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John 20:1-18

The Gospel of Luke often (rightly) gets attention for its emphasis on characters who were marginalized in ancient Jewish society, including the poor, Gentiles, lepers, and women. Indeed, it has become practically axiomatic among biblical scholars and Bible-reading Christians that Luke is the Gospel that features and supports female characters the most. And this is understandable: Luke is the only Gospel that mentions the importance of Elizabeth and Anna in the nativity story (1:5-7; 41-44; 2:36-38). It also shows Jesus frequently healing women (4:38-39; 8:41-56; 13:10-17) and portrays women as good examples who are commended by Jesus both in real life and in parables (7:36-50; 10:38-42; 15:8-10; 18:1-5; 21:1-4). And while other Gospels mention women who followed Jesus, only Luke tells us that several women of means supported his ministry (8:1-3). Finally, as with all the Gospels, Luke portrays women as the most essential witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection (24:1-12). Thus, Luke is often touted as the most woman-friendly version of the Jesus narrative.


However, as someone who has spent many years enthralled by and deep in the study of the Gospel of John, I believe this assertion is unfair. While, yes, Luke does commendably focus on women and other marginalized groups, I believe John does just as much if not more to portray the female followers of Jesus as crucial to the narrative. The culmination of this motif is found in Mary Magdalene weeping over the missing body of Jesus in John 20:11-18.


In the section just prior to this (20:1-10) Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb early in the morning (alone, in this account) and discovered the stone rolled away. Without investigating further she runs to Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved”[1] (probably a circumlocution for John; 20:2) to tell them the news. Then the two men run to the tomb to verify her finding (vv. 3-10). The story is similar in all four Gospels in that it is always women who discover the empty tomb (although the number and identities of the women vary) and they immediately run to tell the male disciples of their finding (except for, notably, the original, shorter, ending of Mark, where they remain silent out of fear–16:8).


But only the Johannine account goes on to add the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the tomb. In fact, only one other Gospel e