The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE TOUCHING OF THOMAS
TOUCH ME NOT
Last week I spoke to you about the four different Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. Today we will continue with two of the resurrection stories" the account of Thomas' disbelief and Jesus' command of "Touch me not" to Mary Magdalene and then compare the two.
The first story is celebrated by the Church the first Sunday after Pascha which is known as Thomas Sunday or the "Touching of Thomas." The story is also known as the "The Incredulity of Thomas" or more plainly Thomas' disbelief.
Let’s first hear the Gospel reading and then see if Thomas is truly worthy of his title "Doubting Thomas."
"The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." (John 20: 19-31)
When we think of Thomas we always tend to think of Doubting Thomas because he didn’t believe the other apostles confession that they had see the Lord, but was he so very different from the other Apostles? They had heard from the women disciples and others that they had seen the Lord yet they also didn’t believe until they saw him with their own eyes. St. Mark tells us that Christ "appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen." (Mark 16: 14)
The Thomas account presents to us the significance of believing only after having seen the living Christ, in other words after having proof, and believing without having seen him. Let’s then examine the Thomas incident a little closer. The reading begins on the evening of Easter Sunday:
"Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. He then showed them his hands and his side." Last week I mentioned that Christ's resurrected body had undergone a transformation and one of the new attributes was that it could appear where it wills: doors and walls do not present themselves as obstacles. Christ shows them his wounds to show them that he still has the same body that suffered the crucifixion and death. St Luke narrates to us the same event and tells us that Christ showed them his hands and feet because they thought they had seen a ghost and even after seeing the wounds they still found it difficult to believe so Christ asked to be given something to eat to show them that he was still flesh and blood because spirits do not eat. All the disciples had a hard time believing not only what they heard but even what they saw so why should we expect Thomas, who was not present, to be any different.
When the disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, he responded just like they would have responded and said: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Here Thomas doesn’t completely dismiss the disciples’ confession, he doesn’t say that they imagined it, but refuses to believe that Jesus is risen, unless he sees him with his own eyes. The condition imposed by Thomas is clear and absolute: personal verification by sight, direct access by eye contact and nothing less. But even seeing is not enough proof for Thomas: he also wants to verify what he sees by touching Jesus at the very marks of his crucifixion: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas’ response is very human and as an apostle who was with Jesus for three years I would think that he felt he was entitled to see Jesus just as the other apostles saw him; why should he be singled out to be denied this new experience? Does he not also have the rightful claim to be granted a direct sight of the risen Christ as it happened with the other disciples or were the others so much more worthy than himself?
Thomas’ demands have characterized him as being a total sceptic, a person of little faith having a crude unbelief. Yet he demands nothing more than the proof Christ gave to the other Apostles. They saw the Risen Lord whom they at first thought was a spirit and were then invited to touch his hands and feet at the very marks of his crucifixion. It could also very well be that Thomas was not so much rejecting the evidence of the other apostles as he was eager to make sure that what they had seen was not a ghost.
If he is to be accused of anything it is that he should not have treated the other Apostles confession with the utter scepticism which could be interpreted as a total rejection of their sanity. Here were at least 10 people, 10 very close friends, who he had lived with as a close knit family for three years; he knew their characters and honest dispositions, they were serious people who had as himself been witnesses to countless miraculous events that most people would had rejected as fictional. Only just a week ago he was witness to Christ raising Lazarus who had been dead for four days; why then should one more miracle be so difficult for him to believe in?
The Gospel account continues a week after:
“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.” Again John tells us that the doors were shut and Christ miraculously appeared in their midst out of nowhere. “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
Jesus had heard Thomas’ demands or provocation and invites him to proceed with the demanded test. The unbelieving disciple already sees Christ, but he is now asked to complete the test by adding the touching of the hands and of the side. Thomas, however, doesn’t complete his demanded test. Seeing was enough proof and with a giant step he leaps from the state of unbelieving to the state of believing. Suddenly he is convinced that the one whom he sees, is the risen Lord, the very same Jesus whom he knew, whom he followed and had been a companion for the past three years. One would have expected Thomas to apologise for not believing or even justify his unbelief, but instead without any our words he responds with an astonishing confession of faith; he answers and says: “My Lord and my God.” He is not only convinced that who he sees in front of him is the Risen Lord, but also that Jesus is God. This declaration of faith is unique. No other disciple in the Gospels has used such an advanced creedal formula for expressing his faith in Christ who is now called Lord and God. Only Peter, when Jesus had asked them who they thought he was, answered and said “Thou art the Christ the Son of the Living God.” (Matth. 16: 16) But now Thomas’s confession of faith, although short, assigns to Jesus the attributes of Lord and God in the same way Israel addressed God in the Old Testament.
