Beyond Tradition

Can't Touch This

 by Sean D. Harmon


 Why did Jesus tell Magdalene not to touch him after the resurrection (John 20:16-17), but then clearly let the other women (Matthew 28:8-9) and his disciples (John 20:27; Luke 24:39-40) touch him to confirm his physical existence afterwards? Is this a contradiction, a misinterpretation, or perhaps some hidden theological puzzle? Now take a deep breath and bare with me here because we're going to delve into some heavy Christian soteriology (redemption) for a moment. According to basics, Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, which was undoubtedly the earliest form of soteriology in the Judeo-Christian church as indicated not only in the gospels, but resonates throughout the epistles. But in order to understand this theological principle, we need to understand a little about Judaism. Unlike the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement wasn't a festive event at all.[1] It was a day of national mourning and repentance, which involved a whole day of preparations and animal sacrifices. It was a very bloody and brutal day, which was undoubtedly designed to illustrate the significance of it as graphically as possible. Without going into too much detail, the Old Testament book of Leviticus (chap. 16), among other Jewish books, describes the necessary instructions and preparations. The high priest was in charge, and he would enter a special enclosed tabernacle where the sacrifices of atonement were made. He was alone. He would strip completely naked, thoroughly bathe himself, put on special garments, and then proceed to make various sacrifices for himself and the entire community. He would sprinkle the blood in and around the Mercy Seat inside the tabernacle which was located in the Holy of Holies (where it was believed God, Yahweh/Jehovah, himself dwelt), and this was a very stringent and nerve racking process for them, because if one little detail was overlooked, it was believed the high priest would be struck dead, leaving the entire camp cursed. Josephus indicates that the high priest wore bells that some suggest was an indication to the people outside that he was still alive.[2] Legend also has that the high priest was actually tied to a rope, so that in case he did die, his body could then be safely retrieved from the tabernacle. Point is, the ritual was very important and strictly followed, otherwise the sacrifice was nullified and the atonement with it. Christians correlated these rituals with what Christ fulfilled, actually arguing that these rituals was a type of teaching device of the ultimate sacrifice which was to come sometime in future. New Testament references…

Colossians 2:16-17 "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."

Hebrews 9:24 "For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands (a tabernacle), a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us..."

Hebrews 10:3-4 "But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."

1 Peter 1:2 "According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure."

1 Peter 1:19 "But with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ." 

Revelations 12:11 "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death."

Christian theology is that those Judaic rituals, repeated over and over, were a type of preliminary teaching devise that God was using to prepare his people for the real revelation, or a "shadow" of the real substance that would perform the ultimate and final sacrificial atonement in the same manner. That Christ was not only the high priest, but was also represented the sacrifice himself, and his bloody sacrifice on the cross would permanently satiate God's wrath towards mankind, which was not possible to achieve permanently with animal sacrifices. Bare with me, we're almost through…

Hebrews 9:25 "… nor was it that he (Jesus) would offer himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own."

This meant that though Jesus was thought of as the High Priest, he didn't have to keep offering his own blood year after year as the regular high priest did with animal blood.

9:12 "Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his (Jesus') own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us."

To simplify this heavy and somewhat gory theology: Jesus, who is thought to be the high priest, literally entered into the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle or Temple (see Revelations 11:19) "in heaven," in the direct presence of God himself, performed the rituals of the high priest, yet used his own shed blood for the atonement. The idea is that the prior shadow of Judaic ritual was finally displayed and fulfilled in the true substance which was Christ Jesus, after which Judaic practice, particularly the sacrifices, was no longer needed. This belief overshadows and is expressed throughout the New Testament scriptures, in some ways subtle, in some ways not so subtle, even given in hints and clues in Jesus' own teachings and claims about himself, which proves that it was a theology ingrained within Christian evangelism in its earliest stages. And since this idea was thoroughly Jewish in nature, attests to the fact that it was not a later or advanced doctrinal development. Okay, the deep stuff is over, so we can exhale.

Here's the point

John's gospel account of the resurrection is like a hypothetical puzzle, marked with the subtle imprints of this heavy theology that fits together quite nicely:

* Puzzle piece #1 - Mark 16:1; Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:9-10, though they didn't all agree, we get a general idea of the group of woman who arrived at the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and possibly other women, who "had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him."

* Puzzle piece #2 - Mark 16:9 "Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene."

* Puzzle piece #3 - John 20:17 "Jesus saith unto her (Magdalene), 'Touch me not; for I have not yet ascended to my Father.'"

* Puzzle piece #4 - Mark 16:10-11 "She (Magdalene) went and reported to those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it."

*Puzzle piece #5 - Matthew 28:9 "
And behold, Jesus met them (Magdalene and Mary) and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him."

*Puzzle piece #6 - Luke 24:10-11 (also in John 20:18) "Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.

* Puzzle piece #7 - Luke 24:13-15 (also in Mark
16:12) "And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them."

