still early in the morning, Mary cannot see into the tomb, only that the stone has been moved away from the entrance. She assumes that the body has been disturbed, perhaps that the tomb has been robbed. She returns to the place where Peter and the others are staying, presumably the upper room) and reports that the tomb has been opened.

If one were to invent the story of the resurrection, Mary would be a poor choice for first witness to the empty tomb. As a woman her testimony would be questioned, and even in the story as we read it in John, she misunderstands what has happened and assumes (as most people would) that someone has moved the body of Jesus, likely to prevent the disciples from venerating the tomb of their prophet.

What are the ramifications of the “first witness” being a woman with a potentially tarnished reputation?

 

15 thoughts on “John 20:1 – The First Witness to the Resurrection

  1. Doesn’t her so-called “tarnished reputation” arise entirely from the sixth-century sermon of Pope Gregory in 519 that conflates her with the unnamed woman at Bethany? I believe her title of “Apostle to the Apostles” is of more ancient provenance than that!

    There are other indications in the NT that she is important. She was one of the women who accompanied Jesus and the Twelve, she provided for them out of her own resources, and she is generally named first in a list of named women, which is a literary convention generally signifying leadership (as in, Peter, James, and John). She is not only the first witness to the empty tomb; she is the first person to whom the resurrected Christ shows himself!

    Some authors even speculate that Magdalen was not so much a reference to a town of origin as it was a nickname, like Simon Peter = Peter the Rock, Mary Magdalen = Mary the Tower.

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    • I had not thought about the Rock / Tower connection before. I had just assumed it is a geographical name, since there are a particularly high number of Marys in the NT. This is like Jesus of Nazareth, there are so many men named Jesus in first century that a geographical “last name” is added.

      Pope Gregory’s sermon was my allusion when I said “sixth century tradition,” and you are right, it is a pure conflation of the sinful woman with Luke 8:2. (You might recall I am not sure at all that the woman in Luke 8 is the same one in the anointing at Bethany. I pointed out the many differences in a PhD seminar and the confessionaly minded in the class dismissed me without much further thought!)

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  2. Before I begin, I wanted to ask. How does John say that Mary the first one to the tomb if Luke 24:1-10 tells us that she, Joanna, another Mary, and even “other women” had all gone to the tomb and all returned to tell the apostles?

    Mary Magdalene’s being the first witness is interesting. I think it is another example of Jesus’s identity being revealed through and understood by people that would not normally be the ones expected to do so. The religious leaders did not acknowledge who Jesus was, but Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, and even demons knew. Now, in the ultimately glorious moment for Jesus, he again chooses to reveal this to a formerly demon-possessed woman from a sinful town, Magdal. Long puts it this way, “If one were to invent the story of the resurrection, Mary would be a poor choice for first witness to the empty tomb.” If we were writing the story, we would have chosen someone like the high priest to see the risen Lord. Jesus always chose the lowest to be the ones he lifted up, such as bringing in tax collector Matthew as his disciple (Matt. 9:9), declaring that the Gentile centurion had more faith than the Jews (Luke 7:9), or letting the children, whom everyone else was refusing, to come to him (Matt. 19:13-14). And now, Mary, a low woman, “is granted the high privilege of being the first to witness the resurrection” (Strauss 326).

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  3. There is clearly an intimate relationship between Mary and Jesus revealed mostly through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are obvious complications regarding anything of high importance when there is a woman involved considering context. Especially in this situation because it’s the first witness to his body missing. In their culture there was not much if any value given to a woman’s opinion or perspective. Comparably to men, there is not much dialogue from women found in Scripture. However, if there was ever a woman to be the first witness, it would be Mary Magdalene. Regardless of her gender or reputation, Jesus loved her. And there is almost an attachment that she has for him probably because what he has done for her.Like one of His twelve she followed him around. She took care for him and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3). She was there at Jesus crucifixion (John 19:25). She took initiative and was the first to go to his burial place to anoint him with spices (Mark 16:1). She was the first one to experience Jesus resurrected (Mark 16:9). In this experience Jesus finds her weeping beside the tomb. Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father” (20:17) probably mean that she must stop depending on his physical presence, since he will soon ascend to the Father” (Strauss 326). Although there are ramifications considering the context and culture, there is also another approach to this situation resulting in Mary being a worthy candidate of the “first witness”.

