Witnesses to Resurrection: The Women's Story

By Pheme Perkins

As  Paul summarizes the faith which he received  and handed on to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 15:3–5, followed by an expanded list of witnesses in vv. 6–9, the important figures are men. If any  women were involved,  the y  are masked by  the masculine plural

“five hundred brothers at a time, most of whom are still alive” (v. 6). Couple that with the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8a , which has the women flee the tomb and remain silent rather than convey the angel’s announcement to “’his disciples  and Peter ” (v. 7), and the women’s story might seem irrelevant to our faith. But is it ? It certainly was not forgotten by the evangelists, who expand their story rather than ignore it.

Matthew ’s  solution to  Mark’s  awkward ending  disposes of the fear and silence in two moves. First, fear is followed  by joy which leads them to run to tell the news to the disciples (Matt 28:8b ; also reflected in Luke 24:10b, 22–23). Second,  as the y  head off, Jesus himself appears, repeating  the  angel’s  message, “do  not  fear,  g o announce to my brothers that the y should g o to Galilee and there the y will see me” (v. 10). Luke’s narrative recrafting of the traditions that  he employed (1:1–4)  takes care to  incorporate the  women within the larger group of disciples who have followed  Jesus since Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:49). The y are able to “remember what he said to you while still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and rise on the third day ” (24:6–7). The disciples on the road to Emmaus report to the stranger ( Jesus),

“some women from among us … did not find his body …saw a vision of angels who said that he lives” (v. 23). Though only Cleopas and his unidentified companion (vv. 28–31) and Peter (v. 34) have seen the Lord himself prior to his appearance to the assembled group (vv. 36–49), this narrative line includes the women among those engaged in excited discussion of the day ’s e vents when Jesus suddenly appears.

John’s Gospel has the most complex set of resurrection appearance stories,  which chapter 20 focused on Jerusalem  (as  in Luke) and chapter 21 a later encounter bet ween Jesus  and a group of male disciples at  the  Sea of Galilee. The  Galilee location echoes the promise of Mark 16:7 and the mountain appearance of Matt 28:16-20. But the miraculous catch of fish which signals the numinous presence of Jesus echoes the calling of Peter, James and John in Luke 5:1–11. Galilean appearances do not belong to the women’s  story in any gospel.  But John 20:11–18 transforms the brief encounter reflected in Matt 28:9–10 into a revelatory dialogue between Jesus and Mar y Magdalene. Later tradition would hail her “apostle to the apostles” on the strength of this story.  Unlike the meal appearances, the Emmaus story,  the dawn at the Sea of Galilee story,  and this encounter all employ a familiar folk pattern. The deity is hidden in the guise of a stranger until the dramatic tell-tale sign reveals the god or goddess.


Scholars increasingly recognize that a positivist historicism which claims to strip  away all vestiges of  communal story-telling  and dramatic elaboration to produce some version of what an outsider, non-believer or  investigative reporter  would uncover in  AD  33 makes no sense. Even immediate eyewitness testimony is reshaped as it is remembered and retold. Both Luke and John acknowledge the existence of other stories about Jesus. And both evangelists describe their task as providing  a foundation for faith as proclaimed  within the Christian community (Luke 1:1–4; John 20:30–31). Both also insist that  the  Christian story  rests  on  a foundation of reliable witnesses (Luke 24:48–49; John 21:24).

