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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Mary Magdalene and Two Disciples Visit the Tomb (20:1-10)
Mary Magdalene and Two Disciples Visit the Tomb (20:1-10)

Disciple at the expense of Peter has become popular, but is not supported by the text, for "in no place is Peter criticized or devalued" (Schnackenburg 1982:314; cf. Brown 1970:1006-7; Beasley-Murray 1987:373-74). The idea that the Beloved Disciple was spurred on by a greater love is possible, given that Peter's love must be reaffirmed later (21:15-17). But perhaps it was not a lesser love that slowed Peter, but rather a great love that was burdened by shame. But if the Beloved Disciple had so much love, why did he pause at the tomb entrance? And if Peter loved less or was ashamed, why did he charge on in? Others attribute the cause to Peter's being older. The text does not offer guidance for such speculations.

While there were a few different kinds of tombs in use at this period (cf. Meyers 1976:906-8), the details provided here (vv. 5-7) help indicate the type in which Jesus was buried. Most likely it had a low entrance and a step down into the central, rectangular pit, with shelves cut into the rock around the pit (see diagram in R. H. Smith 1976:414). If Jesus had been laid on the shelf either to the right or left of the entrance, then only part of the grave clothes would be visible from the entrance. If he had been positioned with his head toward the entrance wall, this would explain why the cloth for Jesus' head was not noticed until they actually entered the tomb.

Great attention is given to the grave clothes. The strips of linen (vv. 5-6; othonia) were the covering for the body, whether they consisted of strips, as in the NIV, or a shroud (see comment on 19:40) or both. Since Jesus' resurrected body was able to appear in a locked room (v. 19), it seems he simply passed through the grave clothes. With the body gone, the clothes were presumably collapsed, though perhaps retaining much of their shape due to the spices. The cloth for Jesus' head (soudarion) was either a face covering or a cloth tied around Jesus' face to hold his jaw in place (see comment on 11:44). If the latter, then perhaps John's description indicates the cloth was lying in place, still in the oval shape it had when around Jesus' head. Or it could be John means this cloth, however it had been used, was in a separate place, rolled or wrapped up (v. 7, entetyligmenon). Jesus' body passed through the grave clothes, presumably including the soudarion, so the fact that the soudarion was rolled up suggests Jesus tidied up before leaving! "There were no traces of haste. The deserted tomb bore the marks of perfect calm" (Westcott 1908:2:340). The royal calmness of Jesus throughout his Passion is also hinted at here in his resurrection.

When the Beloved Disciple entered, he saw and believed (v. 8). What is this faith, since the next verse says they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (v. 9)? Such faith, with only limited understanding, has been true of the disciples throughout this Gospel, beginning from the first sign (2:11). It is a true faith, for it is based in an openness and receptivity to God. With this faith one is able to recognize what is seen and heard in God's presence and activity, though often one does not understand much more than that. Here the Beloved Disciple sees an empty tomb and inside grave clothes neatly rolled up. If Jesus' body had been stolen, the thieves would not have left the grave clothes behind. If Jesus had revived and had somehow struggled out of the grave clothes (not likely since seventy-five pounds of spices held them together), then they would be torn to shreds and the soudarion would not be rolled up. So the Beloved Disciple sees that something very strange has happened. He has faith in that he recognizes God's fingerprints at the scene. But he still does not understand the full meaning of what he sees.

John does not say whether Peter also believed at this point. But he does say that neither of them understood the Scripture regarding resurrection, thereby admitting his own ignorance at this point. Several texts of Scripture have been suggested as the ones to which John is referring (Ps 16:10; Hos 6:2; Jon 1:17), but he may simply mean the Scripture's witness as a whole, as when Paul says Christ "was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:4; cf. Lk 24:44-47; Beasley-Murray 1987:373).

This confession of ignorance puts the Beloved Disciple in the same boat as Peter, contrary to views that play the two disciples off against one another. They are able to bear witness to the empty tomb and the grave clothes, though not yet to the resurrection. But they do not bear witness at all. Rather, they simply return to the places where they are staying (v. 10; see comment on v. 2). If they do speak to the other disciples, John does not mention it. This lack of witness is another sign that although the Beloved Disciple's faith may be significant, it is still lacking.

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