The Noli me tangere Research Project

Mary Magdalene and the Touching of Jesus. An Intra- and Interdisciplinary Investigation of the Interpretation of John 20:17 in Exegesis, Iconography and Pastoral Care

1. Aim

Barbara Hershey who played the role of Mary Magdalene in the movie “The Last Temptation” said in an interview: “The thing that fascinated me about Mary Magdalene is that she represents all aspects of womanhood: she’s a whore and a victim, a complete primal animal, and then she’s reborn and becomes virginal and sister like. She evolves through all phases of womanhood, so it was a wonderful role in that way” (quoted from Schaberg, 2002, pp. 72-73). This has indeed been the prevailing image of Mary Magdalene in Western culture. In recent decades feminist researchers have convincingly demonstrated that this reception-historical image of Mary Magdalene has virtually nothing in common with the Mary Magdalene of the gospels (Haskins, 2003; Ruschmann, 2002; Schaberg, 2002). The representation of Mary Magdalene in Western culture seems to be more a mirror image of the cultural constructions of what it means to be a woman than a faithful representation of the Biblical texts. Much research has recently been devoted to Mary Magdalene (cf. Thimmes, 1998; see also bibliography). They concentrated on exegesis (e.g., Ruschmann, 2002; Brock, 2003) and on reception history in Western culture, esp. in the visual arts and in literature (e.g., Haskins, 1993; Montandon, 1999).

The proposed research programme concentrates on one specific aspect, namely John 20:17: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me (or: do not touch me, Greek: mê mou haptou), because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”, the verse that some have qualified as the most difficult verse of the fourth gospel (Reinhartz, 2001, Schneiders, 1996: “notoriously difficult” ). The disciplines of exegesis of the First and Second Testaments, art history and practical theology will collaborate in this project to investigate the meaning, reception history and present-day relevance of “mê mou haptou” in John 20:17. The element of continuity in this multidisciplinary study of John 20:17 is the theme of touching/holding/letting go.

Using historical-critical and literary-critical methodologies, the exegetical research in this project will study the meaning of “mê mou haptou”. The first step will be a status quaestionis since 1950. Special attention will be given to interpretations of John 20:17 in feminist exegesis (taking Attridge, 1999 as a starting point). We will also investigate what were the consequences of the identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7 for the interpretation of John 20:17. We will study the other NT appearance stories (Mt 28; Lk 24; John 20–21) as possible parallels for the appearance to Mary Magdalene. We will include a semantic study of the meaning of “haptomai” and synonyms in classical Greek and in the NT. “Mê mou haptou” will also be studied in its immediate context of John 20:17, of 20:11-18 and the entire gospel of John. The contribution of the First Testament exegete will be to study the parallels between the gospel of John and the Song of Songs, particularly between John 20:17 and Song 3:1-4 (cf. Feuillet, 1964, Bernabé, 1991, Lundbom, 1995, Schneiders, 1996 [1999], Ebner, 1998, Winsor, 1999; Reinhartz, 2001). Other potential First Testament models of John 20:17 and its context (paradise, theophany, angelophany) will also be investigated. There will also be a study of First Testament elements used by artists in representing John 20:17 (e.g., Smith, 1995). A semantic analysis of “haptomai” and synonyms in the LXX will also be undertaken.

Juliaan de Vriendt, Johannes XX: 16. Jesus apparet Mariae
Magdalenae "Dicit ei Jesus: Maria", 1899 - lithography, 395x540 mm, KADOC

The art historian in the project will study the way artists and artistic traditions represented John 20:17. The main emphasis will be medieval art, but later centuries including contemporary art will not be excluded. Representations of John 20:17 begin to appear in Western art in the 9th century. The standardized iconographic motifs which artists used to express this verse of the Bible will be studied. How is the work of the artists rooted in their social and religious context? What do the iconographic representations say about the exegesis of their time? What do they say about the contemporary understanding of the relation between man and woman? Are there art representations of John 20:17 which are influenced by elements from the Song of Songs? Has the identification of Mary Magdalene as converted prostitute influenced the artistic expression of the Noli me tangere motif. The characteristics of the image requires special attention for the way artists visualize John 20:17. Here the focus needs to be on the devotional background of the time and the personal style of specific artists.