The evangelists exhibit a pattern of enhancing communal memory of the women’s resurrection experiences. Their witness contributed to securing the faith that the one whose death and burial the y had seen from the margins was no long er among the dead but truly risen. Before examining  the gospel accounts  in more detail,  it is worth remembering  that  these traditions can hardly be mere apologetic or  narrative invention.  Women  have little  to  no  credibility  as witnesses in a legal setting . Luke represents that bias in noting that the disciples did not believe the women’s report, though a check of the tomb proved the absence of Jesus’s body (Luke 24:12, 24). For non-believers the presence of women in the Christian story provided an occasion for ridicule as Orig en’s  reply to attacks by the second century physician and philosopher Celsus demonstrates. According to Orig en’s report, Celsus cast his attack on Christianity in the voice of a Jew though one clearly aware of the gospel narratives. Given the existence of myths about individuals returned from the dead, Celsus argues that the Christian story belong s in that category — not as the exception. Worse the whole death and resurrection story is the dream fiction or over active imagination of an hysterical  female (Against Celsus 2.55). Matthew notes that even in his own day (c. 85 B C) Jews actively circulate a story of Jesus’s disciples making a nocturnal visit to the tomb and removing Jesus’s body (Matt 28:11–15). That notice is sandwiched bet ween the women’s encounter with Jesus outside the tomb and Jesus’s appearance to the remaining eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (vv. 16–20).

Clearly the  women’s  story  occupies a  distinctive space  in  the narrative. It is associated  with the death and burial of Jesus rather with than the reconstitution of the symbolic Twelve disciples, who had g one into hiding following the arrest. As a narrative detail the scattered male disciples are in no position to pull off the deceit which Jews in  Matthew ’s  Gospel anticipate, a nocturnal tomb  robber y. Nor would a body missing from the tomb lead anyone in the first- century to conclude that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Bodily resurrection is a corporate, eschatological e vent (Dan 12:2–3), not an individual reward. Matthew ’s crucifixion narrative deals with that obvious objection by asserting that others were raised at the moment of  Jesus’s  death  and  appeared around  the  city on Easter  (Matt27:52–53). That  notice is clearly an apologetic leg end that  lacks any historical traction. But such details show that the evangelists are aware of the objections that others would bring against the Easter message. The y are not superstitious simpletons given to hysterical fantasies of reunion with a beloved leader.

Modern efforts to discredit the core Christian narrative often attack the “and  was buried”  line in the creed by pointing  to examples of bodies left to rot or the dishonorable disposal of criminals. However the y do so at the expense of the exemplar y expression  of Jewish piety by Joseph of Arimathea in burying the dead. (And as anyone familiar with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca knows dealing with pilgrims who die away from home and family remains a problem.) Without men to approach authorities the women could do nothing but watch from the edges of the action. The proximity of rock cut tombs to the crucifixion site also makes the statement that the y witnessed  the disposal of Jesus’s remains entirely plausible (Matt 27:57–61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55–56). Our  gospel narratives are more scattered in explaining what drew the women back to the tomb in the early morning  after the Sabbath.  In  part that  reflects  divergent  burial customs and in part the cultural sense that the stranger may step in to bur y  the dead, but the stranger can never carry  out rites of mourning . Mary Magdalene is the mourner in John 20:11–18. The other gospels presume that the minimalistic entombing of the corpse to avoid contaminating the cit y during  a key religious festival  left other aspects of burial incomplete. The women involved purchase spices to anoint the body but arrive without a plan to gain access to the tomb (Mark 16:1–3; Luke 23:56–24:1). Because Matthew ’s counter-story has Jewish officials protect against disciples staging an empty tomb by sealing and posting guards at the tomb, the evangelist shifts the purpose of the women’s dawn visit from burial or mourning rites to a more generic “to see the tomb” (Matt 28:1). Contrary to the other versions in which the women find the tomb open, the y actually witness an earthquake and the angel’s descent, rolling away the stone, and sitting upon it (v. 2). This flash of divine power traumatizes the guards “who became like dead men” (v. 4) so that the y do not witness the angel’s revelation to the women.


