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"Touch Me Not"

By Gary F. Zeolla


Matt 28:9 - And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and HELD HIM by the feet, and worshipped him.

Luke 24:39 - Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: HANDLE ME, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

John 20:17 - Jesus saith unto her, 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 (all quotes from the KJV).

Mini-Greek, Grammar Lesson

It appears Matthew and Luke are saying that after His resurrection, Jesus could be "held" and "handled" while John is saying that He could not even be "touched." To answer this "apparent contradiction" will require first a mini-lesson in Greek grammar.

The Greek grammar book I used when I took Greek at Denver Seminary was: H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament.1 The following is taken from page 301 of this book:

(2) The Present Imperative in Prohibitions. The present tense is properly used for expressing continued action. A prohibition in the present imperative demands that action then in progress be stopped.

me krinete, ina me krithete
Stop judging, lest ye be judged. Mt 7:1

ego eklan . . . leyei moi, Me klaie
I was weeping; he says to me, Stop weeping. Rev 5:4,5.

The way the prohibitive, present imperative is translated in Dana and Mantey’s examples is exactly how we were taught to render this grammatical form at seminary. And it is how I have been rendering it ever since.

For instance, I found a translation of the book of Colossians I did a few years ago. In it, I rendered 2:16 as: "Therefore, stop letting anyone judge you in food or in drink, or in respect of a feast or a new moon or of Sabbaths." I rendered 3:9 as: "Stop lying to one another, having put off the old man with his deeds."

Now, to apply the above to the beginning of John 20:17. The verse also includes a prohibitive, present imperative: me mou haptou. It would be better rendered as, "Stop touching Me." The point? As Dana and Mantey indicated, "A prohibition in the present imperative demands that action then in progress be stopped."

So Mary is already touching Jesus. But Jesus is commanding her to stop. But why? Help in answering this question can be found by looking at the word rendered "touch."

Word Study

The Greek word rendered "touch" in the KJV is haptou.2 I looked it up in the two lexicons my professors at seminary recommended: Walter Baur's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon.

Baur definition that fits this context is, ""touch, take hold of, hold."3

Louw and Nida give two main definitions for this verb that fit this context: "hold on to" and "touch."4 For the former, they then give a more in-depth definition of: "to hold on to an object - ‘to hold on to, to retain in the hand, to seize.’" For the latter, the in-depth definition is, "to touch, with the implication of relatively firm contact - ‘to touch.’"5

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Merril C. Tenny summarizes the lexical connotations of this verb as: "The verb hapto does not mean to touch with the tip of a finger to test whether an object is real or not but to ‘clutch’ or ‘grip.’"6

So Mary was not just touching Jesus, she was holding Him, grasping Him, clinging to Him. Jesus is simply telling her to let go, enough is enough already.

Conclusion and Possible Objection

Putting all the above together, if I was translating the first part of this verse, I would probably render it as, "Stop holding Me…" or possibly, "Stop clinging to me…."

So Jesus is being "held" in Matthew; He is being "handled" in Luke; and He is being "held" or "clung to" in John. So there is no contradiction between the Gospels. In fact, the only reason there is even an "apparent contradiction" between these passages is because of the rather poor rendering of the KJV.

Compare, however, the translation of the NKJV, "Do not cling to Me…." Even without using "Stop" this rendering still has the sense that Jesus is commanding that Mary cease what she is already doing. I doubt very much I would say "Do not cling to me" to someone who was not even touching me!

Now, to anticipate a possible objection, if my translation above is how the verse is supposed to be rendered, why is it not rendered as such in English translations? First off, most modern-day versions do get the definition of the word correct. As indicated, the NKJV renders the word "cling to." The NIV and NRSV have "hold on to."

As for the prohibitive, present imperative, I did find two versions that properly rendered it: the NASB and Kenneth S. Wuest’s Expanded Translation. Both render this phrase the same as my second possibility above, "Stop clinging to me…."

Closing Quote

To close, I will quote John Calvin’s commentary on this verse at length to answer more fully why Jesus is telling Mary to "Stop clinging to me…."

"The answer is easy, provided that we remember that the women were not repelled from touching Christ, till their eagerness to touch him had been carried to excess; for, so far as it was necessary for removing doubt, he unquestionably did not forbid them to touch him, but, perceiving that their attention was too much occupied with embracing his feet, he restrained and corrected that immoderate zeal. They fixed their attention on his bodily presence, and did not understand any other way of enjoying his society than by conversing with him on the earth….

"For I am not yet ascended to my Father. We ought to attend to this reason which he adds; for by these words he enjoins the women to restrain their feelings, until he be received into the heavenly glory. In short, he pointed out the design of his resurrection; not such as they had imagined it to be, that, after having returned to life, he should triumph in the world, but rather that, by his ascension to heaven, he should enter into the possession of the kingdom which had been promised to him, and seated at the right hand of the Father, should govern the Church by the power of his Holy Spirit.

"The meaning of the words therefore is, that his state of resurrection would not be full and complete, until he should sit down in heaven at the right hand of the Father; and, therefore, that the women did wrong in satisfying themselves with having nothing more than half of the resurrection, and desiring to enjoy his presence in the world."7

Scripture Workbooks

      The doctrinal and ethical teachings of the Bible as presented in these books encompass an overall way of viewing the world that differs greatly from the prevailing secular worldview. It is hoped these books will enable the reader to not only understand this Biblical worldview but also why it is true and thus to come to trust in it, and then to be prepared to defend this Biblical worldview before an unbelieving world (Luke 24:27,45; Acts 14:14-18; 17:22-31).  The most recent and comprehensive is the first book listed.

Scripture Workbook, Third Edition: For Personal and Group Bible Study and Teaching the Bible

Scripture Workbook: For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible: Second Edition

Scripture Workbook: For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible: Edition 1.1

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1) H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey. Manual Grammar of the Greek NT (New York: Macmillan, 1955), p.301.
2) The lexical form is hapto or haptomai depending on whether it is taken as deponent or not.
3) Walter Baur. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 2nd ed. Transl. and rev. by William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Fredrick W. Danker (Chicago: University of London Press, 1979), p.102.
4) Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), Vol. 1, p.32.
5) Ibid. Vol. 2, pp.221, 285.
6) Merril C. Tenny. "The Gospel of John" in Expositor's Bible Commentary Frank E. Gaebelein. ed. Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p.192.
7) John Calvin. Calvin's Commentaries. William Pringle, trans. Vol. XVIII (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprinted 1979), pp. 258,259.

"Touch Me Not." Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article was and posted on this website
and in "alt.religion.christian.baptist" Newsgroup April 21, 1998.

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