Was Jesus' Tomb Open or Closed?
According to Mark, Luke, and John, by the time Mary Magdalene and the other women reached the sepulcher of Jesus on the first day of the week after Christ’s crucifixion, the great stone covering the entrance to His tomb already had rolled away (16:4; 24:2; 20:1). Matthew, on the other hand, mentions the rolling away of the stone after writing that the women “came to see the tomb.” In fact, at first glance it seems that Matthew 28:1-6 indicates several significant things took place in the presence of the women.
Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”
How is this passage explained in light of the fact that the other gospel writers clearly affirmed that the great stone blocking the entrance to the tomb had rolled away before the women arrived?
The explanation to this “problem” is that the events recorded in Matthew 28:1-6 were not written chronologically. Matthew did not intend for his readers to conclude from this section of Scripture that the women actually saw the stone roll away from the door of Jesus’ sepulcher. On the contrary, verse 6 implies “Christ was already risen; and therefore the earthquake and its accompaniments must have taken place at an earlier point of time, to which the sacred writer returns back in his narration” (Robinson, 1993, p. 17). Verses 2-4 serve more as a footnote to the reader (explaining events that took place prior to the women’s arrival), and are in no way an indication that Matthew believed the women arrived at the tomb while it still was closed.
The simple fact is, Bible writers did not always record information in a strictly chronological sequence. The first book of the Bible contains several examples where events are recorded more topically than chronologically. Genesis 2:5-25 does not pick up where Genesis 1 left off, rather it provides more detailed information about some of the events mentioned in chapter one. Some of the things recorded in Genesis 10 occurred after the incident involving the tower of Babel (recorded in chapter 11). And a number of the events in Genesis 38 involving Judah and Tamar occurred while the things recorded in chapters 39ff. took place. Similar to a teacher who is telling her class a story, and inserts information into it about something the main character did in the past or will do in the future, Bible writers occasionally “jump” ahead of themselves by inserting pertinent parenthetical material.
As a person studies the narrative technique of Matthew (and other Bible writers), he quickly realizes that the writer of first gospel sometimes arranged his account in topical order rather than in a strictly chronological order. Matthew 28:1-6 is just one example. (For another example of where Matthew arranged his narrative topically, see “Of Times and Figs.”)
Robinson, Edward (1993), “The Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 150:9-34, January, first published in 1845.
A.P. Staff (2002), “Of Times and Figs,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/587.