The story of the ‘empty tomb’ in the New Testament gospels uses many motifs that also appear in a Roman morality fable, first attested just a few decades earlier: The matron of Ephesus. The Matron story is best known to modern readers from Petronius’ bawdy novel the Satyrica.
If the parallels are legit, does that mean the one story is derived from the other? Modern observers often find that tempting. I’m sure you’ve met people who love explaining that bits of Genesis are based on Gilgamesh or the Enuma elish.
But ‘A is based on B’ explanations are usually jumping to conclusions. It’s almost always more robust to assume that both stories are working with a shared pool of story conventions and motifs.
|Possibly an illustration of The matron of Ephesus, ca. 54–68 CE. Detail from Dandré Bardon, Costume des anciens peuples (Paris, 1772), cahier 8 plate 12, claiming to reproduce a bas-relief found in the ruins of Nero’s palace; the bas-relief is now lost. Note the bowl of hot food, aligning the bas-relief with Petronius’ version of the story, and against Phaedrus. Bardon’s retelling of the Matron story is at 71–72 (probably under the influence of La Fontaine’s poetic version). See further Hansen 2002: 274 with 279 n. 18.|
I’m not the first to notice the parallels in the Matron story, but it was only in the late 2010s that anyone started taking notice of them. I’ve found only one competent scholarly discussion, by Prof. Robyn Walsh. Walsh’s position is that Petronius and the gospels are in dialogue with one another: 1st–2nd century CE Christians understood stories in the gospels, including the ‘empty tomb’ episode, through the lens of topical storytelling conventions — conventions like the ones in novels of the time, such as Petronius, and like the ones in the Matron fable.
I prefer a middle ground. ‘A is based on B’ is reckless. But it’s too tentative to limit the influence of novelistic and fabulistic motifs to the gospels’ readers. (Not that Walsh does this, exactly, but it’s best to be explicit.) We can be confident in saying that these motifs are part of the storyteller’s toolkit. The Christian story isn’t derived from Petronius. But it is a cousin.
|Note. Walsh 2020: 363–367 = 2021: 146–149. For an extensive bibliography on the gospels as texts firmly welded to the Greco-Roman literary tradition, see Walsh 2021: 134–135 n. 1. On the use of Hellenic-Roman story-telling conventions specifically in the ‘empty tomb’ narrative, see Miller 2010; Cook 2018: 598–601.|
The matron of Ephesus
Here’s the oldest surviving version of the story, from Phaedrus.
A woman lost her beloved husband of many years
and laid his body in the ground.
Nothing could tear her away,
and in his tomb she filled her days with weeping.
She became famous as the very model of a chaste maiden.
Meanwhile, men who had pillaged Jupiter’s temple
were crucified, to pay the penalty to the divinity.
To stop anyone removing their remains,
soldiers were stationed as guards for the bodies,
next to the tomb where the woman was shut in.
One day, one of the guards was thirsty and
asked (the widow’s) slave for water at midnight.
As it happened, the slave was helping her mistress
prepare for bed. She was sitting by lamplight;
she had kept her vigil late.
The door was open a crack. The soldier looked in
and saw a woman both sad and of great beauty.
His heart was fired with lust
and slowly the shameless man’s desire flamed up.
His inventive shrewdness found a thousand reasons
to see her again and again.
Ensnared by the daily habit,
she gradually became more receptive to her visitor.
Soon an even closer bond subdued her heart.
While the guard passed his nights in love,
a body went missing from one of the crosses.
Distraught, the soldier explained this to the woman.
That holy woman said, ‘There’s nothing to fear.’
She gave her husband’s body to be tied to the cross,
so the soldier wouldn’t be punished for his lapse.
In this way wickedness besieges a place of praise.
We have three Roman or Roman-derived variants of the Matron story. Phaedrus, above, is the oldest, in iambic verse: Fabulae Aesopiae, ‘Appendix Perottina’ 13 (ca. 10s–30s CE). A much longer and more famous variant appears in Petronius’ bawdy novel the Satyrica, 111–112 (probably ca. 60 CE, but there are scholars who want to re-date it to the 2nd century). And a much later and shorter prose variant appears in one of the mediaeval fable collections that go under the name ‘Romulus’, the Romulus ordinarius 3.9 (ii.208 ed. Hervieux).
