Skeptics sometimes question the Gospel eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection, particularly related to the early observations of the risen Christ. In John’s record of the Resurrection, Mary doesn’t immediately recognize Jesus in the garden. In fact, she initially mistakes Him for the gardener (John 20:1-16). How could that happen? Does this passage of Scripture support the claims of conspiracy theorists? Was the resurrected “Jesus” merely an imposter? Was it just someone posing as Jesus? Why wouldn’t Mary recognize the resurrected Jesus; the very man who meant so much to her? A closer examination of the Biblical texts may provide some answers.
While some critics of the Gospels maintain they are contradictory because they are not exactly the same, as someone who has interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses, I can tell you a difference isn’t necessarily a contradiction. My son Jimmy may tell you I’m young, while my other son, David, may describe me as having grey hair. The truth is they are both right! I’m (relatively) young (no laughing), but I do have grey hair. No contradiction here, just a difference in description. Given my experience with eyewitnesses, the Gospel accounts contain exactly what I would expect from four eyewitness testimonies; each telling the story from a slightly different perspective and from the innate presuppositions, life experiences and abilities of each witness. I get suspicious when the stories of witnesses are exactly the same, not when they vary within acceptable expectations. When people conspired to lie about an event, they typically align their stories. This is not the case with accurate and true eyewitness accounts. They always vary to some degree. When evaluating multiple eyewitness accounts, it’s my job to assemble the cumulative narrative. Let’s do this now, with the accounts related to Mary’s initial observation of Jesus:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'”
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words. Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Given these four accounts of Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden, the following inferences are reasonable:
The women came to the tomb very early, before it was light outside. They first viewed Jesus in this darkness.
The women were not looking for a resurrected man; they were looking for a dead man. They did not think it possible someone standing behind them could be Jesus.
They were afraid and scared, bewildered and wondering. Why? Because they had just experienced an earthquake. This is their state of mind as Jesus approaches.
Mary is crying; sobbing more likely. This is clear from the account we have, and her sobbing clearly affected her ability to see.
Mary was standing outside the tomb in the garden when she first viewed Jesus. In this setting, she would expect to see a gardener rather than Jesus.
Mary turned away from Jesus. She must have turned away quickly and stayed turned from Him for most of the contact and conversation, because the Scripture tells us she turns back toward Him when He mentions her name.
Mary was standing in the garden. She looked at Jesus for only an instant, in poor lighting, through her tears, thinking all along Jesus should be dead. She was terrified and bewildered from the earthquake. Do you think it is reasonable she first took him for a gardener (considering she was, after all, in a garden)? I think it is, and this is certainly not something that worries me as a believer. I actually love the honesty of the Gospels. Each writer reports the event without concern for apparent contradiction. As investigators, we simply need to do our homework to read through the varied accounts, consider all the perspectives and assemble the details. Once we’ve done this, it’s really not hard to understand why Mary didn’t immediately recognize the resurrected Jesus.