Sometimes it is the case that the enemies of Christ actually read the Bible before making allegations about its writers being uninformed or contradictory. At other times, however, Bible critics, even prominent skeptics, make such assertions about various Bible passages that one cannot help but wonder what book they are reading (or if they are reading the Bible at all). Take, for example, an accusation that appears on a fairly well-known skeptic’s Web site. When commenting on Jesus’ statement to Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17), Steve Wells wrote:
Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him because he hasn’t yet ascended—as if the touch of a woman would defile him and somehow prevent him from ascending into heaven. One wonders why he insisted that Thomas touch him later that evening (Jn. 20:27), and why he permitted his apostles to touch him and hold him by the feet before his ascension (Mt. 28:9). Was it OK to touch the risen Jesus? (2005).
Although the name of the site (www.skepticsannotatedbible.com) may initially leave the impression that Wells has meticulously poured over the pages of Scripture while writing his notes of criticism, remarks such as this one shed much light on how “carefully” he read his Bible before criticizing it.
First, the apostle Thomas did not come into physical contact with Jesus on the same day that Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene not to “touch” Him. In fact, only ten verses following Jesus’ instruction to Mary Magdalene, the apostle John wrote: “And after eight days His disciples were again inside...” (20:26, emp. added). It was at this time (eight days after appearing to Mary Magdalene) that Jesus told Thomas to examine the holes in His hands and side—not as Wells alleged, “later that evening” after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.
Second, Wells followed the erroneous statement about Thomas with another one, saying: “One wonders...why he [Jesus—EL] permitted his apostles to touch him and hold him by the feet before his ascension (Mt. 28:9)” (emp. added). Allegedly, if Jesus did not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him (John 20:17), then He should not have permitted the apostles to touch and hold Him by the feet, as is supposedly recorded in Matthew 28:9. The problem is, Matthew 28:9 refers, not to the apostles, but to Jesus’ appearance to the women who had come to visit His tomb, as is confirmed by both the context and the use of feminine pronouns. [“Jesus met them (Greek autais), saying, ‘Rejoice!’ So they (Greek ai) came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him”—Matthew 28:9.] Had this Bible critic really taken the time to see what the passage was saying, surely he would not have made such elementary mistakes.
Third, considering how compassionate Jesus was to both men and women, it is blasphemous to insinuate that He was in some way intolerant of women and thought that they (as opposed to men) might defile His risen body. This was the Man Who touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and healed her (Matthew 8:15), allowed a sick woman to touch the hem of His garment and be healed (Matthew 9:20-22), took the hand of Jairus’s daughter and raised her from the dead (Mark 5:22-43), touched a woman crippled for 18 years and restored her to health (Luke 13:10-13), and permitted Mary, Lazarus’ sister, to anoint Him with oil and wipe His feet with her hair (John 11:2). Jesus was not the male chauvinist that critics sometimes suggest.
Furthermore, the Greek verb ‘aptou, translated “touch” in John 20:17 by the translators of the King James Version, can mean more than a mere touch of the skin. Among other things, it can refer to sexual contact (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1), contact made with the intent of causing harm (cf. 1 John 5:18), and “to fasten one’s self to, adhere to, cling to” (“Haptomai;” see also Danker, et al., 2000, p. 126). Greek Lexicographers Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich noted that in John 20:17 the verb means to “cling to” (Danker, et al., p. 126). Thus, Jesus was telling Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me” (NKJV); “Do not hold on to me” (NIV). He was not intimating that the actual contact with human flesh would somehow defile Him (cf. Matthew 28:9; John 20:17).
Exactly why Jesus previously told Mary Magdalene not to cling to Him (John 20:17), but later permitted certain women to hold His feet and worship Him following His resurrection (Matthew 28:9), and instructed Thomas eight days later to touch the holes in His hands and side (John 20:27), we simply are not told. What we know is that following His resurrection, Jesus wanted the women (including Mary Magdalene) to inform the apostles about His resurrection. Mary Magdalene was not to remain in her present location clinging to Jesus, but to “go” and inform the others of the good news. What’s more, the women to whom Jesus appeared shortly thereafter, although permitted for a moment to hold His feet and worship Him, were likewise told to “go” and take the brethren a message from their living Lord. (These women may not have been told exactly what Mary Magdalene was earlier told, but in order to “go” they had to “let go” of Jesus’ feet. Thus, what is explicitly stated in John 20:17 is actually implied in Matthew 28:9.)
Finally, the situation with Jesus instructing Thomas to touch His nail-scared hands and punctured side was a separate circumstance altogether. The purpose on that occasion was to prove to Thomas (who earlier had said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe”—John 20:25), that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. The wounds served as evidence to this doubter that this was Jesus—his “Lord” and “God” (John 20:28).
If Christ’s critics, like Steve Wells and others, would look at the Scriptures more carefully (and fairly), and cease spreading false accusations about Jesus, their eyes might be opened (as was Thomas’) to the proof of Christ’s deity. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Danker, Frederick William, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
“Haptomai: 680” (1999), Logos Library System: Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems).
Wells, Steve (2005), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/jn/20.html.