Though she does not play a prominent role through most of the gospel narrative, Mary Magdalene takes center stage after the crucifixion. She is the person who discovers the empty tomb (John 20:1). After relaying the (potentially) good news to the disciples (John 20:2), Mary remains outside the tomb weeping (John 20:11). Presumably, she interprets the absence of Jesus’ body as an insult added to injury.
After conversing with two angels who were in the tomb, Mary encounters the risen Jesus himself (John 20:12-18). She does not recognize him initially, presuming him to be the gardener of the garden tomb (John 20:15).
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” (John 20:15 NASB)Recognition comes not through sight (Matthew 5:8; Ephesians 1:18) as it is only after Jesus says her name that Mary recognizes him (John 20:16). As Jesus had professed earlier in the gospel, sheep know their shepherd’s voice when they hear it (John 10:4).
Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) reads the incident with an apologetic bent:
This is perhaps the earliest literary evidence of a Jewish response to the Christian story of the resurrection. While early Christians explained the tradition of an empty tomb by claiming that God had raised Jesus from the dead, early Christian documents report a Jewish response that the body has been stolen from the tomb by a gardener. (Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina), 528)When she encounters Jesus, Mary is inconsolable and likely still in shock. Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) comments, “Her conclusion that perhaps this man moved Jesus’ body since he happened to be the gardener indicates that she has not heard the man standing before her (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation (Bible Knowledge Series), 156).”
Mary, like many in mourning, is on a mission, staying busy by doing the distracting work of taking care of the deceased’s affairs. She assumes the highly unusual role of chief mourner and claims her right to Jesus’ body. Jack W. Stallings (b. 1944) speculates, “Mary apparently supposes that there has been some objection to Jesus’ having been buried in this particular tomb and assures (the gardener) that she will assume the responsibility of finding another place to bury the body (Stallings, The Randall House Bible Commentary: The Gospel of John, 279).”
D.A. Carson (b. 1946) analyzes:
Perhaps, she told herself, he had seen something – indeed, perhaps he had been involved in the moving of the body himself. If Mary thought him to be the gardener, she may have wondered if he had been under orders from the owner to remove the body of this executed criminal from the new tomb where it had been hurriedly placed. That she should offer to make the arrangements to fetch the body and given it a proper burial suggests she was a woman of some wealth and standing (as Luke 8:2-3 attests). (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 641)Mary’s interpretation is mundane - she mistakes Jesus for the gardener (kepouros). This is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. Counselor and gardener Catherine McCann defines:
The gardener could mean the owner of the garden or an overseer or caretaker—therefore someone who would have known who disturbed the tomb. Brown remarks that the word kepouros (“gardener”) is the only biblical reference using this term, yet it was not an uncommon word in secular papyri. (McCann, New Paths Toward the Sacred: Awakening the Awe Experience in Everyday Living, 152)Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) rationalizes, “Presumably he looks less angelic than the other two individuals, so that she mistakes him for a gardener (recall John 19:41) (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 263).”
Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) notes that gardener was the best guess available to Mary.
Apart from grave robbers or other mourners—neither of whom would have been likely visitors at this early morning hour—gardeners attending to the grounds where a tomb was located (cf. John 19:41) would have been the only people around. Mary’s guess indicates that at first blush the resurrected Jesus is indistinguishable from an ordinary person. (Clinton E. Arnold [b.1958], Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: John, Acts, 188)Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) justifies Mary’s blunder:
The confusion of Jesus with a gardener is logical, given that they are standing in a garden. The misidentification points to the degree to which Jesus’s appearance is unexpected. That Jesus has left his burial clothes in the tomb might provoke fanciful speculation that Jesus has borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Rembrandt depicts this possibility in his painting The Resurrected Lord Appears to Mary Magdalene (1651) [pictured]. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 269)Some have seen Mary’s misconception as indicative of inadequate faith. Mark A. Matson (b.1951) critiques:
It is curious that, having seen and heard the angels in the tomb, she would still ask Jesus, thinking him to be a gardener, where the body has been moved. This question underscores her lack of comprehension and belief. (Matson, John (Interpretation Bible Studies),119)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) adds:
Her lack of spiritual perceptivity at this point could hardly be made clearer. On the other hand, it seems characteristic of first appearance stories that Jesus is not immediately recognized (cf. the Emmaus story in Luke 24). G.R. Beasley-Murray [1916-2000] has conjectured that the glorified Jesus made himself sensibly recognizable only to his disciples but that in his transfigured condition he would not have been distinguishable from other supernatural beings such as an angel. The problem with this suggestion is that Mary confuses Jesus with a gardener, but she certainly does not confuse him with the angels in the tomb. (Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, 331)As Witherington notes, not recognizing the post resurrected Jesus is not an uncommon phenomena (Luke 24:13-16). More than any deficiency in faith, Mary’s reaction accentuates the unexpectedness of the resurrection. She could not perceive Jesus because she had rejected the possibility of seeing him.
Are you looking for Jesus? Would you recognize him if you saw him? Have you ever not recognized a loved one because they were in an unexpected place? Why does Mary fail to recognize Jesus? Is her misidentification an evidence of a lack of faith? Is Mary completely wrong?
In a way, Mary is correct - she is encountering the gardener. In John 15:1-17, Jesus paints a famous picture of a vine meticulously trimmed by a gardener so that it might produce optimum fruit. Though the word for gardener (georgos) is different, the analogy begins with Jesus stating that the Father is the gardener of the vine (John 15:1).
The imagery may even bring the Biblical story full circle by alluding back to creation. Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) explains:
Some interpreters believe that John is consciously sweeping up numerous biblical motifs that connect with the theme of “garden.” If so, it is no accident that in John 20:15, here in this garden, Mary misunderstands the identity of Jesus and thinks he is the gardener. Nicolas Wyatt [b.1941], after showing the historical evidence in Judaism that placed the Garden of Eden in the Holy Land, goes on to show how motifs from the Eden story reappear in numerous literatures of the period. If this imagery is at work (and here many would caution us), in this story we are viewing a woman in “Paradise” meeting the ruler of the Garden himself, Jesus. (Burge, John (The NIV Application Commentary), 548)Through his death and resurrection, Jesus plants the seed that will lead humanity to the new Eden.
Sandra M. Schneiders (b. 1936) adds:
The...scene, redolent of allusions to both the garden of the first creation (cf. Genesis 2:8-15 and Genesis 3:8-10) and the Song of Songs (especially Song of Solomon 3:1-4), brings the lover, Mary Magdalene, to the garden of the tomb searching for her Beloved and refusing comfort or enlightenment from anyone, even angels, who cannot tell her where he is...He is indeed the divine gardener inaugurating the New Creation, the Good Shepherd calling his own name, and the Spouse of the New Covenant rewarding the search of the anguished lover. (John R. Donahue [b. 1933], Life in Abundance: Studies of John’s Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998],183)Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946) concludes, “Yes, there is a Gardener...And, yes, the Gardener is the God revealed fully in Jesus Christ (Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, Extreme Edition).”
Given the same data as Mary, what conclusion would you have drawn? If Jesus were to cross your path, how would you recognize him?
“The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.” - George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)