When did the women go to Jesus’ tomb?

Posted on Apr.05, 2010. Filed in John, Luke, Mark, Matthew. Average rating: 4.7 / 10 (Rate It).

When Jesus’ body had been laid in the tomb, several of the women who had followed him went to anoint his body with spices. The gospels all agree that they visited the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week, but they disagree about whether it was light or still dark.

Matthew and Luke both have the women visiting the tomb at dawn, suggesting that it was just getting light:

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. [Matthew 28:1, NRSV]

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared… [Luke 24:1, NRSV]

Mark confirms this, but says more clearly that the sun had risen by the time that they arrived:

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. [Mark 16:2, NRSV]

John, however, explicitly states that it was still dark at the time of the visit:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb… [John 20:1a, NRSV]

So was it light when the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb, or was it still dark?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1


    John actually describes 2 visits by MM to the tomb, so one might want to say that Mark is describing the 2nd visit. But that won’t actually work. In John the stone had already been removed for the first visit; so Matthew and Mark can only be talking about the first visit.

    “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3)

    “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” (Matthew 28:2)

    Clearly this is not the 2nd visit.

  2. 2

    There’s some disagreement in our modern translations. Some have Mark saying “the sun had risen” or words to that effect, while others make it “at sunrise”…

    It can still be dark “at sunrise” but it can’t really be dark once the sun has risen…

  3. 3

    The Greek is ανατειλαντος του ηλιου, “having arisen the sun”. Both the NRSV and the NASB have “when the sun had risen”. Which translations have “at sunrise”?

  4. 4

    NLT: “just at sunrise”
    KJV: “at the rising of the sun”
    CEV: “just as the sun was coming up”
    Young’s: “at the rising of the sun”
    HCSB: “at sunrise”
    NET: “at sunrise”

  5. 5

    Mark has the women wondering who will roll the stone away from the tomb. This conversation must have occurred on the way to the tomb, not when they arrived (for the tomb was already open when they arrived).

    So there is this possibility:

    Magdalene ran ahead to see what could be done about the stone, while the other holy women, perhaps to accommodate the Mother of Jesus, proceeded at a slower pace. Magdalene thus might arrive at the tomb well ahead of sunrise, while the rest arrived well after.

  6. 6

    Just to clarify things a bit, here is the partial time line, I’m envisioning (and sorry, Errancy, that some of this might properly apply to the article about when the stone was rolled away, and may steal your thunder on other articles yet to be published…but I just don’t know how to separate it concisely):

    1) There is an earthquake. An angel opens the tomb. This is witnessed by soldiers some of whom converted and later told Matthew et al. None of the Holy Women or disciples see this.

    2) The Holy Women start out well before sunrise for the tomb. On the way, they discuss how to open it.

    3) Anxious, Magdalene runs ahead of the rest of the Holy Women to the tomb arriving before sunrise. She finds the tomb open and empty.

    4) Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John who come (running), with Magdalene, to find the tomb open and empty.

    5) Peter and John leave.

    6) Magdalene lingers outside the tomb crying.

    7) Just after sunrise, the rest of the Holy Women arrive.

  7. 7

    Is there any mileage in saying that whether it was light or dark is just a matter of perspective?

    Lightness and darkness are both a matter of degree. A state that’s somewhere in the middle can be described relative to daylight as still dark, and from the perspective of darkness as getting light.

    One time when you get these intermediate states is very early in the day, around sunrise. So couldn’t that time be described variously as “as the day was dawning”, “at early dawn”, “when the sun had (just) risen”, and “while it was still dark” without contradiction?

  8. 8

    @WL No problem in posting a timeline here. In due course I’ll post on the angels, who the women told, John’s description of what Mary did next, and on where the disciples met Jesus, but attempts to integrate the accounts belong just as much here as anywhere else.

  9. 9

    “Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John who come (running), with Magdalene, to find the tomb open and empty.”

    No. Matthew 28:1-9 makes it perfectly clear that Magdalene and “the other Mary” meet the angels, and then Jesus himself.

  10. 10

    I agree with your reading of Matt 28 Amtiskaw. (How could I not? As you say, it is perfectly clear.) The time line I gave was partial. I was only trying to take us as far as the arrival of the Holy Women at the tomb.

    The events that follow the arrival of the Holy women are as follows:

    8) Magdalene goes first into the tomb and sees two angels.

    9) Magdalene subsequently sees Jesus, recognizing Him eventually, but not right away.

    10) Jesus returns to the father unseen by the other Holy Women.

    11) The rest of the Holy Women go into the tomb and are informed of the resurrection by the angel that had rolled away the stone. Magdalene also hears this announcement.

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