The First Witnesses of 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?


12 thoughts on “The First Witnesses of the Resurrection

  1. As Professor Long said, there is not necessarily good evidence that Mary Magdalene was a woman of poor values as many have suggested over centuries. However if the rumors were true I see good reason that Jesus would have visited her first. Whether through suspicion or in reality Mary Magdalene is a perfect picture or representation of the world. She is represented as a woman of low moral standards, a woman of secrecy, and of scandal. At this time women were not considered to be very credible and this also adds to her already potentially low societal status. She is the perfect picture of a sinner, one of God’s children, and someone he loves. Jesus came to die on the cross for the sinners, for his hurting people. Jesus made a point of this during his ministry by often spending time with “the least of these.” If Mary Magdalene was the first one to see Jesus maybe it was a beautiful portrait of Jesus demonstrating his love to the world by what he had done. Whether this was intentional or not it seems like something interesting to wonder about. Matthew 25:40 says “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Jesus died for the least of these, whether true or not Mary Magdalene was a symbol for the least of these.

  2. I see a number of ramifications of the very fact that Jesus spent so much quality time with woman, let alone the fact that the first witness of the Resurrection was a woman. One is that it shows that woman should be active in the church. The Bible clearly states, in the words of Paul for example, that thew role of spiritual leadership of a family and a church should be for a man. However, woman can and should be involved as leaders, teachers, etc. and contribute positively together with men. It also shows that, though Mary Magdelene’s state of morality is unclear, there is room in the Kingdom and the church for people who don’t have it all together.
    The important roles of woman in the Gospels go to show that the opportunity Jesus gave us isn’t for a specific group of people, but for everyone.

  3. As you pointed out, a big part of the significance of Mary being the first witness is in that she’s a woman. In modern american culture it wouldn’t be a big deal for a woman’s testimony to be trusted. However, first century Jews would not have trusted the testimony of a woman simply because she was a woman. Along with that, the fact that she was a scandalous woman would discount her testimony anyway. In modern society the ramifications could seem to be that woman have a legitimate place in the church, and that even though she may have been scandalous she was still somewhat respected, at least to the point that the other disciples were curious.

  4. I read ramifications and immediately assumed a negative connotation so it’s interesting that Chris went positive on this one. That’s very optimistic of him! Indeed I suppose that the fact that Jesus supposedly had a female disciple so close to him does mean something for the active role of women in the church. However, the gospels rarely mention her. I think we an find good evidence for the importance of gender equality elsewhere, but this is not necessarily the place.
    The biggest ramification I see to the fact the a woman discovered the empty tomb first is that it creates an interesting debate about the resurrection. As you said, if the gospel writers were going to make up a story about the resurrection they certainly would not have had a woman discover the empty tomb since a woman’s word meant quite little in that time. The fact that it happened the way it did can in no way prove the resurrection, but it is an interesting discussion topic.

  5. It is certainly interesting that Mary Magdalene was the first to witness this. To kind of go off what Zac said, I would agree that in this time period, it wouldn’t be as big of a controversy if a woman witnessed something like this. But like we have seen in the scriptures, women are usually an after thought or simply someone who prepares food and births children. Anything past that status would be quite controversial. So if I were to ask myself what some possible ramifications were, I would say that it would be that the Lord loves everyone the same. Just because of one’s gender, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy or are worthy. As far as Mary being a prostitute, I would say that this particular perspective was raised to bring more controversy and drama to the story, but really has no real weight behind it.

  6. I agree with everyone else is saying. I have been reading some of the footnotes in my bible and it was talking about how some of the Rabbis refused to teach the women, so Jesus was a teacher to them and He accepted them. I also was reading that it was early in the morning, and all the women were up early making preparations for the day, so that could be a reason that Mary Magdalene was out and about. It says in Luke 24:11 that the disciples did not even believe her when she came to tell them the good news, and I think it was because she was a woman and they normally did not give them the time of day. It is just very interesting to read about Mary’s reputation. I learned these stories when I was younger, and obviously those details would not have been taught to me as a young person. This passage has to be taken from the 1st century disples’s perspective in order to be understood because in our day we just read over it and miss some of the meaning that it had for the disciples.

  7. The fact that it was a woman being the first witness is something that could be potentially tarnishing since in the first century woman were not the most credible and were not really considered to be equal to a man. To go on top of her being a woman, she also is known to have a reputation that was not the best, making things that she may say not seem to necessarily be the truth. People could think that she may have done something with the body for all that we know, if she really was the first one to see the tomb, who is to say that she did not move it herself.

  8. The inclusion of the detail about Mary being the first to witness the resurrection should actually cause us to believe the account more than doubt it. As others have stated, in first-century Jewish culture, the testimony of a woman would not have been considered very trustworthy or important. Certainly if the early church were trying to create a false but believable resurrection account they would not have desired to cause any doubts by making the first witness a woman. That this detail is given, then, falls under the category of the criterion of embarrassment. The perspective on women in the culture demonstrates how unlikely the early church would have been to create this story.

    This also gives us an opportunity to think about how women would have been viewed in the early church and how they should be viewed today. While I think that it was certainly an honor for Mary to be the first to see the resurrected Christ, I don’t think that this account is foundation enough for an entire doctrine of how women should function in the church. While some may try to overemphasize Mary Magdalene’s role in Jesus’ ministry, biblically the information just isn’t there. This is not to say that she was unimportant, but rather that Jesus’ ministry was founded on the same principles of headship that we see in the Pauline Epistles outlining church structure (which, really, go all the way back to the Garden of Eden). So really, what we *do* see in this passage is a subversion of expectations (which gives more credence to the authenticity of the account). What we *don’t* see is a subversion of God-given gender roles or biblical headship.

  9. As it has been stated above, it is interesting that a woman, a possibly tarnished woman no less, was the first to witness the empty tomb. Although women were not to be listened to and their word was not trusted, it is amazing that she would be the first to witness the resurrection. It is almost fitting that it is a tarnished woman who is the first at the empty tomb, because during Jesus’ ministry he reached out to the same type of people. It reminds me of the Samaritan woman at the well that Jesus ministered to. Jesus loves all people and he ministered to all people during his time on earth, from tax collectors, to sinners, and even women. It is fitting that the first person to witness the resurrection is an “undesirable” woman.

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