The Cross and Tomb

The Synoptic Accounts

Compared to John’s Gospel, the crucifixion in the synoptic gospels is a stark affair; the onlookers observe the events from a distance. Jesus dies alone and quotes Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’1 (Mark 15.34, also in Matt. 27.45 but not in Luke). This is not as desperate as is sometimes thought: Psalm 22 has a happy conclusion, for example, verse 24 says that ‘For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.’ But it does enhance the sense of the desolation of the cross. Jesus could have asked the same question, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ of the disciples, who have run away or denied him as he faces his trial and execution. However, it is the women who follow him to the cross, even if they cannot get near. Mark 15.40–41 has this detail:

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

What will strike the reader at first sight is that there is another Mary here with sons called James and Joses. This will recall Mark 6.3, where the brothers of Jesus are called James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Could the Mary at the cross be the same person as Mary the mother of Jesus given that she is described as having sons with the same names? Matthew follows Mark closely at these points but changes the name Joses to Joseph, both in Nazareth at 13.55 and at the crucifixion in 27.56. We might have expected Mark or Matthew to distinguish between the two families in a clearer way if they were not the same.

However, there is the problem that the Mary observing the cross is not referred to as the mother of Jesus: if she is, why doesn’t Mark’s Gospel say so? Another factor is that only two of the brothers are mentioned this time, and not Simon and Judas. Weighing it up, it is not clear whether this is Mary the mother of Jesus. She is not usually regarded as being the same person, but there are some notable exceptions to this view. We will come back to this question after a little more information.

Mark’s Gospel refers to this woman again as she observes the burial of Jesus at 15.46–47, or at least we assume that he does, as he refers to her here simply as ‘Mary of Joses’ in the original Greek, translated in most versions of the Bible as ‘Mary the mother of Joses’:

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

She is again accompanied by Mary Magdalene but not by Salome. Someone being described as ‘Mary of Joses’ could be Joses’ mother, wife, or daughter, as it simply means that she is of the household of Joses. Given that we have already been introduced to Mary the mother of James and Joses a few verses earlier, it is reasonable to conclude that she is his mother and that this is the same person.

She appears again visiting the empty tomb on Easter Sunday at Mark 16.1–2, this time as ‘Mary of James’ along with Mary Magdalene and Salome:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

Mark’s use of three different ways to refer to the same person is a little confusing, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that Matthew’s version simply refers to her as ‘the other Mary’ on both occasions at the tomb (27.61 and 28.1). Again, the writer of Matthew is tidying up Mark’s original version. His other change is to leave out Salome in the list of women at the crucifixion and insert instead ‘the mother of the sons of Zebedee’, although this woman is not included at either the burial or empty tomb in his account.

In Luke, the women are named only at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday; at the cross, they are simply referred to as ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ (Luke 23.49). At the tomb, they are ‘Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James [again, the Greek text gives ‘Mary of James’], and the other women’ (24.10). In Luke, these names do not come out of the blue as they do in Mark and Matthew, as we have been introduced to Mary Magdalene and Joanna (along with someone called Susanna) in Luke 8.2–3. These are the women that, as Mark 15.41 says, ‘provided for him when he was in Galilee’ and followed him to Jerusalem. Luke reproduces this memory, and adds a little more detail, including the fact that some of the women ‘had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’, including Mary Magdalene from ‘seven demons’. Overall, the synoptic gospels make it clear that the named women are the most prominent of a number of female followers. Among them, only Mary Magdalene and Mary of James appear in all three synoptic gospels; the others are peculiar to just one of the gospels, and it is interesting that Matthew and Luke do not follow Mark in every detail at this point.

Any attempt to analyse why the evangelists Matthew and Luke have made these small changes can only be speculative. Mark’s Salome is not regarded as important by Matthew unless, as some have suggested, Salome was also the mother of the sons of Zebedee, but then why not name her? The mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, has been encountered before at Matthew 20.20–28, when she attempts to gain her sons special favour at the right and left hand of Jesus in the coming Kingdom, but Jesus replies that instead they need to be servants. Matthew seems to want to improve the readers’ view of the disciples gained in Mark; for example, Peter is referred to as ‘Satan’ in Matthew 16.23 as in Mark but, unlike Mark, Matthew adds the section on Peter being the rock on which Jesus will build his Church (16.13–20). In Mark 10.35–45, James and John ask for privileges themselves, but Matthew has displaced this inappropriate request onto their mother. Matthew then places this same woman at the cross. He therefore has two mothers at the cross, both of whom have two sons named, and seems to want to balance James and Joseph (and he removes the adjective ‘younger’ from James) with the two that he regards as equally important: James and John. Despite this, he does not seem to know their mother’s name.

