Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

239. "At the Rising of the Sun" (Matt. 28:1-4; Mark 16:1)

It is no easy matter to harmonize the gospel narratives in their accounts of the visits to the tornb, and of the appearance of the angels and of Jesus himself. Many say dogmatically that it cannot be done. Unwilling to believe themselves capable of error, such critics are very ready to assume fallibility in the gospel writers. In the world of mathematics the man who says: "I cannot find a solution to this problem, therefore it cannot be solved,'' is written off as a fool. Yet in the field of Bible exegesis there are plenty of such. Close akin to these are others who take the line: "This is the only way in which I can make any sense of this passage. Therefore this is the correct interpretation. All others are mistaken." Of course, such attitudes are never baldly expressed in so many words, but it is often possible to detect this kind of self-confidence. Maybe there are times when it is justified, but the study of the resurrection of Jesus can hardly be reckoned as being in that category. Hence, because of the difficulty of piecing the four records together into a smooth continuous story, let conclusions be regarded as tentative.

Blending the records

The accounts of the visits of the women to the tomb near Golgotha certainly present difficulties. Some solve the problem —or, at least reduce its dimensions - by assuming that two different groups of women, each actuated by the same motive, set out early on the Sunday morning to visit the sepulchre. Thus, by applying some details to one group and some to the other, the gospels are made to yield a coherent continuous inter-woven account.

The basis of the present study, however, will be that only one group of women is involved. The tendency to resolve superficial difficulties in gospel harmonization by the slick assumption of similar but different incidents builds up its own antibodies. By the time one has got two separate anointings in Bethany, two healings at the house of the centurion, two restorations of sight to the blind at Jericho, and four malefactors instead of two, the fever is on in way out. (Yet it is necessary to insist on more than one cleansing of the temple. The evidence for this is strong, and the reason compelling; see "Passover", HAW ch.3).

There are, however, indications of time whicr strongly suggest more than one visit to the tomb. Whereas Mark, Luke and John make it clear that it was on the Sunday morning when the women set out with this intention, Matthew has the expression: "in the end of the sabbath," i.e. on Saturday evening. Not by any stretch of imagination or translation can this be made to mean anything different. Yet immediately Matthew goes on to confuse the picture with an expression which can only have been intended to make it more explicit: "as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week." These words would normally mean at first light on Sunday morning. Yet the writer of this wonderful gospel was no fool. Is it likely that he would be content to set down in the same sentence words which involve a shouting contradiction? There is need to look further into this.

Frst, then, the word translated "end" (of the Sabbath) means "late in the day." A cognate word is normally translated "evening " The word which gives rise to "as it began to dawn" normally meant "to grow light." Its proper application is to early morning. However, because by beginning at sunset the Jewish day was out of step with Gentile reckoning, this word came to be applied to the beginning of the Jewish day. In this way a word meaning "to grow light" came to mean "get dark"! Luke's record of the burial of Jesus has a clear example of its usage. In a verse which unquestionably refers to Friday evening, Luke has: "And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on"(RVm: Gk. began to dawn; Luke 23:54).

Thus both of Matthew's expressions are seen to refer to the Saturday evening when “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the sepulchre." What a sabbath of sorrow and lamentation that was! In its earliest hours well before midnight, the whole of Jewry was eating the Passover meal. But not these, for had not Jesus himself said: "The days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and the;-shall they fast" (Mt. 915).

Then, as soon as the end of sabbath restrictions would allow, in the last hour of daylight they were bock at the tomb. And how natural that they should do this! It may be argued against this interpretation that Matthew's record runs on apparently to equate this visit with that which was made to the tomb next morning. This is undeniable, and is probably to be attributed to the compression which is characteristic of the gospel (compare what is said about this in chapter 243). The only alternative would seem to be the elimination of this visit to the tomb on Saturday evening. But that can only be done by assuming that when Matthew writes 'late on the Sabbath" (which ended at sundown on Saturday) he really means "early the next morning." it would also require that he uses the Greek verb epiphosko (translated in the AV: began to dawn) in a different sense from which it is used in Luke 23:51. The hint of Saturday evening activity in Mark 16:1 supports the interpretation adopted here.

"When the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought [not, as in AV: had bought) sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him." That this was done on the Saturday evening as soon as the shops were open after the sabbath is put beyond doubt by the words which follow: "And very early in the morning the first day of the week they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun" (John 20:1: when it was yet dark).

It is noteworthy that Matthew omits to mention Salome. So perhaps this group of women acted in concert, Salome seeing to the purchase of the spices whilst the others made their evening visit to the tomb.

