|Mary came first.|
1) The stone is rolled away and the guards are stunned, and Jesus is resurrected. (Matthew 28:2 - 4). This event occurs before anyone comes to the tomb to visit. It happens while it is still dark, in the night before Sunday morning. If we think of Jesus rising with the sunrise, we're wrong.
2) Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb (John 20:1). It was already Sunday ("the first day of the week"), but that only means that the sun had set Saturday evening. She comes in the dark. John notes that it is "early." Mary might have come at midnight, or sometime in the middle of the night. Perhaps she couldn't sleep? Perhaps she was worried because Jesus's body had been hastily prepared for burial and she wanted to get a jump-start on that job? Was she simply mourning? For whatever reason, she came alone, in the dark, to a cemetery (a rock face probably lined with tombs). She found the stone rolled from the entrance. She assumes since the stone is moved, the body is stolen. She doesn't go inside the cave. She runs to Peter and John (who are probably asleep at their homes) and tells them the body has been stolen. John does not say it's sunrise yet, so I'm assuming all this happens in the dark.
Mary says to John and Peter, "...and WE do not know where they have laid him." It's possible that even at this point, Mary is not alone but is with a group of women. Just because one of the gospel writers says certain people are at a location doesn't mean they are the only ones. It simply means those people are there. However, this interpretation doesn't fit well with later events.
It's also possible that Mary (and the other women) leave their homes while it is still dark (as John says), but arrive at the tomb after the sun is up. The other gospels indicate that a group of women (including Mary Magdalene) come to the tomb after sunrise with spices for the body. Mark (16:3) tells us that the women are wondering "who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" If Mary is among them and she's already been to the open tomb, why would she be wondering how to move the stone? In order for Mary to participate in this conversation, others must have convinced her that she visited the wrong tomb in the dark, an unused tomb, and assumed it was Jesus's tomb.
However -- Mark says this group of women enter the tomb, see an angel, and are told Jesus is miraculously alive. If so, this simply cannot be the same tomb visit that Mary did in the dark. She left the tomb that time thinking the body had been stolen, and she did not enter the tomb that time. So, I'm inclined to think Mary did a solo tomb visit first, and returned later with a group of women after sunrise to rewrap the body, convinced that she'd visited the wrong tomb earlier.
Mark (16:9) seems to make a special note to the reader that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene alone, and then later to others, after she'd reported to them.
Mark also says (15:47) that Mary Magdalene and Mary Joses's mother looked on as Joseph and Nicodemus laid Jesus's body in the tomb on Friday (before the Sabbath) "to see where He was laid." Mary wanted to be sure of the location. This was a tomb location they were unsure of at first. On Friday the women were already making plans to care for the body.
After Mary's first visit, what happens next is:
3) Peter and John run to the tomb at her prompting. (John 20:3-10) This account is only found in John, which makes sense since he's one of the two disciples involved. It's quite detailed. John outruns Peter and arrives first at the tomb, but doesn't go in. (Remember than if a Jewish man is in contact with a dead body, he becomes unclean for a period of time.) But when impulsive Peter arrives, he passes John and runs into the tomb. He sees the linen wrappings folded neatly. This made an impression because John describes it. Why would a body thief fold the wrappings so carefully? (Indeed, isn't it a lovely mental image to think of Jesus, newly resurrected, standing by the stone bed, carefully wrapping his bedclothes in the dark before he went to walk about? Did He do it because it was a good thing to do? Or so that these two men could see it and made deductions from it?)
John sees the wrappings and "he believes." But I'm not quite sure what he believes, because in the next sentence we're told (by John) that he and Peter "as yet did not understand ... that He must rise again from the dead." It seems John believes what Mary has told him: the body is gone. But resurrection? The men can't conceive of that yet. Mary didn't either. And their next actions (I think) show that lack of understanding; they split up and go back home. If it's still dark, they're probably going back to bed.
Are they worried that the body is missing? Do they begin to worry that they'll be accused of stealing it?
