‘Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist’

Easter Sunday, 2024
John 20:1-18

John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus begins and ends with Mary Magdalene. In verse one she is heading to the tomb of Jesus before it is even daylight. At the end of this initial resurrection account, in verse 18, she has returned to the city, for the second time that morning, and is proclaiming to the disciples that Jesus has risen. There can be no doubt of the significance John gives to Mary in this story.

But just who was Mary Magdalene? How does she come to be the first witness of the empty tomb? The first to see and hear the risen Lord? And the first to proclaim his resurrection?

Mary Magdalene was so-named in the gospels because she was from the town of Magdala, which lay on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee between Tiberius, the regional capital to the south, and Gennesaret to the north. Little today is known of the town, which was destroyed in the Jewish uprising against Rome in 70 AD. Archeology suggests it was significant, urbanized town, and we also know that the building of boats and the drying and pickling of fish were the dominant industries there. Rabbis at the time of Jesus criticized the inhabitants for their lose morals. None of the Gospels mention whether Jesus visited the town, but given that it was in Galilee and that one of his early and most devoted followers was Mary from Magdala, it is safe to assume that he had some ministry there.

Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus cleansed Mary from seven demons (Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9). So Mary was a woman who was in a great deal of strife and pain before meeting Jesus. She was a woman who owed Jesus everything. From the time that Jesus healed her it seems that she did not leave the close band of disciples who followed Jesus. She is mentioned in all four gospels, and all four list her as being a witness both to the crucifixion and the empty tomb. And John and Mark agree that she was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. She stood beside Jesus’ mother Mary and John at the cross. And when others left, she remained to see where Jesus would be buried (Mark 15:47), which is how she knew where to go before dawn on that Sunday morning. And that is basically what we know of Mary Magdalene. She was not the Mary who anointed Jesus before his death, and there is no biblical evidence that she had been a woman of ill repute.

But what we do know of Mary is enough.

Apart from John, it was the female disciples of Jesus, including Mary, who did not run and hide when Jesus was led to the cross. When Jesus was dead and others left in despair, it is Mary who stayed to see where his body would be taken. And it was not the disciples who went to the tomb before dawn as soon as the Sabbath was finished. It was Mary Magdalene.

And that is where John picks up the story. Mary shows up at the tomb apparently with no plan as to how she roll the sealing stone away so as to further minister to Jesus’ body the traditional rites for the dead. But in the early light she notices something unexpected. The stone has already been rolled away. She looks into the tomb and finds it empty.

Her thoughts race. She is not thinking that Jesus has risen, but that his body had been stolen or moved. She does the only thing she can think to do. She hurries to be place where Peter and the other disciples are hiding, probably the upper room they had rented for the Passover, the same room in which a few days earlier they had eaten with Jesus and he had washed their feet. She wakes them with the news, and Peter and John rush to the tomb to see for themselves what has happened. They do not wait for Mary as they run. And John does not wait for Peter. These are people still in grief and shock, and now in a panic.

John arrives first and sees the tomb empty apart from the linen burial cloths, but does not go in. Peter runs straight past John when he arrives and goes into the tomb. It is indeed empty, and the linen wrappings are lying where the body of Jesus had lain, but the head wrapping, or Soudarion, is rolled up, or folded, laying separately. And this is an odd and interesting detail. But it is an important detail, for the evangelist tells us that when he saw the burial cloths for the head in his state, he believed. But why?

Many have speculated on the significance of the head wrapping laying folded and separate to the other burial cloths. If you look on the internet you will very quickly find one recently popular theory that a folded napkin in Jesus’ time meant that a dinner guest was coming back. Some versions of this story say that it applied only to kings. So the point is that the folded head covering meant Jesus would be returning.

But there are problems with this explanation. Firstly, napkins were not used at table for meals in this period. And even if they had been, it would be a long leap from napkin to burial head covering and from dinner table to tomb. More importantly, no source from the ancient world has ever been given that cites this custom, and no biblical commentary even mentions it. A more thorough search of the web reveals an explanation. The story first arose on the internet in 2007, not in Jesus’ time. So we will need to look elsewhere to understand the significance of this detail.  

Another view is that the presence of the burial cloths simply demonstrated that the body of Jesus had not been stolen or moved. After all, who would strip a body of burial cloths, then move the body, leaving the wrappings behind. And if they did, why take the time to fold them neatly?

A more powerful and more likely explanation is to be found in looking more closely at the meaning of the Greek verb entylissein, literally to wrap or to roll up in an oval shape. Translators have long struggled with how to translate the word, and have often settled on ‘wrapped up’ or ‘folded’, as this seems to make sense in the context. But what if John literally meant that the head cloth was still wrapped in an oval shape? This would convey the sense of the head wrapping as still in-tact, in the shape of the head and face which it had covered. That is, it had not been unwrapped. The many ointments used by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would have been more than enough to hold the cloths’ shape in place. And such cloths did not simply fall loosely off. When Lazarus was raised he came out from the tomb completely wrapped in his burial cloths and Jesus has to instruct those standing by to unwrap him. So, if the head cloths were still wrapped and in place, perhaps even with the outline of the head and face still showing, that would have been quite remarkable. If Jesus could appear through walls and closed doors, as happened later that night, then it seems John is telling us that his resurrected body simply left its burial cloths without unwrapping them. It would explain why John tells us that when he saw the burial cloths in this manner, he believed.

