Can't Touch This

Yet another swipe at Holy Saturday.

Every now and then I come across a new book telling me that the narrative story undergirding my faith is some kind of unholy detritus. The Word amply demonstrates that Jesus offered himself up on the cross as the faithful Israelite, and God made him sin with our sin. Cursed of God (Gal 3:13), he died separated from God, and suffered until he was resurrected on the third day. When God made him alive again, he also appointed him high priest of the new covenant. As high priest, he ascended into heaven where he presented his blood before the Father, and obtained redemption for us all. shows us that Jesus' crucifixion was much more than a man dying by the hands of imperial Rome. He was God's Christ sacrificially gave his life as a cursed Israelite, exiled from God until he was raised again, when we all could be saved (Rom 4:25). A milieu of writers have taken their shots at this creed, calling it unscriptural, unbiblical, even outright heresy, but all their hellfire landed wide of the mark.
   The latest tome breathing out "Unbiblical!" is Mel Montgomery’s The Seven Laws of Balance (with commentary by Charles Goodwin). One of the planks of their argument is that this narrative breaks down at the scene at the tomb, when Mary ran into Jesus as he was ascending to heaven. Montgomery and Goodwin say that Mary was already clinging to Jesus when he told her "Don't cling to me," and this mucks up any thought of Jesus ascending to heaven as high priest because Mary would have defiled him. 
   Here is the account in the NRSV:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to (ἅρτου) me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" (John 20:11–17, NRSV)

   I penciled in touch over hold on to in my Bible to have Jesus saying, “Don’t touch me,” keeping with the high priest motif we see in Hebrews, Jesus had to remain ceremoniously clean to enter heaven's sanctuary (see Lev 16:4). Despite the vivid imagery and allusions to the Hebrew Bible’s Day of Atonement, Montgomery and Goodwin say my penciling isn't biblical, first because of Jesus’ imperative, and second because of the Greek word ἥρτω (hapto).


Goodwin construes the imperative "Don't touch me," and says the Greek is all too clear.

We will show that some Bible teachers’ claim that Mary Magdalene should not “touch” the Lord is not what this passage is saying! We will examine the Greek word for “touch” (haptou), to see if “touch me not” (as presented in some Bibles) is an accurate translation of the Greek text.
The Greek text is clear; Mary had a tight hold on Jesus. She was so overjoyed to see him that she probably didn’t want to turn him loose. But Jesus was equally clear, he asked Mary to stop doing what she was already doing, that is, he wanted her to release her grip on him.

   The problem with Goodwin's analysis is that the Greek isn’t all too clear. The present-tense imperative in the Greek can prohibit an action already in progress or an intention to act. We see this in Paul's instruction to Timothy about silly myths. 

Have nothing to do (παραιτου, paraitou) with profane myths and old wives' tales. Train yourself in godliness, (1 Timothy 4:7, NRSV)

   This verse has the same kind of imperative as “Don’t touch me.” Applying Goodwin's analysis, we would take that Timothy had already enmeshed himself in myths and old wives' tales when Paul writes to him to stop. But we know about Timothy from Paul's letters. He was full of faith as a young kid (see 2 Tim 1:5), and he was a co-laborer with Paul in the gospel. Paul wasn't telling him to quit with the myths; he was telling him to never get involved with them. Contrary to Goodwin, Jesus’ “Don’t touch me” can be construed the same way.  Hear what the Jewish Annotated New Testament says about John 20:17:

It is not clear whether Jesus is asking Mary to let go of him or warning her not to touch him.

Gail R. O’Day, in the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, says the same thing.

The present imperative, “Do not hold on to me, may prohibit either an action already in progress or an intention to act. 

   So the nature of Mary's touching can't be deduced from the grammar alone, as Goodwin says. We must figure it out from the context, how the scene contributes to the overall story. We must ask ourselves, "Why did the Holy Ghost inspire John to include this scene in his Gospel?" "Don't touch me" and Jesus as high priest is understandable. "Mary, get off of me" is not.


 Montgomery and Goodwin's second argument pivots on vocabulary. They argue that the Greek word ἅπτω (hapto) doesn't mean touch, but cling in John 20:17.  

Greek dictionaries tell us this word, when used in the middle voice it means 'to touch, to take hold of, to fasten one’s self to, to adhere to,' or 'to cling to' (see: Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).

