resurrectionmosaic
Mary Magdalene in the garden with Jesus, detail of mosaic in Resurrection Chapel, Washington National Cathedral

In John 20 the risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene. This unique scene, appearing only in the gospel of John, must carry some sort of theological significance. But what could that be? While thinking through some of the bigger eschatological stories at play in the New Testament generally, and the gospels in particular, it struck me that perhaps John includes this scene as a symbolic portrayal of the inauguration of the new creation. More specifically, perhaps it symbolizes the reversal of the original judgment of Eve in the garden of Eden.

The chapter opens by specifically telling the reader that Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb on “the first day of the week”. It seems to me that this is an explicit echo of Genesis 1 and the first day of the creation week.[1] The repetition of this phrase in vv. 1 and 19 seems to call for the reader to take notice and make this connection. Moreover, consider that John begins his gospel with a clear allusion to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”. With John starting out by taking the reader back to Genesis, it should come to no surprise that he brackets his entire gospel by doing so again here in ch. 20. Additionally, this creation language can be further emphasized when considering that the John 20 is set in a garden (19:41).[2] Thus, this scene is set with John placing the creation account in the mind of the reader.

Following N.T. Wright, however, it seems that John’s point here is to use the creation story of Genesis to present Jesus as the one who brings in the new creation.[3] The events leading up to the resurrection of Jesus in John follow a similar pattern of the days of the creation account. Just as humanity was created on the sixth day, in John, on the sixth day of the passion week, Pontius Pilate declares of Jesus, “Behold the man!” (19:5). Just as God rested on the seventh day, in John, Jesus rests inside the tomb. In this way, John is able to present the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of an eighth day, with Easter as the beginning of the new creation.[4] That the risen Jesus, in 20:22 would go on to breath upon the disciples, so that they could receive in the Holy Spirit, in a manner that echoes God breathing the breath of life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:15) seems to further solidify this theme of new creation.

With this creation/new creation motif, the scene in John 20 unfolds with Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb only to find that Jesus’ body is no longer there. She then runs to inform Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, but they investigate the tomb, find nothing, and return home. Mary, then, is left alone in the garden weeping (v.11). It is here that I cannot help but think that this image, of a woman weeping in a garden, is supposed to be taken along with the other creation language so that the reader’s mind is taken back to Eve. Now, it is true that the Genesis account, specifically ch. 3, never portrays Eve as weeping. However, I can picture in my mind’s eye Eve weeping as she stands in the garden being judged by God. I can imagine her tears as she realizes she’s blown it big time and that she is to blame for her and her husband’s expulsion from the garden. I think John, here in ch. 20, wants the reader to imagine just this scenario with his portrayal of Mary Magdalene.

But let’s take it further. As the scene continues to develop, Mary, in between her tears, stoops down to look into Jesus’ empty tomb only to see two angels sitting at the head and foot of where Jesus had lain (v. 12). While I think this is an allusion to the cherubim that overshadowed the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (cf. Exod. 25:17-22), in light of the echoes of Genesis, I think the reader is also to think of the cherubim that God placed at the east of the garden of Eden to guard against humanity’s reentry. With this in mind, the angels’ interaction with Mary Magdalene is extremely interesting. They ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 13). They first address Mary simply as “woman”, something to which Jesus will also do in v. 15. The repetition of this designation could be John’s way of bringing to the reader’s mind the original “woman” in the garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 2:23).

Next, the angel’s questioning of Mary’s weeping seems to me to be the beginning of a reversal motif. The cherubim in Genesis were tasked with stopping Adam and Eve from ever returning to the garden of Eden and accessing the tree of life. The angels in this garden don’t drive Mary Magdalene out of the tomb or the garden itself but rather reach out to her with apparent mercy and concern. More than that, their question, and Mary’s response, seems to imply that they desire to ease Mary’s grief by pointing her toward the risen Lord, the true tree of life. It seems as though the curse of Eden is being reversed.

