Easter the tomb is empty!!!!
iii. The empty tomb and the risen Lord (28:1–10)
The New Testament nowhere describes Jesus’ resurrection. All we are given is an account of its effects, from two points of view: the tomb was found to be empty, and the disciples met the risen Lord. This central paragraph of Matthew’s concluding section includes both these lines of ‘evidence’ (hence the title given above), while the succeeding paragraphs will take both further, the empty tomb in vv. 11–15 and the risen Lord in vv. 16–20. In all of this there is no doubt an element of Christian apologetic, aiming to supply evidence to support the Christian claim of Jesus’ resurrection. But the emphasis throughout (except in the story of the guard) is not on factual proof for the non-Christian world, but on the impact of the incredible truth on Jesus’ bewildered and exhilarated followers, on their fear and joy, doubt and assurance. It is with the restoration of their broken relationship with him, with all that this implies for their continuing mission, that Matthew will conclude his book.
The difficulty of harmonizing all the details of the Gospel accounts of both the empty tomb and the resurrection appearance is notorious. A lack of precise agreement in independent accounts of such a bewildering series of events is hardly surprising. How far Matthew’s account is independent of that of Mark is much debated. His verses 1 and 5–8 are broadly similar to Mark, but he omits some of Mark’s detail (particularly the intended anointing and the discussion about the stone), and has included in vv. 2–4 a much more explicitly ‘supernatural’ account of the ‘angel of the Lord’ who apparently corresponds to the ‘young man’ of Mark 16:5. Whether vv. 9–10 represent a tradition unknown to Mark depends on the still unresolved question of whether Mark’s Gospel originally ended at 16:8.
1. The wording of RSV points clearly to the period about dawn on the Sunday. The first phrase, opse … sabbatōn, more naturally means ‘late on the Sabbath’, while the verb epiphōskō, translated towards the dawn, is used in Luke 23:54 for the ‘beginning’ of a Jewish day in the evening. On this basis Black (pp. 136–138)55 argues that Matthew is speaking of the Saturday evening. This would be at odds with all the other Gospels, which locate the women’s arrival at or just before dawn. But elsewhere epiphōskō refers to dawn, and there are clear parallels for opse used to mean ‘after’ as in RSV (see BAGD, p. 610b), so that the RSV translation seems preferable. Mark’s ‘very early … when the sun had risen’ is quite unambiguous, and it is hard to understand why Matthew should have wanted to alter such a clear tradition. To see the sepulchre is a rather colourless motive compared with that indicated in Mark 16:1–2, particularly as they have already ‘seen’ it in 27:61, but Matthew’s interest is not in the women’s intention, but in their unexpected experience. It has often been remarked that the role of women as the first witnesses both of the empty tomb and of the risen Lord can hardly be an apologetic fiction, as women were not accepted as witnesses in Jewish society.
2. For the earthquake, cf. on 27:51. There it served to open the graves of the ‘saints’; here it is presumably the means by which the stone is moved. The angel of the Lord now appears for the first time since the two opening chapters of the Gospel (see on 1:20). There he was the mouthpiece for God’s messages of explanation and of instruction to Joseph and the Magi. Here too he comes to explain and to instruct in vv. 5–7. There is no suggestion that the opening of the tomb is necessary to allow the risen Christ to come out; indeed in v. 6 it is clear that he has already risen. The women are called not to see him rising (it is this motif which is added by the ‘Gospel of Peter’), but to see that he has risen; the opening of the tomb is thus for their benefit, not for his.
3–4. The description of the angel echoes Daniel 10:6 (‘his face like the appearance of lightning’), and the vision of God himself in Daniel 7:9 (‘raiment white as snow’). For the reaction of the guards, compare again Daniel 10:7–9, and the response in Revelation 1:17 to a vision which was also described in terms partly drawn from Daniel 7:9–10. So the ‘angel of the Lord’ is seen here, as often in the Old Testament, as more than a mere ‘messenger’; the description is not far from that of a theophany. He comes with all the majesty of God, and mortals cannot stand before him (hence also the women’s fear in vv. 5, 8).