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    • While reading John chapter 20, I did not read where it said she went to anoint Jesus with spices. In chapter 19 Nicodemus had brought spices to anoint Jesus and assist Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’s burial. It is possible that Mary Magdalene may have brought addition spices to anoint Jesus with, however scripture does not state this. Of course, there are times when things may have been left out. For instance, when the world was created, the Bible does not say that dinosaurs were created, but science supports that dinosaurs did exist because of fossils and bones. Jesus and Mary Magdalene did have a relationship whether it was more of an intimate relationship or just a close friendship we will never really know. Just because she was weeping for him, does not mean they had an intimate relationship in the romantic sense. As kids if our closest friend had to move away or vice versa, we more than likely cried. Countless times Jesus showed his love for many people. To name a few, there was Jesus’ mother Mary, then there was the disciple whom Jesus loved. Just because Jesus loved someone, even a female, it does not mean that he was romantically involved with them.

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  4. It does not surprise me that Mary of Magdalene would be the first to witness the resurrection. Throughout Jesus ministry he associated with women, no matter if they were prostitutes or not. Mary of Magdalene may have or may not of had an adulterous past, this of which we cannot be sure of, ” It is possible that a Jewish woman living in a Gentile town was there to work as a prostitute, although there is no reason to assume that is the case. ” The fact that Mary was possessed and freed of the demons that lived in her is a great testimony of Jesus power. Early in the morning before it was light, Mary went to pay her respects to her savior and rabbi. Something that stuck me when pondering these passages, is why would it not be fitting for Mary to be the one? Jesus ministry was to all especially those who needed him. Mary is an example of one of these people. She was the first one to come to the tomb on the first day of the week, she had obeyed the Sabbath and went as quickly as she could, before it was even it was light. Her effort to visit Jesus is admirable, when his disciples deserted him at the cross, Mary was there. She was faithful to Jesus, and she in turn was granted the joy and happiness of being the first to see him since his death.

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  5. There is without a doubt a very special connection that Jesus and Mary have together and it is shown all throughout the Gospels. I don’t believe it was an intimate relationship, but none the less, a special relationship. She was one of the very few that were with Jesus all the way to the end and stood at the foot of the cross. She was one of the ones that helped take Him down and prepare His body for burial. It’s no surpise that she was the first one to see the empty tomb because she most likely went there everyday, multiple times a day to visit the tomb and mourn. Mary was one of the only “disciple” of Jesus that He did a miracle to. Him saving her from the demons and her past connected her to Christ and created a love for Him that the other disciples didn’t have because He did not do any miracles to them. I think that the only reason they wouldn’t and didn’t believe her, is because she was soo distressed and soo mournful that it would have been easy to think that she was just under too much emotional stress and just thought she saw the empty tomb. Also, I think that they could’ve just assumed because of her past that she was mistaken. She was faithful to Jesus and was there with Him till the end and His death and was faithful visiting His tomb and awaiting His resurrection so I think that she very well deserved to be the first one to see it.

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  6. I think the ramifications are both immense and suiting. Jesus’ ministry was riddled with expectation breaking, culture refitting language and deed. Jesus redefined the twelve tribes, the role of the messiah, the role of a priest, and all of Israel. he changed things. He challenged the norm. And even in something as unexpected and preposterous as his resurrection, an empty tomb is first shown to a sinful woman. Most of Christ’s miracles were displays for his closest friends or the religious male elite. His greatest miracle is shown to one sinful woman first. It is shown to the least believable and least credible source possible. As stated already, the likelihood that the story could be made up and attributed to a formerly possessed woman’s testimony is non-existent. No one would make up a story like this and expect people to believe. There is also the possibility that Mary being the first witness wasn’t a specific plan of Jesus. perhaps she was, for whatever reason, the person to first visit after the defeat of death. Perhaps Mary, as an acquaintance of Jesus was close enough with him to feel just enough sympathy and grief but not too close as to not want to visit the grave of her failed messiah and teacher.

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  7. It is interesting that Mary is the first to visit the empty tomb. I agree with Scott that it does follow Jesus’ ministry before. Jesus was always associated with sinners and He used people that seemed unworthy so that it could be clear that He was to be glorified. I remember once hearing a youth pastor mention that some people thought that Mary and Jesus were a…”thing”. I do not understand where this could have come from but it is obvious that Jesus was an important part in her life since she was returning to anoint the body with burial spices. Unless that was normal in their culture, I do not think that someone would anoint a dead body unless they thought highly of the person.

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  8. As I picture Mary getting to the tomb, I see how I see her walking slowly, feeling defeated as she witnessed Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ crucifixion. The horror she must have felt and the fear that creeped through her veins as she watched these events take fold. I can not even begin imagine actually being there and being in her shoes as one of Jesus’ followers.
    But as she continues to walk towards the place where the one she adored and loved, she believed laid lifeless, her eyes see something different, she “saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot,”(John. 20:12, NIV). It then says how one angel asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”(John. 20:13, NIV). Her response is telling them how they took Jesus away and that she does not know where they have put them. Then she saw a gardener, not knowing it was Jesus, and asked him where he put Jesus.
    Right when Jesus said her name, that is when her eyes were opened.
    What a special moment! A moment filled with so many different emotions for the both of them.
    I hope for us, when our eyes are open to who Jesus is, we will also be in awe and hug the Lord!