The practical theologian in the project will investigate whether the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in 20:14-18 (esp. v. 17) can serve as a theological model for the relationship between the actors in pastoral care (care giver and care receiver), esp. with regard to the second and third pastoral function, sustaining and guiding. Is a correlation possible between the care receiver and the mourning Mary Magdalene on the one hand and the care giver and the risen Christ on the other hand? Can the structure of “this experience of feeling lost, meeting, recognition, disappearance and mission” (Demasure & Depoortere, 2004) found in John 20:14-18 be used as a Biblical model for pastoral care? Can “mê mou haptou” in John 20:17 be seen as a Biblical confirmation of the conviction that in pastoral care physical absence is a necessary condition for spiritual presence (“creative withdrawal”)? Can John 16:7 be used to support this view? In this study we need to ask: What are the opportunities and limitations of such a correlation? Does the correlation of the man Christ with the care giver and the woman Mary Magdalene with the care receiver not reinforce the traditional role models of male clergy and of the “the weak sex” in need of care (cf. Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb)? What can John 20:17 contribute in ecclesial contexts where pastoral theology no longer assumes the clerical paradigm (Farley, 1983) and where the part of women as care givers is growing in non-sacramental contexts.

2. Objectives

The research project intends to realize the following objectives:

Exegesis: investigating the possible links between John and Song of Songs, particularly John 20:1-2.11-18 and Song 3:1-4 (on the level of the evangelist and later interpretation of the text); searching for other First Testament models used by John or later interpreters (including artists) (e.g., paradise, theophany, angelophany); finding the First Testament elements artists used to visualize the Noli me tangere motif which are not discussed by exegetes; investigate in which way Song of Songs and John 20:17 in its context can be helpful in developing a model of pastoral care; gain a new understanding of John 20:1-2.11-18 and in particular “mê mou haptou” in 20:17 including a feminist reading; gain insights into the links between the identification of Mary Magdalene as prostitute and the interpretation of “mê mou haptou”; gain a deeper understanding of the appearance narrative in John 20:11-18 in comparison with the other appearance stories; investigating the reception history (mainly Middle Ages) of John 20:17 as reflected in the visual arts; investigating John 14:1-3 and 16:7 as potential keys to understanding 20:17.

Art History: Analysis and interpretation of the Noli me tangere motif in the visual arts of the Middle Ages and later centuries; a deeper understanding of the influence of contemporary exegesis on paintings of Noli me tangere; critical evaluation of the postulated links between Song of Songs and John 20 as found in the arts; study of the diachronic typology concerning the iconography of Mary Magdalene; study of the influence of the religious world on the art production; investigation what Noli me tangere art says about the role of contemporary women.

Practical Theology: investigating the potential correlation between care receiver and Mary Magdalene as well, care giver and the risen Christ; investigating whether there is also an “interruption” in addition to the correlation, i.e., respects in which the correlation does not work (Thurneysen, 1946; Ricoeur, 1986); studying whether the interruption leads to new models; investigating whether John 20:11-18 (v. 17) provides a model for pastoral care or for parts of it, e.g. the pastoral functions; investigating whether “mê mou haptou” can legitimately be interpreted as an expression of pastoral absence which is a condition for spiritual presence; investigating the implications of using the Mary Magdalene experience as a model for pastoral care for the role of women; investigating whether the identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman had implications for the attitude of the (male) care giver (priest) toward the female care receiver.

