“Don’t cling to me” (John 20:17)

Mary Magdalene is often linked with Easter Sunday and the resurrection. According to the Synoptic Gospels, she was at the empty tomb on Sunday morning with other women, and they were the first to hear from the angel(s) that Jesus is alive (Matt. 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:4-8). In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see Jesus alive and to report this momentous news to others (cf. Matt. 28:9-10; Mark 16:9). In John’s Gospel, she is also linked with Jesus’s ascension.[1]

John 20:11-17 presents a tender scene. Mary is in the garden weeping because the tomb is empty; she thinks someone has taken away Jesus’s corpse. She speaks with angels but then with the risen Jesus himself. The brief record of Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s conversation is touching until he tells her,

“Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” John 20:17 CEB

Jesus’ death would have been devastating and confusing for his followers. As well as being devoted to him, they believed Jesus was the Messiah who would bring in the messianic golden age. So it’s not difficult to imagine that Mary Magdalene would have been thrilled, overjoyed, and greatly relieved to see her Lord alive again, and that she expressed these feelings.

The text implies that Mary hugged Jesus and was clinging to him. Or perhaps she was holding on to his feet (cf. Matt. 28:9). The Greek verb in Jesus’ statement “Don’t hold on to me” can mean cling, fasten, or adhere to, especially in the middle voice which is what we have in many Greek texts.[2] Furthermore, the verb is in the present (continuous) tense, so there is a sense that Mary is hanging on to Jesus and not letting go.

Things to do, places to go

It’s understandable that Mary would cling to Jesus. He was alive! So it seems unkind when Jesus tells her, “Don’t hold on to me” (CEB), or “Stop clinging to me” (NASB). Gail O’Day comments, “Jesus’ words may strike some readers as unnecessarily harsh, as a cruel rebuke to Mary’s expression of joyous recognition. To read these words as cold and harsh is to misread them, however, and to overlook their import.”[3]

Jesus did not have a problem with women, or men, touching or holding him, either before or after his death and resurrection (e.g., Luke 7:37-38; Luke 8:43-48; John 12:3; Matt. 28:9; cf. Luke 24:39). And I imagine it would have been difficult for Jesus too, to stop the embrace and send his beloved Mary off with the instruction to tell his followers that he is going up, ascending, to the Father.

Jesus’s mission on earth wasn’t finished. It would only be complete when he went up to the Father.[4] He still had things to do and places to go. He needed to show and prove to people that he was alive again (cf. Acts 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:3-6). Jesus didn’t want Mary to impede this final phase of his ministry. In fact, he wanted her to have a part in it.

In John’s Gospel, much of Jesus’s teaching given during the last supper is about his return to the Father (e.g., John 16:28), and the Easter story is incomplete without the ascension. Gail O’Day explains that “For John, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension is one continuous act, and so here it is as if he hits the narrative pause button, to give Mary and the reader a glimpse of something that is still in progress.”[5]

After the negative instruction, “Don’t hold on to me,” Jesus gives Mary a positive instruction with a wonderful message, “Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17 CEB; cf. Matt. 28:9-10; Mark 16:6-7).[6]

In the next verse we learn that Mary did just that: “Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the Lord.’ Then she told them what he said to her” (John 20:18 CEB). Mary Magdalene was not just the herald of his resurrection, she was also the herald of Jesus’ impending ascension.

Mary Magdalene in the Movie “Risen”

On a personal note, I watched the movie “Risen” a few months ago and didn’t like the way Mary Magdalene was presented. It wasn’t the fact that she was wrongly depicted as a “street-walker” that especially irked me. (Why are we still doing this?!) Rather, the scene that bothered me was where she tells the disciples that Jesus is risen and that they need to go to Galilee to see him.

I disliked this scene, firstly, because Mary was the only woman in the room when she spoke to the ”brothers.”[7] However, female followers of Jesus were frequently with the male disciples even when the Gospel writers do not explicitly note their presence. We sometimes find out later in the Gospel narratives that the women had been with the men all along (cf. Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3; Acts 1:13-14).

What really irked me, however, was that when Mary tells the “brothers” they need to go to Galilee to see Jesus, the men go while Mary stays behind and is left alone in an empty room. How is it possible that she didn’t go with them to see Jesus again? I’m sure the movie got this wrong.

Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’s most faithful followers. She, and many other women, had travelled with Jesus around Galilee and had sponsored his ministry. They had also travelled with him to Jerusalem where they watched his crucifixion. And Mary was at the tomb and the first to be a witness of Jesus’s resurrection. Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus in the fullest sense.

If I was Mary Magdalene there is no way I would not have gone with the other disciples to see Jesus again! I can’t imagine Mary staying put on her own and missing out. It was not her style. Matthew’s Gospel mentions that the eleven disciples went to Galilee where, moments before his ascension, Jesus commissioned them to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:16-20). But that doesn’t mean others were not also present.

Conclusion

Mary Magdalene had travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem where she was a witness to Jesus’s death and resurrection. And while we can’t be completely certain, I suggest she also travelled back to Galilee with the other disciples and witnessed his ascension. Whatever the case, there is little doubt she enthusiastically told many people about all these, and other, momentous events in the life of her beloved Jesus (cf. Acts 13:29-31).

Footnotes

[1] The ascension was when Jesus went up from the earth to be with his Father. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, the ascension takes place somewhere in Galilee, Jesus’s home ground. Luke-Acts places Jesus’s ascension in Bethany near Jerusalem (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:4). Ascension Day is always on a Thursday and comes forty days after Easter Sunday.

[2] In several important Greek texts of John, the verb is in the middle voice, haptomai. In the Textus Receptus, however, the verb is in the active voice, haptō, and translated in the King James Bible and a few other English translations as “touch.” However, even in the active voice, the primary meaning is “hold on to.” (Here is the LSJ entry on haptō)

[3] Gail R. O’Day, “Gospel of John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 517-530, 528.

[4] After the ascension, Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit to earth as Jesus’ replacement. (See John 14:16-18; 15:26.)

[5] O’Day, “Gospel of John,” 528-529.

[6] Unlike other Jewish men in the first century, Jesus accepted the words, and trusted the testimony, of women. John records the testimonies of the Samaritan woman (John 4:28-30), Martha (John 11:27), and Mary Magdalene (John 20:18) (cf. John 20:31). Ben Witherington III writes about Jesus and the testimony of women in Gospels in his paper on “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” Ashland Theological Journal 17.1 (Fall 1984): 22-30, 29-30. (A pdf of the paper is here.)

[7] The Greek word adelphoi, which is translated as “brothers” in some translations of John 20:17, can include sisters. Jesus’s use of the word adelphoi here may signify that he still had a human nature after his death and resurrection and that he continued to identify with humanity (cf. the use of adelphoi in Hebrews 2:10-12).

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