The English versions of John 20:17 show two types of accounts:

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father


Jesus says to her, "Do not touch me, for not yet have I ascended to the Father

Trying to understand the meaning of this verse (see my question here), I decided to search for older translations, ideally from original sources.

Jerome's Vulgate says:

dicit ei Iesus noli me tangere nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum

where according to Wiktionary, tangere is the transitive of "to touch".

English translations of the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus also prefer the "touch" option.

Then, I decided to search for the original Greek myself (although I cannot read Greek!). Wikipedia says, in the entry of noli me tangere (which now I realise is a quite famous phrase that even my mom used to say!):

A loose translation [from Latin] into English would be "don't cling to me"[1][2][3] or "don't touch me." The original Koine Greek phrase, Μή μου ἅπτου (mē mou haptou), is better represented in translation as "cease holding on to me" or "stop clinging to me".[4]

The "original" Greek from diverse papyrus can be found here (just select the verse and then choose verse-by-verse). There, there are six sources of this text. In effect, all of them have the form "μή μου ἅπτου" in one way or another.

Digging further, the key verb is then ἅπτω, which according to Wiktionary, includes both "to touch" and "to cling to". So, both seem valid translations. But as it is always the case, the context and other words indicate some meanings are more appropriate. Is it possible to say something else from the other words, or can we simply conclude that both are equally valid and hence, in principle, there is nothing more it can be said from the linguistic point of view?

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    "Touch" as in "to touch upon". Read L&S more carefully at § A.III. It doesn't refer to mere touching, but handling, and at that point it's a metaphorical usage, not one to illustrate touching literally. Same with the "touch" in A.III.8: that's geometrical touching. But it's touching in English, not necessarily in Greek.
    – cmw
    Oct 30, 2017 at 18:26
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    Linked. Are you interested in the Greek of the Old Testament exemplars quoted there? Jul 23, 2021 at 20:57
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    fwiw, The Greek Septuagint Ruth 2:9, οἱ ὀφθαλμοί σου εἰς τὸν ἀγρόν, οὗ ἐὰν θερίζωσιν, καὶ πορεύσῃ κατόπισθεν αὐτῶν· ἰδοὺ ἐνετειλάμην τοῖς παιδαρίοις τοῦ μὴ ἅψασθαί σου· καὶ ὅ τι διψήσεις, καὶ πορευθήσῃ εἰς τὰ σκεύη καὶ πίεσαι ὅθεν ἂν ὑδρεύωνται τὰ παιδάρια. rendered as: Let your eyes be on the field they are harvesting, and follow along after these girls. Indeed, I have ordered - the young men not to touch you. And when you are thirsty, go ... and drink from the jars the young men have filled. But, to my ear, it's really "cling": you join them for water still not clinging to them. Jul 23, 2021 at 21:28

1 Answer 1


I'll take a shot at this, although others whose Greek is stronger could probably do a more reliable job.

The verb ἅπτω has an active form and a mediopassive form. In ancient Greek, the semantic distinction between these two is not always the one you would imagine based on the English usage of passive verbs. Often they just mean different things or convey different shades of meaning, rather than expressing a contrast between acting and being acted on.

The LSJ entry for ἅπτω lists meanings for both forms. The main senses of the active are to kindle or to fasten to. The main senses of the mediopassive are to fasten to, to grasp, or to touch. The active examples they give are things like fastening a lyre string or fastening a noose to something. So AFAICT if you want to express something done with your hand, as opposed to something you do to an object, then your only option is the mediopassive, and you would use the verb either to express the notion of grasping or the notion of touching. This makes me think that without context, the mediopassive of this verb is inherently ambiguous.

Ἅπτου is mediopassive. The ambiguity seems to be confirmed by the fact that you've listed examples where John 20:17 is translated into English in both ways.

Cosmas Zachos, in a comment, points out a use of the word in Ruth 2:9 in the Septuagint. Maybe more apropos is Luke 8:42-46: https://ebible.org/web/LUK08.htm , in which a woman in a crowd comes up behind Jesus and furtively touches or grabs the fringe of his cloak. The verb is again in the middle. (It's used repeatedly in this passage, but, e.g., we have ἁψάμενός.) Here there again seems to be an ambiguity. It would make sense for her to either touch or grab his garment. On a naturalistic basis, you would imagine that he might be able to tell if she had grabbed and pulled, whereas a simple touch would not be something he could sense. However, if you believe the supernatural account that was eventually transmitted of this incident, then the way he senses it is that he feels power flow out of him to heal the woman. Since this is the account being given by the author of the Greek text, it doesn't help us.

In John 20:17, "don't cling to me" seems to me to make a lot more sense than "don't touch me," but this is purely from context. I don't think the word itself tells us. There is no prohibition against touching Jesus when he appears risen from the tomb -- in fact, he encourages Thomas to do exactly that. Culturally, corpses were a source of ritual contamination, and certain types of evil spirits are described repeatedly as "unclean," so it actually makes more sense for a Jew to have to be ordered to touch the risen Jesus (to overcome their ingrained cultural fear and distaste) than to be forbidden from doing so.

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