Luke has two good reasons to include someone new: first, Matthew and Mark are not in agreement. Second and perhaps more important, Joanna is described at Luke 8.3 as ‘the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza’, so it serves Luke’s purpose to give as a role model a woman who deserted the court for the ministry of Jesus and its commitment to the poor, following him all the way to the tomb. He follows Mark in placing ‘Mary of James’ at the tomb but decides to forego the complexity of Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts by not including the names of the women at the cross and burial.

Briefly, we move to John’s Gospel, which we discussed in the last chapter. In John’s Gospel, the mother of Jesus is in attendance at the crucifixion. So, returning to our discussion as to whether Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses at the cross and tomb is to be identified as Mary the mother of Jesus, supporting this possibility we have the fact that John’s tradition explicitly places the mother of Jesus in the crucifixion scene.

However, we still need to deal with the problem as to why Mark does not state that she is in fact the mother of Jesus. There is an obvious answer. It arises from the way we have interpreted Mark 6.3 in a previous chapter: the only people who think that Jesus’ family ties are important are the unbelievers of Nazareth. Jesus is the Son of God; nowhere is this is more evident than in the way that he lays down his life on the cross, and it is declared by the centurion at 15.39 just before the women are mentioned. The letters attributed to James and Judas/Jude in the New Testament include the authors’ own self-identification as the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, not his brothers, despite the fact that Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians attests that James is the Lord’s brother. Jude says that he is ‘a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James’. Jesus is the Son of God who now sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the world. Therefore, despite the fact that being his brothers gave James and Jude prominence in the early Church, the New Testament tradition preferred not to stress their sibling relationship to Jesus.

Therefore, there is no incentive for the writer of Mark at this point to add that it was Jesus’ mother observing the crucifixion from afar. Nevertheless, his sources have given him the names of the women, and so he has included them. As we saw in an earlier chapter, after the death of Jesus, Mary and the brothers continued to be a known force in the formation of the Church. We do not know how long Mary was alive after this. However, the fact is that, after the death of Jesus, she would have been known as Mary, the mother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.

Why would Mark describe Mary as the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and not of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? This is not answerable, but there are places where one brother is named rather than two: Mark 15.47, 16.1, and Luke 24.10. The possibility that the list was shortened for convenience is not improbable.

Why is James known as James the younger? It has also been translated ‘James the lesser’ or James the less’ and it could even be ‘James the small’. Of these, the New Revised Standard Version has selected the ‘younger’. We might ask: younger, lesser, and smaller than whom? The obvious answer is James the son of Zebedee. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, James and John the sons of Zebedee along with Peter form Jesus’ inner circle of three disciples. They are the ones who witness the Transfiguration. Having spoken of James son of Zebedee repeatedly in the gospel, Mark may have wanted to distinguish this other James, son of Mary, as being younger, or lesser, or smaller. If this James is the brother of Jesus, the adjective may help him to further diminish James who, as we have seen, was associated with a conservative view in relation to eating with Gentiles and observing the Torah.

The possibility that Mary the mother of James and Joses is the same person as Mary the mother of Jesus was mooted as long ago as the fourth century. A certain Helvidius in Rome argued that the Mary at the cross and tomb in the synoptic accounts was also the mother of Jesus. He was refuted by Jerome, but Jerome’s intention was to uphold the teaching that Mary was always a virgin, so calling her the mother of James and Joses was problematic for him; he had an agenda in disagreeing with Helvidius. In the Eastern churches, this was not so problematic, as it was declared by Epiphanius, who drew on the text of the Protevangelium, that Mary was the stepmother of James and Joses. Some of the greatest theologians of the Eastern tradition agreed that Mary mother of James and Joses at the crucifixion and tomb in the synoptic tradition was at the same time the mother of Jesus, in works attributed to Gregory of Nyssa (Oration on the Resurrection of Christ 2) and John Chrysostom (Homily on Matthew 88) in the fourth century, and Gregory Palamas (Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women) in the fourteenth. In the modern period, several writers and scholars have also come to this conclusion. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is the best answer to an age-old riddle.

