Some Thoughts on the Resurrection of Jesus

This  article is intended to be a radically different approach to the empty-tomb narratives in Mark and John.

John and Peter racing to the tomb on Easter morning -By Burnard

In a recent issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, my friend, Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P., gives an excellent summary of contemporary biblical scholarship involving the resurrection of Jesus. In his account, the “empty-tomb narratives” of Mark and John rightly have a key place. His account can serve, also, for understanding the larger issues of contemporary biblical scholarship, if one uses it as a basis for trying to untangle the web of suppositions underpinning such scholarship.

Purpose of Present Article
The present article is intended to be a radically different approach to the empty-tomb narratives in Mark and John. It contains the present writer’s own view of the narratives. It is based on suppositions quite different from many of those governing the narratives given by Fr. Mullady (which suppositions he did not choose, of course, but merely reported). It is not intended to be a rebuttal of the views presented by Fr. Mullady, although it can be interpreted in that way. It is intended to be an alternative view, based on different suppositions. It is the view of the present writer, who has spent decades in the privileged recesses of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, trying to work it out. It is an entirely personal endeavor, and in no way is intended to represent the authority, or the views, of the Institute or of the Society of Jesus, or of the Roman Catholic Church, of whom the author is a loyal member. If the article has any merit, such merit depends on the arguments presented which are intrinsic to the text.

Operative Presuppositions
From the outset, it is necessary to outline some of the basic presuppositions which underlie the argumentation of this alternate view:

(1) The present writer believes with the certitude of faith that Jesus rose, body and soul, from the dead; this faith he received from the Roman Catholic Church as an unmerited gift when he was baptized into its communion. This source of faith can be called “Tradition” and is based, ultimately, on the revelation brought by Jesus Christ, as understood as being under the guidance which the Holy Spirit gives to Tradition in the Church.

(2) The present writer is using Scripture to attempt to understand better what his Tradition-based faith has taught him. This source of understanding his faith is also grounded in the revelation brought by Jesus Christ, and as such, can be called “Scripture.” Scripture was written under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit, and is thus to be interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit, i.e., by faith.

(3) Tradition and Scripture are each supreme in its own category, but Tradition is the more fundamental: there was a time when the Church existed without the New Testament Scripture, but there was never a time when the Church existed without Tradition. The simple reason is that Tradition, in its most basic form, gives origin to the Church.

(4) The article is thus based on the supposition that the original texts, involving the empty tomb, were written by people of faith, about people of faith, for people of faith.

(5) The article will clarify the texts as they stand on their own. The presupposition here is that the texts are substantially, as they were written, intended to be intelligible wholes and encountered as such a unity.

(6) The purpose of the exercise is to indicate how the author understands the empty-tomb narratives  in order to help him understand, less inadequately, the mystery of Jesus Christ. No attempt at “proof” is being tried here. The author considers that his belief in the resurrection of Jesus as being certain, not plausible, but this is a certitude based on the Tradition of the Church, not on his understanding of Scripture.

Mark 16:1-8   
The empty-tomb narrative in Mark would seem best approached in the context of the request, by the adversaries of Jesus, for a sign (cf. Mk 8:11-13; Mt 16:1-4; Lk 12:54-56). In Matthew and Luke, the adversaries of Jesus are told that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah; in Mark, the adversaries are told that no sign will be given. The “sign” in question, of course, is an indication from God, vindicating Jesus, and thus testifying to the legitimacy of all he said and did. In Matthew and Luke, the “sign of Jonah” is the risen Jesus. God’s raising of Jesus, and the risen Jesus who abides, is God’s sign indicating that all that Jesus said and did has his approval. Thus the resurrection appearances of Jesus in Matthew and Luke have the value of God’s sign.

In Mark, the statement by Jesus that no sign will be given, contradicts the statement by Jesus in Matthew and Luke. This is a classic problem for interpreters. The present writer takes it as a deliberate editing of the words of Jesus by Mark. The reason for this is that in Mark, Jesus himself gives the sign of divine approval, not God. In Matthew and Luke, when asked by the high priest if he is the son of God, Jesus evades a direct answer (“You say that I am”—Mt 26:63-64; Lk 22:70). In Mark, however, he answers directly: “I am” (Mk 14:62). (The words “I am” in the Greek Old Testament are a standard designation of divinity.) If only God can give a sign stamping Jesus with divine approval, then, if Jesus himself gives this sign, using a standard designation of the divinity, then Jesus partakes of the divinity of God—he is truly the “son of God” (Mk 1:1).

