Question: When was the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, before the women arrived or after?
The stone was rolled away before the women arrived. The confusion comes from our misunderstanding of Matthew ‘s dramatic style in describing the empty tomb.
Here is the scene according to Matthew:
Matt. 28:1-2 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
At first glance, it appears that the two Marys were present when the earthquake took place, and that they watched as the stone was rolled away by an angel and the guards fled in terror. However, the earthquake, the angel, the Roman guards at the tomb and their response to the angel in verses 2-4 all describe what the guards witnessed before the women arrived.
In recounting these events, Matthew uses a dramatic literary technique similar to what would be called a “flash back” in our day. If this were a movie, the story would open with the important characters confronted by a crisis. In this case, two women showing up at the tomb of a man they had sacrificed everything for (v. 1). From our point of view as the audience, all we would see is the shock on their faces. We would not yet know the nature of the crisis, only their reaction to it. Then the scene would “flash back” to significant events leading up to their discovery of the empty tomb, the angel, and why there was no guard (2-4). Now that we understand the crisis, the story picks up again at verse 5 with the angel at the tomb addressing the frightened women.
All four Gospels agree and contribute details to what the women saw. Jesus’ mangled body was wrapped in a linen cloth, laid in a borrowed tomb and, according to Jewish custom, “anointed” with approximately 100 pounds of aromatic spices in a glue-like substance. A stone weighing roughly two tons was rolled down a sloped track against the entrance. Pontius Pilot placed a wax seal marking the tomb as under Roman control and stationed a trained guard of soldiers at the entrance. Every possible precaution was taken to assure that Jesus’ body remained unmolested in the grave.
As all four Gospels indicate, when the women arrived at the tomb at dawn on the following Sunday morning they found the massive stone had been rolled uphill in its track, and no guards left at their posts—or anyone else except the angels (Mk. 16:1-4; Lk. 24:1-4; Jn. 20:1-4).
The mysterious moving stone stands as a testimony verified by many witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of man, conquered death and rose from the dead. “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb. 7:25).