Gospel of John 20:1-18 Sunday School Notes

John 20: 1-18

Authorship: When one opens an English Bible to the book our Sunday school lesson quotes from, he sees a title of “John” or “the Gospel according to John”. And so the ancient Greek manuscripts read as well. Yet when one opens a commentary on John’s Gospel, one discovers modern scholars often have very different opinions about the authorship of this Gospel, and devote dozens of pages to outlining exactly who wrote this Gospel. James Charlesworth did a survey of the opinions in “The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John?”(1995) and came up with no less than twenty-three different possible authors!(cited by C. Blomberg, “Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel”, 2001). My own survey of commentaries came up with a much smaller number:

1) John son of Zebedee

2) John the Elder

3) John’s follower(s)

4) Lazarus

5) Thomas

John son of Zebedee is the traditional author, only named “the Beloved Disciple” in the actual book, and is so noted by almost all ancient authorities. Ancient Church historian Eusebius quotes Apostolic Father Papias as seemingly listing John the Disciple separately from another John the Elder, also a disciple. However, a close examination of the quote from Papias makes one suspect the two Johns are actually the same person, separated by a title commonly used of apostles in the NT (elder, in 1 and 2 John 1:1s, 1 Peter 5:1) and by Papias listing deceased disciples, then the remaining living ones (which makes one wish more was known about Aristion, traditionally numbered among the seventy (-two) sent out by Jesus). Lazarus fit’s the Judean context of much of John’s Gospel but fails the requirement that the beloved disciple was almost certainly one of the Twelve. Thomas was one of the Twelve, but the repeated comparisons apparent between the Beloved Disciple and Peter in the Gospel makes more sense if the Beloved Disciple were not only one of the Twelve, but of the inner core of three: Peter, James, and John. James was probably the first of the disciples to die:

Act 12:1-2 NET. About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword.

This was around 41-3 AD, pretty much before any of the New Testament books were authored (Paul’s earliest letters and the Epistle of James dating closer to 47-49 AD, traditionally). That leaves John son of Zebedee the only disciple of roughly equal standing with Peter left.

As for John’s follower(s), there is an assumption that the Gospel as we now have it was reworked to some degree or other, specifically because of : 1)the “beloved disciple” statements, which seem to be proof texts of authority that John himself would not have penned and 2) John 21’s explanation of the story that the beloved disciple would live until Jesus returned, which makes a lot of sense if added by someone after John had recently died at an advanced age.

Text: When we speak of ancient New Testament manuscripts, there are two important points to remember:

1) Our earliest (and thus, to a degree best) manuscripts contain only parts of the whole New Testament, never the whole collection (not the least because: a) the collection was not entirely agreed upon early and b) the Roman government destroyed all the Christian books they could get their hands on in the Great Diocletian Persecution of 303-311).

2) All ancient manuscripts before the invention of the printing press were handwritten, and thus subject to the faults of their scribes. This means misspellings, skipped words, etc. No two manuscripts are alike for very long. That is why modern Greek New Testaments (and the English Bibles based upon them) are based on eclectic texts created by comparing multiple manuscripts. That means: a) we likely have New Testaments closer to the originals than most Christians before us ever did but 2) Our texts don’t read like any single NT manuscript or family of NT manuscripts ever penned in ancient times.

That being said, here is a brief rundown of a few ancient manuscripts important for the reconstruction of our modern Greek NTs:

Important Manuscripts for John 20:
1) P5 – Fragmentary leafs from a papyri manuscript found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. One of the three surviving leafs contains John 20:11-17, 19-20, 22-25. The handwriting is what is called “documentary”, which means the scribe is judged to have been someone used to writing in business, but not a professional scribe. There are uneven spaces between letters and words and lines of text aren’t perfectly straight. Nearly half of early new testament papyri were written in this style, and the general opinion is that the business clerks who penned these manuscripts were likely the church lectors, responsible for making copies of texts for churches, replacing worn-out texts, preparing and reading the texts aloud.

