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Matthew 28 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Report of the Women

The resurrection narratives in the four Gospels differ in detail, but in all four the women become the first witnesses, and Mary Magdalene is explicitly named as one witness among them (also Gospel of Peter 12:50--13:57). One could harmonize the accounts, but as they stand they present strong evidence for the basic story: E. P. Sanders (1993:280) may be right to argue that "a calculated deception should have produced greater unanimity." Two matters remain clear: (1) the differences in accounts demonstrate that the Gospel writers were aware of a variety of independent traditions, and (2) these divergent traditions overlap significantly and hence independently corroborate the basic outlines of the story.

God Often Sends His Message Through the Least (28:1) Jesus' Jewish contemporaries held little esteem for the testimony of women (Jos. Ant. 4.219; m. Yebamot 15:1, 8-10; 16:7; Ketubot 1:6-9; compare Lk 24:11); this reflects the broader Mediterranean culture's limited trust of women's testimony, a mistrust enshrined in Roman law (Gardner 1986:165; Kee 1980:89). By contrast, the guards' report that the disciples had stolen the body (Mt 28:11-15) would command much greater respect then, as well as in an antisupernaturalistic culture like much of modern academia. Later Christians thus had to depend on the testimony of men for the public forum (1 Cor 15:5-8). No one had apologetic reason to invent the testimony of these women, but the Gospel writers may have a profound theological purpose in preserving it.

Matthew lays these two reports, the true and the false, side by side, forcing his audience to declare their choice. The testimony of the women thus becomes a model for the disciples who will follow them (28:16-20). Jesus commissions them as his s luhim (sg., saliah)--agents or apostled ones (see comment on 10:5)--to brings news of his resurrection to his own disciples. Their faithfulness, like Joseph's (27:55-61), is laid over against the authorities' deceitful accusation of deceit (27:62-66); Matthew thereby calls his audience to suffer rejection and dishonor at the hands of the hostile authorities of their own day.God's Power Is Revealed (28:2-3) The angelic revelation exhibits points of contact with biblical theophanies, and the description of glory recalls Jesus' own in 17:2 (compare further Dan 7:9; 10:5-6; 4 Ezra 10:25-27; 3 Enoch 22:9). Jewish angels traditionally appeared in linen (Ps-Philo 9:10; Rev 15:6) or white garments (1 Enoch 71:1; 87:2; 90:31-33; 2 Macc 3:26; 11:8) or clothed in glory (3 Macc 6:18; 1 Enoch 71:1). That the angel sat on the stone is also a dramatic statement of supernatural triumph, since the stone, probably disk-shaped, would not naturally accommodate one sitting on it. Although the guards feared for their lives, God had no intention of slaying them.God Is Selective in His Revelation (28:4-10) Although the guards witnessed God's power, the angel spoke only to the women. Often when people fell before a revelation as if they were dead, the revealer declared, "Do not be afraid" (compare v. 10; 17:7; Mk 16:6; Dan 10:11-12; for other parallels, see notes on Mt 17:6-7). But here the angel says Do not be afraid to the women, not to the guards who had fainted before him (28:4-5). Jesus appears directly to the women as well, but not to people who did not believe (vv. 8-10; compare Acts 10:41).

The men's initial dependence on the testimony of the women reflects the gospel's power to transcend gender restrictions (W. M. Thompson 1985:233). When the women met Jesus, they worshiped (Mt 28:9)--finally responding as the wise Gentiles had (2:2, 11), yet--again with an ironic touch--before the male disciples (28:17). Nevertheless, Jesus does not cast off the male disciples here; he identifies the disciples to whom he is sending them as his brothers (v. 10; 12:50; 25:40; Jn 20:17).

Because Paul explicitly reports only resurrection "appearances," some suppose that the empty tomb tradition was a myth. But while Paul's language can apply to visionary experiences, nearly all scholars concur that he is reporting earlier Palestinian tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (see, for example, Dibelius 1971:18-20), and Palestinian Jews did not speak of nonbodily resurrections. Nor would anyone have persecuted the early Christians for simply affirming that they had seen someone who had been dead; apart from the specifically bodily character of the resurrection--the sort that would leave an empty tomb--people would merely assume they claimed to see a ghost, a noncontroversial phenomenon (compare comment on 14:26; note on 1:20). Further, very little evidence suggests the plausibility of successive and mass, corporate visions (Schweizer 1971:48-49). Those inventing an empty-tomb tradition would hardly have included women as the first witnesses (see above), and "Jesus' resurrection could hardly have been proclaimed in Jerusalem if people knew of a tomb still containing Jesus' body" (Schweizer 1971:48).

Many who claimed they had seen Jesus alive from the dead (as in 1 Cor 15:1-8; virtually all the narrative accounts also suggest significant conversation with him, rather than fleeting appearances) were so sure that they devoted their lives to proclaiming what they had seen, and some died for it; clearly their testimony was not fabricated (E. Sanders 1993:280). Supposed pagan parallels to the resurrection stories are weak (see Aune 1981:48). To most ancient Mediterranean peoples the concept of corporeal resurrection was barely intelligible; to Jewish people it was a strictly end-time event. Yet once one grants the possibility of a bodily resurrection of Jesus within past history, the appearances follow naturally with or without parallels.

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