April 4: John 20:17

John 20:17

Yeshua says to her: “You must not attach yourself to me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father. But you must travel toward my brothers, and say to them, ‘I step up toward my Father and your Father, and (toward) my God and your God’.”

Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in 20:17 represent perhaps the most challenging (and controversial) detail of the Johannine resurrection narrative. Much attention has been paid to the precise meaning of the prohibition “you must not attach yourself [a%ptou] to me…”, but this tends to ignore the reason given by Jesus in the words immediately following: “…for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”. The verb a)nabai/nw (lit. “step up”), is common enough, frequently used in narrative in a general sense (i.e. “go up” {to a place}); however, in the Gospel of John, it has a special theological (and Christological) meaning, along with the related verb katabai/nw (“step down”). In the account of Jesus’ baptism, katabai/nw is used to describe the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (1:32-33, cf. Mk 1:10); similarly, in the visionary scene of Jesus’ saying in 1:51, katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw are used together (i.e. Angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man).

In the Johannine Discourses, katabai/nw refers to the descent of the Son of God to earth as a human being, especially in the Bread of Life discourse (6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58). In descending from heaven, the Son comes to earth from the Father, and is ultimately to ascend back to Him. This is the context of a)nabai/nw in 6:62, and also in 3:13, where the two verbs are paired together. The Son’s ascension (return) to the Father occurs with the completion of his earthly mission—that is, his sacrificial death. In early Christian thought, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus were closely connected, almost to the point of being considered part of a single event (Acts 2:32-33; 1 Pet 3:21-22, etc). This tends to run contrary to the thinking of later Christians, where the “ascension” of Jesus is fixed in terms of the narrative in Luke-Acts (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:1-3ff, 9-11), as a separate event occurring at least forty days after the resurrection, following a number of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. I have discussed this at length in an earlier set of articles.

The references in the Gospel of John to Jesus’ ascension (“stepping up”) to the Father are complicated, because they function on two different levels:

    • Jesus ascends to the Father, then returns to the disciples, and they receive the Spirit
    • Jesus ascends (departs) to the Father, only to return at a future (end) time, and believers receive the Spirit

The first level involves the traditional narrative, and the historical traditions regarding the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. At the second level, the same dynamic of the historical tradition is repeated again for all future believers. Jesus’ words to Mary refer to the first level (i.e. the first ascension); that is to say, after his resurrection, Jesus ascends (“steps up”) to the Father, and is then able to give to his disciples the Spirit when he appears to them (vv. 19-23).

Why does Jesus give the prohibitive command to Mary (“You must not attach yourself to me”)? The Johannine understanding of the resurrection (outlined above) fits uneasily in this narrative framework. It would have made much more sense for Jesus to ascend immediately after his resurrection, without the initial appearance to Mary. However, this would have been impossible, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative; the historical tradition of a post-resurrection appearance to certain women (and Mary, specifically) was so well-established that it had to be included. In the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus appears to a group of women that included Mary (Mk 16:1ff par), while in John, it is to Mary alone. It is not entirely clear whether this difference is specific to the Johannine Tradition, or whether it reflects an intentional simplification of the scene, for literary and dramatic effect. In any case, the Johannine interpretation of the resurrection takes place within the historical-traditional context of the appearance to Mary.

Beyond this, the exchange between Jesus and Mary does have genuine theological significance, and it is important to the Johannine narrative. It establishes a contrast between the disciples (believers), relating to Jesus in terms of his earthly human life, rather than through the presence and power of the Spirit. As Jesus notes in his famous saying in 6:63: “The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. giving] life, the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)…”. Mary was seeking to unite with Jesus again at the level of the flesh (i.e. human friendship/discipleship), whereas the true and proper union of the believer with Jesus can only take place through the Spirit; and, the Spirit cannot be given until Jesus ascends to the Father.

That is the very point Jesus makes to his disciples in the Last Discourse, in 16:7:

“But I relate to you the truth: it bears together (well) for you that I should go away. For if I should not go away, the (One) called alongside [para/klhto$] will not come toward you; but if I travel (away), I will send him toward you.”

For the disciples, this was fulfilled in the Passion and Resurrection, with the sending of the Spirit, narrated briefly, but pictorially, in 20:22. This serves as the type-pattern for all future believers, who receive the Spirit, though no longer in the visible presence of Jesus on earth (cf. 20:29ff and 17:20-23). Until Jesus goes away (ascends, “steps up”) to the Father, he does not send the Spirit.

The relationship between the Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus is often ignored or neglected by Christians. One main reason for this, I think, is the overriding influence of the narrative in Acts 1-2, which effectively separates the coming/sending of the Spirit from the Resurrection. The Spirit is recognized in commemoration of Pentecost, not Easter/Resurrection Sunday. The situation would be different, however, if we focused instead on the narrative in the Gospel of John. Not only does the sending of the Spirit function clearly as the climactic moment of the resurrection narrative in chapter 20, but Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete is central to the Last Discourse that precedes his Passion. I will discuss this further in the next daily note, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), when we turn to Paul’s famous discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

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