P5 is commonly dated to the 200s, and more likely the first half of that century.

2) P66- A mostly complete manuscript of John’s Gospel found as part of a group of papyri in Jabal Abu Mana in 1952. The collection is called the Bodmer Papyri or the Dishna Papers, for the plain of Dishna near the place of their discovery. Even closer than the plain was a Pachomian monstery, from which library the Bodmer papyri likely came. Pachomius (287-346) was the creator of the communal monastery, where males and female monastics lived together sharing possessions in common under the direction of an abbot or abbess. P66 was created before the monastery by trained scribes, as indicated by the presence of no less than three handwritings on this manuscript: that of the original scribe, the first paginator who was also the official corrector, and a second paginator who corrected some things the first two missed. There are also pinpricks in the corners of each leaf, put there as guides for left and right margins. The question that remains unanswered is whether the manuscript was produced by paid professional scribes or within an early form of Christian publishing house, a scriptorium, perhaps located in the major Egyptian city of Alexandria.

P66 is most famous as the earliest manuscript which lacks John 7:53- 8:11, “the Woman caught in Adultery” (aka “The most beloved bible story not really part of the bible”. Its historicity is more debatable).

P66 is typically dated 200 AD, with several experts pushing for a date closer to 150 AD.

Important Manuscripts for both John 20 and 1 Corinthians 15:

3) Codex Vaticanus- Originally containing the whole Bible, now missing most of Genesis, parts of 2 Samuel, much of the latter portion of Psalms, a portion of Hebrews, and all of the Pastoral Epistles and Revelation.

Vaticanus, B for short, has resided in the Vatican for centuries. It is dated to the 300s, usually about 350 AD, and is suspected to be one of 50 bibles the Emperor Constantine authorized to be made with government funds, as a way to fill the gap in bibles created during the Diocletian Persecution’s (303-311) mass burning of Christian books.

Vaticanus is renowned for its excellence, especially in the Gospels. The original scribe was nearly the model scribe, copying faithfully if routinely, making no amendments of his own and only the typical errors of a tired worker. It’s excellence is portrayed in its use as the backbone of the Critical New Testament that replaced the Textus Receptus of the King James Version, the Westcott- Hort Greek New Testament of 1881, as well as the base text of Reuben Swanson’s New Testament Manuscripts series (1995-2005).

John 20:1- tei de mia ton sabbaton- the now one of the Sabbaths, a Greek form of a Hebrew and Aramaic phrase, where the singular ending of Sabbath in Aramaic, Shabbata, resembles the Greek neuter plural -at. Hebrew uses cardinal numbers for every day of the month. The Sabbath, the most important day of the week, was used as short hand for the week “from Sabbath to Sabbath”. (C.K. Barrett, Gospel According to John)

Mary Magdalene- John’s Gospel has a pattern of focusing on an individual in incidents that in other gospels include more people. Here:

Mar 16:1 NET. When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him.

Luk 24:10 NET. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles.

It is hardly likely a woman would be traveling alone dawnish outside the city walls. Then as now women would find safety in numbers.

The decision to go so early in the morning is surely a sign of the women’s devotion to Jesus. There is also the question of spices, which makes one suspect the women did not know the details of Nicodemus’ handling of the corpse. Two of the Gospels (Mat. 27:61, Mar 15:47 ) report that Mary Magdalene and another Mary saw Jesus entombed, or at least the body being carried to the tomb.

This leads me to comment on the obvious differences in the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels. Though attempts to harmonize the accounts exist (I offer one in these notes) the sheer number of different details points out that there were undoubtedly multiple witnesses with different viewpoints, and those differences strengthen the credibility of the overall account. A made up account would almost certainly not having so many conflicting, even competiting details.

