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The Stone that Rolled Away

The interlude between Acts Four and Five, when the stage was left empty, was filled by the noises that accompanied the rolling of the stone. According to Matthew (28:2) when the stone rolled away there was a great earthshaking. This piece of information, although not reported by the other gospels, must be based on the play since Roman audiences were especially fond of scenes with thunder, lightning and earthquake. According to the Gospel of Peter, there came a great sound in the heavens, and two men descended from it, while at the same time the stone rolled away by itself and withdrew to one side. This elaboration of the scene in The Gospel of Peter supports the view that in the original play there was a tremor that caused the stone to roll away. The first and last acts of Seneca’s tragedy were influenced by Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus; in this play when Oedipus is about to die, there is earthshaking, thunder, and lightning, during which a chasm opens in a rocky wall and Oedipus disappears in it. In Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus the stone rolled to a position offstage that was not visible, in order that later, when the women come back, they would not notice that the tomb was open until they had come rather close to it, having crossed the stage from the right.

            Mark relates that after the Sabbath was over the women bought spices in order to go to annoint him.[1] This indicates that when the chorus re-enter the stage, following the mentioned interval, they are carrying vases of em­balm­ing spices (which supposedly they had bought from Joseph).The women crossed the stage from right to left. In the first part of their move­ment across the stage they must have indicated what they intended to do with the vases they were carrying. When they approached the left side of the stage, they noticed that the stone had rolled away so that the tomb was open. Then, looking inside the tomb, they saw something that caused them to flee in panic away from the tomb in the direction of the right. Later we shall deal in detail with this scene, but first we must stress that Seneca’s portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection was in conflict with established Christian beliefs.

            In the eyes of the early Christians the most serious difficulty raised by Seneca’s presentation was its conflict with the belief alluded to in First Corinthians, a work composed some twenty years after the crucifixion, that Christ rose on the third day according to the Scriptures. This belief was embodied in a credal formula recited by the faithful. One can guess that there must have been a lively debate in the Christian community of Rome on how to interpret Seneca’s play. The testimony of none less than Seneca on the absolutely essential issue of the resurrection was welcome, but reconciling this testimony with established Christian beliefs was a difficult matter. The texts indicate that more than one solution was proposed.

            According to the Greek and Roman usage on the third day could well mean the space from Friday evening to Sunday morning. But it is difficult to trace the scriptural text to which this formula was supposed to refer; the only passage that seems pertinent is Hosea 6:2.

After two days he will revive us,

on the third day he will restore us,

that we may live before him.

            If this was taken as the passage to which the credal formula referred, it must have been assumed that forty-eight hours had to pass between the death and the resurrection of Jesus.[2]

            One way out was provided by the circumstance that according to Seneca the women were offstage for a while after the burial, which took place just before the coming of the evening. Hence, it could be assumed that the women were offstage not for a short period, but for an entire day. Christians believed that Jesus died on a Friday and was resurrected on a Sunday. Hence, it could be understood that the women left the tomb on Friday night and did not come back until the Sabbath was over, because of the Jewish rules about Sabbath rest. Jews moved only within a limited area on the Sabbath and in general abstained from any activity on that day. Hence, it was easy for Christians to assume that the disappearance of the women from the stage was related to Sabbath rest. Luke (23:26), referring to the point of time between the exit and the re-entering of the women, states that they kept quiet on the Sabbath according to the commandment. [3]

                        The choral songs which separated one part of a tragedy from another (the parts that the Romans called acts) could fill a break of time of any desired length, from a few minutes to a few hours. There are some scholars who believe that in Greek tragedy the break could even correspond to a few days. A major example of such a long break would occur Euripides’ Alcestis: The choral song which precedes the appearance of Heracles with the resurrected Alcestis would have filled a break of a few days. This interpretation is nothing short of preposterous and in conflict with the entire structure of the play, although it was defended by A. W. Verrall, a respected specialist on the interpretation of Euripides.[4] If there are some scholars who can read such a break of time into the Alcestis, it is not surprising that the Christian audience of Seneca’s play understood that there was a long break between the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. People who have dogmatic commitments perceive reality in their own way, and this does not apply only to religious zealots. For instance, the mentioned Verrall argued as a rationalist that according to Euripides Alcestis, far from having resur­rected, never died, but had merely been buried in too much of a hurry.[5] That the chorus should withdraw from the stage and return was an unusual procedure; hence, the Christian audience did not lack grounds for understanding that the absence of the chorus indicated an unusually long break in the flow of dramatic time.