After Mary speaks with the angels, she turns to see Jesus standing before her, though she did not recognize that it is Him (v. 14). Jesus repeats the inquiry of the angels by asking Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” but then immediately follows up by asking, “Whom are you seeking?”. This latter question is intriguing. Surely, Jesus knows exactly who Mary is seeking, so what might be the point of asking this rhetorical question? More directly, why might John have included this question in the story? I propose that we are once again taken back to Genesis and Eden. I think the reader is supposed to recall God’s seemingly rhetorical question to Adam in Gen. 3:9: “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”. However, whereas in Genesis, God came in judgment and sought the man to account for his (and his wife’s) sin, here in John, God (in the form of the risen Lord) comes to a woman in mercy and forgiveness (“Woman, why are you crying?”) and asks whom SHE is seeking. Once again, it appears the Lord is reversing Eden.

I think, too, that Mary’s initial identification of Jesus as the gardener continues this reversal motif. This seems to be another echo of Genesis, since Adam was originally called to be the caretaker of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). This particular reference to the mistaken identity of Jesus as the gardener seems to be an allusion to Christ as the last Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45). Here in John, though, we see that unlike the first Adam who responded to his wife’s sin with blame and shame (Gen. 3:12), the last Adam comes to the woman in the garden (His “wife” in the same way that all believers are the bride of Christ) with mercy, love, and forgiveness.

Similarly, in v. 16, Jesus reveals His identity to Mary. He does so by calling out her name, “Mary”. While is has been noted that this harkens back to John 10 (the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice), I think again Genesis is in the background. Particularly, both the naming of humanity by God (implicitly in Gen. 1 and 2, explicitly in Gen. 5:2) and the naming of Eve by Adam (Gen. 3:20; cf. Gen 2:23). By revealing Himself to Mary by simply saying her name, Jesus stands in the place of both God and Adam as He “names” Mary.

Bringing all of this together, it seems to me John is trying to guide the reader to see an incredibly significant theological event occurring in this scene. With the resurrection of Jesus, a new age had dawned. More than that, a new creation as been inaugurated. On the first day of this new creation, in the darkness of the early morning hours, we find a woman, all alone, weeping in the garden. The reader’s mind is brought back to Genesis and the first woman in the garden, Eve, who’s sin brought judgment and alienation from both God and her husband. One could just imagine the great tears she wept and the shame she bore. However, in John, things are different. Now, the Lord Jesus Christ has put away sin in His life, death, and resurrection. Thus, we see as the morning dawns of this new creation, of this eighth day, the first act of the risen Lord is to reverse the judgment of Eve. Mary Magdalene stands in the garden among the angels, and rather than being driven away by them, she is met with mercy. In her pain and sorrow, she seeks to find her Lord, rather than being sought by the Lord; and, rather than finding judgment, she finds compassion and forgiveness. It is here that she also finds her husband, Jesus the bridegroom, who doesn’t condemn her, but rather, comforts her. Finally, she is “named” by her Lord and by her husband, as an act of new creation, which finally opens her eyes to see the true identity of the risen Jesus. A new Adam has come to redeem a new Eve, who may now once again stand in the presence of the Lord in the garden. Eden is being reversed.

That Mary Magdalene does stand as a type of Eve, as a new Eve, seems to also be implicit in the text. Since the risen Lord’s first act in the inaugurated new creation is this reversal of Eden, this would imply that Mary Magdalene is the Christ’s first new creation (in the sense of spiritual redemption, cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Thus, when John reports that Mary immediately announces to the other disciples that she has seen the Lord (v. 18), this is the message of a new Eve whom is now a new “mother of all living.” She is the first to bear the message of the risen Lord who brings the eternal life of the new creation.

-David


[1] John’s use of the cardinal μιᾷ  rather than the ordinal πρώτοῃ, as well as his description of Mary coming πρωῒ (“early in the morning”) to the tomb, parallels the LXX of the creation of the first day in Genesis 1:5: ”καὶ ἐγένετο πρωί (‘morning’) ἡμέρα μία (‘the first day’).

[2] John 19:41 says that Jesus was placed in a κῆπος, whereas the Genesis narrative uses the term παράδεισος to describe where Adam and Eve were placed. However, κῆπος is used elsewhere in the OT to describe the garden of Eden (see Ezekiel 36:35, where κῆπος τρυφῆς in the LXX in to translate the Hebrew גַן־עֵ֑דֶן), so, I think, the parallel is warranted.

[3] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), loc. 14700, Kindle edition.

[4] Wright, The Resurrection of the Song of God, loc. 14700, Kindle edition.