5–7. The guards are ignored for the rest of the paragraph; the angel’s message is only for the women. The invitation to see the place where he lay is appropriately addressed to the same people who had watched the body being deposited (27:60–61)—so there is no possibility of mistake; the one who has risen is the same Jesus who was crucified. This was as he said, for Matthew has recorded several explicit predictions of the resurrection (16:21; 17:23; 20:19, and implicitly 12:40). But the one the angel refers to specifically is 26:32, ‘After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee’, a prediction which is about to be fulfilled in vv. 16–20. There you will see him confirms our conclusion on 26:32, that proagō in this context means ‘to go on ahead’ rather than ‘to lead’. The disciples (unlike the women, vv. 9–10) must wait until Galilee to see the risen Jesus.
The emphasis on Galilee in vv. 7, 10, 16, making it the place where the whole story ends in a triumphant climax, is the culmination of Matthew’s tendency throughout to emphasize Galilee as the place where light dawns (4:12–16), as opposed to Jerusalem, the city where Jesus meets rejection and death, and over which he can only lament as he predicts its violent fate (23:37–39). It is often suggested that this ‘bias’ of Matthew (and Mark) accounts for the fact that he records no appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem, whereas Luke and John focus them there (though John 21 adds a subsequent Galilean appearance). On this see Stonehouse (ch. VI); he argues that Matthew’s account, besides explicitly recording an appearance to the women in Jerusalem, does not exclude Jesus’ appearing to the eleven in Jerusalem prior to the Galilee episode of vv. 16–20.
8. The addition of joy to the fear which Mark mentions already begins to prepare for the exultant climax to come in vv. 17–20. The mixed emotion is surely the natural result of what has gone before. To tell suggests that, as Luke 24:9–11 records, they did pass on the message immediately. The contrast with Mark’s ‘They said nothing to anyone’ is striking, but Mark can hardly have meant this to be understood as more than a temporary silence, unless he wanted to depict the women as disobedient to the command in his v. 7. In the absence of knowledge of what, if anything, originally followed Mark 16:8, we cannot be sure how to interpret their silence.
9–10. No appearance of Jesus to the women outside the tomb is mentioned by Luke, and Luke 24:22–24 seems to leave no place for it. Moreover Luke 24:34 seems to suggest that the first appearance was to Peter, and 1 Corinthians 15:5 indicates the same, if Paul’s list is meant to be chronological. But in view of the invalidity of women as witnesses, it is hardly to be expected that Paul’s all—male list should include them. John 20:11–17, like Matthew, also records the first appearance as experienced by Mary of Magdala (who strangely speaks in the plural in v. 2, and so may not have been alone), and two striking coincidences (touching Jesus, and the message to Jesus’ ‘brothers’) suggest that the same incident may lie behind these verses. In that case Matthew here records an event which Luke omitted, perhaps because he was more concerned with the testimony of the twelve than with that of women.
Dunn (pp. 126–128) suggests that some of the ambiguity in the resurrection accounts with regard to the role of the ‘young man’, the angel(s) and the risen Lord may be due to the fact that the women, in their ‘muddled state of fear and joy’, were themselves not quite sure whom or what they had seen. ‘They came to recognize the vision as an appearance of Jesus (perhaps on the basis of Peter’s experience), but their account of it was so confused and confusing that it was not taken seriously by the other disciples. Some ignored it, since the testimony of women did not count anyway; some interpreted it as “a vision of angels”; some accepted it as a genuine appearance of the risen Lord.’
‘Hail!’ represents the normal Greek greeting, an almost homely ‘Hello!’, in contrast with the fearsome appearance of the angel. Their worship (see on 2:2; 8:2; etc.) and taking hold of his feet is an appropriate response of glad and reverent homage, and the physical contact (the occurrence of which perhaps explains John 20:17, ‘Do not hold me’) is not emphasized in such a way as might suggest that Matthew included it as a deliberate attack on ‘docetic’ ideas of the resurrection (cf. Luke 24:39–43). Even if not so designed, however, it forms an interesting incidental confirmation of the physical reality of the risen Jesus.
Jesus’ words do not simply repeat those of the angel. In addition to the not inconsiderable fact that this time it is Jesus himself who confirms his former promise, v. 10 adds a specific command to go to Galilee, and most remarkably designates the disciples as my brethren, a term which in the light of its use in 12:49–50 and 25:40 must surely mean the disciples rather than the ‘brothers’ of 12:46; 13:55. For the extent of this group, see below, on 28:16.