We will argue here that Mary the mother of James and Joses in Mark (or Mary the mother of James and Joseph in Matthew, or Mary the mother of James in Luke) is at the same time the mother of Jesus. This is more plausible as believing that she is not, as it is the plain reading of the texts in Mark 6.3 and 15.40 or Matthew 13.55 and 27.56 by anyone unfamiliar with them. For Mary to be called the mother of James rather than the mother of Jesus would not have been unusual in a Church in which James was a leader, probably the highest authority, as is suggested in Acts 15. This does not mean that it was forgotten that she was also the mother of the Lord, but Mark had reasons for distancing Jesus from his family at the cross, and this was inherited by Matthew and Luke. Mary is also called the mother of Joses in Mark’s Gospel, but we have no other information about Joses; only the brothers James and Judas/Jude are remembered in the tradition. It is possible that some of Jesus’ brothers, living in a precarious age, may not have survived long enough to make the same impact that James and Jude did.

Therefore, Mary the mother of Jesus was associated not only with the cross but also the empty tomb narrative at an early point in the life of the Church, and this tradition made its way into the synoptic gospels. However, only Mary Magdalene is named at the tomb in John’s Gospel, although the ‘we’ in John 20.2 suggests that other women had visited the tomb with her. John narrowed the story of the women’s visit to the tomb down to the meeting of the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene alone.

Yet, in Matthew’s Gospel, the ‘other Mary’ at the crucifixion and tomb, who we are suggesting is also the mother of Jesus, saw the risen Jesus while visiting the tomb with Mary Magdalene:

So they [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

(Matt. 28.8–10)

This encounter with the risen Jesus is not recorded in Mark or Luke. Later in tradition, with the growth of Marian devotion, many Christians were keen on including a meeting between the risen Jesus and his mother, adding descriptions of it in apocryphal gospels and other writings narrating the life of Mary. Yet, the New Testament itself may describe this encounter, although only in Matthew.

However, why does Matthew refer to the mother of Jesus as ‘the other Mary’; does this not belittle her? Perhaps he had Mark’s account in front of him as well as a tradition that the women at the empty tomb saw the risen Jesus, and so he may not have known that ‘Mary the mother of James and Joses’ was also the mother of Jesus. Perhaps he did not think that abbreviating the description of Mary to a more manageable ‘the other Mary’ was problematic. Or perhaps he was content to obscure the fact that Jesus’ mother was associated with the tomb and resurrection. We will never know. As far as Mary is concerned, Matthew follows Mark and says very little.

Luke, too, only refers to the Mary at the tomb as ‘(the mother) of James’. This is despite the fact that he has told us all about Mary in the conception and birth narratives, and also in Acts 1.14 that she and the brothers were present in the gatherings of the very earliest Church. So perhaps that is more difficult to explain than Matthew’s omission. It is something of a mystery as to why Luke just does not state that this same woman, whom he has featured more than any other gospel, was the one at the tomb. On the other hand, he has made nothing of her role in the ministry, and so, in this respect, he too follows Mark.

However, there is no mystery as to why Luke includes Mary the mother of James (and of Jesus, we would argue) in the list at 24.10 but not at 8.2–3. The women in Luke 8 are described as being healed, presumably by Jesus. Clearly, Mary the mother of James was not in that category. This is another argument for the case that she preceded the other women and therefore had no need to be called as a disciple, or referred to as being healed or invited to join the ministry in Galilee; she was the mother of Jesus, not a disciple, and already present.

It seems that the cross and tomb traditions about the women were too important and well known to be omitted from the gospel accounts. The Markan tradition of the two Marys at the cross became established, in such a way that the other evangelists had to record their version of it. All in all, we can be reasonably sure that Mary’s motherhood of James (and possibly other brothers) was an important feature of the original crucifixion and tomb stories and was recorded in the synoptic gospels, although omitting any explicit reference to her maternal relationship to Jesus.