When Jehovah Witnesses, who don’t believe that Jesus is God, are confronted with this statement of faith made by Thomas, they say that Thomas made a mistake, but if it was a mistake then why didn’t Jesus correct him. If Thomas had made a mistake then Jesus shouldn’t have and wouldn’t have accepted this title which belongs only to God and would have corrected Thomas for calling him God, because it would infringe on God’s rights. To accept the title can only mean that he was indeed our Lord and God. It is precisely because Christ proclaimed himself as Lord and God that the Jews sought to stone him as testified in the Gospel of St. John: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” (10:33)
Jesus accepted Thomas’ confession because he was Lord and God and immediately said to him: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Jesus here remarks on two types of faith: the kind of faith Thomas and the other Apostles had, a visual experience to believe, and a faith which is based only from hearing. With the first part of the statement, Jesus clearly speaks of a faith which is the consequence of a sight experience, but he doesn’t say anything to make us think that this kind of faith has a diminished value. The second part of Jesus’ statement is a beatitude which presents a different type of faith, namely a faith not depending on visual experiences: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Who are the recipients of such a blessing? Definitely the great number of the larger circle of the disciples who had not seen the risen Lord with their own eyes but relied on the eyewitness of the other disciples. Also the Christians living around the end of the first century AD for whom John the Evangelist writes his Gospel. The majority of these people were born years after the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, therefore they could not have seen him. They are proclaimed blessed because they have arrived at the state of believing in the risen Lord without the assistance or proof of immediate, direct and personal ocular experience. To these we can add every Christian up to our present age who believes that Christ is God. I would even go further and say that Christians of our times are more blessed that those Christians of the first century because although they might not have seen the Risen Christ, a great many were eye-witnesses to countless miracles performed by the Apostles: miracles which were deemed necessary to convince the thousands who heard their preaching that Jesus was indeed the one and only true God.
Christians of our time basically have to rely on and fully accept the apostolic eyewitness and tradition about Jesus. They have to follow a way very different from the way of Thomas and the other Apostles. If it was difficult for the Apostles to believe in the Resurrection even though they were witnesses to Christ raising from the dead Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s only son and Lazarus who had been dead four days, how much more difficult is it for someone to believe in Christ after two thousand years have passed without any shred of evidence except by something that he reads in a book called the New Testament. Many people today repeat what Thomas said: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” The need to see to believe is a human attribute and we should not expect everyone to believe just because we believe, neither should we condemn them for their unbelief. For those of us who have not seen yet have believed, let us take comfort in the fact that Christ has called us blessed. And as Peter in his first Epistle says: “Whom having not seen (Christ), you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Thomas’ demands have to this present day characterized him as “The Doubting Thomas” but we can also say that he said what he said because he believed correctly; because he believed in an orthodox way. Therefore we could call him “The Right-believing Thomas.” What do I mean by this? Paul tells us that we must test the spirits to see if they are from God lest we be deluded by the devil. All the fathers of the Church warn us not to immediately trust an apparition, because demons can also appear as angels of light or as one of the saints and even as Christ, so we should not trust what we see. We have also the example of the Mother of God herself who, when told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would receive in her womb the Son of God and that her aged and barren cousin Elisabeth was also with child, did not disbelief, but wanted verification. Thus she immediately set forth to go to Elisabeth to see and verify for herself the things told her by the angel. And that is the Orthodox way: not to immediately accept, neither to disbelief, but to verify.
Let's now look at the other resurrection story with Mary Magdalene. Matthew tells us after the events of the rolling away of the stone from the tomb and seeing that the body of Jesus was missing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, meaning the Mother of God went to tell the disciples of what they saw. On the way Jesus met them and they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him. Last week we saw that only Mary Magdalene had run off to tell the disciples and that it was only the Mother of God who actually saw Jesus and held him by the feet. But as John tells us in his Gospel, Christ did appear to Magdalene after she had returned to the tomb with the apostles and after they had left. On this occasion Christ says to her "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." (John 20: 17)
It seems contradictory when in one Gospel account it tells us that the women held his feet, in another that he invited the apostles and especially Thomas to touch him at the wounds he received from the crucifixion and then in another place to read that he told Mary Magdalene “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father."
