Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

243. "Held by the Feet" (Matt. 28:9, 10)

Consideration of the first appearances of the risen Christ (Mark 16:9) would be incomplete without some attention being also given to a related problem of some magnitude. Apart from the mention of Mary Magdalene as one of those who went early to the tomb, Matthew has no further allusion to her. Instead, he adds words which read like a brief summary of a further appearance of the Lord to the other women from whom Mary had become separated when she ran back to tell John and Peter: "And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me" (Matthew 28: 9,10).

The difficulties here are three:

  1. Matthew is here departing from his customary parallel with Mark by omitting all reference to the first appearing to Mary and by substituting instead an appearance to the other women.
  2. Mary had had time to go to Jerusalem to John and Peter and to return to the tomb, to linger there a while, yet at some time after this when Jesus appeared to the other woman they were still on their way "to tell his disciples." This time element is distinctly difficult.
  3. The words appointing a meeting with the disciples in Galilee are a repetition of what the angels had already said to these same women (v.7). Were they, then, likely to forget or ignore the angelic commission, that Jesus must re-impress it on their minds?
Problems - possible solutions

Here are three suggested ways of coping with these problems:

All of these singularities immediately disappear on the assumption that these words are actually Matthew's version of the Lord's meeting with Mary. Two striking verbal resemblances support this point of view: (a) "They came and held him by the feet;" this is implicit in the words of Jesus to Mary: ''Do not keep on holding me;" (b) "Go end tell my brethren" is an otherwise unique phrase, common to both narratives Add to these the fact that Matthew, Mark and John are now in perfect harmony in their accounts of the first resurrection appearance, and there is much to encourage belief that a solution to an awkward problem has been found.

But is the harmony perfect? Two matters call for attention.

According to John, Jesus appeared to Mary when she was lingering at the sepulchre, whereas the introductory words in Matthew are: "and as they went to tell his disciples". It so happens, however, that these words are omitted altogether from the Revised Version and most modern texts of the New Testament. There is a good deal of evidence from ancient manuscripts and versions to support this omission.

It may also be argued against the view just propounded that when Jesus appeared to Mary she was alone, whereas Matthew uses the plural "they". The explanation of this otherwise peculiar feature may be found in the fact that Matthew, in common with Mark, omits all mention of the division of the group of women and Mary's hasty return to the city. He is describing what happened to "the women" without suggesting any distinction between different members of their party. This kind of thing is characteristic of the gospels. For instance, Matthew describes the disciples as grumbling at the waste when Jesus was anointed in Bethany, whereas John makes it clear that Judas was the grumbler. Matthew and Mark record that in Gethsemane, "they all forsook him and fled"; nevertheless John describes how Peter and himself penetrated into the courtyard of the high priest's palace in their determination to keep close to Jesus. Matthew tells of two blind men at Jericho, but Mark and Luke mention only one. John 20:1 appears to describe Mary going Slone to the tomb, yet the very next verse supplies an indirect indication that she was actually accompanied by others.

Thus this plural pronoun in Matthew 28:9,10 is quite in harmony with the methods employed by the witness of the gospels. Also, Matthew's account of the resurrection appearances gains much in coherence if the interpretation advanced here be adopted.
Another possible solution to this problem of Matthew 28:9,10 follows rather different lines and at first sight is rather of the nature of an ad hoc solution. The narratives of Matthew, Mark and John are immediately and fully harmonized if it be assumed that when Mary ran to tell Peter and John and also when she returned to the tomb, she was accompanied by one of the other women from the original group. The plural pronouns of Matthew are then explained and the continuity of his narrative throughout verses 1-1 0 is preserved.

This suggestion is not as drastic as it might at first appear to be. Consider, for example, John 20:1 which reads as though Mary went to the tomb alone. It is only the "accidental" pronoun "we" in the next verse which betrays the fact, quite incidentally, that John was at all aware that Mary was accompanied by others. Again, in the same chapter John makes no actual mention of Mary returning to the tomb in the footsteps of Peter and himself. This is added only by implication when the next mention of Mary describes her as lingering at the tomb. Examples of this "narrative by implication" could be compiled from all the gospels. It is characteristic of them all, and especially of John who indulges in this kind of thing considerably. Consequently it is not unreasonable to suppose (taking Matthew 28:9,10 as a hint in that direction) that Mary was not alone at the tomb. There is one small detail in John 20 which might serve to imply something of the kind. Mary's offer to the "gardener" to carry away the body would be a practical possibility, and not just the expression of a distracted mind, if she had a friend with her at the time.
An alternative suggestion, then, is this: The encounter with some of the women took place more than a week after the Lord's resurrection, as they were still busy going from place to place telling various other disciples that the Lord was risen indeed.

In that case the main point of this appearance was to ensure that disciples (other than the eleven) lingered no longer in Jerusalem in hopes of seeing Jesus again. Instead it served to emphasize that if they would be with him, they must get away to Galilee. The main difficulties here lie in the sequence of the narrative in Matthew 28 and especially in the ensuing words: "Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city..."

The entire question remains problematical.

NOTES: Matthew 28:9, 10

Behold: Mt.'s characteristic word of surprise; v.2,11.

All hail: Gk. chairete, which also means Rejoice — with good reason!

Met them: stood over against them; hence the word came (to him).
Be not afraid. Why fear rather than surprise at the sight of Jesus? Was the Glory to be seen in his face?

Tell my brethren. Unless this phrase is read with reference to other disciples, and not the apostles, the command about a meeting in Galilee is distinctly difficult, for the eleven stayed at least another week in Jerusalem.

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