“as it began to dusk and come toward the first day of the week.” This event, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary coming to view the tomb, is not recorded in any Gospel but Matthew.
The translations differ about this verse, so to properly understand it we must pay strict attention to the Greek text, the Jewish customs, and the event itself. This event occurs on Saturday the 17th of Nisan, in the late evening, just as the Jewish day Sunday was “dawning,” i.e., starting, that is just before the Saturday Sabbath ended at sunset and Sunday, the first day of the week, began. The fact that Matthew records that that Sabbath was just ending at sunset tells us that Matthew is written from the point of view of Jewish timing, not Roman timing. The Jews began their new day at sunset, while the Romans began their new day at midnight (like we Westerners still do). This verse is not speaking about Sunday morning when the sun came up, as many people believe.
Although many translations have the word “dawn,” in this verse we must not confuse that with our Western view of “dawn,” i.e., when the sun comes up. To the Jews, a new day “dawned,” or started, at sunset. The Greek text reads in a way that seems very difficult when translated literally, which is due to the idioms involved. A very literal rendering of the Greek text is: “Now late of the [on the] Sabbaths, at the dawn toward the first of the Sabbaths.” This is a very difficult sentence, and to understand it we need to know two things: the first thing is that “Sabbaths” (the plural of Sabbath) was the regular Jewish idiom for a week. The second thing is that the word “dawned” is the Greek word epiphōskō (#2020 ἐπιφώσκω; pronounced eh-pee-phōsˈ-kō), which literally means, “to grow light,” and it was used of the “dawn” or “beginning” of something. In the United States we have the same basic idiom and use “dawn” for the beginning of something. When something brand new is coming that will make significant changes, someone might say, “A new day is dawning,” even though it is technically not either a new “day,” nor is it “dawn.” [For more on epiphōskō, see commentary on Luke 23:54].
According to Jewish reckoning of time, the new day was beginning, or “dawning,” at sunset on the weekly Sabbath. Thus, sunset on Saturday started Sunday and the new week. Many English versions read “dawn” in this verse, but to understand the verse, we must realize that the sun is going down and the new day is starting; the verse is not saying that the sun is coming up. About this verse, Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes: “This careful chronological statement according to Jewish days clearly means that before the Sabbath was over, that is before six PM, this visit by the women was made ‘to see the sepulcher.’” Robertson is correct that this is a “careful chronological statement,” and not paying attention to it is one of the reasons people wrongly think the Bible contradicts itself in the timing of some the events that occurred after the death of Jesus.
If we read the verse in an amplified form with notes included, we get: “Now late of the [on the] Sabbaths [the week, i.e., as the week was ending on Saturday night], at the dawn [the ‘beginning’] toward the first of the Sabbaths [i.e., at the beginning of the next week, which started at sunset Saturday night when Sunday, the next week began].”
There are an impressive number of versions that translate this verse so that it can be correctly understood if the reader knows the Jewish customs. Furthermore, there are a number of scholars and commentators who understand it properly, such as A. T. Robertson, Heinrich Meyer, and Robert Gundry. However, there are also translations and commentators who think the verse is referring to Sunday morning, not Saturday night. What we must remember, however, is that very few translators and commentators understand the correct chronology of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, which means they interpret the text in light of their erroneous understanding. They try to squeeze all the biblical events in between Friday afternoon and Sunday at daybreak while it is still dark, and to do that, records that are separate events need to be melded together as single events. Lenski, for example, equates this visit of the two Mary’s to be the same as the visit of the women on Sunday morning despite the fact that on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb, met Jesus alone (Mark 16:9), never saw an angel, and quickly went and told the disciples that the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body gone (John 20:2), whereas when the group of women came to the tomb on Sunday morning they met the angel, then Jesus, and went to tell the disciples Jesus was alive (Matt. 28:5-10). Blending records such as these together creates insurmountable apparent contradictions that there is simply no need to create if we allow for more time in the record and correctly interpret the chronology. Even the simple reading of Matthew 28:1-2 has the earthquake happening after the two Marys come to see the tomb, but if their visit is Sunday morning, as commentators like Lenski propose, then the earthquake had to come before they came to the tomb.