“While still dark”, although historical, plays into the constant theme of John involving darkness and light. The brethren are in darkness without Jesus, but soon He will bring them into the brightest light yet.
(Craig Keener, The Gospel of John)

“And saw the stone had been removed from the tomb”- John 19 doesn’t mention a stone, and the habit of building tombs in caves and blocking them with stones rolled into a groove was a particularly Palestine Jewish custom, part of the brief lived (1st century AD roughly) Jewish custom of interring a body for a year to let the flesh fall off bones, which would then be gathered and placed in a bone box (ossuary). John must again be playing off the common traditions about the Resurrection in referring to the stone.

“Then she ran”- a long-standing question is whether Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away by herself, because she walked ahead of the other women, or did they all see it, and Mary Magdalene was the one who ran back to the city (likely because she was among the youngest of the women).

“They have taken the LORD out of the tomb”- The all caps LORD is an invention of the SS book; KJV and HCSB don’t do this. There is a reason for it, however: the ancient practice of nomina sacra, that is, abbreviating “sacred names”. This, I’ve said before, derives from the Jewish practice of writing the name of God in early Greek manuscripts in Hebrew letters. Early Christians, who were Jewish, passed on this practice in their manuscripts by using two or three letters abbreviations of obviously sacred names: theos (God), kurios (Lord), Iesus (Jesus), Christos (Christ) being the earliest ones used. Abbreviated sacred names were signaled by a bar/line above the letters, as was common practice with abbreviations in ancient business documents. A look at the parts of Greek manuscripts I’ve scanned will show that “Lord” here was indeed written as a nomina sacra, a name of God.

That there was an empty tomb seems certain, otherwise ancient documents would surely recount the Romans and the Jewish authorities giving guided tours to the tomb and body as proof of Christianity’s falsehood. And again, women were hardly considered prime witnesses in the ancient world, so why put them in a made-up account? Paul doesn’t mention the women to whom Jesus appeared in 1 Corinthians 15, even though Paul plainly is giving an account of eyewitnesses to the Resurrection (This is also why Paul doesn’t mention the empty tomb, since that is hardly strong, examinable evidence).

“we don’t know where they have put him”- this “we” is considered evidence that Mary wasn’t at the tomb alone, as the other Gospels explicitly say.

The obvious suspicions about the body at this point are:

1) Joseph of Arimathea moved it from his new family tomb for some reason

2) The authorities, Jewish, Roman, or both moved it.

3) Grave robbers took it. Some people used bodies for magic, especially bodies of convicted criminals and people who died violently, which are though to be especially potent magically. Rope from a cross or iron that had been driven through the hands were valued magic items (Craig Keener, Gospel of John)

The other suspicions are less feasible:

1) Jesus was still partly alive, and crawled out of the tomb somehow- not likely. Roman soldiers knew how to kill people. Crucifixion was something of an art form by this point in Roman history, in fact, executioners understanding the basics of the art well enough to improvise various means of making the torturous death even more terrible. This is one reason we aren’t entirely sure exactly how Jesus was crucified (the other being the universal horror of crucifixion kept ancient people from saying much about I, including the Gospel writers).

2) The disciples stole the body- hardly likely considering:

A) No one seems to have expected a resurrection

B) the disciples show every sign of being totally shaken by Jesus’ execution, hardly in a state to carry out a cunning deception.

C) the disciples were already completely dishonored by their failure to protect their teacher. Risking life and limb to steal his body was not going to do them much good.

John 20:4- the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first: Here is a sign of John’s Gospel giving a sort of pre-eminence to the beloved disciple. It is admittedly likely a simple fact accountable by the beloved’s youth (traditionally John bar Zebedee lived to about 95 AD), but it likely also has another meaning: the beloved has as much or more insight into the gospel as Peter, the pre-eminent disciple. This need for establishing the beloved’s superiority may come from a hinted at rivalry between Petrine and Johanine schools of Christianity. Or it may simply be that that the surviving John needed to bolster his different reading of the gospel against Peter’s, especially since Acts seems to put John in Peter’s shadow. Some may have been confused at John’s personal take on the gospel compared to what he tacitly endorsed by being Peter’s partner for decades. Some scholars suspect much of the beloved disciple language of John’s Gospel is in fact an editorial addition made after John was dead, meant to give his very different Gospel weight in comparison to the famously similar Synoptic Gospels.

