Was Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the First Person to See the Risen Lord Outside the Empty Tomb?

by John Fotopoulos | ελληνικά | Română | српски

In Orthodox icons of Jesus’s empty tomb and resurrection, it is common to see Mary the mother of Jesus depicted as one of the myrrhbearing women. A related theme, although perhaps depicted less frequently in icons, is that the Virgin Mary saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb. Indeed, some Orthodox Christians today insist that Mary the mother of Jesus not only saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb, but that she was the first to see him there. Where did these traditions about Mary at the empty tomb originate, and are they corroborated by evidence from the four canonical gospels? 

It is probable that these traditions about Mary the mother of Jesus at the tomb originated from the Diatessaron (attributed to Tatian c. 160-180), a harmony of the four gospels widely used by churches in Syria until the 5th century. Because the four gospels contain differences as well as contradictions that are difficult to reconcile, the Diatessaron selectively combines material from the four gospels to create a single, cohesive gospel. In the Diatessaron, the identities of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus seem to have been fused intentionally so that Mary the mother of Jesus—rather than Mary Magdalene as in John 20:1-18—can be understood as going to the tomb alone, where she saw the risen Jesus. One possible motivation for this fusion of Mary Magdalene with Mary the mother of Jesus may have stemmed from a desire to counter certain Gnostic groups that emphasized a special love Jesus had for Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, the presence of Jesus’s mother at the tomb and her encounter with the risen Jesus also became elements in some apocryphal and Gnostic writings from the 2nd-4th centuries.

By the 5th century, there were concerted efforts in Syria by some church leaders to eliminate the Diatessaron, although the belief that Mary the mother of Jesus went to the empty tomb and saw the risen Lord had already spread among Syrian Christians. The first Orthodox Father to express such belief is Ephrem the Syrian in his Commentary on the Diatessaron (c. 363-373). Ephrem promotes, via his use of the Diatessaron, a fusion of Mary Magdalene with Mary the mother of Jesus so that Jesus’s mother is the one who sees the risen Jesus and expresses a gesture of affection for him, eliciting Jesus’s response, “Do not hold on to me (5.1-5; cf. John 20:17).

Romanos the Melodist (6th century) also adhered to a belief in the presence of Jesus’s mother at the tomb and resurrection by fusing her with Mary Magdalene. Although Romanos is known as a prolific Byzantine hymnographer, he was from Syria and sometimes borrowed or quoted from the Diatessaron in his hymns. In Romanos’s poetic dramatization of Jesus’s crucifixion in Hymn 35, Jesus’s mother verbally articulates her emotional agony to her son. In response Jesus tells her, “Take courage, Mother, for you will be the first to see me out of the tomb” (35.12 [SC 128:176]).

Sophronius of Jerusalem is another Orthodox Father who, in his own way, expressed the fusion of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus. Sophronius, a Syrian from Damascus, served as Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634-638. In one of his short hymns on the resurrection (Triodion [PG 87C:3920]), Sophronius states that Jesus’s mother alone—prior to any other women—saw the risen Christ shining out of the tomb, and that only she heard his greeting of χαῖρε (2nd person singular imperative, “Rejoice”). Sophronius, consistent with Diatessaron’s incorporation of John 20:1-18, replaces Mary Magdalene with Jesus’s mother at the empty tomb and as witness to the risen Jesus. However, Sophronius’s understanding of the risen Jesus’s greeting to his mother alone outside the tomb also incorporates Sophronius’s reimagining of Matt 28:1-10. However, Matthew actually writes that two women see the risen Jesus outside the tomb and Jesus greets both with χαίρετε (2nd person plural imperative, “Rejoice”). Moreover, neither woman is referred to as the mother of Jesus.

The earliest iconographic representation of Jesus’s mother at the empty tomb and as a witness to the risen Jesus can be found in the Rabbula Gospels, a codex in Syriac dated 586. Although the folio with the illumination (13r) is not original to the codex, it most likely came from Greek-speaking Syria and seems to date from the 6th century. Jesus’s mother is certainly depicted at the tomb and resurrection because she is also present in another illumination portraying the crucifixion on the same folio. Jesus’s mother is easily identified at the crucifixion scene (based on John 19:18-37) since she is the only woman next to the Beloved Disciple and the only woman with a nimbus. This enables a straightforward identification of Jesus’s mother among the two women depicted at the empty tomb scene (based on Matt 28:1-10) since both women wear the same clothing as at the crucifixion, while Jesus’s mother is again the only woman with a nimbus.

