The Structure of the Resurrection Scene


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here. But note that the book will not be available again until around mid-August, when a revised version comes off the presses with about 100 pages of new material.

James Daniel Tabor has suggested in his blog here that the account in John 20:1-10 is a separate and older story than what is told in verses 11-18, that it is essentially complete in itself, and perhaps the first written account of the post-crucifixion events. In favor of his view, it can be pointed out that 1-10 have Mary go to the tomb and then go home to tell the two disciples, but that there is nothing about her returning to the tomb. As a result, verse 11 opens rather inexplicably with Mary back at the tomb and no reference to her returning there. This may suggest a separate history to verses 1-2 from the history of the following verses.

However, unlike Tabor, my view is that the tomb narrative in verses 1-18 is a single unit deliberately structured with three main sections: verses 1-2, verses 3-10, and verses 11-18; and that the third section also has three parts: verses 11-13, 14-17, and 18. And that both sets of three parts are examples of inclusio, a kind of narrative structuring also called A-B-A symmetry.

The first of the three main sections centers on Mary. The second centers on Simon the Rock and the Beloved Disciple, and the third again centers on Mary. Each one begins with the witness(es) in question coming to the tomb, observing or experiencing something, and then returning home with information to deliver to the group of disciples.

At Mary’s first visit to the tomb in section one she just looks in and sees that the body is missing, like her son Lazarus in section two, and in section three (her second visit to the tomb) she goes into it, like Simon the Rock in section two.

What is more, the narrative itself has a home-away-home structure: Mary is the “home” character in the first section, but the narrative “goes away” from her in the second section to the two disciples, and the third section returns to the “home” of Mary’s experiences. The nearly identical phrasing of Mary’s message in the first section (verse 2b) and third section (verse 13b) again strongly suggests that this is a single narrative with a tripartite structure.

The first and second sections both convey the “empty tomb” motif familiar from the Synoptics: the first has Mary deliver the message that Jesus’s body is missing, and the second has the disciples confirm it. Verses 1-2, in fact, are a very brief equivalent to the Synoptic “empty tomb” accounts in which Mary goes to the tomb accompanied by certain other women; this is clear because she speaks in the first person plural: “…we don’t know where they have laid him!” These two verses cannot be a later addition based on the Synoptics since the narrative in verses 3-18 stems from and depends on 1-2, and is incomplete without those two verses as a preamble.

The third section (verses 11-18) repeats in miniature the same inclusio or A-B-A symmetry of the whole passage. The first part of the third section (verses 11-13) begins with Mary alone in her “home” position in front of the empty tomb, looking into it, in a parallel to verse 1. Then she apparently goes “away from home” into the tomb (a verb is missing, as will be discussed below), just as in verses 2 and 18 she goes to the disciples. There in the tomb she sees two angels, equivalent in number to the two disciples, and delivers to them the same message that that she delivered to the two disciples in verse 2, in very nearly identical wording. Thus the narrative of this first part is close to that of the first part of the overall text (verses 1-2).

The beginning of the second part (verses 14-17) is signalled by a typical Greek transitional summary phrase, “Having said all this,” and also by her act of turning around, an action that was traditionally used in narratives to signify a new section; after this the text introduces Jesus. She delivers to him the same anguished message about the missing body, but in a new wording. Jesus identifies himself to her, and she runs from within the tomb (in a phrase preserved by a few manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus) to her “home” position in front of the tomb, to the home of her heart, Jesus, just as in the first major section she had run home to the two disciples and they had run to the tomb. But where the disciples found only an empty tomb she finds and embraces Jesus. Thus the second part of this third section has narrative parallels to the second section about the two disciples.

The third and final part of this third section (verse 18) has Mary again go home to deliver a message to the disciples, just as she and the disciples went home again at the end of the first two sections – however, this time it is not with mystified concern over an empty tomb and a missing body, but that she has seen their master (and embraced him, though she does not mention this)!

This structural integrity is also confirmed by the use of “Mary!” in all three sections. In the Peshitta and the Codex Syriac Sinaiticus, two very early Aramaic New Testament versions, Mary refers to Jesus as mary, which means “master/lord” in Aramaic, and which is of course a homonym with her name. This pun is clear in the Aramaic versions (but not in the Greek), and it could well have been part of the actual original conversation between Mary and Jesus, since of course both of them spoke Aramaic. The pun was, either on Jesus’s part or by the intention of the gospel’s author, meant to imply Jesus’s prayer in 17:22-23 “that they may all be one”.

Specifically she refers to him as mary in the message that concludes the first section (verse 2b) and that concludes its parallel, the first part of the third section (verse 13b), that the tomb is empty and the body missing, and again in the message at the conclusion of the third section (verse 18), that she has seen Jesus alive. In the second and third sections, another example of A-B-A symmetry has her refer to Jesus as mary (verse 13b), then has Jesus call her “Mary” (verse 16a), and then has her again refer to Jesus as mary (verse 18).

Given all of this intricate inclusio structuring, it is hard to conclude as others do that certain verses have a separate history and were clumsily stitched together into chapter 20.

A problem remains, which is that verse 11 opens rather inexplicably with Mary back at the tomb and no reference to her returning there. It may be that the three sections were narrated at different times by Lazarus to the amanuensis, John the Presbyter, and that therefore the narrative gap was an oversight as the latter assembled these sections and wove them together into a narrative whole. Another possibility is that the author left it for the reader to assume that Mary returned to the tomb with the two disciples. A third possibility is that there is a lacuna in the text; as discussed in the Introduction, the author left the gospel still in a draft, and the redactor (probably Polycarp of Smyrna) may have neglected it during his work of refining prior to publication. I personally lean toward the second option, the reason being that the author intended to keep the focus in the second section strictly on the two disciples, and so not mentioning Mary’s return to the tomb is deliberate.

Much of the foregoing will be explained and expanded upon in the verse-by-verse commentaries that follow [ìn the book].

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

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