Above: Mikhail Nesterov “The Empty Tomb,” 1889.
The Easter narrative in Matthew centers around Jesus’ body and a gender struggle.
After Jesus’ expiration on the cross, we are left pondering the meaning of his execution together with three women—a fish worker and two mothers—who are keeping vigil from afar (Mt 27:55f). Night falls. Jesus’ body is granted by the Roman procurator Pilate to Joseph, a rich Jew who apparently had access to the imperial court (vv. 57-61). This back room deal has all the hallmarks of a political move aimed at prohibiting those in Jesus’ community from executing their duties to anoint and bury the body according to Purity and custom—a strategy likely designed to prevent occasion for more protest during the volatile season of Passover. Though Matthew calls Joseph a disciple of Jesus (v. 57), as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the authorities are determined to short-circuit any attempts by Jesus’ followers to recapture his body. How often have our church leaders cooperated with government efforts to keep law and order in the face of dissent?
We are told that the cave tomb was covered with a great stone. Case settled, story over. Except that the women resume their vigil in front of the tomb (v. 61). This narrative breathes of a quiet conspiracy of refusal and resistance—not to mention of compassionate solidarity with the executed. (Reality check: The State of Arkansas wanted to execute eight men in ten days over this first week of Eastertide, only to be frustrated by the Supreme Court.)
The next episode is included only by Matthew (27:62-66). It describes the continuing collaboration between Roman imperial and Judean provincial authorities, and illustrates their keen mutual interest in ensuring that the fledgling, dissident messianic movement be crushed once and for all. Because of the annoying hope circulating through the movement that Jesus would “rise on the third day,” the authorities determine it is necessary to “secure the crime scene.” A counter-conspiracy is hatched: guards are placed at the tomb, and the stone is sealed. Yellow tape, as Bill Wylie Kellermann once put it: “Do not cross police line.”
Notice that this drama pits women protagonists against powerful men. Moreover, these are women without men, trying to “get around” the death-dealing machinations of the authorities. That unaccompanied women are subjects of this story at all is, of course, extraordinary, given the patriarchal context of the Bible in general. To be sure, the narrative paints a very credible cultural scenario. Women indeed took on the role of tending to the dead in first century Palestinian culture. Moreover, there were women in Jerusalem who sponsored a charitable guild that provided proper burial to victims of Roman crucifixion (see more here). But these Galilean women’s determination to anoint and re-bury the body of their loved one as custom demanded also implies defiance of the authorities.
After properly waiting until after the Sabbath is over, they proceed again to Jesus’ burial place to perform their duties (28:1-4). They were, no doubt, taken aback to discover the show of police force at the tomb. But even moreso by what transpires next: a showdown between an apocalyptic angel (note the classic descriptors in 28:3) and the imperial guard. The scene is dripping with irony: the stone is rolled back—the angel sitting triumphantly atop it (perhaps with a shit-eating grin!)—and now it is the guards who have become “like dead men” (v. 4).
The angel then turns toward the women and invites them to transcend their traditional role by becoming witnesses to the crucified-but-now-risen-and-gone Jesus (vv. 5-7). “You’ll have to take my word for it,” the angel concludes (v. 7e)—instructive, since everyone else in the narrative will have to take their word for it. The story—and the future of the gospel—now becomes tethered to the power of witness.
About that: Women were not even qualified to testify in a court of law in the first century! Why then would the gospel tradition rely on women to be the sole witnesses of these amazing things (other than the soldiers, about who more in a moment). Unless, of course, this was how it actually went down. After all, placing the burden of testimony on women-without-men would hardly have served a young movement trying to establish credibility; this scene is not likely something they would have made up!
Filled with both joy and fear (note the dialectic refrain between the two in vv. 5-10), these intrepid women set off to announce the good news to the male disciples, who are in hiding, hoping they would not share the fate of their leader. En route, they meet Jesus (vv. 9-10), and their response is poignant: they embrace his three-days’-decomposed-body! That is solidarity. Jesus then reiterates the commission of the angel, inviting them to transcend their fear in order to call “their brothers” back to discipleship. (Might part of their trepidation have been anticipating being dismissed by those same male colleagues—as Luke reports in 24:11?).
Matthew relates one more sordid episode in the male counter-conspiracy (vv. 11-15). Unable to control the body of Jesus, the authorities set about trying to control the narrative. They bribe the soldiers, lie, cut political deals, and manipulate the press. We are not unfamiliar with the deception of such “false news” and spin from the current White House—which bombed two nations during Holy Week.
The story does not show the women trying to persuade the male disciples about the Risen Jesus. We are only told that the dudes do show up in Galilee (vv. 16-19). Which means they actually followed the women’s instructions, who were following Jesus’ instructions, who was not following the authorities’ rule of law. On a wild mountaintop, far away from presidential Twittering, these resurrected disciples receive further instructions: to go “make disciples of all nations.” Which includes imperial nations, then and now. And in that mission to the Powers, Jesus promises accompaniment, forever (v. 20). Which includes today.
The very first transformation that occurs as a result of Jesus’ Resurrection is an overturning of gender expectations. The narrative laid the groundwork for this shocking conclusion in its description of the women holding vigil together at the execution of Jesus at the start of this sequence (27:55f). There they are described with two loaded verbs: they had “followed” and “served” Jesus throughout the gospel story. Each articulates a key aspect of Jesus’ call. In other words, these women are presented at the close of Matthew’s tale as true disciples. The androcentric narrative has completely collapsed, but women have stepped in to keep the discipleship story alive. Resurrection indeed.
Many of us are pondering these days what it means to transcend gender binaries. But the gender politics of the Easter story could not be thicker, or more remarkable—or more suppressed by androcentric churches. But the gospel is clear: it is the testimony of women—in defiance of patriarchal codes of veracity—upon which our faith tradition utterly relies.
Why then do women still have such a hard time being fully equal and fully themselves in our Christian churches?