Resurrection #18: “Touch Me Not” & Mary Magdalene

Resurrection #18: “Touch Me Not” & Mary Magdalene April 29, 2021

Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered  59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously (and impressively!) sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review. 

Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.

He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.

To see all the other installments, search “Michael J. Alter” on either my Jews and Judaism or Trinitarianism & Christology web pages. That will take you to the subsection with the series.

I use RSV for all Bible verses that I cite. His words will be in blue.

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Alter wrote:

CONTRADICTION #76 John Versus Matthew and Luke

The Gospel of John directly contradicts Matthew and Luke. (p. 429)

Nonsense, as I will demonstrate below.

The original Mark 16 omits any mention of women meeting a resurrected Jesus. Consequently, there was no bodily contact with Jesus or even a message proffered. Based on a literal reading of the text, instead, the women met a young man, received a message, subsequently fled the tomb, and spoke to nobody. (p. 429)

This is the game of denying the canonical status of Mark 16:9-20. See several solid arguments in favor of that section’s inclusion in the Gospel of Mark and the biblical canon. But even if verses 9-20 are rejected, 16:8 doesn’t indicate how long the women “said nothing to any one.” Thus, even without the true traditional ending of Mark it’s not established that they told no one at any time that they saw the empty tomb and were told by an angel that Jesus had risen from the dead (thus leading to supposed “contradiction” #2,967,135 in the NT, etc., ad nauseam). It’s yet another desperate argument from silence from Alter.

Matthew 28:9 reports that several women left the tomb after meeting an angel and having received a communication. On their way to the disciples, they encountered the resurrected Jesus. Then, the women grasped hold of Jesus by his feet and worshiped him: “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.” (p. 429)

Yes indeed: all of this happened. And praise be to God that it did. This is the proof that Jesus was Who He claimed to be (God), which is. of course, also proof that God exists and that He loves us so much that He has provided a way for our sins to be forgiven, leading to eternal bliss in union with Him in heaven. That’s why we Christians refer to the gospel: the “Good News.” It’s the best possible news that human beings could receive.

Luke 24:13-33 extensively details Jesus traveling with two pilgrims on their way to Emmaus during most of the day. Later, Luke 24:34-43 had Jesus appearing before the Eleven gathered in Jerusalem as well as the two travelers previously mentioned. During this encounter Jesus states in verse 39: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath no flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” Therefore, here, Jesus encouraged his disciples to touch him. It is unknown if the offer was accepted. (p. 429)

This is true as well, since Alter is merely recounting what the Gospel of Luke teaches. He’s setting us up for the alleged “zinger” and couldn’t resist one of the old chestnuts of biblical skepticism.

In direct contradiction, John 20:14 has Mary Magdalene alone meeting Jesus on Easter Sunday morning after her second visit to the tomb. After recognizing Jesus, she addressed him, saying, “Rabboni.” Then, John 20:17 reports that Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not.”

John’s narration completely contradicts the synoptic accounts. (p. 429)

Not at all. Once again, Alter relies on the surface, prima facie reading, without delving more deeply into the words involved. When someone who believes in the inspiration of Scripture comes across a difficult-to-understand passage or ostensible “contradiction” at first glance, they look into (or at least have the potential to look into, with various available aids) the Greek or Hebrew word involved; to see how it is used elsewhere, etc. Or they pursue the different uses of words and questions of genre, possible non-literal intent, cultural background factors, etc. I have been doing this myself, throughout this series of replies.

Alter — in his replies to this series in my comboxes — often virtually mocks and derides this sort of Bible study, and seems to think that every Bible passage (purported or not) must be crystal clear and immediately self-evident to every reader. In this respect he seems to presuppose the Protestant false doctrine of “perspicuity” (clearness) of Scripture: i.e., the rejection of the necessity of authoritative interpretation, which is guided by the Church and tradition. But Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and historic Judaism all agree that guidance and aid in Bible interpretation is often necessary. I’ve written three books about the larger issue of sola Scriptura as the rule of faith (one / two / three).

Alter in this section attempts to make hay out of the women grabbing Jesus’ feet and worshiping Him in Matthew and disciples “handling” Him (to verify that He was flesh and blood) in Luke (and we could also mention Doubting Thomas later in this same chapter of John), while Mary Magdalene (here’s the ever-present alleged “contradiction”) was told “not to touch” Jesus in John 20:17. It’s much ado about nothing. A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament explains it:

Touch me not (mh mou aptou). Present middle imperative in prohibition with genitive case, meaning “cease clinging to me” rather than “Do not touch me.” Jesus allowed the women to take hold of his feet (ekrathsan) and worship (prosekunhsan) as we read in Matthew 28:9 .

Almost all more recent English translations reflect this more specific (prolonged, more intense) sense of touch:

RSV: hold

TEV / NIV / NRSV / Beck: hold on to

NAB: holding on to

ESV / NKJV / Weymouth / Barclay / Goodspeed / NEB / REB / Jerusalem / Knox / Amplified: cling

NASB / Williams / Wuest / Moffatt: clinging

Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament agrees:

Touch me not ( μή μοῦ ἅπτου )

The verb, primarily, means to fasten to. Hence it implies here, not a mere momentary touch, but a clinging to.

The following two biblical commentaries elaborate along the same lines:

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: The words themselves must be carefully considered. “Touch” represents a Greek word which means to “cling to,” to “fasten on,” to “grasp” an object. The tense is present, and the prohibition is, therefore, not of an individual act, but of a continuance of the act, of the habit, “Do not continue clinging to Me.”

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: The translation ‘touch Me not’ is inadequate and gives a false impression. The verb (haptesthai) does not mean to ‘touch’ and ‘handle’ with a view to seeing whether His body was real; this Christ not only allowed but enjoined (John 20:27Luke 24:39; comp. 1 John 1:1): rather it means to ‘hold on to’ and ‘cling to.’ Moreover it is the present (not aorist) imperative; and the full meaning will therefore be, ‘Do not continue holding Me,’ . . .

So (you guessed it): no contradiction again. There are deeper waters of reflection regarding this passage, but they are inappropriate here. It’s enough to have demonstrated that a more prolonged and intense sense of “touch” was being referred to in this passage, compared to the others. In other words, it wasn’t touch per se that Jesus was forbidding, but a certain kind of touch: clinging. The reasons for the distinction of different sorts of touch are beyond my purview (they delve far more deeply into eschatological and Christological theology). I’ve accomplished my task as an apologist: to remove the plausibility of a supposed contradiction in these particular NT texts.

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Photo credit: Selva Rasalingam as Jesus in the The Gospel of Luke (2016, Netflix USA) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Summary: Michael Alter seizes upon the “touch me not” passage of John 20:17 to try to establish a contradiction over against other “touching” NT passages. He fails, & I explain the relevant difference.

Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, “touch me not”, Mary Magdalene


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