The men who wrote the Gospels had incredible news to share with the world, and they certainly knew that their message would be questioned. So, you would assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would have taken great pains to insure their sources were completely reliable. If that’s the case, why did John say THIS?
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-4, NIV, which shows that MARY was the first witness to see the empty tomb…).
Then a bit later, after she had brought Peter and John to see the empty tomb, John says, “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman”, he said, “Why are you crying? Who is it that you are looking for?” Thinking that it was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:14-18, NIV)
An Unusual Literary Composition
I love the honesty of John’s account, because it captures the full range of Mary’s emotions and confusion. It also identifies her as a key witness to the resurrection. Those details are important because they offer direct evidence that John was not making this story up. If you were writing a fictional account to sell the resurrection, you’d want rock-solid testimony from impeccable sources. The fact that John did not provide that suggests that he felt compelled to write the truth when a lie would have served him better.
First, a work of fiction would probably not have included details like her initial failure to recognize Jesus, and the way she thought at first that he was the gardener. Why have your primary witness distraught and confused? Second, if John had been making it up, he would have used a more reliable and acceptable source, and there were better literary devices he could have used to create drama and impact. After all, the story is not about Mary’s confusion but about Jesus’ resurrection!
Any normal, self-respecting Hebrew literary work from this time would not have made a mere woman such a central character in this discovery—women were not considered legal witnesses, and did not have social standing that justified her inclusion in this event. No serious Jewish reader would accept a woman’s testimony as reliable in that time and place. John actually risks all credibility by telling the truth, so why didn’t he just make up a better version of the story?
The Only Conclusion that Makes Sense
Replace Mary with a man whose testimony would be considered reliable, tweak the events just a bit, keep the central part about the resurrection, and boom! You’ve got yourself some front page news. Since he goes out on a limb by including Mary, and since a lie here would have served him better than the truth, the logical conclusion is that this has to be TRUE.
If John’s narrative was an attempt to convince others of the plausibility of Jesus’ resurrection, he went about it all wrong! He should have had someone important like Peter or James meet the risen Lord first, and he should have made it seamlessly perfect. He didn’t need to include details about Mary’s initial conversation with the supposed gardener. But Mary’s testimony is valuable because it IS true, and it has significance because it is told so simply and so accurately. John’s gospel is noteworthy because he ignores social convention. He tells the truth when a lie would have been easier. Probably a good practice for all of us.
John, How Could You?
John, the scholars tell me that your gospel might be phony!
No Hebrew writer would have used a woman’s testimony.
A woman couldn’t offer proof in matters of the law,
So why on earth did you record the things that Mary saw?
If you had used a man to see the proof, and to receive it,
The temple elders might have bought that story, and believed it!
Instead, you told the truth when falsehood might have served you better:
Since Mary saw the Lord, you wrote the truth down to the letter,
Insuring that the Word of God would not let us forget her!
Mary made the statement that just could not be ignored;
With trembling lips she told the others: “I have seen the Lord!”
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