The story almost certainly originates in the fabulist tradition. Petronius’ version is traditionally linked to Aristeides’ Milesiaka, rather than the Aesopic tradition. But looking at the full set of variants makes it clear that, even if it is not strictly Aesopic, it is at least para-Aesopic. If you want you can see it as ‘Milesian’ and Aesopic at once, of course. The matron’s closing words in Petronius, ‘I would rather make use of a dead man than kill a living one’, probably echo a fable with a concluding moral. The moral in ps.-Romulus plays on a similar theme of life and death: ‘The dead have something to grieve, and the living something to fear’ (reading habent).
Petronius and ps.-Romulus have several differences from Phaedrus, mostly minor. Petronius makes the tomb an underground vault, supposedly Greek-style (in hypogaeo Graeco more); and the matron’s lamp is, uh, lampshaded into the story early on. Petronius and ps.-Romulus specify that the guard is placed because the crucified man has relatives or friends who want to remove the body; and the soldier’s repeated visits are initially to console the matron, not to seduce her. In ps.-Romulus the love affair is only hinted at, and the matron has no slave. In Petronius, the soldier offers food to the grieving matron, and the matron’s slave encourages her first to accept the food, and later, to succumb to sexual desire — quoting from Vergil’s Aeneid both times (reenacting the role of Anna to Dido).
|Note. For the text of Phaedrus, we may now refer to the edition of Zago 2020. The Appendix Perottina is a compilation made by the 15th century humanist Niccolò Perotti; several of Phaedrus’ fables survive in no other form. Schmeling (2001: 427) draws attention to an argument that the Petronius variant is based on Phaedrus, rather than both being based on a lost fabulist tradition. That is certainly wrong. First, as I point out in my introduction above, ‘A is based on B’ is usually a reckless assumption. In addition Petronius includes several motific elements that are absent in Phaedrus: the quasi-moral at the end; the placement of the tomb underground; the more active roles played by the widow and her slave; the explicit involvement of the crucified man’s friends or family.|
The fable is misogynistic through and through. Its central twist has the matron vacillating from extreme loyalty to her dead husband to extreme irreverence for his body. Its message is that even the most chaste woman will become promiscuous when put under any pressure. And it’s based on the sexist premise that a woman’s merit is decided by her sexual availability to men.
I mention the story’s misogyny because I want to emphasise, up front, that I don’t mean these underlying messages necessarily apply to any story that contains similar motifs. Below, we’re just talking about the motifs.
As well as the three Aesopic variants, we have many other more divergent variants from a number of cultures, outlined in detail by William Hansen in his book on folktale traditions in the Greco-Roman world (Hansen 2002: 266–279; folktale type Aarne-Thompson-Uther 1510). There’s a comical variant in an ancient Life of Aesop, where a ploughman stands in for the soldier and is the butt of the joke. In the Middle English Seven sages of Rome, both the dead husband and the soldier are knights, and the living knight rejects the woman after realising her inconstancy. In a 19th century Tunisian variant, the widow has vowed never to re-marry, but when she encounters a vizier who is distraught because he cannot capture a thief, she immediately offers him her husband’s corpse and her hand in marriage. Hansen reports several more.
It’s the three Aesopic variants that share the most motifs with the Christian ‘empty tomb’ story. Unlike most of Hansen’s variants, the Aesopic variants are consistent in giving the guard’s role to a soldier; and they lack the motif of mutilating the dead husband’s body to disguise his identity.
|The Matron on the silver screen. Left to right: the dead husband, the matron, and the soldier (Fellini Satyricon, 1968)|
Jesus’ empty tomb
Five early Christian texts include an episode set following the crucifixion of Jesus: he is buried in an underground tomb, and two days later Mary Magdalene visits the tomb and finds that the body has disappeared. The story appears in all four New Testament gospels, and in the fragmentary gospel of Peter.
|Note. Mark 15.42–16.8; Matthew 27.55–28.15; Luke 23.49–24.12; John 19.38–20.18; Peter 23–57 ed. Mara. For convenience I have drawn up elsewhere a tabulation of the full text of the variants in translation.|
Here’s a summary of their shared elements:
- Jesus dies by crucifixion.
