In the New Testament gospels we have four rather complex and ofttimes contradictory accounts of what happened Sunday morning after Jesus was crucified (Mark 16; Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20-21). Embedded in these layers of tradition are ten verses that appear to be the earliest narrative--and one that rings true to the historian. Although these verses are found in the Gospel of John, one of our latest gospels, this little fragment of tradition stands alone and unique.
Here is is:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away 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." Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths 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 know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10).
- No band of woman coming just after sunrise
- No earthquake
- No angels appearing
- No Roman guards knocked out cold
- No men in white garments
- No resurrections of the "saints" recently died
- And most important: no appearances to anyone.
Just the bare facts:
Mary Magdelene came alone before dawn and discovered the tomb open and drew the obvious conclusion--namely that "they" had moved the body and placed it elsewhere. The "they" in this context is clearly those in charge of Jesus' permanent burial--namely the Joseph of Arimathea burial party--Jesus' corpse had been temporarily stashed in this unfinished and as yet unused tomb nearby the site of crucifixion just an hour or so before Passover (John 19:41-42). Peter and the "beloved disciple" rush to the tomb, confirm the body has been "taken away," and return to their homes in the Galilee--which is also stated in the lost Gospel of Peter.
Mary Magdalene, with her unique and special connection to Jesus comes alone early that morning, most likely to mourn at the tomb and await the others to finish the rites of burial. This primitive "bare bones" account rings true and all else sounds to me like myth-making, literary expansion, and embellishment--40-50 years after Jesus' death. It seems to be a primitive, core account that is then later embedded in the larger narrative of John's gospel with physical appearances in Jerusalem and all the trappings we have come to associate with Easter.
How, when, and why the disciples began to have experiences of "sighting" Jesus is another question that can be explored in depth here. But this simple primitive account gives us much to ponder this Easter weekend.