This must have been before the guard was posted there. This inference follows from the fact that when the women returned next morning they showed no concern regarding the soldiers, but only about means of access to the body: "Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?" And it is understandable that the watch would not be set until daylight had ended because in this way public attention to a very unusual procedure would be avoided. Also, during daylight hours there would, of course, be no risk of interference with the tomb, by disciples or anybody else.

The sequence of events

Thus the sequence of events would appear to have been.

  1. The last hour of sabbath daylight, the two women come to see the tomb.
  2. Sabbath sunset, the placing of the guard.
  3. Just after sunset, the purchase of spices.
  4. Before Sunday daylight, Mary Magdalene sets out to join the other women to go to the tomb to complete the anointing of Jesus.
  5. Earthquake (and resurrection?) at sunrise. The fright of it probably delays the women.
  6. The guard, scared, abandon the tomb and return into the city,
  7. The sun is alreadr risen by the time the women arrive at the tomb.
Precisely when Jesus rose from the dead is not ascertainable. In fact, his resurrection is not described, but is first mentioned in the words of the angel. The gospels, which are content to mention the crucifixion of Jesus in a brief participial phrase - "and having crucified him" (Matthew 27:35 Gk) - make no attempt whatever at a picture of the resurrection.

There was a great earthquake, caused by the corning of the angel. "The earth which trembled with hoi rot (Matthew 27:51) at the death of Christ," says a seventeenth century commentator, "leapt for joy at his resurrection."

This resurrection angel was resplendent in divine glory: "His countenance was like lightning, and hi; raiment white as snow" (Matthew 28:3). With the possible exception of Daniel 10:6, this would appear to be the first time that an angel was seen in appearance different from that of an ordinary man. Yet after Jesus rose from the dead there are several descriptions similar to this (contrast Lk. 24:4, Acts 1:10 and 10:30 with Gen. 18:2 and 19:1,5; Josh 5:13 and Jud. 13:9-1 1). Is this change altogether fortuitous or without meaning? Or did the resurrection of Jesus somehow change the status of angels (Col. 1:1 6)? One would fain know more about these mysteries.

The angel of the Lord

The inevitable effect on the soldiers is vividly described: "For fear of him (not for fear of the earthquake, though there are few experiences which strike such terror in men's hearts) the keepers did shake, and became "as dead men", corpses guarding a corpse! This word "shake" is essentially the same as that for "earthquake." Impressive as the heaving of the ground might be, it was nothing to the upheaval within themselves. Literally paralysed from fright, they grovelled on the ground, and later slunk away at the first opportunity — presumably when the angel went inside the tomb. It is not absurd to enquire as to the source of this information about the effect of angels and earthquake on the Roman guard. There is a hint (see p.770) that it may have been supplied to Matthew in later days by some of the soldiers themselves.

At first, the angel "rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it." (But epano above, over). The priests had taken all care to seal the tomb shut, but now here was the Almighty sealing the tomb open - by His angel sitting on the stone.

There is no hint that the great stone was rolled away to allow Jesus (at first in a state of revived mortality?) to emerge to the world outside. Then could it be that the stone was removed in order to give the disciples access to the place of interment, so that they might see for themselves the evidence that their Lord was risen? Whatever the reason, there is ground for deep thankfulness that the resurrection did take place this way. For many that stone rolled away has become a foundation stone of faith.

Notes: Matthew 28:1-4.

The first day of the week. It was 16th Nisan, the anniversary of Gen. 8:4 and Ex. 14:20.

Came. Remarkably, a singular verb with plural nouns, is this to put the emphasis on Mary Magdalene, or to indicate their complete unaniminity of spirit?

The other Mary. See ch.229, and Mark 1 6:1.
For, indicating that the reason for the earthquake was not either "natural causes" nor the resurrection of Jesus, but the coming of an angel of glory.

An angel...from heaven. Apparently another pleonasm, as in 27:63 (see note), for whence else might an angel come down? Perhaps the phrase is intended to steer the reader away from reading angel as meaning a human messenger.

The details here must have been supplied by one of the soldiers, surely; v.l la.
The appearance of this angel matches in some respect that of the angel seen by Daniel in 1 0:6ff, where note:

lightning ... a guard ... quaking fell upon them ... they fled., in a deep sleep upon my face.

His countenance. This word is unique in the NT, but is the exact equivalent of appearance, vision, in Dan. 1 0:1,1 8. These echoes of Daniel's experience might suggest that whereas some of the soldiers fled in terror, others bowed in worship.

Mark 16:1.

Anoint; 14:8. Edersheim says Jewish usage allowed the opening of a tomb on the third day to attend to the body. On this first day of the week believers now come to Christ with the incense of praise and the frankincense of thanksgiving.

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