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What Did Mary Experience at the Empty Tomb?: Extracanonical Texts Provide Some Answers

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem is a rock-cut tomb, discovered in 1867, and considered by some to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem is a rock-cut tomb, discovered in 1867, and considered by some to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus.

A social media comment following one of my recent blogposts said, “And the purpose of these texts is what?” He was referring to my discussion of a non-canonical text, the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Perhaps the writer meant to be sarcastic. But I think the question is worthy of a serious reply. It’s like asking, “Isn’t the Bible right as it is?” Or, “Isn’t the Bible enough?” Those are real questions.

I’ve wondered those things too, so I want to explain where I am with these noncanonical texts now. (I often refer to them as extracanonical. And sometimes they’re called apocryphal writings.)

My first reply is, I’m convinced it’s always a good thing to stretch our minds beyond everyday thinking. Then we can judge better where we’ve been and where we’re going. Ben Mylius, a grad student at Columbia University is quoted in the January 13 Christian Science Monitor as saying, “No one field, or industry, or way of seeing the world can see it all.”

But is the Bible a different category?

In my experience, the more I read these other texts, the more light I find shining on the Bible and the spiritual things I’m interested in. Getting a better understanding of what Mary Magdalene experienced at the empty tomb is worth taking a closer look.

Bible readers know Mary because she shows up in all four gospels at the scene of Jesus’s resurrection. But we get such a tiny glimpse of her in the Bible. She seems very important from her brief encounters with the risen Jesus, and she seems to be a real person, but who is she?

Other authors were intrigued with Mary too and wrote more about her. Considering all these stories, we can link some of the pieces together for a more expansive idea of who this person was. There are indeed lots of missing puzzle pieces! We don’t even know for sure if all these other pictures of Mary are the same Mary. But the extra information we find in extracanonical texts helps to bring some focus to the image we can see.

There must be more to learn about Mary

From reading the Bible only, I’m curious about why Mary was the one who showed up after Jesus’s resurrection. What was special about her? And did Jesus think of Mary in terms of a leadership role?

We can’t get very far with those questions from the four canonical gospels. But there are scenes of Mary in conversation with Jesus and with the other disciples in at least six extracanonical books written around the time the other gospels were written. Mary is the central figure in the Gospel of Mary. She also appears in The Gospel of Thomas, The Dialogue of the Savior, The Gospel of Philip, Pistis Sophia, and The Manichean Psalms of Heracleides.

She’s most prominent in the Gospel of Mary, where the woman named Mary does have a special relationship with Jesus. Scholars can’t really confirm if this is the same Mary, but it’s a possibility. And if it’s true, her appearance in this text shows that Mary might well have been a respected leader among Jesus’s disciples. At least in this text, Jesus trusts her with his spiritual teachings that the men do not hear.

If this is the same Mary in another text known as the Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus commends her for her understanding. There are quite a few other examples, all expanding our view of Mary, and these could help us understand why the four gospel-writers took her seriously even if they didn’t explain much about her.

Then, what about Jesus at the same scene, at his resurrection?

Again, all four of the gospels in the Bible tell us something about it. The tomb was empty after Jesus’s body had been placed there. The New Testament writers all interpret the story differently, and each one adds another dimension of meaning. But the Gospel of Peter tells the story in yet another significant way. Like the other gospel writers, this one recounts Jesus’s crucifixion among criminals, his death, and then his burial. But it adds more details about his departure from the grave than any of the canonical gospels.

In the Gospel of Peter, two men came down from heaven in a burst of light, and the soldiers who were keeping watch saw the stone roll away of its own accord. The men entered the tomb, and then three men came out together. “The heads of the two men reached up to the sky, while the head of the third…reached beyond the skies” (chapter 10). And then, as in the other gospels, Mary Magdalene appears with other women.

Mary is still there in Peter’s gospel, and the tomb is still empty, but this gospel explains the event more vividly than the biblical gospels. Most of us would agree it’s not likely that the head of one of the men physically reached beyond the skies. But this account could imply that Jesus was making an important transition between his earthly body and a heavenly one—a subject passed over in the more familiar gospels.

Mary’s authority and Jesus’s transition

It’s an idea worth thinking about. So is the idea of Mary’s spiritual authority. These stories of Mary and Jesus, in combination with lesser-known extracanonical texts, stretch our imagination of what may have been going on at the scene of the resurection. It makes sense to me that Mary could have been exercising a certain level of spiritual maturity and leadership when she showed up at that dangerous time. And it makes sense to me that Jesus could have been experiencing some kind of spiritual transformation just before she got there.

There are still so many questions, but these noncanonical or, extracanonical, writings open more possibilities to consider.