Jesus’ encounter with Mary after his resurrection is perplexing to some readers (see John 20:17). The King James Version reads: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” Yet Matthew 28:9 reads: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him” (Matthew 28:9, KJV). And later, Jesus instructs Thomas to touch him (John 20:27).
This has given rise to a speculative interpretation that seeks an explanation in the reason given in John 20:17, and so proposes an ascension to the Father before the ascension recorded in Acts. Something happens in this “first” trip to heaven that allows him to be touched later. However, this speculation is unneeded.
Several problems exist with this speculative interpretation of John 20:17. First, “touch me not” doesn’t necessarily imply that Mary has not touched Jesus. Sometimes we say “don’t touch me” after being touched. Even beginning with the KJV reading, I think this interpretation starts with an unwarranted assumption.
Second, “touch me not” renders a Greek verb that is present imperative (a command in the present tense). Prohibitions in the present imperative often convey the idea of stopping an activity in progress.* Several translations try to convey this idea:
- Do not cling to me… ESV
- Stop clinging to Me … NASB
- Do not hold on to me… NIV
- Do not cling to Me… NKJV
These translations are conveying the correct notion that Mary is touching Jesus, and he is asking her to stop. She doesn’t need to cling to him, for he hasn’t yet ascended to his Father — they still have some time left, although this also gives her a warning that their relationship is going to change with the ascension. He has a mission for her, and he needs her to let go and find the brothers and give them his message. This correct understanding of the verb completely negates this interpretation.
This speculation fails to take in account the chronologically close encounter with Jesus and the women who come to the tomb: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28:9, KJV) The time between this encounter and the encounter with Mary would have been very short. This too argues against this interpretation.
What I find encouraging about these scenes is that the resurrected Jesus is a touchable Jesus. I had a Greek professor who believed that the popular Christian conception of the afterlife was a little too much Plato and not enough scripture. I sometimes wonder whether when we hear “spiritual body” that our minds don’t go to something ghostly and insubstantial, yet scripture presents us with a touchable Jesus.
*Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 724; Friedrich Blass, Albert Debrunner, and Robert Walter Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, §336(3), p. 172.