John 20:5 He bent/stooped down: An eighth-century pilgrim to the tomb of the Holy Sepulcher said the tomb was low enough one could touch the ceiling with his hand, with an opening on the side rather than the top, and a seven foot shelf about two feet above the floor, on the right, where Jesus had been laid. (Keener, Gospel of John)

Parakupto is the Greek for “stooping to look”, “looking down”. It was used of looking in and out of a window, which seems appropriate here. The verse is unusual in adding blepo, see, since the word before implies seeing. Looking through a window seems an appropriate image, as these tombs were built with small entrances built low to the ground.

Linen cloths- Two of the Synoptics say sheet, sindon, John says cloths, othnia. Luke uses sheet in 23:53 and cloths in 24:12. Likely both are synonyms for “grave clothes”

“He did not go in”- John strikes one as a reflective person, I suppose, so one can imagine he would peek inside, see the empty grave clothes, then lean back out and maybe lie against the tomb wall, thinking about what was going on.

John 20:6- Then came Simon Peter, following him: following in Greek, akoloutheo, is often used of students following teachers. This could be another subtle hint at John’s superiority to Peter. (C.K. Barrett, Gospel of John)

“And went into the tomb” – Peter is opposite of John, apparently. He charges right into the tomb.

John 20:7 “and the facecloth which was on His head not lying with the linen strips, _but_ apart, having been rolled up in one place.”- The head cloth or head-napkin is in Greek soudarion, a loan word from the Latin sudarium. It is a sort of handkerchief or towel for wiping the face. Exactly what it means here among grave clothes is hard to say. Was it simply a separate cloth to cover the face, or was it, as Father Ray Brown suggested, the cloth used to tie up the chin and keep the mouth closed?

We don’t know the condition of the grave clothes, but the account specifically says the head cloth was apart and placed neatly. Both must have puzzled the disciples enormously. If the body had been taken, who would possibly unwrap it? And if the body had been unwrapped for robbing, why was the face cloth put aside neatly? The evidence did not fit any of the possibilities in the disciples’ minds.

John 20:8 “The other disciple… entered the tomb, and saw”: At this point the basic requirement for legal witness is fulfilled. Two men have seen the evidence: no body.

“and believed”: What was it John believed? At the least, he must have thought God had done something with Jesus‘ body, vindicating him. At most, he believed Jesus had been resurrected. One wants to temper John’s realization as not being fully correct yet because of

John 20:9 For they still did not understand the Scripture that He must rise from the dead: Indeed, Jesus would have to teach them the scriptures during the forty days after. The simple fact is that we don’t exactly know today just which scriptures were used. Acts gives us some ideas: Ps 2:7, Ps 16:10, Ps 110, Is 55:3. Others include Is 9:7, Dan 2:44, Dan 7:44.

John 20:10 Then the disciples went away to themselves again: That is, they went back to where they were staying, because they needed to give a report to the others, and because they had, separately, a lot to think about. “Home” was likely some place where they were all gathered.

Joh 20:11 But Mary stood outside at the tomb, weeping: Why? Because Mary’s teacher was not only dead, but now his tomb had been desecrated.
Mary had obviously followed Peter and John back to the tomb. Was she alone, or were the other ladies who would see Jesus with her? It’s hard to say. The account gets very muddled now that Jesus starts appearing. Some of the appearances likely happened very near the others in time and distance, but back then no one was wearing watches to sort out the chronology simply. The Gospels have so many eyewitnesses to draw from, in fact, that plainly no one included everyone in a single account. Ancient history, it must be remembered, is both eyewitnesses AND interpretation.