Many versions that translate the verse in a way that shows that the women came to the tomb on Saturday evening as the Saturday Sabbath was ending the new day, Sunday, was beginning. As we said above, to properly understand some of these versions, we must keep in mind that “late on the Sabbath,” or, “at the close of the Sabbath,” or “in the end of the Sabbath” was always Saturday evening before sunset, never Sunday morning. Sunday began at sunset on Saturday; that was when the new day, Sunday, “dawned,” or “began.”
ASV and ERV: “Now late on the sabbath day, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week....”
William Barclay: “Late on the Sabbath, just as the day was breaking on the Sunday….”
BBE: “Now late on the Sabbath, when the dawn of the first day of the week was near….”
Darby: “Now late on sabbath, as it was the dusk….”
Douay-Rheims: “And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week….”
Geneva Bible: “Now in the end of the Sabbath, when the first day of ye weeke began to dawne….”
KJV: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week….”
Moffatt Bible: “At the close of the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning….”
The Scriptures: “But late in the Sabbath, as it was dawning into day one of the week….”
Translations from the Aramaic also read that the women came on Saturday evening.
Murdock: “And in the close of the sabbath, as the first [day] of the week began to dawn….”
Magiera: “Now in the evening of the Sabbath, as it was twilight [on] the first of the week….”
Another important fact we must pay attention to if we are going to properly understand this event is that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to “see the tomb.” This is very important and ignored by most commentators. This is not the trip the women made on Sunday morning when they came with spices. They did not have any spices with them. The text specifically says they came to see the tomb, not to anoint Jesus’ body. One reason they likely did not have any spices with them is that it would have been breaking the Mosaic Law for them to carry a load of spices on the Sabbath day—that would have been considered “work” (cp. Jer. 17:22). But the women could walk to see the tomb because walking on the Sabbath was allowed as long as one did not walk too far or carry anything heavy. Thus, this verse does not contradict the verse that says the women “rested” on the Sabbath (Luke 23:56).
We also must realize that this trip to the tomb is not the one that Mary Magdalene made alone on Sunday morning. On the trip Mary Magdalene made on Sunday morning, she was alone, and when she saw the tomb was open she ran and got Peter and John who then went to the tomb with her following. Then, after they left, she met the “gardener” who was actually the Lord (John 20:1-18).
On this trip that Matthew 28:1 speaks of, as the Sabbath was coming to an end on Saturday evening, the women came to “look at” the tomb. The Greek word theoreō, “to look at,” usually refers to viewing something from a distance, which would have been the case since the guards would have kept the women from getting too close to the tomb. At this time on Saturday evening, the stone would have been still in place in front of the tomb. Since the women came Saturday night just to see the tomb, it is very possible that they were checking to see if the Roman guard was gone yet. The third day of Christ’s “three days and three nights” ended just about sunset Saturday evening, so if the guards had already left, then the way was clear to bring the spices Sunday morning. However, the guards were still there and so was the stone that was covering the tomb door. Due to the time of day, it is possible that Jesus was already up from the dead and out of the tomb—he did not have to move the stone to get out in his newly resurrected body. If not, his resurrection would have occurred very shortly after they saw the tomb and left.
There is a time break between Matthew 28:1 and Matthew 28:2. The events of 28:2 occurred around dawn Sunday morning, because when the angel opened the tomb, some of the guards went and reported to the chief priests what had happened. One of the astounding things about the four Gospels is that there is no explicit description of Jesus getting up from the dead, an event that would have happened around the time Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb. There is no description such as, “Then the life of God entered Jesus and he woke up from the dead and passed effortlessly through the stone wall of the tomb.” No amount of guesswork will tell us for certain, but it is possible that any description of the resurrection cannot come close to describing it as it would need to be described. After all, it involved changing Jesus’ dead human body into the living spirit-powered body of the one who is second in command to God in all the universe.
“the other Mary.” This is presumably Mary, the mother of James and Joses (Matt. 27:56).