            If the women went to bring aromatic spices to the tomb in the twilight after sunset, there would not have been any violation of the official Jewish law.[6] In the narrative of the gospels, however, the day begins in the morning and not in the evening. For those who follow a solar calendar it is natural to assume that the new day begins with the rising of the sun.[7] Thus the Christians of Rome must have understood that the visit of the women to the tomb had taken place after the Sabbath was over, on a Sunday.

            Mark wrote (16:2) that the women went

Very early on the first day of the week (sabbata)... when the sun had risen.[8]

            It is clear that Mark connects the visit of the women with the rising of the sun, at the beginning of Sunday. According to Mark the women went to the tomb in the light of the sun, whereas the Christian community had gathered from Seneca that the women went to the tomb when it was dark. The element of darkness was important because the dramatic conventions followed by Seneca required that later the women fail to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he appears to them in front of the tomb.

            Matthew, being well trained in rabbinical lore, understood that Mark’s solution was superficial. If the women had begun to observe the Sabbath on the evening of Friday, according to Temple rules, they would not have stopped this observance as late as the morning of Sunday, at sunrise: If the Sabbath began on the evening of Friday, it must have ended the following evening. Hence, Matthew states (28:1) that the women went back to the tomb

late in the Sabbath (Sabbata), at the shining out towards the first day of the week (sabbata).[9]

Since Matthew was correcting Mark, he used sabbata in two different senses.[10]

            Luke, who had before him both the text of Mark and that of Matthew, took an intermediary position: It was Sunday morning, but definitely before sunrise.

 On the first day of the week (sabbata)... in the first twilight.

            Luke’s wording could also be rendered as deep twilight; it is an expression used commonly in Greek litera­ture to refer to the period in which the night begins to be less dark.

            John seems to agree with Luke, but puts an even greater stress on the element of darkness (20:1):

On the first day of the week (sabbata) Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early when there was still darkness [skotia].

            Skotia, darkness, is a strong word in Greek and would exclude twilight. Possibly John intended to be noncommittal as to the exact moment of time, but many interpreters understand that he is referring to a point in time earlier than that mentioned by Luke.

            One can solve the chronological conflicts of the gospels by referring to what must have been Seneca’s version. There is no ancient tragedy in which the action is not concluded by the time of the sun’s setting. In his tragedy of Jesus Seneca let the mourning women return to the tomb of Jesus at sunset shortly after the burial, but on this point the evangelists had to modify the chronology.

            It must be kept in mind that the ancient theater did not have any technical means to indicate darkness on the stage. Darkness could be indicated to the audience only through the words of the play or indirectly by the use of torches, as in the arrest of Jesus. On the basis of these facts it becomes clear why John, who relied on the text of Seneca’s play, speaks of the episode of the visit to the tomb as taking place in darkness and Mark, who based himself on the acted play but understood little of ancient stage con­ventions, speaks of it as if it took place after sunrise. The scene had been acted in ordinary light, but there were some words in the play that indicated that it was dark.[11] Seneca indicated that the women went to the tomb in the twilight when it was getting dark. This timing was made necessary by the chronology of the play and was also convenient in order to explain why the women did not at first recognize the apparition they saw as Jesus.



[1]           Generations of commentators have disputed about when this purchase took place: The women are said by Mark to have come to the tomb on the first day of the week, at sunrise, while Luke clearly states that they prepared the spices and the ointments before the Sabbath rest. In 1627 the great jurist Hugo Grotius, in a then famous work in defense of Catholic orthodoxy against the first doubters of the divine inspiration of the gospel writers, (De Veritate Religionis Christianae) suggested that the women had purchased the spices on the preceding Friday. But, in an age in which scholars were totally familiar with the Greek language, Grotius was scorned for not having considered that the verb bought is in the aorist tense, and not in the pluperfect, so that the purchase can have taken place only when the Sabbath was over. But Grotius was substantially right, because in the original version of the story the entire action of the women had taken place at the end of Friday. There is no conflict between the version of Mark and Luke, if one recognizes that the rest of the women during the Sabbath is an addition of the evangelists. The incongruity of the insertion of the Sabbath break into the narrative is made clear by those commentators who in order to reconcile the two texts claim that the women purchased spices on Friday, as indicated by Luke, and then realizing that the spices were not sufficient, bought some more after the Sabbath. But this story of the insufficient spices makes even more difficult to explain the reference of John to some hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe.

