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“Do not 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 and overjoyed, as well as 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; 13:31; 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’s 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] Female followers of Jesus were frequently with the male disciples, even when the Gospel writers did 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 of the word.

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 Twelve (minus Judas) 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, like Mary, were not also present.


Mary Magdalene had travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem where she was a witness to Jesus’s death and resurrection. I suggest she was also with the other disciples who 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. And she is probably one of the witnesses mentioned in Acts 13:29–31.

… they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.


[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”: “Touch me not” (John 20:17 KJV). However, even in the active voice, the primary meaning is “hold on to.” (Se LSJ’s entry on haptō.) The influential Vulgate renders the phrase in Latin as “noli me tangere” (“don’t touch me”).

[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 he 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 the 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” or “brethren” 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).

© Margaret Mowczko May 2021
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Explore more

Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Jesus Called Her “Woman”
Many women followed Jesus—Many!
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
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“Preaching” Words in the New Testament and Women who Preached
All my articles on Mary Magdalene are here.

14 thoughts on “Mary Magdalene and the Ascension

  1. Great article! I too would have clung to him. 🙂 “THIS TIME I won’t let him go. THIS TIME I won’t make the mistake of not telling him how much He means to me.”

    It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the subtle nuances of body language and tone, to give the fuller picture of how a statement was said. I can only imagine there was tenderness in Jesus’ words, as He gently pulled her apart from Him, and wiped a tear from her eyes.

    1. I love the scene in John 20, but I wish there was more detail.

  2. Hi Marg

    Just reflecting on your comments on Risen, have you seen ‘The Chosen’, and if so, what were your thoughts on the way it depicts women?
    I’ve seen a few episodes, didn’t notice anything horrendous!

    1. I haven’t seen The Chosen. I think it’s only available on Apple TV and DVD. Is that right?

      1. There is an app, but it’s also available on Youtube.

      2. Marg, there is a free The CHOSEN app now. I did not see The Chosen when it first came out because my TV wasn’t working. Recently I downloaded the app and was able to binge watch the first season.
        I may have misunderstood, but I believe that no NEW episodes will be put on YouTube by The Chosen.

        1. Great! Thanks, Alice and LauraLee

  3. I had always read it as “Don’t touch me” because he had some special resurrection body condition. Thank you for your explanation and demonstrating how the women were consistently present.

    1. You’re welcome, Lenny.

  4. Thank you for your insights on Mary Magdalene. She is so often misinterpreted! I like the portrayal of her in The Chosen – especially the amazing transformation after Jesus released her from demons and her subsequent devotion to Him and His work.

    1. I really need to see it. 🙂

  5. This is my interpretation of this : There were several words, meanings and phrases that are quite symbolic in the Bible. Jesus would sometimes speak plainly, and other times speak in parables. I believe that He spoke in a type of parable when He spoke to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection and appeared to her.
    John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
    Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (See also Ephesians 5:30-32)
    1 Corinthians 7:1 Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
    In Genesis, the word for Joined, does also mean to ‘cling’.
    Cling, touch and joined all share a very specific meaning; to become one with.
    It appears that Jesus was speaking to Mary to say, ‘Do not cling to me, do not touch me, do not try to be joined and become one with me’. I don’t believe that Mary wanted to be physically joined to Him in having sexual intimacy with Jesus, but I do believe there is a very specific and spiritual meaning behind it, and that there is a reason why Jesus mentions this.
    Jesus must ascend to His Father first, before coming back some day for His bride, and will be joined with His bride. If He were to be joined to Mary then, whether in a physical way or spiritually, He would have broken the covenant made to His people and thus not fulfilling the prophecy of the second coming and joining to His bride, the church. Joining with Mary then and there would make her the only one who would be the bride. Jesus says, He is going away, but will come back again for us. Us, being the bride.
    Jesus says to the disciples,
    John 14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
    John 14:28 You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.

    1. Hi Adam, I have heard people who read Mary’s encounter with Jesus with an underlying “bridegroom and bride” theme. I don’t dismiss the idea, but I haven’t yet been convinced of it.

      The Greek word used in Genesis 2:24, προσκολλάω, is an intensified form of the verb κολλάω. This stronger form, προσκολλάω, occurs in Mark 10:7, Ephesians 5:31, which all quote Genesis 2:24. Different Greek texts of Matthew 19:5 have either verb, προσκολλάω or κολλάω.

      However, neither κολλάω (“cling to, join with”) or προσκολλάω (“cleave to”) is the word in John 20:17. There is no intertextual connection that I can see between John 20:17 and Genesis 2:24.

      In John’s Gospel, Jesus did tell Mary, “Don’t cling to me” or “Don’t hold on to me” (Μή μου ἅπτου), but the language has no similiarities with the Greek of Genesis 2:24. And both Jesus and John would have known Genesis 2:24 in the Septuagint.

      I realise the verb ἅπτω can be used as a euphemism for sex (1 Cor. 7:1; Gen. 20:6; Prov. 6:29). But, as you say, this is an unikely meaning in John 20:17. Rather, the verb is used several times in the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus touched people while healing them, and of a few women who touched Jesus or his garments (e.g., the sinful woman in Luke 7; the bleeding women). See here.

      For now, I can’t see that the word ἅπτω is symbolic of marriage in the New Testament or Septuagint.

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