Whatever the situation was with the burial cloths, it was clear that something truly extraordinary had taken place in the tomb.

With nothing else to investigate or be done, Peter and John decide to leave. And the focus shifts back to Mary. For by this time, Mary has certainly caught up, and has arrived at the tomb. But Peter and John do not wait for her. They do not share with her their thoughts. They do not stay to keep vigil with her at the empty tomb.

In hindsight, they should have waited. For things are about to turn from mysterious to miraculous.

First, Mary, who is still weeping, sees two angels in the tomb, one sitting where Jesus’ head had been, and the other, his feet. She likely rubbed her tear covered eyes thinking she was seeing things. But the visions spoke audibly to her. They asked a simple question of Mary: ‘Why are you crying?’

On the surface of it, it was a silly question. Mary was at a fresh tomb. Someone she deeply loved had died. Why did they think she was crying? But Mary gives them an honest and obvious answer to the question. Not only was Jesus dead, but his body had been taken away and she does not know where it has been laid. The wording of her answer to the angels’ question is virtually identical to what she had said to Peter and John when she found them earlier that morning. Her concern has not changed. The missing body has added grief upon grief for Mary.

It is a natural response. We often see the relatives of those killed perhaps in a boating accident, or plane crash or some other way in which the body has not been found. They are still coming to terms with the loss of their loved one, but now all they want to do, all they can do, is find the body to say a proper goodbye. That is the situation Mary was in.

Then Mary becomes aware that there is someone else present apart from the angels. There is someone behind her, outside the tomb. She turns and sees a man whom she presumes to be the caretaker. And after so many tears since Jesus was killed, and now even more that his body in missing, there is little need of explanation as to why she does not recognise Jesus. He asks her, just like the angels, why she is crying. Again, it must seem to her an obvious question. But the man adds to the question by asking, ‘who are you looking for?’ Well, she is in a cemetery. She could only be looking for a grave. And clearly she has found the grave she is looking for. The questioner seems to know more about what is going on in Mary’s mind than a stranger should, but Mary does not pick up on this. Instead, assuming him to be the caretaker who has just showed up for work, she asks where the body had been taken. Perhaps the authorities have decided someone crucified as a criminal should not be buried in such a prominent section of the cemetery. She will quite happily take the body somewhere else.

Then the man says a single word. Her name. ‘Mary.’ And that is all it takes to spark sudden and complete recognition. Her tears of grief turn to joy as she cries out ‘Rabbouni! Teacher!’ She grabs hold of Jesus to hug him, to assure herself that he is real and that she is not dreaming. Jesus says she should not cling to him as he has not yest ascended to the Father.

Then Jesus gives her a task to perform. She is to go the disciples and tell them what has happened. She is to proclaim to them the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead. This she promptly does, making her second trip that morning to the room where the disciples are hiding. Breathless, she announces, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ then tells them the whole story.

Now this story is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, people simply do not rise from the dead. So at the very centre of this story is the event of the resurrection itself. It is an event that changed the history of the world and transformed millions of lives.

Also remarkable is Jesus’ choice of the first witness to the empty tomb, to his resurrected body, and the first to proclaim his resurrection. Women were not highly valued as witnesses in Jesus’ time. Rabbinic law, which began to be codified about a century after the time of Jesus, said that the testimony of women was not admissible in court. Other evidence suggests that it took the testimony of two women to equal that of one man. And Mary Magdalene was not even a prominent, respectable woman. Jesus could have appeared to Pilate, to the high priest, perhaps to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, members of the Sanhedrin. Even Peter and John would have been a more strategic move to get the proclamation of the good new going.

But consider this. Jesus waits for Peter and John to leave the cemetery. Only then does he reveal himself – to Mary. His intent in revealing himself first to Mary Magdalene was clearly not to make a big impact in the arena of acceptable evidence. The reasons underlying Jesus’ decision would seem to have been much more personal and profound than such concerns.

So what is the takeaway message from this story for us, on this Easter day, some two thousand years after the first Easter?

I think it is simply this. It is the power of the message that Jesus is risen that transforms lives – that transforms the world. It is not the fame or respectability of those proclaiming the message. It never has been. Even now, it doesn’t matter who we are. How unimportant we think we are, or how invisible we might feel. Like Mary, we are given a task by Jesus – to tell people the good news that he is risen. That he has conquered death. And from the simple of power of that proclamation – ‘He is risen’ – everything begins to change.

Mary was the first to proclaim this good news. But she was far from the last. The message that Jesus lives, that death is defeated, continues to spread. On this Easter, may that message change your life. And may God use each one of us to stand in the line of succession of Mary Magdalene, and pass on the story of Jesus’ victory over death.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.