For the versions of the women’s testimony in the Synoptic Gospels, the first evidence for the resurrection of Jesus comes from the angel’s words coupled with the call for the women (and the gospel reader) to recall that Jesus  had predicted it (Mark 16:6–7; Matt 28:5–6; Luke 24:5–7). The evangelists shape the story to contribute to the faith of their readers by  challenging them to recall earlier points in the narrative. Mark 16:7 takes them back to Jesus’s words at the Last Supper.  After citing Zech 13:7 as  a warning to the disciples that e vents are about to shatter them, he points beyond disaster to restoration when the risen Lord meets them in Galilee (14:27–28). The  gospel ends abruptly without any  Jesus’s  appearance stories, though Paul’s list in 1 Cor 15:3b –5 indicates that some resurrection stories circulated orally from the beg inning s of Christianity. If the women’s terrified flight and silence at the end of the earliest version of Mark puts  them  in  the  same emotional space  as  Jesus’s  male disciples, then those words hold out a similar promise for them as well. But there is hope for readers as well.  Whether the suffering s afflicting the audience projected by the narrative were spawned by Nero’s scapegoating of believers after a devastating fire in Rome or by the turmoil in Galilee and Judea attendant upon the rebellion against Rome in AD 66–70, the y faced fear. So the open hope of the Lord going ahead to Galilee associated  with another saying in the Supper story, “I will no long er drink the fruit of the vine with you until I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25) are words of promise.

Matthew concludes his Gospel with a brief narrative of the risen Jesus’s encounter with the eleven in Galilee that transfers what had been a mission to Israel (10:5–6) to the universal evangelization of the nations and with it the promise of the name the angel had given Jesus before his birth, Emmanuel (28:16–20; cf. 1:23), “I am with you all days until the end of the age” (v. 20). But the women’s story ends in Jerusalem, not Galilee. Any fear or hesitation that remained after  the  extraordinary  demonstration    of  divine  power  which accompanied the angel’s arrival is quickly erased. The y acknowledge the divinity of the risen Jesus in a posture of worship as soon as he greets them, “… the y g rasped his feet and worshipped him” (v. 9). So from the opening signs of divine power to this gesture of worship the women’s  experience introduces a key element in resurrection faith. Jesus’s resurrection is not comparable to the popular books of those

who have experienced dying and been pulled back from the brink by medical interventions. Jesus has been raised into the reality of God which makes him present to the worshiping faithful.

Luke’s  narrative construction  of the final chapter in his Gospel presents the women’s tomb visit as the first in an unfolding triptych– each revelation of the truth  that Jesus  is living ,  not among the dead is progressively unfolded.  First the women disciples hear the resurrection proclamation from the two angels while having memories brought  back to  Jesus’s  own words (24:6–7). Then  two disciples headed away  from Jerusalem  to Emmaus  in the late afternoon to repeat the e vents to a stranger who appears oddly unaware of what has been going on. The y receive a lecture on messianic interpretation of the Scriptures  as evidence that the messiah was destined to suffer in order to enter his glory  (Luke 24:25–27). The stranger unveils his identity in blessing , breaking  and  giving bread to them at a meal (vv. 30–31). But Jesus vanishes  at the moment of recognition. All of Jesus’s  disciples including  the three women and the two from the Emmaus road are reassembled when Jesus appears  in Jerusalem. There the identity  of the risen One  as  a bodily person must  be demonstrated to convince doubters (vv. 39–43). Once again there is verbal instruction both reminders of Jesus’s  earlier teaching and fulfillment of all the Scriptures, “Law of Moses, the Prophets and Psalms” (vv. 44–46). Thus the women experience the same sequence of g rowing insights into the suffering and resurrection/exaltation of Jesus as messiah  as the male disciples even though the only the male disciples will be sent out “that repentance leading to forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to the nations” (v. 47; Acts 1:6–11) as was the case at the conclusion to Matthew ’s Gospel.

