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Questions and Answers Ask us any question about the Bible and we’ll search for the answer.

This month we have listed a number of questions about the Passion Week.

Genelle Austin-Lett answers questions about the Passion week.

New for this year’s Chronology of Events are questions about Pilate, whether vinegar is a drug, and the size of the veil in the Temple.

Mary Jane Chaignot answers two questions about Jesus' resurrection.

QUESTION:
In the verse from John 20:17, after his resurrection, Jesus tells Mary, ‘Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” I always wondered what that meant. Could it be that Jesus was telling Mary that his personal healing work was at a close and that she would have to look to the impersonal Christ to heal from that point on? Seems to me that his healing and teaching occurred before his crucifixion and that after his resurrection he was working out just his own salvation.
Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Thank you,

David D. Boggs


RESPONSE:
John 20:17 is one of the most enigmatic verses in the Bible. The truth is that scholars don't know what it means either, especially in light of the fact that a mere 10 verses later, Jesus will invite Thomas to touch him. Literally speaking, if the reason Mary should not touch him is because he has not yet ascended to his Father, then one might rightly think he must have ascended (and returned) by the time he invites Thomas to put his hand into Jesus' side. But there is no mention of any ascension in these verses. Scholars also point out that in Matthew 28:9 when the women saw him, they "held him by the feet, and worshipped him." They are not told "not to touch him."

As it is written (a present imperative with a negative), it probably means, "stop doing something" as opposed to "don't even start doing something." So here it could mean, "Stop clinging to me," rather than, "Do not even think about touching me."

Why would Jesus tell Mary to stop clinging to him? The possibilities generally fall into three categories, each being dependent on how one interprets the word for (for…I am not yet ascended to my Father.). If the for is considered to be anticipatory, then it might mean: "Don't cling to me. Since I have not yet ascended, go tell my brethren (disciples) that I am ascending." If the for is thought to link the prohibition to what precedes it, it could mean: "Stop clinging to me, because you have to go tell my brethren." In that case, the "for I am not yet ascended…" acts like a parenthetical remark, an aside. Lastly, it could mean "Stop clinging to me, because I am not yet ascended. I am not ready to leave permanently so you don't have to hang on. This is not the last time you will see me."

We may never know exactly what Jesus meant by these words, but we do know that these are his first post-resurrection words, and they are spoken to Mary. At the least, he is confirming for Mary that he is alive, that he did not die. Things will never be quite the same. Perhaps he simply wants to tell her that he can't stay with her, he has to ascend. This, then, is the first good news of the gospel. "Let me go, so I can give you the fullness of what I have to offer." Jesus tells her to go to his "brethren" and tell them he is ascending. She is to share the good news not only with them but also with the whole world. Whatever sadness Mary felt at the tomb has been transformed by her encounter with Jesus. She follows his command, running to the disciples to say, "I have seen the Lord." Regardless of their response, Mary has seen the Lord, of that she is certain. Her joy knows no bounds. She is the first disciple.

MJC

   
 

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, USA, 1981.

Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA:      Harvard University Press, 1987.

Carson, DA. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans,      1991.

Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. The Women's Bible Commentary. Louisville,      KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

   
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