In the other cases where he was touched Christ still had not ascended to his father: that would happen forty days after the Resurrection, so what is Christ telling Mary: others can touch me but you can’t? Something doesn’t seem right, but there must be a logical explanation to this seemingly contradictory forbiddance for Mary not to touch him. The answer can be found in the Greek commentary on the New Testament by Panagiotis Trembelas and in the writings of St. John Chrysostom and others who give us the true interpretation to these words, but before I tell you the explanation I want us to look at some of the answers given by ordinary people on the internet.
Some of the answers are just silly and even laughable, but I want to read them to you to show you how a small passage, wrongly translated can confuse people and have them searching for any answer that might in their minds seem logical, yet are so far from the truth.
1) Jesus was a Jew and even though He is the New Covenant He told us that He didn't come to take away the Law but to fulfill it. If Mary had been on her menses, according to Jewish Law she was unclean and was not allowed to touch anything Holy. (Can we really believe that anything could contaminate Christ? If fact most of the following comments have to do with Christ becoming contaminated as though sin is a contagious disease that can be transferred simply by touching)
2) In the Old Testament, the High Priest, after offering the blood sacrifice, was to enter the Holy of Holies. Before the blood sacrifice, nothing impure was to touch him, until the sacrifice was delivered in the Holy of Holies. If something impure touched him, he had to start the sacrifice all over again. Accordingly with Jesus, nothing impure was to touch Him before He ascended to the Father. If Mary Magdalene or anything or anyone touched Him they would be impure.....and therefore Jesus’ blood sacrifice would have been annulled.....and He would have to die all over again. That is why Jesus said to Mary “do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (Again we have the notion that Christ would be contaminated by being touched. What the writer of this comment hasn’t taken into account is that Christ was held by the feet by at least one other women and was also touched by Thomas).
3) These words were added by the Church to cover up what really happened at that moment between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that they must have embraced in a very passionate manner with kisses of lovers. If you check in Matthew 28:9, you will see that the other women embraced Jesus' feet. The end result is that because of this attempt to cover up the truth about Jesus and Mary, the Church created one more of the contradictions of the New Testament. (I added the comments of this writer to show that we must know how to interpret the New Testament and give proper and logical explanations otherwise we leave it open to those who laugh at the Gospels to formulate any blasphemous and ridiculous story. He mentions the Apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene in support of his argument, but there is nothing in this second century work that would suggest that Jesus and Mary had a special human relationship.)
4) At that point he was clean. If she had touched him then he would be stained with her sin and imperfection. God cannot look upon sin and uncleanliness. That is the only way I can explain it.
5) Maybe there were some physical dangers with regards to energy, radiation etc that was present in his body with respect to the resurrection process. He did let doubting Thomas touch him later though.
6) If Mary Magdalene had touched Jesus at that point, Jesus would be touched by sin and no longer pure and sin-free. He would not have been able to sit at the right hand of God.
7) Some translations of the Bible give the impression that Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to touch him. For instance, the King James Version renders Jesus’ words: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:17) However, the original Greek verb, which is usually translated “touch,” means also “to cling to, hang on by, lay hold of, grasp, handle.” Reasonably, Jesus was not objecting to Mary Magdalene’s merely touching him, since he allowed other women who were at the grave to ‘catch him by his feet.’—Matthew 28:9.Many modern-language translations, such as the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, The New Jerusalem Bible, and The New English Bible, help us to understand the real meaning of Jesus’ words by rendering them: “Stop clinging to me.” Why would Jesus say that to Mary Magdalene, who was a close associate?—Luke 8:1-3. Evidently, Mary Magdalene feared that Jesus was about to leave and ascend into heaven. Moved by her strong desire to be with her Lord, she was holding fast to Jesus, not letting him go. To assure her that he was not yet leaving, Jesus instructed Mary to stop clinging to him but instead to go and declare to his disciples the news of his resurrection.—John 20:17. The exchange between Jesus and Thomas was different. When Jesus appeared to some disciples, Thomas was absent. Later, Thomas voiced his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that he would not believe it unless he saw Jesus’ nail wounds and put his hand into Jesus’ speared side. Eight days later, Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time, Thomas was present, and Jesus invited him to touch the wounds.—John 20:24-27. Thus, in Mary Magdalene’s case, Jesus was dealing with a misplaced desire to prevent him from leaving; in Thomas’ case, Jesus was helping someone who had doubts. In both instances, Jesus had good reasons to act the way he did.