The Historicity of the Empty Tomb

We have suggested that the virgin birth narratives are based on theological symbolism and not on history; is this not also true of the empty tomb? The empty tomb is attested to in all four gospels, showing that it was accepted in the Church by the time of the writing of Mark, but it is not mentioned in Paul’s testimony to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

It has been suggested that Jesus’ body was lost to his relatives and followers because of what we know about the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. This would mean that the empty tomb never existed. However, there is evidence to show that Romans did allow crucified criminals to be buried, although an executed criminal was not afforded the proper funerary rites under Jewish custom. These would have included burial in the family tomb, and so the fact that Jesus was laid in a new tomb actually suggests that he was denied an honourable burial in accordance with Jewish norms concerning a man that they had condemned.2 The presence of the women and their return on the third day shows that there was an attempt to fulfil the proper rites, but there is no record of their having conducted the usual mourning, which is loud lamenting. The desire that a proper anointing should have been carried out for someone like Jesus yields a context for the story of the anointing at Bethany in Mark 14.3–9 and Matthew 26.6–13, which Jesus suggests is an anticipation of burial, difficult to undertake properly under the circumstances of crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, the anointing of the body does take place after the crucifixion, carried out by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (John 19.38–42).

The gospels anticipate and refute the claim that Jesus’ body would not have been available to his followers by telling us about the intervention of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. He asks Pilate for the body of Jesus. All four gospels include this detail and so it is as near to an early canonical tradition about the events after the crucifixion as we have. It is entirely plausible, as all societies in all periods are familiar with the idea that people of wealth and status can get around the usual constraints of the social world. It is true that the association of Jesus’ death with a rich man has the function of fulfilling Isaiah 53.9 in the Suffering Servant passage. This might suggest that it is an embellishment of the story or that Joseph may never have existed. Yet it is also entirely plausible that Jesus’ movement attracted Jews of importance, or at least that they had some sympathy with him.

It is not clear from the earliest account, Mark’s, that Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus. He was ‘a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’ (15.43). Mark has already told us that all the council condemned Jesus (14.64), which would include Joseph. From Mark’s account, we could infer that perhaps he was someone who agreed with reluctance that Jesus had to die but took pity on the family by having him buried. The fact that the women, who should have been the ones to carry out the funerary rites, observe the burial but do not participate, might suggest that they had been tipped off where the burial was to take place so that they could return later when it was safe. These details cannot be established historically; they are simply implied by Mark’s version of the narrative.

Mark’s empty tomb story lacks the details that the other gospels include which stress its wondrous nature. There is a young man rather than angels; there are no witnesses other than the women, not the guards as in Matthew, nor Peter, as in Luke, nor Peter and the beloved disciple, as in John; no embalming, as in John; the women say nothing and do not pass on the good news, unlike all three other gospels. There is no appearance of Jesus in the original first eight verses.3 If we did not have the promise of the resurrection in Mark 16.6–7, we could be left with a quite depressing account of execution, a dishonourable death without family burial, and no witnesses. For Mark 16.1–8, the ending of the original version of this gospel, the glory of the resurrection is only anticipated rather than narrated, as Jesus’ appearances are not included; we have to experience the resurrection for ourselves.

The problem of the lack of veneration at the tomb has been raised by scholars: if it existed, why would the tomb not have become a shrine to the resurrection as with Helena’s foundation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site, as it was believed to be, in the fourth century? Against this, the argument would be that the tomb itself was not important, rather the devotional emphasis is on Christ who was raised from it: ‘He is not here’ (Luke 24.5). Tombs were places of dishonour and not where Jesus would be glorified; he was not a ghost, haunting the place. Even the most graphic depiction of Jesus’ appearance at the tomb, to Mary Magdalene in John 20, includes the words ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (20.17), indicating that, for the evangelists, the tomb was liminal, a place in which Jesus is not tarrying but leaving to ascend to heavenly glory.

Christians will either see the empty tomb as a metaphor for resurrection because they have already accepted the existence of plentiful legendary material in the New Testament or they will think that the tomb really was empty, as Jesus’ human body was the basis for his glorified body and could not be left corrupting in the darkness. In Britain, David Jenkins, the new Bishop of Durham in 1984, caused a stir by stating that the resurrection ‘was not a conjuring trick with bones’. What he meant by that was that arguments over the historicity of the empty tomb were not really a priority in Christian life: the point was that Christians should live the resurrection by understanding that Christ’s risen existence was at work in them, however the resurrection occurred. By moving the attention from the tomb in history to Christian life in the contemporary world, Jenkins was echoing the words of the angelic beings in Luke 24.5: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’

The empty tomb is central to the Christian proclamation because it tells us in a pictorial way that the needless destruction of lives through oppression, violence, neglect or simply because of disease or old age is not the last word from God’s perspective. The Romans could not end Christ’s existence through tyranny. Christ’s empty tomb is everyone’s empty tomb: we are not there, we have risen. Life’s end in Christian belief, whenever it occurs – the tragic death of a tiny infant to the final breath of a long eventful life – is a taking up into God, not a sudden and meaningless cessation of being. Crucifixion as conceived by the authorities was the opposite of this, a statement of the lack of value and worthlessness of the victim and the pointlessness of their life and death, portrayed in a vicious, agonizing public display. This is negated and wholly reversed by the understanding of the cross in Christianity. The empty tomb may or may not be a legend from the point of view of what happened to Jesus’ body, but the good news it declares is that God’s raising of the dead is an objective and absolute truth.