- On Preparation Day Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus, gets permission from the Roman governor Pilate to bury Jesus’ body. (In Peter, Joseph gets the body from ‘the Jews’.)
- Joseph wraps the body in linen and places it in an unused tomb which is carved into rock, and with a large stone serving as its door. In John and Peter the tomb is located in a garden.
- In Matthew and Peter, soldiers are posted as guards to prevent Jesus’ disciples from removing the body.
- The morning after the Sabbath Mary Magdalene, and another woman or women, visits the tomb. In John she goes alone.
- They see that the tomb is open and Jesus’ body is missing. In Matthew and Peter the miraculous opening of the tomb is witnessed, by different groups of people.
- They see an apparition of one, or more often two, men in white clothes. (In John, Mary also encounters Jesus himself.) The apparition tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and that they should report this to Jesus’ disciples.
- In Luke and John, Peter visits the tomb too — along with the ‘beloved disciple’, in John’s case — and finds it empty. Luke and John differ in the details and placement of this episode.
- In Matthew and Peter, the guards conspire to conceal what they have seen.
The synoptic gospels are normally understood as reworking material in Mark, but all five variants match up fairly well. Matthew and Luke have some distinctive elements not present in Mark, some of them overlapping with John and Peter. The soldiers posted as guards appear only in Matthew and Peter. Matthew and Peter have people witness the tomb being opened by divine intervention, though the witnesses are different groups. Matthew and John have Mary Magdalene encounter Jesus in person, in different locations. Luke and John have Peter visit the tomb too.
Biblical scholars have differing views on the age of the ‘empty tomb’ story. The earliest mention of Jesus’ burial, in Paul, 1 Corinthians 15.3–8, has little overlap with the ‘empty tomb’ — no Mary Magdalene, no cave with a stone for a door, no soldiers, no linen, no apparitions in white clothes. The overlaps are that he refers to burial — though burial doesn’t imply ‘in an underground chamber’ any more than it does today — and to returning to life on the third day.
|Note. For a comprehensive overview see Cook 2018 (passim); but be aware that Cook thinks 1 Corinthians 15.4 ἐγήγερται necessarily implies a mausoleum (see also Cook 2017).|
Here’s a summary of the motifs shared between the Matron story and the ‘empty tomb’ story.
- The tomb is an underground chamber
- A woman grieving for a dead man, with one or more women as company
- Mourning lasts multiple nights
- A soldier or soldiers appointed to guard the body of a crucified man
- Danger that the friends/family of the crucified man will remove his body
- Importance of the tomb’s door as a barrier
- Body goes missing — empty tomb and/or empty cross
- Discovery in the morning
- Guard(s) conspire to conceal the truth
We mustn’t overstate the similarities. Even where they’re similar, there are important differences. The Matron story has:
- Two dead bodies; the theme of mistaken identity
- The matron grieving inside the tomb
- Love affair with the soldier; themes of consolation, infidelity, misogyny
- Pithy moral at the end
And the ‘empty tomb’ story has elements that are absent in the Matron:
- An extra character (Joseph of Arimathea) who performs the burial
- A large stone for the tomb’s door
- Miraculous story (resurrection)
- Supernatural figures appear and explain what has happened
- Claim to truth — the emphasis on eyewitnesses to the linen cloths left behind
|‘La matrone d’Éphèse’: etching by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, from a drawing by Pierre-Alexandre, for an edition of La Fontaine’s Fables (1755–1759)|
What exactly do the parallels imply?
Just to repeat, this is not a case of literary plagiarism. There is no reason to think the gospel writers are ripping off Petronius or Phaedrus.
|Note. And Petronius isn’t ripping off the gospels either. Rather adorably, two very inexpert discussions assume that’s the only imaginable explanation for any parallels: Blocker 2016; Godfrey 2019. Blocker even thinks that the similarities require dating the Satyrica later than the Neronian Petronius (but Phaedrus, apparently, doesn’t need to be re-dated). If you do choose to waste time reading either of these, take care not to be confused by Blocker’s misspelled names, or by Godfrey’s bizarre mulishness.|
The central plot points of the fable, the love affair and the concealed identity of the husband’s body, are both missing in the gospels. The misogynistic themes of the fable are also not present (or at least not in the same way). So we’re not talking about the ‘empty tomb’ story being a close adaptation of an oral fable, either.