Although some Orthodox today point to Ambrose of Milan’s De virginitate liber unus (4th century) and John Chrysostom’s Homily 88 on Matthew (4th century) as promoting the view that Jesus’s mother went to the tomb and first saw the risen Jesus, neither Ambrose nor Chrysostom clearly articulate such a position in those homilies. In Ambrose’s discussion of Jesus’s tomb without reference to Jesus’s mother, Ambrose states, “Then Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord, and she saw first and believed. Mary Magdalene also saw, although she doubted” (3:14, [PL 16.270]). Here Ambrose attempts to harmonize Matt 28:1-10 with John 20:1-18. Ambrose is referring to “the other Mary” who went to the tomb with Mary Magdalene (Matt 28:1), but he does not say that this other Mary is Jesus’s mother—although he does convey that this other Mary was a virgin. However, Ambrose identifies all the women who went to Jesus’s tomb as virgins in order to promote virginity among his audience. Chrysostom, commenting on Matthew’s version of the crucifixion, notes the women’s bravery at the cross and states that after seeing the signs accompanying Jesus’s death, women are those who “first see Jesus” and “first enjoy the sight of the benefactions” (PG 58.777), whereas the male disciples had fled. Although Chrysostom’s intent is somewhat ambiguous, he seems to be referring to the women’s sight of Jesus’s salvific death, rather than the resurrection. Nevertheless, Chrysostom then identifies Jesus’s mother as “Mary the mother of James,” one of the women at the cross. If Chrysostom is taken to imply that Jesus’s mother was one of the women that went to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus, this seems to be the only instance where Chrysostom makes such a connection in his massive corpus.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of other Fathers from the 5th–8th centuries that more clearly express the belief that Jesus’s mother went to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus. As Byzantine Mariology further developed, from the 9th century more Fathers can be found who reflect on the presence of Jesus’s mother at the tomb and resurrection. Byzantines such as Pseudo-Maximus (9th century), George of Nicomedia (9th century), John Geometres (10th century), and Symeon Metaphrastes (10th century)—whose reflections on the life of the Virgin Mary were more hagiographical than historical—promote ideas about Mary’s involvement in Jesus’s burial and resurrection that contradict the four gospels. An example of this is when George of Nicomedia describes Mary the mother of Jesus taking the initiative to bury Jesus in a new tomb, to wash Jesus’s body after it was removed from the cross, and to anoint the body with Joseph and Nicodemus. After Jesus’s body was buried, George explains that Joseph and Nicodemus departed, leaving Mary alone at the tomb. There she waited for Jesus’s resurrection (Homily 8: On Mary Standing at the Cross and the Burial of Christ [PG 100:1488C) and was the first to see him risen from the dead (Homily 9: On the Immaculate Virgin’s Vigil at the Tomb [PG 100:1489D–1492D]). However, another Byzantine, Epiphanios of Kallistratos (8th/9th century) asserts that Mary the mother of Jesus did not go to the tomb due to her great sorrow, nor did she see the risen Jesus there (Life of the Virgin 21 [PG 120:209]). Finally, it should be noted that George of Nicomedia does not believe that Mary the mother of Jesus is the “the other Mary” (Matt 28:1) who went to the tomb. George distinguishes between the women by pointing out that that Jesus’s mother stood near the cross (John 19:25), whereas Matt 27:55-56 states that Mary the mother of James (whom George identifies as “the other Mary”) was looking on the crucifixion from a distance (Homily 9 [PG 100:1493]).