It is in this context that the empty-tomb narrative in Mark is to be situated. The narrative’s purpose is not to show that Jesus did not rise, but that his resurrection has no legal witnesses, and thus, that the risen Jesus has no significance. The statement giving the fact of Jesus’ rising is made by a young man inside the empty tomb. The fact that the heavy tombstone has been rolled back would seem to imply that something extraordinary had happened. Thus, the addressees, envisioned by Mark, may plausibly believe that for him, Mark, Jesus really rose. According to Mark, this resurrection cannot be validated legally, according to the standards of Mosaic Law, for at least four reasons: (1) There is only one witness and not two or more; (2) The witness is not yet of age, as is an advantage when it comes to witness, according to the Mosaic Law; (3) Women, however numerous, have no legal value as witnesses, according to the Mosaic Law; and, (4) Be that as it may, the women do not give witness to anyone, saying nothing to anyone because of their awe. This is the end of the original text of Mark’s Gospel.

The statement, that the women said nothing because they were filled with “awe,” implies that they were well aware that what the young man had told them about the resurrection of Jesus was true, with the implication that the addressees of Mark should also believe in it. But the addressees should not regard resurrection as a sign from God. Jesus himself has given that sign, and this is sufficient for the purpose of Mark’s Gospel in the eyes of that Gospel’s author. Mark believes in the reality of the resurrection, and wants others to believe. But, he considers the resurrection irrelevant for the immediate purpose of his Gospel.

John 20:1-10
The empty-tomb narrative in John offers more challenges than that of Mark for the simple reason that John is trying to make more theological points.  The principal point that John wants to make, the point of his whole Gospel, in fact, is that Jesus is divine, and all should believe this. John makes his point by looking at everything that Jesus says and does, from the standpoint of his divinity. This is in contrast to the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), who view Jesus from the standpoint of his humanity. John, of course, believed that Jesus was also human; the Synoptic writers believed that he was divine. It is a question of adopting a viewpoint to stress something.  John approaches Jesus “from above,” so to speak.  He wants to show that what Jesus revealed, by his words and deeds, opened up the world of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the believer. The Synoptics were approaching Jesus “from below,” so to speak. They want to show that what Jesus revealed, by his words and deeds, opened up the world of redemption from sin, resulting in the foundation of the Church. The two views are not meant to be contradictory, but complementary, showing how the very first Christians believed in the Christ who was simultaneously human and divine.

An example will illustrate this point. In the Synoptic Gospels, the climax of the crucifixion is the death of Jesus. In John, on the other hand, the climax of the “raising up” of Jesus (as the crucifixion is often called in John) is Jesus’ handing on of the Spirit to his mother at the foot of the cross. (God as God, of course, cannot die. Jesus, who is God, dies in the Synoptics, but Jesus as God does not die in John.) In receiving the Spirit, the mother of Jesus becomes the mother of the Church. The “disciple whom Jesus loved” is, of course, John the apostle. But in the Gospel that he writes, he assigns himself the role of beloved disciple, because that is the role Jesus assigns him. He is beloved because he believes, and he believes because he is given the Spirit through his new Mother, the Church, which Jesus here founds “from above”—that is, not through his death and resurrection as man, but through his being lifted up, and being glorified, as God.

The narrative of Jn 20:1-10 opens with an indication that it is the “first day of the week,” Sunday. This introduction indicates the liturgical relevance of Chapter 20, for Sunday was the day in the early Church when the Eucharist was celebrated. Four scenes follow: Peter and the beloved disciple visit the empty tomb (vv. 1-10); Jesus and Mary Magdalene meet at the empty tomb (vv. 11-18); Jesus bestows the Spirit on the disciples (vv. 19-23); and, Thomas sees and believes (vv. 24-29). Verses 30-31 are comments of the author of the Gospel giving the purpose of his work.

A detailed presentation of Chapter 20, in its entirety, would result in an article needlessly long. But some observations about the chapter, as a whole, are necessary for indicating John’s perspectives when he speaks of the empty tomb in vv. 1-10. Chapter 20 is designed in the perspective of John’s Gospel to complement Chapter 17. Chapter 17 is a presentation of the divine Christ, as exalted Son, to announce the Father’s name in the liturgy. Chapter 20 is a presentation of the divine Christ, as the matching exalted liturgical victim, who gives meaning to the revelation of the Father’s name by freeing from sin. These two categories correspond to the standard categories which the Church uses to understand the two functions of the risen Christ with regard to the Eucharist: (1) The risen high priest who is at God’s right hand and who presides at every Mass; and, (2) The risen victim who is present in the visible Eucharist of the consecrated host. This complementary liturgical perspective (signaled as being operative by the introductory mention of the first day of the week), and the presumption that it is to be taken into consideration in the exegesis of the chapter, results from Chapter 20 and its being subsequent in the narration to Chapter 17.