4) The disciples and followers gather somewhere in one place. All four gospel sources (Matt 28:8, Mark 16:10-11, Luke 24:9, John 20:18) indicate that the disciples are gathered together, mourning. Luke says the women reported the resurrection "to the eleven and all the rest." This means that sometime after Mary's first visit and after Peter and John's run to the tomb, the disciples gather as a group. Something has prompted them to meet and discuss things. Is it the apparent theft of the body? There is nothing to indicate at this point that anyone thinks Jesus is alive. They just know the body is missing. Mary saw it first. Peter and John went to check. Sure enough -- it's gone. What are they going to do? As they are meeting and talking, the group of women take spices to the tomb ...
5) The women take spices. They come "when the sun had risen" (Mark 16:2), "as it began to dawn" (Matt. 28:1), "at early dawn" (Luke 24:1). This seems distinct from Mary's visit, which was in the dark. All four writers make a point of what time it is. Here are the women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary James's mother, Salome, and 'other women.' They wonder how the stone will be removed. They anticipate finding the body, because they bring spices for it. Matthew says an angel speaks to them, telling of resurrection. Mark says the angel is inside the tomb. Luke says there were two angels inside the tomb. John says that Mary also saw the two angels inside the tomb when she is eventually left there alone again.
The women are instructed by the angels that Jesus is resurrected, that He had told them this would happen, that He will meet his disciples in Galilee, and that the women are to hurry and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive. They clearly do this. Luke says the women's words "appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them." Mark notes that when Mary reported to the disciples that He was alive, "they refused to believe it." Matthew says that Jesus appeared to the women while they were on the way to the disciples, "and they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him."
Mark, however, gives this interesting piece of information: the women fled from the tomb after the angels talked to them, "for trembling and astonishment had gripped them." These women were terrified of the miraculous spiritual events that had just happened. They were already in shock from the crucifixion of two days before. They'd come to apply spices to a body; instead they were addressed by angels! Mark says: "and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." You can hardly blame them. When they do decide to tell the disciples, their words are rejected and they're counted as idiots. Jesus has to appear to the disciples Himself on Sunday evening before they will believe. But the women apparently delay relaying their message for a time.
6) Mary speaks with Jesus. John tells us this sweet account. I place it last because it seems the other women have left the tomb. Mary has already been here once in the dark, run back to Peter and John, come back with a group of women (who've now run away in fear), and is emotionally exhausted, sitting by the empty tomb. Even after the angels' words, she thinks the body is stolen, and she is weeping. When Jesus is standing by her, she thinks he is the gardener ... and she still thinks the body has been stolen! Really? When asked why she's crying, she says to the supposed gardener, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." Then she says to the supposed gardener, "If you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." She doesn't believe the angels. She doesn't believe the empty tomb or the folded cloths. No, she has to see Jesus in the flesh herself, before she'll believe. She's not much different from Doubting Thomas, is she?
In summary, what strikes me from this study is how nobody considered resurrection. They all assumed the body was stolen, i.e., that Jesus's body didn't leave the tomb on its own two legs, but that somebody carried it away. It took a lot to convince them! I love thinking about the various people coming to the tomb, drawn by God to come witness and not-believe. We think of Jesus rising from the dead as the sun comes up, but it didn't happen that way. He rose in the deep dark of night, when nobody knew it was happening. There was an earthquake, and the stone rolled away, and the angels came, and the guards fainted away, and Jesus quietly folded his grave clothes and left the tomb. The next steps there were Mary's, wondering in the darkness if she'd found the right tomb. From then on, it's a story of repeated disbelief. No one believed until he/she had seen Jesus. Jesus finally appeared to the men on Sunday evening. I bet that was a rough day for the women!
We take resurrection for granted. We glibly say, "Jesus rose from the dead," as if that's the most common thing on the planet. But it's not, and if we witnessed a real, bodily resurrection ourselves, we'd be fainting and screaming and running too. And we wouldn't believe it, no matter who told us, until we'd seen and touched and talked to the resurrected person ourselves. Mary had quite a morning! First to the tomb. First to see Jesus, and therefore first to believe. First to say, "I have seen the Lord!"