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How Many Women Went to the Tomb?
by Roger Hutchinson

1996 / September-October

To the casual reader, the Gospel accounts can appear confusing when they describe events following the resurrection of Jesus. The confusion is understandable. Each Gospel describes unique aspects of the resurrection story and each provides information not contained in the others. None of the Gospel accounts ties everything together in one neat little bundle.

One difficulty people encounter concerns the number of women who went to the tomb to prepare the body of Jesus for burial following the crucifixion. In Matthew, only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are explicitly identified as going to the empty tomb. John names only Mary Magdalene. Luke tells us that a group of women went to the tomb. Harmonizing the Gospel accounts is the purpose of this article.

Luke begins his Gospel stating that "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order...That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed" (Luke 1:3-4). Since Luke provides an orderly, historical account of the life of Jesus, we will start our investigation there.

Early in his Gospel, Luke tells us that certain women followed Jesus.

And it came to pass afterward, that [Jesus] went throughout every city and village... and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene...And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance (Luke 8:1-3).

Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were among many other women who ministered to Jesus' needs. Some or all of these women followed Jesus everywhere that He went. As Jesus was led away to be crucified, Luke states that "there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him" (Luke 23:27). Later, as Jesus hangs on the cross, Luke tells us that "all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things" (Luke 23:49).

Matthew and Mark confirm what Luke has said on this point.

Matthew 27:55-56: And many women were there beholding [the crucifixion] afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.

Mark 15:40-41: There were also women looking on [the crucifixion] afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke each state that many women observed the crucifixion and that among these women were those who had followed Jesus from Galilee. It is unlikely that the women who had followed Jesus and ministered to His needs throughout His ministry could suddenly become disinterested and exhibit no concern for His proper burial following the crucifixion. These women followed Jesus as He was taken to be crucified, watched as Jesus was crucified, saw those who took the body of Jesus from the cross, observed where He was taken, and then returned to the tomb following the Sabbath to provide Jesus with a proper burial. To suggest that all but a very few of these women would lose interest in Jesus at His crucifixion and begin to drift away without concern for where He would be buried or that He receive a proper burial makes no sense. We should expect, therefore, that most, if not all, of these women either went to the tomb to prepare the body of Jesus for burial on the Sabbath following the crucifixion or contributed to that effort.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find several women identified. They are Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary (the mother of James and Joses), and Salome, who may also be the mother of Zebedee's children. In all, five or six women are identified, in some manner, from among the "many" women who followed Jesus. In addition, Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome followed Jesus from Galilee. From Luke's account, this group may also have included Joanna and Susanna. There may have been others. It is the women who followed Jesus from Galilee who become the focus of attention in the Gospel accounts of events following the crucifixion.

When the body of Jesus was removed from the cross, Luke records:

And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment (Luke 23:55-56).

The women whom Mark specifically identified as those who were from Galilee and ministered unto Jesus are described by Luke as observing the place were the body of Jesus was placed. It is they who prepare or oversee the preparation of the spices and ointments. Luke does not tell us how many there were. However, it is these women to whom Luke refers when he begins his account of the events occurring after the resurrection of Jesus.

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them (Luke 24:1).

The women who followed Jesus from Galilee are those who now come to the tomb bringing spices. In addition, certain other women came with them. Luke identifies two unique groups of women going to the tomb: the women that followed Jesus from Galilee and certain others with them.

Later, after Jesus had appeared to the women and they had returned to the apostles, Luke says, "It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles" (Luke 24:10).

Still later, Luke tells us about two men on the road to Emmaus who meet Jesus, but not recognizing Him, recount what had happened.

Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not (Luke 24:22-24).

Within Luke's Gospel, we find a consistent reference to many women during the key events surrounding the resurrection. Jesus healed some of these women, and they followed Him during His ministry and were present at His death. They and others came to the tomb following the crucifixion and Jesus met them soon after. All of these women then told the apostles about the empty tomb and how they had seen Jesus alive.

As noted earlier, Matthew and Mark confirm Luke's account that many women followed Jesus. Matthew and Mark also provide us with additional information not included by Luke concerning the resurrection.

And [Joseph of Arimathaea] bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid. And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun (Mark 15:46-16:2).

And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre. In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre (Matt 27:59-61; Matt 28:1).

Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joses, and Salome prepared the spices and carried the spices to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. These are the women that Mark earlier identified as having followed Jesus from Galilee (Mark 15:41). Luke agrees telling us that the women from Galilee brought the spices (Luke 23:55-24:1). Luke added that other women also came to the tomb. Mark said that their purpose was to anoint the body of Jesus. Luke implies this (Luke 23:56).

Mark and Luke agree in their accounts. Mark, however, chose to name certain women who came to the tomb from among the group of women that Luke said were there. This does not mean that there were no other women present. If we read in the newspaper that the president visited Bosnia, we do not understand that he went alone. The president is just the key person on whom we are to focus attention. Although not stated, we know that the president does not travel alone but that he travels with staff and secret service agents. In the same way, Mark draws our attention to certain women. Earlier Mark had said that other women were present at the crucifixion (Mark 15:41), so the presence of other women to help prepare Jesus' body for burial would be realistic.

Mark also tells us that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection (Mark 16:9). He provides no further detail. Only John provides further information about this. This indicates that Mark was not describing every event that had happened even though he had knowledge of other events.

Matthew's account is somewhat different from Mark and Luke. Matthew makes no mention of the spices or of the desire of the women to anoint the body of Jesus. Like Mark and Luke, Matthew says that many women followed Jesus and were present at the crucifixion. He then specifically identifies Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children (Matt 27:56), who is likely Salome from Mark's account (Mark 15:40) as being among those women.

Matthew, like Mark, draws our attention to certain women, in this case, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Matthew says that they watched where the body of Jesus was placed (Matt 27:61). Later, while other women have come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with spices, it is these two women whom Matthew identifies as having an additional purpose. Matthew describes them as wanting to "see" the tomb. Why does Matthew do this? Matthew seems to be providing proof that Jesus was dead. To do this, Matthew identifies two eyewitnesses to the events. It was on the testimony of two witnesses that truth would be established (Matt 18:16; 2 Corinth 13:1). Thus, Matthew's account of the two eyewitnesses establishes the truth of Christ's death and therefore, of the resurrection. This ties in with Matthew's account of the guard being placed at the tomb, the guard becoming as dead men when the angel appeared, and of the story spread by the guards that the disciple's had stolen the body of Jesus. Only Matthew provides this information (Matt 28:11-15). His purpose seems to be to counteract the stories being spread about the disappearance of the body of Jesus.

Commentators indicate that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew probably wrote his Gospel with the knowledge of Mark's Gospel and with the intent of complementing what had already been written. Similarly, Luke was likely aware of Matthew and Mark when he wrote his Gospel. All three Gospels agree that many women followed Jesus and were present at the crucifixion. Luke describes how two groups came to the tomb to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. Mark identifies Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome as the group who prepared the spices for the burial. Matthew identifies two women, Mary and the other Mary, as eyewitnesses. From these accounts, we can be certain that Jesus died on the cross and that He was resurrected three days later.

In the Gospels, we have different perspectives on the events following the resurrection of Jesus. Each Gospel provides a focus on unique aspects of those events. It is only after we combine all the accounts into one that we are able to understand how these events unfolded. In doing this, we see that no contradictions exist concerning the number of women going to the tomb following the crucifixion of Jesus.

(Roger Hutchinson, 11904 Lafayette Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20902; e-mail rhutchin@aol.com)

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