Then as she wept, she stooped down into the tomb- Presumably after Peter and John had gone, she took a look for herself, since they apparently said little or nothing to her.

Joh 20:12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

Mind you, she did not immediately realize they were angels, so they must not have been shining like the sun or the like. They were dressed in white, but so did many people as part of religious attire. White was the standard dress of angels and pagan gods, however, and it has two extra significances here:

1) White is the Western color of purity and joy. Here are two people in a tomb, not wearing mourning clothes. Hint, hint!

2) John’s Gospel has this darkness vs. light metaphor that runs through it, and here are light colored clothes at the proverbial “break of day”.

Joh 20:13 And they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says to them, “Because they took away my Lord, and I do not know where they put Him.

“Woman” gune, was the polite form of address in that culture, the equivalent to “Miss” or “Madam“, say.

“Because” isn’t in all the translations because the Greek, hoti, can simply be a marker for a quote, or actually mean “because, for, since”. The sense is not greatly affected in either case.

Mary still thinks Jesus’ body has been moved or stolen.

Joh 20:14 And saying these things, she turned backward and saw Jesus standing, and did not know that it was Jesus.

Did Mary hear Jesus, sense his movement behind here, or, likely, the angels noticed him and caused her to turn and see who it was diverted their attention.

That Mary did not recognize Jesus is no surprise. She was emotionally distressed, crying, and Jesus’ resurrected body seemed, like angels‘ bodies, to be able to alter appearance. That or people’s perceptions were veiled for some reason. Indeed, John’s Gospel has a motif of people coming to enlightenment through misunderstanding, with which this fits.(C.K. Barrett, Gospel According to John)

Joh 20:15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Because she thought he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.”

Again Mary shows her devotion, by offering to lug Jesus’ corpse around, something almost certainly difficult for her to do!

Joh 20:16 Jesus said, “Mary”. See: Joh 10:2-4 NET. The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. (3) The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (4) When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice.

Scripture often shows God getting people’s attention by calling out their name, often twice. See references such as Gen 22:11, 46:2, Exo 3:4, 1 Sam 3:10, Luke 10:41, Acts 9:4. Such double naming can either be for emphasis or to show endearment. (Keener, Gospel of John)

“Turning around”- the gardener was apparently not worth much attention. There is a definite lesson here. Two angels and God Incarnate in a room, and who DOESN’T stick out? The same Jesus who customarily took the worst seat at dinner, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his followers to avoid the places of honor. True humility is what God looks like.

“She said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!”, which means “Teacher”- Okay, here is the main, obvious textual variant in our lesson. The Greek for “in Hebrew” is Hebraisti, but the transliteration shows that the actual language is a dialect of Aramaic. The explanatory word dropped out in the Byzantine text family behind the KJV, even though John specifies the language in three other places in the Gospel. Perhaps because he does specify the language twice in chapter 19, so near this occurrence it was felt redundant.

Joh 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Stop holding onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

There has long been puzzlement over exactly what the Greek “me mou haptou” means. Is it something like Ex 19:12-13, where Moses must not touch the holy? Is it a psychological statement that the time has come to replace His physical presence with a spiritual presence? Or is it simply “Let me go; I am not ascended and have much to do before then”? C.K. Barrett suggests another approach, that the “but” (de in Greek) applies not to “go” (poreuou) but to “I have not yet ascended” (oupo gar anabebeka), so that the meaning is “Let me go; I haven’t yet ascended but am about to ascend to my Father and your Father- to my God and your God. Go to my brothers and tell them.”
(C. K. Barrett, Gospel According to John)

My Father and your Father- to my God and your God: once again, Jesus makes a distinction between his relationship to God and everyone else’s. This is another theme in John, and it continues on this late in the narrative.


One response to “Gospel of John 20:1-18 Sunday School Notes

  1. hey chuck… i got a question for you I want to email you… but cant find your email address… drop me a line at rogermugs (at) gmail (dot) com, and then i can write you back and explain

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