Christ appears to Mary Magdalene 'Noli me tangere'
anonymous, oil paint on canvas, 495 x 400 mm (canvas), 545 x 460 x 30 mm (frame)
collection of the Centre for Religious Art and Culture
formerly owned by the Hospital Sisters of Antwerp

3. Design and Methodology

In this project the collaborating researchers will first of all use the methods which are accepted in their own fields of research (historical and literary critical, reception historical, iconographic, hermeneutical pastoral). At the same time the participating researchers will also critically challenge each other’s methods and assumptions. Based on their commitment to feminist (liberationist)-critical research, they will also try to unmask androcentric aspects of scholarly and artistic interpretations. In an effort to avoid reconstructionist approaches, we will follow a reception-historical hermeneutic which sees in the interpretations of Mary Magdalene from the gospels until today at least partially a mirror image of those who interpret her. In her recent book “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene” Schaberg states: “No other biblical figure ... has had such a vivid and bizarre post Biblical life in the human imagination, in legend and in art. ... Successive epochs, beginning with the times of the Evangelists, have found their own thoughts in her, created her in accord with their own characters and needs. ... Fundamental questions concerning sexuality and the spirit, guilt and transcendence, authority and love, and unspoken questions too, have been addressed by her changing image” (p. 68). In this perspective this project is interested in what the interpretation of John 20:17 teaches us about the contemporary image of woman, sexuality and authority in the church.

4. Bibliography of Works Cited in the Text

ATTRIDGE, H.W., Don't Be Touching Me: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Mary Magdalene, unpubl. paper presented at the meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association Meeting in Notre Dame IN, 1999.
BERNABÉ, C., Trasfondo derásico de Jn 20, in Estudios biblicos 49/2 (1991) 209-228.
BROCK, A.G., Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (Harvard Theological Studies, 51), Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
EBNER, M., Wer liebt mehr? Die liebende Jüngerin und die geliebte Jünger nach Joh 20,1-18, in BibZeit 42 (1998) 39-55.
FARLEY, E., Theology and Practice Outside the Clerical Paradigm, in D.S. BROWNING, Practical Theology. The Emerging Field in Theology, Church and World, San Francisco, 1983, pp. 61-82.
FEUILLET, A., La recherche du Christ dans la nouvelle alliance d'après la Christophanie de Jo 20,11-18, in Homme devant Dieu; melangess offerts au Henri de Lubac. Paris: Aubier, 1963-1964, pp. 93-112.
HASKINS, S., Mary Magdalen: Myth or Metaphor, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993.
LUNDBOM, J.R., Mary Magdalene and Song of Songs 3:1-4, in Interpretation 49 (1995) 172-175.
MONTANDON, A. (ed.), Marie-Madeleine. Figure mythique dans la littérature et les arts (Collection Littératures), Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 1999.
REINHARTZ, A., Befriending the Beloved Disciple, New York: Continuum, 2001 (Song of Songs: pp. 106-112).
RICOEUR, P. Du texte à l’action, Paris, 1984.
RUSCHMANN, S., Maria von Magdala im Johannesevangelium. Jüngerin, Zeugin, Lebensbotin (NTAbh, 40), Münster: Aschendorff, 2002.
SCHABERG, J., The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha and the Christian Testament, New York: Continuum, 2002.
SCHNEIDERS, S., John 20:11-18: The Encounter of the Easter Jesus with Mary Magdalene - A Transformative Feminist Reading, in Fernando F. Segovia (ed.), What Is John? Readers and Readings of the Fourth Gospel, Atlanta GA: Scholars, 1996, pp. 155-168.
SCHNEIDERS, S., Written That You May Believe, New York: Crossroad, 1999.
SMITH, S.L., The Bride Stripped Bare: A Rare Type of the Disrobing of Christ, in Gesta 2 (1995) 126-146.
THURNEYSEN, E, Die Lehre von der Seelsorge, Zürich, 1946.
THIMMES, P., Memory and Re-vision, Mary Magdalene Research since 1975, in Currents in Biblical Research 6 (1998) 193-226.
Winsor, A.R., A King is Bound in the Tresses: Allusions to the Song of Songs in the Fourth Gospel (Studies in Biblical Literature, 5), New York: Lang, 1999.