Still, some of the common motifs are particularly striking. Especially important is the soldier(s), who are posted to prevent a crucified man’s body being removed by his friends, and who conceal the truth of its disappearance; and secondly, the tomb itself. In the gospels the tomb is hewn into rock, and in Petronius, it is ‘underground in Greek fashion’, using a Greek word for ‘underground’ (in hypogaeo Graeco more). And both stories have a strong focus on the tomb’s door.
Just to be clear, tombs in caves are not a standard thing. [NOTE, added later: see Addendum at bottom. I was too dismissive of cave-tombs here, but some additional complications arise when you start looking at real cave-tombs.] The ‘underground’ or ‘rock-hewn’ tomb is a totally artificial motif. It may perhaps be loosely inspired by things like the underground oracular shrine of Trophonios, or the story of Pythagoras revealing his teachings in underground chambers: these are both stories that enjoyed a moderately popular appeal in the early principate.
The only competent scholarly discussion I’ve found of parallels between the Matron and the ‘empty tomb’ is the one by Walsh, as I mentioned at the start. Walsh draws on a long-standing scholarly position that ancient readers understood the gospels in terms of Greek storytelling conventions. She makes good use of another article by Richard C. Miller, which focuses specifically on Mark’s ‘mimetic use of the Greek classical canon’ in the ‘empty tomb’ episode (Miller 2010). The episode carries special weight in Mark because the end of the episode is also the end of the gospel.
|Note. Mark 16.8 is the last authentic verse in Mark, and this isn’t remotely controversial. The alternate endings typically printed in modern Bible translations — the ‘longer ending’ (Mark 16.9–20) and the ‘shorter ending’ (usually confined to a footnote) — don’t exist in the oldest copies or in the earliest witnesses to the text; they were added later.|
Miller’s precedents for the ‘empty tomb’ involve only one motif, namely the missing body itself. The parallels he cites are the disappearances of the bodies of Romulus, Aristeas, Heracles, Amphiaraus, and others. Even that has been enough for some biblical scholars to conclude that the ‘empty tomb’ story is artificial.
The parallels in the Matron story are much more extensive. But it’s important to remember that none of this involves copying, plagiarism, or parody. No one thought, ‘Hm, how shall I tell the story of Jesus’ burial? I know, I’ll recycle The matron of Ephesus.’ What we’ve got is multiple stories, in different contexts, with some similar motifs.
And similarity breeds similarity. The more motifs stories have in common, the more prone they are to cross-contamination. The soldiers guarding the tomb, who conceal the truth of what happened, are a clearcut case of contamination: they appear only in Matthew and Peter, and their role — failing to prevent the body’s disappearance, and concealing the truth — is exactly analogous to the Matron fable. Most probably, older variants of the ‘empty tomb’ story — Mark, and oral stories — omitted the soldiers, but were still similar enough to the Matron story to attract the soldiers into subsequent retellings.
The tomb itself is an artificiality too. Jesus’ stone-hewn tomb has close analogues in John 11.38–44 and in Petronius: it’s a motific element, and motific elements tend to imply artificiality. We can’t trace a line of descent: the fact there are two rock-hewn tombs with a large stone for a door, just within John, means that we can’t say that one was based on the other.
And that prompts me to finish by emphasising that it’s important to avoid the ‘A is based on B’ mindset. That is the mindset of survivorship bias. Our evidence — the corpus of surviving stories — is skewed by the fact that only some stories survive. We don’t get to pretend that whatever does survive is necessarily based on other things that survive. There’s no unbroken chain reaching back from Luke to Phaedrus.
But they are related. And yes, it is fair to say that replicated motific elements are a sign of artificiality. When biblical scholars do defend the historicity of the ‘empty tomb’ story, they sometimes highlight the fact that in Matthew, the authorities try to spread disinformation with a fake story of Jesus’ disciples stealing the body, ‘and this story is still told among the Jews to this day’. But that’s only in Matthew; it’s based on the testimony of the guards; and it’s precisely the premise of the Matron fable. Out of all elements of the ‘empty tomb’ story, that one is the most artificial, by far.
