Of all of Jesus Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, this one is, in many ways, the most intriguing:
Meanwhile Mary was standing close outside the tomb, weeping. Still weeping, she leant forward into the tomb, And perceived two angels clothed in white sitting there, where the body of Jesus had been lying, one where the head and the other where the feet had been. “Why are you weeping?” asked the angels. “They have taken my Master away,” she answered, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” After saying this, she turned round, and looked at Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. “Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” he asked. Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary answered: “If it was you, Sir, who carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away myself.” “Mary!” said Jesus. She turned round, and exclaimed in Hebrew: “Rabboni!” (or, as we should say, ‘Teacher’). “Do not hold me,” Jesus said; “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my Brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to him who is my Father and their Father, my God and their God.” (John 20:11-17 TCNT)
There have been many explanations of Jesus’ statement “Do not hold me” to Mary Magdalene; in this piece I’ll look at two of the oldest interpretations, from Origen. Both of these date from the first half of the third century. The first one we’ll look at is probably the earliest, from his Commentary in John, VI, 37:
And having by His passion destroyed His enemies, He who is strong in battle and a mighty Lord required after His mighty deeds a purification which could only be given Him by His Father alone; and this is why He forbids Mary to touch Him, saying, “Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father; but go and tell My disciples, I go to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.”
This is a pretty bold statement about someone who, as we saw last week, was sinless. Origen was given to bold statements, which got him in trouble in life and in death. But Evangelicals routinely blurt out stuff like “Jesus took on our sin,” so how did he get rid of it? That’s a question that most evangelicals, as is often the case, don’t have a good answer for.
Simply put, Origen looks at Jesus’ death, resurrection and victory as a very high form of spiritual warfare, from which Jesus emerged victorious for himself and the rest of us. Some kind of “recovery” after the battle is natural to posit. It was in this situation that he told Mary Magdalene not to touch him.
Later in life he had the chance to discuss this issue again. Origen wasn’t above changing his mind about things (as was the case with the transmigration of souls) and in his Dialogue with Heraclides he states the following:
If the spirit was put into the hands of the Father, he gave the spirit as a deposit. It is one thing to make a gift, another thing to hand over, and another to leave in deposit. He who makes a deposit does so with the intention of receiving back that which he has deposited. Why then had he to give the spirit to the Father as a deposit? The question is beyond me and my powers and my understanding. For I am not endowed with knowledge to enable me to say that, just as the body was not able to go down to Hades, even if this is alleged by those who affirm that the body of Jesus was spiritual, so also neither could the spirit go down to Hades, and therefore he gave the spirit to the Father as a deposit until he should have risen from the dead. . . . After he had entrusted this deposit to the Father, he took it back again. When? Not at the actual moment of the resurrection, but immediately after the resurrection. My witness is the text of the gospel. The Lord Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. Mary met him and he said to her: “Touch me not.” For he wished anyone that touched him to touch him in his entirety, that having touched him in his entirety he might be benefited in body from his body, in soul from his soul, in spirit from his spirit. “For I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He ascends to the Father and comes to the disciples. Accordingly he ascends to the Father. Why? To receive back the deposit.
Allegorists like Origen are criticised for playing “fast and loose” with the literal meaning of scripture. But in reality they often “nit-pick” the scriptures for fine points, and do so better than more “literal” interpreters. That is the case here.
Origen, in common with both the New Testament and Philo, considered human nature in three parts: body, soul and spirit. “Then Jesus, with a loud cry, said: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” And with these words he expired.” (Luke 23:46 TCNT) Origen doesn’t simply take Jesus’ words as a figure of speech: he states that Our Lord placed his spirit up with his Father on a temporary basis. The body then went to the tomb and the soul, with his divine nature, “…went and preached to the imprisoned spirits, who once were disobedient, at the time when God patiently waited, in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared; in which some few lives, eight in all, were saved by means of water.” (1 Peter 3:19-20 TCNT)
But that wasn’t the end of it: “And referred to the resurrection of the Christ when he said that ‘he had not been abandoned to the Place of Death, nor had his body undergone corruption.'” (Acts 2:31 TCNT) The Resurrection was simply the beginning of putting the pieces back together; the body was reunited with the soul, and then the Father returned his spirit to the Son. But in Mary Magdalene’s early encounter, Our Lord had not been reunited just yet.
God is timeless; the Incarnation, like anything else in the material world, took place in time. The fact that the process is not instantaneous should not surprise us. The thing that we should never take for granted is not that it happened in time, but that it happened at all.
Much of this article is based on Crehan, J. H.. (1950) “The “Dialektos” of Origen and John 20:17″ Theological Studies, 11, 368-373.