[2]           It may be worth noting that a conservative Roman Catholic commentary tries to harmonize John with the other gospels by claiming that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb in the dusk but was joined by the other women at sunrise. This farfetched interpretation confirms that the gospels disagree with each other on the time of the visit to the tomb.

[3]           There were rigoristic Jewish sectarians who went as far as to remain frozen in their positions during the holy day. Since this was the general spirit of Jewish rules, Luke uses the verb esukhazô, which that may mean to remain still as well as to keep quiet.

[4]           A. W. Verrall, Euripides the Rationalist, (Cambridge University Press, 1895), pp. 61f.

[5]           Ibid., pp. 76f. This theory of Verrall is the equivalent of the old theory popularized in recent times by Schonfield’s The Passover Plot to the effect that Jesus, far from having resurrected, merely pretended to be dead. Two centuries earlier, in the Age of Enlightenment, Heinrich Paulus tried to explain the resurrection by the theory that Jesus extricated himself from the cross during the night. (It is a matter of debate whether Jesus was tied or nailed to the cross.).

[6]           By Temple reckoning the new day began in the evening; but the evening did not start immediately at sunset. The Talmud prescribes that the evening recital of the Shema may begin only after the first appearance of the stars. Rabbis quoted Nehemiah 4:21 to the effect that work went on till the stars came out. In a later period the rabbis specified that the evening begins when three stars of the second magnitude become visible.

[7]           Following the publication of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, much attention has been paid to the calendars of Jewish sectarian groups. It has been established that some of the sectarian groups followed a solar calendar, whereas the calendar of the Temple, at least in the age of Jesus and later, was a lunar one. This calendar was anchored on the first appearance of the new moon in the evening: It was by actually observing this appearance that the priests of the Temple announced the beginning of a new month.

[8]           There are some manuscripts, among them the authoritative Bezae manuscript, which read when the sun was rising; but most interpreters understand that this is a later correction introduced into Mark’s text in order to make it agree with the other gospels.

[9]           The word that I have translated as the shining out is epifoskeuse. I have pointed out that Luke uses epifoskô in referring to the beginning of the night. The Greek text of Matthew reads opse sabbaton which can only mean late in the Sabbath, that is, on the evening of the Sabbath. The Vulgate translates correctly vespere sabbati, on the evening of the Sabbath, but all modern translations render opse sabbaton as after the Sabbath, in order to agree with the other gospels. There have been produced several learned and laborious essays which try to prove that in Greek opse sabbaton could mean after the Sabbath, but they have all been futile. On the basis of them the Anchor Bible commentary to Matthew cannot advance any better argument than to assert: It is hard to understand the opening phrase in this verse as meaning other than ‘as the Sabbath ended,’ or ‘when it had ended.’ To understand otherwise may be hard, but it is correct.

[10]         In Greek sabbaton or sabbata (singular or plural) means the Sabbath, according to the use of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. But in the Greek of the New Testament sabbaton or sabbata means week, because the word shabbat had by that time acquired this meaning in rabbinical Hebrew. In other words the usual Greek and Latin terminology as employed by pagan writers reflected the Hebrew practice of the pre-Christian era, whereas the Greek of the New Testament reflected contemporary Hebrew usage. Seneca used the word sabbatum which in ordinary Latin means Sabbath, but Mark understood sabbatum in the sense that it had acquired among the Jews of his time, that is, week. Hence, Mark had no difficulty in understanding that the women went to the tomb when Sunday was coming. Matthew, who tried to correct Mark, employed sabbata in the two senses--but that was the key to the entire problem.

[11]         The words used by Seneca are reflected in the phrasing of Matthew: Late in the Sabbath (sabbata) at the shining out (epiphoskeuse) towards the first day of the week (sabbata). The verb epiphosko, used by both Matthew and Luke, may be a rendering of the Latin vesperesco to grow towards evening. Advesperescit means it is getting evening, twilight is coming on. In Latin vesper refers to the very latest part of the day, with particular emphasis on the idea of lateness. The noun vesper was often joined with the adjective serus, late. There was a popular proverb nescis quid serus vesper vehat, you do not know what the late evening may bring"; we would say you do not know what the night may bring. Seneca must have used some phrase which corresponds to that which finally produced the vespere sabbati of the Vulgate.


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