Question on...Women, stones, spices, empty tombs...

Hi Glenn

Back again on a brief study break. Here's an excerpt from a post to the Errancy list where a heated exchange is going on right now. The Christians involved have not responded, so I thought you might like a shot at it. I'll try and get back and see your response sometime soon.

Dear M...

Thanks for sending the post along...I am not familiar with the Errancy list, but I hope the quality of the questions are generally 'higher' than this one! (This one actually has a humorous element in it...) [Note: I corrected the spelling in the original.]


John 20:1 It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb

John 20:2 and came running to Simon Peter . . .


Now, well before sunrise--it was still dark (which is a problem in itself, what is a Jew doing up before sunrise wandering around? By Jewish reckoning, it was still the Sabbath, and she should still be at home. This by itself indicates the writer is not even familiar with Jewish custom, let alone writing from any real knowledge of the events), Mary of Magdala goes to the tomb. Indeed, the way the first sentence reads, it's still dark when she GETS to the tomb, definitely un-Jewish, and she finds the tomb open.


This is a bit funny to me. The author says that it was still the Sabbath (at sunrise the next day) and then accuses the 'writer' of the passage of being unfamiliar with Jewish custom! Just about EVERYONE knows that the Jewish Sabbath ran from sundown to sundown (NOT sunrise to sunrise)--the Sabbath would have been over the previous evening. Had the Errancy post author been familiar with Jewish custom, he would not have made such a blatant error--and then, to top it off, he accuses the Gospel writer of being 'unfamiliar' with Jewish custom! I find this highly amusing, to say the least!

(Indeed, he even makes the accusation twice--the 'definitely un-Jewish' comment at the end.)

And, as for Mary 'wandering around' in the dark, this is no big thing at all. Ancient cities didn't go to sleep at sundown(!); they simply switched gears from work to private life. (Of course, there were always work tasks to be done after dark--from medical needs to extensive dinner catering to merchant book-keeping. The first-century Roman writer Martial has a line describing how the 'lamps see the wretches write'.)

Mark 16:1 When the Sabbath was over, Marry of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices with which to go and anoint him.

Mark 16:2 And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising.

Mark 16:3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"


Now, the first verse of Mark raises some interesting questions of its own--where, at the crack of dawn, do you shop for anything in a society which still regulates its daily rhythms by the sun? Is there any information on daily life in the ancient world which makes this reasonable? Or is this an attempt to reconcile Mark with Luke, made by a later copyist? We can't go back and look, but it certainly seems suspicious.

Well, it shouldn't look suspicious, if one knows the historical and cultural background.

First of all, if the post-writer KNEW how the Jewish counted days (above)--from sundown to sundown-then he would NOT have said that she bought spices 'at the crack of dawn'...The Sabbath was over at sundown--long before the populace went to sleep.

Second, business was VERY brisk at the close of the Sabbath--even after sundown. (It is like our society today--after the stores are closed for some national holiday, there is a HUGE amount of business that occurs the FIRST HOUR the grocery store opens back up!). So Schanz (cited by A.B. Bruce, in. loc. in Expositors Greek Testament): "After sunset there was a lively trade done among the Jews, because no purchase could be made on Sabbath." [The same is true today in Israel.]

This trade would have been generally in the foodstuffs and private supplies (e.g. burial spices) rather that clothing and such, and would have been ESPECIALLY high at this particular point--after the Passover.

Jerusalem at this time had a population of roughly 25,000-35,000 people, but at the Passover this would swell by another 150,000(!)--bring the need for foods and private supplies to an exceptionally high pitch. Many of these visitors would have stayed over for the 'weekend' feasting and placed, therefore, huge demands upon the marketplace and distribution systems of the small city. [See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus, Fortress: 1969, pp. 77ff}

So, it really makes perfect sense and fits the known historical facts well...Nothing suspicious here but the poster...(grin)...

On to the second verse. Here's Mary of Magdala identified, AFTER sunrise, which at least recognizes Jewish beliefs of the era (and orthodox beliefs even in the present day) which at gives at least some confidence that this account at least came down from Jewish/Christian sources.

(Can you still hear me chuckling in the background at this?!!!)

But then there's verse 3. Now in John, Mary of Magdala went to the tomb while it was still dark, and already found it open. Here in Mark, she has been exchanging chatter with her companions ("They. . .to one another" certainly implies to this reader that all three women were exchanging conversation on the same subject), yet she has forgotten that she had just shortly before, on her nocturnal sojourn, found the tomb already open. Why didn't she tell her companions? Here, with the most important news ever for the human race, Mary of Magdala is being coy? Did she forget?

Or are the two gospels simply separated by time and distance and tradition that the story--as stories do--has changed?

See the problem the lack of adequate historical background causes? If the poster had known that the Sabbath ended at sundown, he would NOT have invented this 'contradiction'. John says that Mary bought spices the evening before the trip. John AND Mark describe the early morning trip by Mary and friends to the tomb. (On the way there, they were worried about the Stone--no one had been there yet, remember). Went they got there, the stone had been removed. At that point Mary heads back to where Peter and the disciples were.

Nothing odd here. No contradictions. Actually, nothing even to explain, once you get the time-keeping terminology down.

Which is the most parsimonious explanation? That the stories imply contrary factual situations because they were written hundreds of miles apart after diversification through different cultures, or that they are somehow telling different parts of a really odd story?

What's the explanation that's better than the simple parsimonious one I've offered?

The simplest explanation in this case is (1) NO explanation (none is needed--there is simply NO problem here to explain) and (2) the historically correct one (that understands the historical setting of time-keeping, after-dark limited commerce, and the social conditions surrounding the Passover).

Thanks again for sending this person's post to me...I can use this as an example in my "Common errors skeptics make in apologetics" section...this person is to be commended for trying to use the little data (although erroneous) they had (so few people 'engage' the discussions at all!), but this does not change the fact that the conclusions are wrong because the starting data was wrong...

If you see any other ones floating around, please forward to me...thanks again...


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