From my book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary:
“Now on the morning of the Sabbath, when it began to grow light on the first Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher.” (Mt 28:1).
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the sepulchre “when it began to grow light.” We can readily see from the expression “when it began to grow light” that it was not yet dawn, in other words, the sun had not yet risen above the horizon. The sky begins to brighten well before the visible disc of the sun appears above the horizon. The sky becomes progressively lighter as much as an hour or more before sunrise, especially in the eastern sky, where the sun will later rise. On Sunday, April 9 of A.D. 19, sunrise occurred at approx. 05:21 a.m. Jerusalem Standard Time (JST).
“And very early in the morning, on the first of the Sabbaths, they went to the tomb, the sun having now risen.” (Mk 16:2).
The Gospel of Mark states that the women went to the tomb “very early in the morning,” when the sun had risen. This statement does not contradict the statement in Matthew’s Gospel that they went to the tomb “when it began to grow light” because there is obviously a length of time needed for the women to set out from their homes and travel to the garden of the Holy Sepulchre. Thus the sun must have risen at some point in time during the visit of the women to the tomb.
The Gospel of Luke describes the women going to the tomb at “at very first light.” This expression could well refer to the brightening of the sky before the sun rises.
“Then on the first Sabbath, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and she saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.” (Jn 20:1).
Here the Gospel of John adds another detail, that it was still dark when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. The expression “while it was still dark,” however, does not necessarily mean that the sky was as dark as in the middle of the night. The sky may be called dark before the sun rises, even though it is beginning to brighten in the eastern sky in the hour before dawn. Still it is clear that Mary Magdalene reached the tomb before sunrise. Here again, as in the other Gospels, we see that the women visited the tomb beginning before dawn.
Mark’s Gospel implies that the sun rose at some point during their trip to the tomb, and the other Gospels have the women traveling to the tomb just before dawn. So, the women must have begun their trip to the tomb before dawn, while it was still fairly dark out. And, since the Gospel of Mark places the rising of the sun during this trip to the tomb (Mk 16:2), dawn must have occurred at about the time of their arrival at the tomb. The differing statements of the Gospels must be interpreted in some way so that every passage will be understood as true. No part of Sacred Scripture can ever be in error (Jn 10:35).
The Time of the Resurrection
In the Gospel of Matthew, the stone is rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the angel sitting on the stone tells the women that Jesus has risen from the dead (Mt 28:2-6). The angel speaks in the past tense about the Resurrection, and tells the women that Jesus “is not here” (Mt 28:6). The women at the tomb do not see Jesus as He is rising from the dead. They see Jesus only after He has risen (Mt 28:9-10; Jn 20:14-18). Therefore, Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back from the tomb. And, in the Gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, “while it was still dark,” she saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb (Jn 20:1). So, Jesus rose from the dead before the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and the stone was rolled away before dawn. Therefore, Jesus rose from the dead before the sun rose above the horizon on that very first Easter Sunday.
Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich tells us that the women set out for the tomb “When the morning sky began to clear with a streak of white light….” These words are in harmony with the words of Sacred Scripture that the women went to the tomb just before dawn. And, according to Blessed Anne Catherine, it was not until sometime later, when the women arrived at the gate to the garden of the sepulchre, that Jesus rose from the dead. “The holy women, when the Lord arose from the dead, were near the little gate belonging to Nicodemus.” So then, Jesus rose from the dead after the sky began to brighten, but before the sun actually rose above the horizon.
The sky begins to lighten about an hour or so before dawn. On the day of the Resurrection, April 9 of A.D. 19, sunrise occurred about 05:21 a.m. Jerusalem Standard Time. Therefore, Jesus rose from the dead sometime during the hour before sunrise, between about 04:20 a.m. and 05:20 a.m., a time that the Jews call the twelfth hour of the night.
The above text is quoted from chapter 3, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, of my book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary. I’m currently working on the Kindle edition of that book.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
Here is a good post by Father R. on the timing of the Resurrection.