This last explanation is fairly close to the Orthodox explanation. The passage could be translated as “Stop touching me” or “Stop holding on to me” If this is the case then Mary did touch him but was clinging on to him so hard as though she didn’t want to let him go. But what we must keep in kind is not only the command not to touch him or hold him but also the words that followed: “For I am not yet ascended to my Father”. It is these words that cause the seemingly contradiction because in the other cases where Jesus was touched he still had not ascended to the father so why did he forbid only Mary Magdalene?
There is more than just one plausible answer. If the “touch me not” means “don’t hold on to me” Jesus is directing his prohibition to Mary’s inner sentiments of the heart, which wants to hold Jesus forever on earth and to possess him. But to possess Christ is possible only after he has ascended into heaven, thus Christ tells her to not hold onto him, don’t try and keep me on earth, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.
Over the centuries, theologians from the west and from within Orthodoxy have given us many interpretations to this verse, but I would think that the more explanations we hear the more confused we will be. The most plausible and Orthodox interpretation is as follows:
Mary, seeing her beloved Master, believes that he is risen from the dead just like others were brought back to life by him, and that he would again begin his old association with his disciples; that he would again begin preaching and would have need of her services, something which would give her the greatest joy. Mary thinks that his victory and glory is nothing more than to reveal to the Pharisees that they murdered him in vain. She couldn’t apprehend the universal, eternal and spiritual character of his victory over death. She wasn’t aware of the new condition of Christ's human nature, that it was no longer in the humble conditions of fallen human nature subject to decay and physical needs. She had not as yet seen him appear “with the doors being shut” but only as the supposed gardener. She rejoiced when she saw him in the same manner as Lazarus’ sisters rejoiced when they saw their brother risen from the dead. This is the kind of Resurrection Mary thought Jesus also had and that from now on he would continual to be with them in the flesh as he had done before the crucifixion. She falls to his feet and if the translation of “touch me not” is interpreted as “stop holding on to me” then Mary did hold him by the feet, but Christ had to make her aware that he will no longer be with them as a mortal man and asks her to stop holding on to him as she would have done before. Christ wants to teach Mary that he is now in his glory, that he is God and belongs not only to her, but to all the world and that she must from now on approach him with the due and fitting respect.
But because it would have been presumptuous to tell her all this directly, he indirectly opens her mind to higher things by telling her that “he has not yet ascended to his Father”. St John Chrysostom days: “It appears that this is where he is in a rush to go and from now on he will no longer mingle with men and will not be with them in the same way as he was before and as Mary had imagined. This is why he only approached the disciples from time to time and was not continually with them; to teach them that his relationship with them will not be as before. From now on it will be completely spiritual.
So that Mary would not be hurt by his forbiddance to touch him and start to contemplate in her mind that he snubbed her and gave her the cold shoulder, Christ renders her the first evangelist of his resurrection and tells her to go and tell the other apostles what he had told her. We see then that after the Lord’s resurrection, his first and primary work is to preach the new condition and the results of his victory. And this he begins with Mary and the misinterpreted “Touch me Not”.
The two events – Mary Magdalene’s and Thomas’ – should not be compared in contradiction, because to each Christ gave them to understand and feel the particular moment according to what each needed. In Mary’s case, she at first took him to be the gardener, but then immediately after had no doubts with whom she was speaking to. Her mistake was that she thought he would continue to live an earthly life with his disciples. Thomas on the other hand didn’t believe that Christ had risen and sought proof and, to be sure that the others were not deluded by a ghost, he demanded nothing less than to touch the wounds of his crucifixion. In Mary’s case the Lord sought to lift her from an earthly love to a higher and spiritual love, from a worldly and carnal relationship to a spiritual communion: he instructs her not to stretch forth her hands but to lift her heart to higher things. With Thomas who didn’t believe in the resurrection, the Lord condescended to Thomas’s illness to cure and rectify the disciple from his disbelief and make him belief.