- Blocker, D. 2016. ‘The relationship between the Satyricon’s “Tale of the Ephesian widow” and texts associated with early Christianity.’ Jesus granskad (Roger Viklund), 24 Apr. 2016. [Internet Archive]
- Cook, J. G. 2017. ‘Resurrection in paganism and the question of an empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.’ New Testament studies 63: 56–75. [DOI]
- —— 2018. Empty tomb, resurrection, apotheosis. Tübingen.
- Godfrey, N. 2019. ‘Is the satirical Widow of Ephesus story an attack on Christianity?’ Vridar, 4 June 2019. [Internet Archive]
- Hansen, W. 2002. Ariadne’s thread. A guide to international tales found in classical literature. Ithaca, NY.
- Mara, M. G. 1973. Évangile de Pierre. Introduction, texte critique, traduction, commentaire et index. Paris. [Internet Archive (borrowable)]
- Miller, R. C. 2010. ‘Mark’s empty tomb and other translation fables in classical antiquity.’ Journal of biblical literature 129: 759–776. [JSTOR]
- Schmeling, G. 2011. A commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford.
- Walsh, R. F. 2020. ‘The Satyrica and the gospels in the second century.’ Classical quarterly 70: 356–367. [DOI]
- —— 2021. The origins of early Christian literature. Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman literary culture. Cambridge.
- Zago, G. 2020. Phaedrus. Fabulae Aesopiae. Berlin/Boston.
See also: a tabulation I have drawn up of the story of Jesus’ burial as related in the gospels, with the text of all five in parallel translations.
ADDENDUM, 28 July 2022
In light of some counterpoints raised elsewhere, I need to add some qualifications.
In the first place, ‘empty tomb’ is a misnomer, as pointed out in a recent article by Mark Goodacre. The earliest gospel, Mark, makes no suggestion that the tomb is unused. That’s something that only appears in the later gospels, as a secondary development. That isn’t a case of contamination from the Matron story: in fact it has no bearing on the Matron story, since the Matron story doesn't have an empty tomb either. There, as in Mark, a body goes missing from the tomb, but there’s no suggestion that only one person has ever been deposited there.
Second: above, I was too dismissive of cave-tombs. It was a normal practice in ancient Judaea for bodies to be deposited in a cave-tomb — but specifically an ancestral cave-tomb, with a model in the Hebrew Bible, Abraham’s family tomb: this is the cave that Abraham purchases in Genesis 23 (‘in a field’, in the Septuagint version, conspicuously similar to the garden in John and Peter), and which appears again as the place where Jacob’s body is deposited in Genesis 49.29–33.
Ancestral cave-tombs continued to be used in Talmudic times, alongside grave burial. References from elsewhere in the New Testament — particularly 1 Corinthians 15.3–8, which I mentioned above, but also Acts 13.29 — don’t mention a cave-tomb, and I’m not persuaded by Cook’s argument that 1 Corinthians implies a cave-tomb. Acts, moreover, isn’t independent of Luke, so even if it did imply a cave-tomb, that would have to be taken in conjunction with the ‘empty tomb’ narrative in Luke 23–24 anyway.
The fact that Matthew, Luke, and John emphasise that the tomb is new and has never been used, has to be read against the normal paradigm of ancestral cave-tombs. That is, what they are really emphasising is that Jesus’ tomb isn’t an ancestral tomb. And, given that Matthew and Luke also emphasise Jesus’ divine ancestry — by adding nativity narratives, for example — that looks likely to be the most salient context for their emphasis on Jesus’ tomb not being ancestral. That is, Jesus’ cave-tomb can’t have had mortal bodies deposited in it, because Jesus’ ancestry has something non-mortal.
This is an alteration from the story as told by Mark, but again, not a case of contamination from the Matron story. A more pared-down version of the parallels, limited to the oldest version of Jesus’ cave-tomb burial — that is, the parallels between the Matron story and Mark alone — would produce a shorter list of parallels. Exactly how much shorter is something that needs further work. For the record, I don’t think I’m likely to be the one to do that further work.