* Puzzle piece #8 - Luke 24:38-39 (also in John
20:27) "'Why are you troubled (Jesus talking), and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

I propose that John was weaving a theological story here that would have taken a very knowledgeable exegete in Judaism and theology if it was intentional (whether this was consciously devised or divinely inspired will be up for the reader to decide), and was implying that there was a pre-ascension. Magdalene was not allowed to touch Jesus before he could achieve this, meaning that Jesus had to ascend to heaven to perform the ritual ceremony of Yom Kippur in the "tabernacles of heaven," then immediately returned, before his final visible ascension
(Acts 1:3) which would occur some forty days later (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9). The pieces from the other gospel accounts actually fall into place (whether accidentally or otherwise) with but a slight bit of theorizing from us to fill in the missing gaps (no twisting, altering, or chronologically rearranging on our part, just filling in a bit of supposition to bridge the gaps). We should first note that there are those, even Christians, who have tried to downplay this by stating that the Greek word Jesus used for "touch me not" is haptomai, which translates "don't cling unto me," implying that there's no theological significance John was attempting here, but that Magdalene simply got carried away and held onto Jesus too abruptly. They also argue that Jesus' "I have not yet ascended to the Father" actually referred to his final ascension into heaven that was recorded later on. This falls way short, however, for four reasons:

  1. It fails to explain why Jesus let the other women hold him by his feet indicated in Matthew (28:9), and this creates serious complications for inerrancy of scripture conservative Christians who bend over backwards to maintain a harmonized view of the gospels. Moreover, the Greek word Matthew used for "held him" is krateo which also denotes "dominantly grabbing possession of" or "restraint." They literally restrained him by the feet. So the question remains lingering: why were they allowed to hold him, whereas Magdalene was scolded for doing essentially the same thing?
  2. It leaves the correlation of Magdalene not clinging onto Jesus and his ascension to God ambiguous, or why he even bothered mentioning the two in the same context. In other words, what did the fact that he would ascend to heaven 40 days later (Acts 1:3) have to do with Magdalene clinging to him at that moment?
  3. As we just noted, Acts indicates that Jesus' final ascension occurred after a little more than a month had past subsequent to his resurrection. Yet in John, Jesus states: "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). Why couldn't Jesus just tell them this himself since this wouldn't occur for at least another forty days? This strongly implies that this particular ascension was an activity preceding his appearance to his disciples.
  4. The Greek is often times a very precise language. The Greek word Jesus uses for "I am not yet ascended" is anabaino, and the word is active tense, meaning Jesus himself causes the action. All the other words used to describe his final ascension into heaven later on are passive tense, meaning Jesus is the recipient of the action…

Mark 16:19 "So then after the Lord (Jesus) had spoken unto them, he was received (analambano) up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God."

Luke 24:51 "And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up (anaphero) into heaven."

Act 1:9 "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up (epairo); and a cloud received him out of their sight."

All three of these words are passive tense, which implies that Jesus is literally carried or taken up by something other than himself during this event. There is no doubt, as implied by the evidence, that John's "I am not yet ascended" (anabaino) had a theological significance. So when analyzing these pieces closely, filling in our own hypothetical bridges (in order to fill in the assumed missing gaps), the plausibility of the theological puzzle fits remarkably together…


* Puzzle piece #1 - Mark 16:1, Matthew 28:1:

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, arrive at the tomb. Empty tomb is discovered, and an angelic visitation occurs. The women flee. Or different women could have arrived at different times. Either scenario works here.

Theoretical bridge:

Magdalene separates from the group of women at some point.


John 20:2-11:

Magdalene returns with Peter and the "other disciple." After the tomb is inspected, Peter and the other disciple eventually leave. Magdalene is left alone.

* Puzzle piece #2 -  Mark 16:9:

Jesus appears to Magdalene first.

* Puzzle piece #3 - John 20:17:

Jesus tells Magdalene not to touch him.

Theoretical bridge:

Jesus "ascends to the Father" to offer himself as the sacrificial lamb, and sprinkle his blood in the Holy of Holies of heaven.


* Puzzle piece #4 - Mark 16:10-11:

Magdalene flees to report her encounter to the other women, perhaps either because she wants to gather more female witnesses or she simply cannot find the disciples.

NOTE: Mark is not specific the above passage as to who Magdalene first reports it to, and it's rather odd that he does not specifically mention "the disciples" if these were the ones "who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping."

Theoretical bridge:

Magdalene meets with the other Mary once again at some point. Perhaps the only woman who believes her story.

Jesus returns from this task in heaven.

Magdalene and Mary continue searching for the disciples and spreading the news around the city.


*Puzzle piece #5 - Matthew 28:9:

Jesus again appears to Magdalene with the other Mary. Overjoyed, they cling to his feet. They are allowed to touch him at this point.

NOTE: Though Matthew seems to imply this occurred right after they fled from the tomb, this seems odd since the encounter with Jesus would have occurred right after their encounter with the angel, yet both the angel and Jesus repeat the exact same instructions, which implies a possible time lapse (Matthew 28:5-10). Nothing is against the supposition that Matthew simply conflated the two accounts for purposes of orality (discussed here: The Q Conundrum), leaving out events in between the angel encounter and the encounter with Jesus. 

Theoretical bridge:

Magdalene and Mary, now two eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection, convince the other women Jesus is alive. The other women gather with them as they find the disciples.


*Puzzle piece #6 - Luke 24:10-11, John 20:18:

Magdalene, Mary, Salome, Joanna, and possibly others, report it to the disciples, but the disciples refuse to believe.

*Puzzle piece #7 - Luke 24:13-15, Mark 16:12:

Jesus appears to the two Emmaus men, has supper with them, and spends some time with them teaching them the scriptures.

*Puzzle piece #8 - Mark 16:14, Luke 24:38-39 , John 20:27:

Jesus finally appears to the eleven, who examine his wounds.


Conspired or inspired?

In spite of whether one agrees with my theoretical bridges to fill in the gaps, there is no doubt that John's account was based on Judaic soteriology, also considering other places in John's gospel where he clearly heralded Jesus "the lamb of God" (John 1:29, 1:36).


Go Home


Source References

1. See Yom Kippur: Yom Kippur in Mishnaic and Talmudic Literature.

2. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 3, chap. 7:4 (