   Their own Greek dictionary includes touch in the definition, but they curiously skip over it to get to cling. They explain their leap this way:

If John, as he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had meant what this teaching (touch me not) we have just given claims, a couple of different Greek words were available for the Holy Spirit to impress the Apostle John to use, which would have allowed for the concept of “to touch,” instead of “to cling.

   But John wasn’t the only evangelist the Holy Ghost inspired to use ἅπτω (hapto)The other evangelists were inspired to use it in reporting on Jesus' healing ministry.

Touching as a Means to Convey a Blessing

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch (ἅψηται, hapsetai) them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. (Mark 10:13, NRSV)

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch (ἅψηται, hapsetai) them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. (Luke 18:15, NRSV)

Touching to Bring About a Healing

He stretched out his hand and touched (ἅψατο, hapsato) him, saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:3, NRSV)

But Jesus came and touched (ἅψαμενος, hapsemenos) them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." (Matthew 17:7, NRSV) 

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" (Mark 1:41, NRSV)

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch (ἅψηται, hapsetai) him. (Mark 8:22, NRSV)

Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) him, and said, "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately the leprosy left him.(Luke 5:13, NRSV)

Touching Parts of the Body

He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) his tongue. (Mark 7:33, NRSV)

Then he touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) their eyes and said, "According to your faith let it be done to you." (Matthew 9:29, NRSV)

Moved with compassion, Jesus touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. (Matthew 20:34, NRSV)

He touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. (Matthew 8:15, NRSV)

But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched (ἁψαμενος, hapsamenos) his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:51, NRSV)

Touching the Clothes of the Healer

For he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch (ἅψωνται, hapsontai) him. (Mark 3:10, NRSV)

And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch (ἅψωνται, hapsontai) even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched (ἥψαντο, hapsanto) it were healed. (Mark 6:56, NRSV)

And all in the crowd were trying to touch (ἅπτεθαι, haptesthai) him, for power came out from him, and healed all of them. (Luke 6:19, NRSV)

Then Jesus asked, "Who touched (ἁψαμενος, hapsamenos) me? When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you." (Luke 8:45, NRSV)

Woman with the Issue of Blood

For she said to herself, "If I only touch (ἅψωμαι, hapsomai) his cloak, I will be made well." (Matthew 9:21, NRSV)

She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched (ἥψατο, hepsato) his cloak, (Mark 5:21, NRSV) 

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched (ἅψατο, hapsato) the fringe of his cloak (Matthew 9:20, NRSV)

And begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched (ἅψωνται, hapsontai) it were healed. (Matthew 14:36, NRSV)

She came up behind him and touched (ἅψατο, hapsato) the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemmorhage stopped." (Luke 8:44, NRSV)

   Unless you want to think that Jesus “clung” to the mute man’s tongue, the deaf man’s ear, or the blind man’s eyes to heal them, or that he dragged the woman with the issue of blood around on his way to Jairus's house, you'd have to think touch is the right word. While it’s true that some of our modern translations say hold or cling in John 20:17 (Montgomery and Goodwin point to the NIV, NASB, and Williams translations in The Sevens Laws), all that proves is the presence of some theological gloss. Look at a few examples of how these translations treat ἅρτω in other verses.   

She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. (Luke 8:44, NIV)

for she was saying [a]to herself, “If I only touch His garment, I will [b]get well.” (Matthew 9:21, NASB)

and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Matthew 14:36, NIV)

Notice too, that the NET translation has stayed with touch in John 20.17.

Jesus replied, "Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

Its translators have decided to maintain a consistency in translation that the others apparently have eschewed.
   On the surface, whether Jesus said, "Don't touch me," or "Don't cling to me," might not look like a big deal, just a couple of Christians arguing over interpretation. But it is important. "Don't touch me" contributes to a storyline in which Jesus for three days before he was raised from the dead. "Don't cling to me" upends that scenario. You emasculate the story, you emasculate your faith. Fortunately, the narrative structure buttressing my faith is as safe as it ever was. 
   Praise Him.

* Note: The "touch" verses all uses the same Greek word. The different spellings account for different moods and aspects.

GospelPeter Smythe