Yet even if the empty tomb were to be a legend conveying theological metaphor, the names of the women are nevertheless of historical interest. The fact that they are confusing and vary from gospel to gospel shows that this aspect of the tomb story does not belong to the creation and transmission of a smooth story and its rewriting. They were handed down because of the memory of the women’s involvement with the very beginnings of the Christian faith.

Women Ministering to Jesus

In Mark 15.41, we read:

These [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome] used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Matthew 27.55 has an equivalent statement. Luke 23.55 just gives ‘all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things’; however, he has already introduced them in 8.2–3 with the observation that, all the way from the ministry in Galilee, there were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, ‘and many others, who provided for them [Jesus and the twelve] out of their resources’. The fact that they came from Galilee and learned from Jesus is reinforced by the angelic men’s words in the empty tomb: ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again’ (Luke 24.6–7).

These passages show that Mary was associated with the women who followed Jesus as well as with his brothers. The several references to her in the gospels suggest that she is likely to have been a prominent person among them. The synoptic gospels state that the group of women was quite extensive. They were central to the growing understanding that Jesus had risen, a belief initiated through a series of appearances, for which the gospels suggest female priority as opposed to Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15.3–7, who asserts male precedence in the list of witnesses to the resurrection (although one can posit women among the ‘more than five hundred brothers’, as the male noun includes both genders). This is expressed through the stories of the empty tomb.

All four gospels place the first news of the resurrection on the lips of women. In Mark 16.6–7 the angelic figure says to the women:

‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’

Matthew 28.7 is similar and here, as we noted above, the women see the risen Jesus (28.9–10). Luke does not include a resurrection appearance to women, but his narrative does have an emphasis on the women being the first believers. They find the empty tomb, but the apostles do not believe them (24.11). In 24.22–25, on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion say, with a sense of disappointment:

‘Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’

However, Jesus chides them for not believing the women: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’

John’s account of Mary Magdalene includes Jesus saying to her (20.17): ‘But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ This famous passage led to Mary Magdalene being referred to as the ‘apostle to the apostles’. Therefore, there is a constant gospel witness to the primacy of the women in the initial revelation of the resurrection.

Summing up, Mark 15.40–41, 15.47, and 16.1 are just as unlikely to have been invented by the compiler of this material as Mark 6.3. The names are complex and have been handed down to him. This tradition then fed into Matthew and Luke. So, we can deduce that:

1. In an early tradition, Mary travelled with other women from Galilee who, between them, supported the ministry of Jesus.

2. Mary (referred to as the mother of James and Joses) was associated with narratives describing the death of Jesus, and these most probably pre-date the gospels, at least in an oral form.

In Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, Mary observes the crucifixion from a distance, and then sees where he is buried. She returns on the third day at dawn to find the tomb empty. There would be nothing remarkable about a mother being involved in the death rites of her son, albeit in difficult circumstances after a crucifixion; the family was customarily involved, particularly the women. So, there could be a historical kernel behind these stories, even if the gospel versions have been shaped and embellished both in the oral tradition and by the evangelists themselves. But we can note that Mary’s relationship to James (and to Joses/Joseph in two of the gospels) is a very important feature of her role at the tomb.

Yet we are left with the query: having cleared up the question of the identity of Mary mother of James and Joses, who is the other Mary at the crucifixion in John’s Gospel, the one called Mary of Clopas?


1 Psalm 22 in the Hebrew numbering adopted after the Reformation and now most commonly used; Psalm 21 in the traditional Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.

2 For more detail, see the articles by InHee Berg in Biblical Theology Bulletin 47.4; Petra Dijkhuizen in Neotestamentica 45.1; Craig Evans in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3.2; and Byron McCane in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, edited by Chilton & Evans.

3 The most ancient full manuscripts of Mark end with 16.8.

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