What does “Noli me tangere” mean?
Simple: “Don’t touch me.”
Where does this Latin phrase come from? The bible! More particularly, it comes from John 20:17: “Dicit ei Jesus: Noli me tangere, nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum: vade autem ad fratres meos, et dic eis: Ascendo ad Patrem meum, et Patrem vestrum, Deum meum, et Deum vestrum.”
Now, normally, I would share with you the bible verse in English and save you the bother of looking it up. But in this case, I invite you to take your favorite bible and look it up this particular verse for yourself. (There is a reason for this… keep on reading!)
This Latin phrase is used to title a huge amount of pictures of Saint Mary Magdalene reaching out to touch the Resurrected Jesus, with Him motioning to her that she should stop.
Still, out of all the artworks there are with this theme — and there is a tremendous amount — the one that has stuck in my mind the longest is this one:
In the scene, Saint Mary Magdalene is knelt down, her arms outstretched to behold Christ. And take a close look at her eyes! There is so much going on in her eyes right now. There are dark circles around her eyes, as if she has slept far too little in the last couple of days. Her face is almost a sickly white. She looks as if the last couple of days have been really tough — and indeed, they were.
And yet, all of that seems to melt away with this extraordinary appearance of Lord Jesus Christ. Her eyes are still wide open and astonished, her mouth starting to curl into what can be described as almost a smile as she beholds Him in front of her, his wounds clearly visible to her.
She has seen the Lord!
Indeed, these are the words that she brings back to the astonished disciples.
Now, let’s go back to the interesting phrase, “Noli me tangere!” Because it’s an interesting phrase that gets translated differently, depending on the bible translation.
The older versions of the English bible tend to translate this as, “Do not touch me!” or “Touch me not!” For instance, the King James Version, which is arguably one of the most widespread translations out there says, “Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.” The Douay-Rheims version, which is also about as old as the King James Version, says this, “Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.”
This brings to mind a sort of scene in which Jesus prohibits her from touching Him at all. And this is the sort of scene that you’ll see often illustrated: Jesus standing back from Mary, urging her not to go forward in a very dramatic fashion!
And yet, other translations tend to translate this a different way. When I looked up the original Greek and Latin of this verse here, for instance, their particular translations include the Knox translation of the bible, which reads, “Then Jesus said, Do not cling to me thus; I have not yet gone up to my Father’s side. Return to my brethren, and tell them this; I am going up to him who is my Father and your Father, who is my God and your God.”
The bible version that I normally use on this website translates this verse in a similar way:
17Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Then there are many other bible versions that seem to be similar: instead of prohibiting her from touching Him at all, many of the modern translations seem to indicate that she should stop. Take a look at the variety of translations!
Of course, this is a completely different sort of scene. Instead of prohibiting her from touching Him at all, in these particular translations, He seems to be asking her very nicely not to smother Him.
So… which translation is right?
Honestly, I do not know. I am not a biblical expert nor can I read the original Greek that this phrase was originally written in, let alone translate it for you.
However, I can tell you that in the art tradition, generally Christ is aloof and away from Mary Magdalene who is beholding Him at a respectful distance… though usually with a hand outstretched toward Him!