April 4, 2010

The Three Visits of Mary Magdalene to the Tomb of Christ

By Blessed Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky

We have read various discussions about the apparent lack of accord among the Gospel narrations of Christ's Resurrection. There have been a number of attempts at demonstrating a concordance among the Evangelists in this regard, but not all have been successful.

I wish to offer some considerations on the subject, and I wish to begin by mentioning the most obvious point of seeming lack of accord.

In Matthew's Gospel, we read that upon being greeted by the risen Lord with the word "rejoice," Mary of Magdala and the other Mary immediately embraced His feet. Nevertheless, we read elsewhere [John 20:11-17] that, when Mary of Magdala was weeping at the empty tomb and did not recognize Christ, but thought that He was the caretaker of the garden. When she did finally recognize Him, she was forbidden to touch Him.

These narratives do not appear to conform with one another, and attempts of readers to reconcile them only produce strained interpretations and unconvincing contrivances.

The four Gospels do not describe the appearances of the Lord to the Myrrhbearing women in an identical manner. What most perplexes interpreters is the lack of accord between the accounts given by Matthew and John. It is evident that the Lord appeared to Mary of Magdala twice - once alone and the other time together with the other Mary - but the relationship of these two appearances perplexes interpreters.

The thesis by which we intend to resolve this question may be expressed as follows: the Evangelist Matthew speaks of the journey of the two Marys to the Lord's tomb, already knowing that Christ had risen from the dead.

What Matthew is describing took place after the appearance described by John when Mary of Magdala had gone to the tomb and mistaken Christ for the gardener. She had informed the apostles how she had seen the Lord and He had spoken to her, then she informed the other Mary, and both of them went to the tomb. They did not go at that time to anoint the body of Jesus, because they knew that He was risen, but they went "to see the tomb, " knowing it to be empty, but knowing also that the winding strips in which He had been buried were still there. It was not only them and the two apostles who rushed to the tomb to verify what Mary of Magdala had seen, but later, the other myrrhbearers and more than eleven others also went (Luke 24:9, 24). The Evangelist informs us that the two Mary's were made worthy of a second appearance of the angel and then of the Lord Himself.

What other evidence do we have, besides Matthew's words that they went "to see the tomb," that the events in that gospel took place after the events described in John's gospel? The second evidence is that John describes the events that occurred "while it was yet dark," while Matthew clearly speaks of something that happened "at dawn on the first day of the week."

The third point which requires our attention is the reaction of the myrrhbearers to the angel's words, and to Christ Himself. In John's Gospel, Mary appears so unprepared for the event that she cannot assimilate it and takes Christ for a gardener; in Mark's account, the angel's words bring the myrrhbearers to such terror that they "said nothing to anyone because they were afraid." Luke writes that they were overcome with fear and prostrated themselves on the ground.

Matthew's narration, on the other hand, encounters the myrrh-bearers already prepared for the encounter, though the angel reassures them: "Do not be afraid. Go and see the place where the Lord lay." In Mark's gospel, we read of the other myrrhbearing women that they "said nothing to anyone because they were afraid." Matthew, however, relates of the two Mary's that they ran "with fear and joy to announce to His disciples" that He had risen. For Mary Magdalene, this was the second encounter, and the other Mary who knew about it from her receives the news again from the Saviour Himself, being already prepared for it. From whence is this evident?

The answer to this is over fourth proof that the two women had gone to see the tomb already knowing about the Resurrection. This answer will also tell us why the Lord did not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him the first time, but shortly after allowed both Mary's to embrace His feet.

In the Pentecostarion, on the feast of the Myrrhbearing women, we read in the ninth stichera that Mary Magdalene, "...is sent away without touching Christ..." What does it mean? Mary, who had earlier wept over her beloved teacher, seeing Him buried, is now seized with an overwhelming joy. Without comprehending His divinity or thinking about the meaning of His mysterious resurrection, she forgets herself and wishes to embrace Him as one dear to her whom she thought to be dead and gone, but is now seen alive. She gives herself over to enthusiastic joy, without comprehension.

Moreover, something is not yet complete, for He must "ascend" to the Father. Later, the Lord behaves differently to the two Marys. This time, the two women are fully aware that the Lord is appearing to the faithful as the victor over death and hades, as one ascending to the Father in the eternal kingdom, and with all authority, sending the Apostles to preach the victorious struggle with the world. Now, both women, encountering him and hearing Him greeting, "rejoice," no longer think in a worldly manner, but reverence Him as the living Son of God. Thus, He does not prevent their reverent adoration as "embrace His feet and worship Him" (Matt 28:9).

