In John 20:17, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene shortly after his resurrection: “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” (KJV).
Why didn’t Jesus want for Mary Magdalene to touch him before he ascended to his Father? Later in the chapter, Thomas touches Jesus when he puts his hand into Jesus’ side. Did Jesus ascend sometime between his conversation with Mary and his conversation with Thomas, and that was why Thomas could touch him whereas Mary could not? (UPDATE: Lee Harmon later argues in John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened that the part of John’s Gospel about Thomas touching Jesus’ side was added by a later hand.)
In this post, I’ll go into various interpretations of John 20:17, including that of Lee Harmon in John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened. Not all of the interpretations that I will mention are scholarly, for I don’t own a lot of scholarly commentaries on the Gospel of John. But I will draw from what I have.
Lee Harmon’s view is that Mary was interrupting the ascent of Jesus’ soul to heaven. According to Lee, there was a notion at this time that the souls of the martyrs went to heaven, whereas the souls of everybody else went to Sheol, and, for John, Jesus was a martyr whose soul was going to heaven. The soul departed from the body after three days, and Jesus at the time that he was speaking to Mary was therefore “incorporeal, untouchable” (page 330). Lee also brings realized eschatology into the picture. A common view within Christianity was that Jesus ascended to heaven and would one day come back to perform his Messianic role. But John interprets this view within the lens of realized eschatology, according to Lee: Jesus would ascend to heaven, and soon thereafter he would come down and dwell with believers through the Holy Spirit. Remember from my previous posts that, according to Lee, John’s Gospel regards the coming of the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ second coming.
Do I buy into this view? While I am happy that Lee interacts here with the issue of the afterlife in the Gospel of John (since I was wondering what Lee’s view on that is), I have a hard time with his focus on Jesus’ soul to the exclusion of his body. For one, as N.T. Wright has noted, this was a resurrection, and that’s not entirely the same as a disembodied soul. Moreover, in the Gospel of John, we can tell that John believed that Jesus’ body rose on the third day because his body was missing from the tomb, and, later on, Jesus appeared to his disciples with his wounds. If Jesus’ soul were absent from his body when he appeared to Mary, then where exactly was his body? It wasn’t in the tomb! Lee addresses this question, but he does not appear to answer it head-on; instead, he discusses the empty tomb tradition in the New Testament. (UPDATE: In an appendix, on page 359, Lee says that what happened to Jesus’ flesh is a mystery, and that it “has simply disappeared, never to be seen again!”)
Regarding Lee’s claim on realized eschatology, I find that to be plausible. Jesus ascended to heaven, and then he returned and imparted to his disciples the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), which arguably could have been a means for him to dwell with his disciples. (On a side note, Lee makes an interesting point when he interprets the five hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus in I Corinthians 15:6 in reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.)
Why, then, could Mary not touch Jesus before his ascension? There are a number of commentators (i.e., Peake’s commentary, Bullinger, and others) who contend that something important happened at Jesus’ ascension—-he was presented to the Father as the wavesheaf offering, the Father accepted Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus officially was crowned with glory, etc. But advocates of these positions did not explain, at least not to my satisfaction, why Mary could not touch Jesus before his ascension, whereas people could touch him after the ascension had taken place. The closest I saw them get to an explanation was their assertion that Jesus wanted for Mary to regard him in a new way, not in her old manner of familiarity, and so Jesus needed to officially become new before that could happen.
But there are other commentators who take a different track altogether. They don’t regard Jesus’ ascension as something that took place between the time that Jesus spoke to Mary and the time that Jesus appeared to Thomas. Rather, in accordance with Luke-Acts, they regard Jesus’ ascension as Jesus going to heaven forty days after his resurrection. Consequently, when Jesus tells Mary not to touch him because he has not ascended, such commentators contend that Jesus is telling Mary that she should not cling to him but should rush to tell the disciples, for she’ll have plenty of time to interact with Jesus before he goes back to heaven (John Gill), or that Mary should not cling to Jesus on earth because he will eventually have to go to heaven (John MacArthur). I can’t really argue against these sorts of ideas. But they don’t entirely set right with me.