A peak of pious Byzantine reflection on Jesus’s mother at the tomb and resurrection can be found in Gregory Palamas’s Homily 18: On the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers (14th century). When the risen Jesus appeared outside the tomb, Palamas states that Jesus’s mother was the first to see the risen Lord and “the first and only one to touch his spotless feet, even if the evangelists do not mention all these things clearly” (18.3.13).  However, Matthew’s Gospel unambiguously refutes Palamas’s assessment. Matthew states that after Mary Magdalene and the other Mary saw the angel at the empty tomb, they quickly departed to tell the disciples. Matt 28:9 reads, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Rejoice!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” Matthew’s Greek plurals make clear that both women encountered the risen Jesus, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Palamas identifies “the other Mary” of Matt 28:1 with Jesus’s mother, stating that the reason why she was not identified as Jesus’s mother was to avoid generating suspicion about the resurrection among unbelievers. However, Palamas’s argument is specious because the gospels were written for Christians, not for unbelievers, whereas all those who testified that they saw the risen Jesus in the immediate days after the resurrection were Jesus’s devoted followers or relatives. 

Only Matthew’s Gospel describes a woman other than Mary Magdalene seeing the risen Jesus outside the tomb: “the other Mary” (28:1). Part of the difficulty in firmly identifying “the other Mary” stems from the numerous Marys present in the four gospels and the various ways they are named by the evangelists. Over the centuries, many Church Fathers have struggled to reconcile the gospel Marys, identifying three to seven depending on how the gospels are interpreted. However, it is not surprising to find numerous Marys in the gospels since the name Mariam/Maria (מרים ,המרי, Μαριάμ and variants) was the most common feminine name in Second Temple Judaism. Matthew 27:56 calls one of the women at the cross, “Mary the mother of James and Joseph,” later making shorthand reference to her as “the other Mary” (27:61; 28:1) who goes to the tomb with Mary Magdalene where they see the risen Jesus. Those Fathers who identify Mary the mother of James and Joseph (“the other Mary”) as Jesus’s mother are able to do so because Jesus is said to have had “brothers” named “James and Joseph” (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3). Even so, Matthew consistently refers to Jesus’s mother by associating her with Jesus (1:18; 2:11; 2:13; 2:20; 2:21; 12:46; 12:47; 12:48; 13:55), as do Mark, Luke, and John. Therefore, it is difficult to find a compelling reason why Matthew would refer to Jesus’s mother as “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (27:56) and as “the other Mary” (27:61; 28:1) in conjunction with Jesus’s death and resurrection and nowhere else in his gospel, rather than simply calling her Mary the mother of Jesus. Moreover, Luke 24:10 states that “Mary the mother of James” went to Jesus’s tomb, yet Luke has no difficulty referring to “Mary the mother of Jesus” as one of those gathered in Jerusalem just after Jesus’s ascension (Acts 1:14), thus making it highly improbable that those two Marys are the same person.

Furthermore, “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (Matt 27:56) is referred to in Mark 15:40 as “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses.” However, early Christian tradition posits that Jesus’s “brother” James was an elder step-brother—a son of Joseph by a previous marriage. This James is consistently named first in the gospel lists of Jesus’s “brothers.” This first position and James’s preeminent leadership in the Jerusalem Church (Gal 1:19; 2:12-14; Acts 12:17; 15:13-21) support the view that James was the eldest “brother” of Jesus. Since this James was the eldest “brother,” further doubt is cast on the idea that Mary the mother of James the younger could be Mary the mother of Jesus.

The only unambiguous information conveyed about Mary the mother of Jesus at the crucifixion, tomb, or resurrection is in John’s Gospel, when from the cross Jesus entrusts his mother to the Beloved Disciple. John adds, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (19:27). Since nothing more is said about Jesus’s mother in John’s Gospel, there is no reason for the reader to think that she played a role at the tomb. Rather, in John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who goes alone to Jesus’s tomb, finds it empty, and runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple who themselves then go to the tomb. After the two disciples depart, Mary Magdalene remains alone at the tomb where she alone encounters the risen Jesus (John 20:1-18). Although there are some Orthodox Fathers who believed that Mary the mother of Jesus went to the empty tomb and first saw the risen Jesus there, this is a tradition that seems to have begun with the Diatessaron and spread in various forms within and beyond Syria. In Byzantine hagiographical reflection on the Virgin Mary, this belief developed further in a variety of ways—sometimes in ways going beyond and even against the testimony of the four gospels. Indeed, evidence from the four gospels lends little support to the belief that Mary the mother of Jesus went to the tomb and was the first to see the risen Jesus. Such a belief may be regarded as a theologoumenon—a pious viewpoint that is not obligatory for Orthodox Christians.

John Fotopoulos is an Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.