THE WOMEN AT THE TOMB:
EARLY WITNESSES TO THE RESURRECTION
The Rev. Harold Shepherd, CD, M.A., S.T.M., LL.B., LL.M., Ph.D.
Sermon from Easter Sunday, 2004
But on the first day of the week, at
early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that
they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from
the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the
body...and returning from the tomb, they told all this to
the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene,
Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with
them who told this to the apostles... Luke
We hear a lot about the twelve apostles in New Testament writings, but not much about the women who followed Jesus. The accounts of Easter morning are a notable exception. The first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were the women among his followers. What do we know about them? According to Luke 8:1-3, Jesus traveled through cities and villages with an entourage of both men and women: “The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four Gospels as being present at the tomb on Easter morning. According to Luke 8, she was restored to wholeness of spirit by Jesus. There is much speculation about whether she is the sinner forgiven by Jesus in Luke 7:26-50 or even Mary, Martha’s sister. If Mary was the sinner referred to in Acts 7, it may well be that Luke protected her identity out of respect for an honored member of the Church. Another hint at her identity can be found in her name. Mary was a common name, likely inspired by the name of Moses’ sister Mariam (Numbers 12:1). The etymology of the name is contested, with opinions ranging from bitter, corpulent, beautiful, or lady in Hebrew to “beloved” if the name is of Egyptian origin. Regardless of its origin, it was a common name within the Judaism of Jesus’ day, as can be seen from the number of women bearing this name. In order to distinguish her from the other Marys, she was given the nickname of “Magdalene.” There are two main hypotheses about this name. First, it could indicate that her home town was Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. Second, the Talmud uses the term Magdalene to refer to an adulteress (curling women’s hair)- the idea being that in Aramaic, the term refers to women who curl their hair and otherwise make themselves attractive in order to engage in adultery. If this is how the term was used with respect to Mary, it may well connect her either to the sinner who came to Jesus for forgiveness in Luke 7 or to an unreported occurrence that was similar in nature. On the other hand, this usage of the term so pejorative that one wonders whether the disciples and the early Church would have used it as a nickname for her- Mary, the adulteress, or Mary, the hooker, especially given her conversion and exemplary role in following Jesus to the cross. It is more likely that it refers to her hometown. If this Mary was the sister of Martha and was visited by Jesus (Luke 10:28-42), it is difficult to understand why Luke would not have identified her as Magdalene, given that Mary is cast in a positive light here.
Luke 8 tells us that Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza. The Herod in question is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Perea on behalf of the Romans from 3 B.C. to A.D. 39. His capital was at Sepphoris, about three miles from Nazareth. The office of steward is mentioned in various places in the Gospels and refers to a person who administers the estate of another person. In this case, Chuza would have been the chief financial officer of the tetrarchy, a very powerful position indeed.
Mary, the mother of James, is one of three women mentioned in Matthew 27:56: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John). Mark 15:40 refers to her as the mother of James the Younger and Joses (Joseph). The James referred to here is James, son of Alphaeus, another of the apostles (Matthew 10:3, Acts 1:13), not Jesus’ brother or the brother of John.
According to Luke 8, the women who followed Jesus made material provisions out of their own resources. .When the men fled on Good Friday, the woman witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. Their desire to properly prepare Jesus body for burial on Easter morning made them the first to recognize that Jesus had risen.
The Gospels give us a glimpse into the nature of Jesus’ followers. Rather than being limited to twelve disciples (from the point of view of being pupils of a rabbi), Jesus’ entourage includes unsung heros whose contribution has been undervalued. The Easter accounts help to correct this picture, particularly with respect to the women who followed him. While listening to Jesus’ teachings is important, humble service can often lead to encountering Jesus in unexpected, but glorious, ways. Thanks be to God!