Very well, we have seen the accord between the gospels of Matthew and John, but how will we reconcile the narrative of the other two evangelists? At what point will we place the arrival of Mary of Magdala with spices and ointments, at the tomb, in the company of the other women mentioned in Mark and Luke?

The main point of our reply is that Mary Magdalene did not accompany the other women to the Lord's tomb with the spices, but the other women came after Mary had been there, and perhaps after the two Marys had seen the Lord at His second appearance, but they did not yet know about the resurrection. These other women arrived completely unprepared for the revelation of the resurrection, and there is no need to conclude that Mary Magdalene was with them; indeed, the evangelists leave open the possibility of the opposite conclusion. Both the other evangelists divide the narrative into three events:

1. The purchase of the Myrrh and spices (Mark) and the storing of them for later use (Luke);

2. The arrival at the tomb and conversation with an angel (Mark) or angels (Luke); and

3. The announcement to the apostles.

Let us begin with this last event. It is not necessary to conclude from Mark's narration that the women did not ever inform the apostles of the appearance of the angel. Mark only notes that they could not do so immediately, and that the apostles heard the news from Mary Magdalene, to whom the Lord had "appeared first" (Mark 16:9).

You see, Mark singles her out from the group of other myrrhbearers and, consequently, separates the informing of the apostles from the bringing of the spices and myrrh. Mark does not speak of her as participating in the bringing of the spices to the tomb, but only of her participation in the purchase of them (16:1) - which took place on Saturday evening, after the end of the Sabbath restrictions, that is, after the sixth hour.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone "while it was still dark," and without the spices and ointments. The other women came with the myrrh and spices "at sunrise" (16:2). The Lord did not appear to all of them but only to Mary Magdalene who, therefore, was not with the others (16:9). Mark names those who purchased the spices and ointments, and those who had watched the Lord's burial, but does not repeat the names when he speaks about the bringing of the spices to the tomb.

Luke does not name the ones who prepared the myrrh, nor the ones who brought it to the tomb, but indicates that the two groups were not identical ("together with some others" Luke 24:9). Evidently some of them had obtained myrrh and spices already on Friday after the Saviour's death, but remained at rest on the Sabbath according to the law (Luke 23:55), while others purchased ointment and spices after the end of the prescribed Sabbath rest (Mark 16:1). Luke does not name the women who brought the spices, but only says of someone, "returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to the other disciples. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the Mother of James who told this to the apostles" (Luke 24:10).

In fact, as John and Mark recall, it was Mary of Magdala who began the spreading of the good news. Since the news was spread to all the disciples in addition to the eleven,:this did not happen all at once. The women had to go from house to house -- not only the two Marys, but the other myrrh-bearers as well. The testimony of Mary relates to the words of the third gospel and the gospel of John that Peter and John ran to the tomb. Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen winding strips.

Thus, the four gospels are in perfect agreement on this succession of events:

1) Some of the women purchased spices and ointment on Friday before the end of the day (Luke), while others, including Mary Magdalene, did so at the end of the Sabbath - after the sixth hour on Saturday (Mark).

2) Mary Magdalene left the others and went to the tomb at night before the morning of Sunday. There, she does not find the body of Christ (John).

3) She runs to tell Peter and John (Luke, John), and then stands alone outside the tomb weeping, when an angel appears to her, and then Jesus, whom she does not recognise. She rushes to Him, but is not allowed to touch Him.

4) Obeying His command, she goes to announce the news to the apostles (John, Mark) and the other disciples (Luke).

5) Not knowing about all this, the other myrrh-bearers come to the tomb and encounter the angels (Mark,Luke) and return too tearful to speak at first (Mark), but later also proclaim the news to everyone (Luke).

6) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, already aware of the resurrection, go to look at the tomb and the Lord's burial bandages, which Peter and John had seen (Luke, John), but which Mary herself had not seen for herself. Coming to the tomb, this time both Mary's enter it, as the angel advises them to (Matthew).

7) The angel now instructs them to confirm the news of the resurrection to the disciples and announce the coming of Christ's ascension.

8) Now fully comprehending the events, both Mary's hasten to find the apostles again, but meet the Saviour along the way, and this time, they are allowed to touch Him, embracing His feet (Matthew).

9) By the end of the day, not only the whole company of the disciples, but even the Pharisees and scribes have heard the news. These latter begin to attempt to cover up the facts.

It is clear that the two Marys went to the tomb together after Mary Magdalene had already been there alone, and that both already knew of the resurrection.(1)


1. [Ed. Note:] In fact, in the Menaion for 22 July, Saint Nikiforos says the same. "Mary Magdalene came thrice to the tomb, twice seeing Christ. First, at night, and then telling Peter and John, with whom she returned. Then with another a third time, seeing the Lord again and hearing Him say "rejoice" (Matthew, Chapter 28).