Another perspective, in which John 20 is to be viewed, is that of the beloved disciple, i.e., John, as the preeminent believer. John was obviously aware of his calling as apostle. (Notice how John never mentions his name in connection with his authorship of the fourth Gospel.  There the name “John” belongs, pre-eminently, to the Baptist, whose role in the Gospel is as the Old Testament witness to Jesus. John, the beloved Apostle, acts as the New Testament witness—thus constituting, with the other John, the two witnesses needed for validity in the Mosaic Law.) An apostle is one who, by definition, is a witness to the fact that the earthly Jesus is the risen Jesus. But John, the evangelist, wishes to avoid, as much as possible, any allusion to the resurrection, for the resurrection of Jesus implies his humanity. In place of “resurrection,” the evangelist prefers to speak about the “glorification” or “exaltation” of Jesus. The glorified Jesus is, of course, one and the same as the risen Jesus, but two separate formalities are involved: the formality of Jesus as God (John’s Gospel), and the formality of Jesus as man (the Synoptic Gospels).

With these clarifications about the presuppositions at work, the following understanding of the empty-tomb narrative in John 20 suggests itself.  The introductory wording about the first day of the week hints at the liturgical relevance of the scene, by referring to the day of the week—Sunday—on which the Eucharist was celebrated in the early Church. This alerts the addressees of the Gospel to the fact that what is to follow has relevance for the liturgical world they were living in. The appearance of Mary Magdalene, as the one who is portrayed as first discovering the empty tomb, signals that the resurrection is to have no legal standing as a sign in what follows, but the appearances of Jesus in the chapter clearly show John’s belief in it as a fact.

Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved”—that is, the one whose role is to believe as a disciple of the Church—run toward the empty tomb. The beloved disciple shows by his actions that he recognizes the pre-eminent role of Peter by ceding him the right to enter the tomb first, but not before he sees some of the burial cloths in a way which does not result in his believing. Peter then enters, sees the burial cloths carefully arranged, but is not said to believe. Then, the beloved disciple enters the tomb, sees presumably what Peter saw, and is said to believe. This carefully constructed account is theologically significant. It presents an interplay between the role of apostle, as witness to the resurrection, and the role of disciple, as one who believes. Peter (the apostle) is not able to act as witness to the resurrection on the basis of seeing the burial cloths, even when they are arranged; that is to say, the empty tomb is not sufficient to ground the witness of an apostle to the resurrection. John (the disciple) is not able to believe on the basis of burial cloths in an empty tomb, but he is able to believe on the basis of burial cloths which have been carefully arranged. This is the first presentation of the disciple, who has been designed as one who believes in the act of believing. It is a crucial moment for the entire Gospel.

What did the disciple believe? John 20:31 gives the answer: the disciple believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The fact that the burial cloths are carefully arranged suggests that the coming to life of Jesus was essentially different from the coming to life of Lazarus, who was encumbered by the burial cloth (Jn 11:44). The burial cloths of Lazarus suggest that his coming to life was the work of another; the burial cloths of Jesus suggest that his coming to life was the work of Jesus himself. Only a divine power can raise from the dead. Jesus, John inferred with the help of the Spirit, must have this power at his beck and call; Jesus must be, as claimed, Son of God in a unique sense. In Jn 17:1, the complementary and introductory chapter, “son” is used in the prayer of Jesus to the Father for “glorification.” When the disciple infers from the arrangement of the burial cloths that Jesus raised himself through divine power, the inference is, that as God, he never really died, but instead has been glorified. Thus, the external circumstances of the disciple’s coming to believe that Jesus was “Son of God” are presented.

The added element, indicated in Jn 20:31 about Jesus, is that he is “the Christ,” as foreshadowed in 17:3. It adds the element of liturgical relevance, for in John’s Gospel, divine life comes through the liturgy, centered on the Eucharist (Cf. John 6.). Thus, with the object of the beloved disciple’s belief being specified as “Christ, as Son of God,” the focal point of John’s Gospel is honored: the first official act of belief of the beloved disciple is presented.  Further, the fact that Peter does not exercise his function as witness to the resurrection on the basis of the arrangement of the clothes in the empty tomb, suggests that the empty tomb is not sufficient evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

A close reading of the empty-tomb narratives  in Mark and John thus indicates that, in neither Gospel is the claim justified that the portrayal of the empty tomb is evidence for lack of belief in the resurrection. In Mark, the tomb is portrayed as empty in order to ground the assertion that legal proof of the resurrection of Jesus is not available. This assertion is made to prevent the risen Christ from being the sign, given by God, to authenticate all that Jesus said and did: Jesus himself gives that sign, thereby showing that he is God’s Son.

In John, the tomb is presented as being empty to show indirectly that the empty tomb is not sufficient for the witness of an apostle to the resurrection. It also shows directly that the empty tomb, together with the careful arrangements of the burial cloth, were the basis for the belief of the beloved disciple that Jesus was divine, and that he was the Christ.

The reader may notice that the above interpretation is based on a very close reading of the text. And he is right to do so. The reader may notice that the above interpretation cannot be said to be “proven.” And he is right to do so. The reader may notice that the above interpretation needs much prayerful reflection, if it is to be absorbed, even after it is understood. And he is right to do so.


Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website,, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.