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  9. I really do like how this is a woman who has a lot of bones in her closet, and she is also the first to see that Jesus is gone. I find this interesting because you would think that it would be a hero of the faith, but it is rather this woman who was found with loads of sin as a prostitute. this should be an inspiration to us in that no matter where we come from in life we can still know God’s glorious redemptive plan.

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  10. The fact that Mary Magdalene was the first person to witness the empty tomb is quite an interesting part of the resurrection story. One thing that I noticed about Mary in chapter 20 is that she is not only the first witness to the empty tomb 20:1, but she is also goes back and becomes the first witness to see Jesus in his new resurrected form in 20:14-18. It is known that within that culture, women are not seen as important, so their witness statements would not be valued at all. The significance of this passage then is deep as it is thought to be a passage that shows a change in how women are viewed. Kostenberger remarks, “Women as well as men are called to bear witness to the good news they have received—this is the clear implication of Jesus’s command issued to Mary Magdalene in the present passage” (171-172). Jesus tells her to go and tell the other disciples what she has seen, clearly granting her the witness status.
    With what we know of Mary from John and the other gospels, she seems to have a bit of a frowned-upon reputation. This makes her being a witness to not only to the empty tomb but also the resurrected Jesus even more interesting. Being a woman already is one strike against her for how reliable she is with her eye witness, but being a woman who has a bad reputation is even worse. In a way, I see having Mary Magdalene be the first witness was also a redemptive type story for her as well as Jesus shows her that she has worth through showing himself to her before the others who are considered by society to have more worth than her.

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  11. I am thankful that we get this story of Mary Magdalene woven throughout the Gospels. We get to see how Jesus healed her from her affliction of being possessed by demons and forgave her of her sins; and then she followed Jesus. After this, she then will show up at different times throughout the different Gospels and we get to see more of how she interacts with Jesus after this experience. During this time, she might have traveled around with Jesus and the disciples however, she would not have been considered one of the inner circle disciples. She does play a unique role as a woman in the story line of Jesus, because she is the first person to arrive at the scene of the resurrection. This is significant because a woman’s testimony was not considered to be valid in this time period, and the fact that the Bible records her as the first witness is a big deal. Through this, the Bible is validating that what she saw was true.

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  12. What are the ramifications of Mary being the first witness? Well for starters she was a woman. Women in the ancient world were not considered reliable witnesses. Because of that she would be credited already as not being believable. Another ramification is that Mary Magdalene is believed to not have the best reputation. Some people think that Mary Magdalene was possibly a prostitute. She is thought to be a prostitute because she was a Jewish woman who was living in a Gentile town. She is thought of as possibly being a prostitute but there is no clear evidence to prove this claim. So, the fact that she is a woman and her not so well reputation makes her stand out as a non-reliable source, at least in the culture of the ancient world. It’s because of who she is that makes her the perfect candidate for the Gospel. Because Jesus normally did things and said things that went against the cultural norms of his day, having Mary be the first to discover the empty tomb and see him after the resurrection makes sense. Could there be any better person than Mary, in order to spread the good news? Even after his victory over death Jesus still went against the cultural norm. What else makes sense about this is that it goes along with the story of his birth. The Sheppard’s were the first to see Jesus after he was born. And like Mary the Sheppard’s were looked down upon by most of society. When Christ was born, he revealed himself to the lowest ranked people in society. So to me it makes perfect sense that after the resurrection Jesus would reveal himself to someone who was also seen as the lowest of society.

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  13. Mary Magdalene certainly is an odd choice for the first person to see Jesus. While she was present at different moments of Jesus’ ministry, she definitely had more of a background role in the story. So to make her the first to see the resurrected Christ is a compelling concept. As stated, women in Jewish culture were not considered to be reliable at giving eye-witness testimony. It would typically take the testimony of at least two women before it was accepted as truth. Perhaps that is why Luke includes the other women present. For this reason alone, it makes one wonder why God chose Mary to be the first to see Jesus. But if you look back through Jesus’ ministry, as well as the rest of the Bible, you see that God chooses to use the people that are unqualified to either do or witness his work. He took fishermen and made them his disciples. He chose David, a shepherd who was the youngest in his family, to be the king of Israel. Looking at this pattern throughout the Bible, it remains pretty consistent. When you take this idea into perspective, it becomes easier to understand why Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Christ.

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