Luke’s  Gospel has  powerful stories  of women threaded through from the opening  echoes of Old Testament matriarchs and widows in Elizabeth and Anna as well as Jesus’s mother, Mar y to the Galilean followers (8:1–3), the sisters Martha and Mar y (10:38–42) and the women of Jerusalem, weeping as Jesus passes on the way to execution (23:26–31). The association of three of the Galilean women with the  resurrection story  triptych completes the  anchoring  of  the narrative about Jesus in the memory of women as well as men.  Luke even provides subtle hints about the importance of such memories in the life of the community. Jesus’s  mother twice “ponders in her heart” the signs of her child’s future greatness (2:19, 51). The pious widow, Anna , who had prayed and fasted in the Temple for most of her 84 years, “ beg an to praise God and speak about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Similarly as the Gospel draws to its conclusion women devoted to Jesus are also announcing and speaking about salvation “to the Eleven and all the others” (24:9–10). Initially the apostles treat their words as so much foolish talk (v. 11) just as the anti- Christian Celsus would do much later. But Luke’s readers know by this point in the narrative that the women’s story of salvation is just as reliable as that preached to the world by the apostles.

John’s Gospel employs a very different narrative pattern from the other gospels. Jesus engages individuals in dramatic dialogues that some scholars suggest were inspired  by the conventions  of Greek drama . This art is displayed in Mar y Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus (20:11–18). John resets the burial scenario to the garden tomb complex of a wealthy or royal figure along with the expensive spices provided by Nicodemus. Consequently Mar y ’s initial response to  seeing  the  open tomb  was  robber y  or  enemy  hostility  by  an anonymous “the y ” (20:2). Her hopeful query to the gardener/Jesus provides John’s  readers with another example of his characteristic double meaning . Jesus has  been or soon will be “taken away ” from his disciples  by  the return to the Father,  which formed a central theme in his supper discourses (14:1–4). She is enjoined to g rasp at or cling to the bodily figure before her but to inform his disciples that Jesus is returning to the Father as he had said (v. 17). Thus the deep structure of this episode matches that in the Synoptic Gospels : the women’s mission is to recall words of Jesus that anticipated and interpret the traumatic e vents that conclude his earthly life.

In addition, John’s artistry takes readers back to two other Judean scenes that anticipate his death. The dramatic moment of recognition occurs when Jesus speaks Mar y ’s name. Her response shows that she belong s among  the sheep who hear the voice of the shepherd who gives his life for them (10:10–14). Mag dalene’s mourning at the tomb recalls the larger scenario of mourning  by friends of Jesus, Martha and Mar y. Before symbolically demonstrating  his own resurrection from the tomb by restoring life to their dead brother,  Jesus, himself, experiences  the  anguish of mourners (11:1–44). Again with his characteristic irony, this sign that Jesus is the resurrection and life, “the one who believes in even if he dies will live” (v. 25) provokes authorities to seek his execution. But for believers this story provides consolation in their own time of mourning for a loved one.


Drawing  on two recent developments  in gospel studies,  studies of memory  and literary,  reader response criticism, enables a new approach to  the  women’s  stories  of the  empty  tomb, angels and finding the risen Lord. Rather than strip  away the rich and varied details to  a minimalist core structure  that  is subject  to  rigorous historical skepticism, we are invited to see a Christian memory of salvation emerging as the foundation of an unshakable faith.  Literary criticism highlights the threads that the women’s  stories pull from earlier parts of the gospel narratives. The most evident connection in all four gospels directs the disciples and readers back to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Those words not only anticipated Jesus’s death, the y also pointed for ward to a new future with the Lord who does not remain in the past, among the dead, but lives.

That precedent set in Matthew and Mark is further expanded in Luke and John.  Each of these evangelists  employs  his distinctive literary  and theological artistry  to create many additional threads that  tie the women’s  stories  back into the story  of Jesus’s  life — even to the infancy narratives in Luke. Even though women are not witness in a public trial, these developments show another side of early Christianity.  The  stories  women tell within the  household secure the faith, as was the case for Timothy (see 2 Tim 1:5).

 [Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]

About the Author

PHEME PERKINS, PhD, is Professor of New Testament at Boston College and Associate Editor of the New Oxford Annotated Bible. The author of many books on  the  New Testament,  she specializes in Paul, John and New Testament theology.