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μη μου ἀπτου

Touch screens are the bees knees in computer input devices nowadays. There is something inherently easy to grasp in putting the interface right on top of the output display. However, by and large, touching the screen at one point feels the same as touching it at another and the screen is just an inert surface no matter the meaning of the operation you are performing it. This is where haptic technology comes in; the simplest form might be causing the device to vibrate lightly when a button is successfully pushed.

I knew about this from the technology end but it turned out to help when I made another push forward recently on my (not astoundingly successful but still ongoing) attempt to look again at New Testament Greek recently. At a rehearsal for the Cowley Road Passion Play, we were discussing the line where Jesus says to Mary “do not cling to me” (Jn 20:17). The script says “do not touch me” and the quandry was how to act this out. Father Adam produced a Greek New Testament on his Kindle and the original text read: μη μου ἀπτου (me mou haptou).

I couldn’t cast much learned reflection on the issue and it doesn’t explain why some translations use words that suggest Mary has touched the risen Christ while others have him telling her “do not touch me” with the implication that she has not yet laid a hand on him but at least I was able to read the word ἀπτου and make the connection. That is one more small piece in my mental net for casting out in the direction of Greek!

Incidentally, this is one of the facets of the story that only occurs in one gospel, a private moment that only Mary and Jesus witnessed and which one of them must have shared as the start of the chain that led to it being included at all. My reference book, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Earle R, Baker Book House (Grand Rapids) 1974) suggests that the verb hapto (from which ἀπτου is derived) can mean either “don’t touch” or “don’t hold on” but places it’s money on the latter meaning. Probably not a passage to use as a foundation stone for a complex doctrinal edifice!

  • Magnus Forrester-Barker

    If I’m not mistaken, ἀπτου is a present imperative. This (in contrast to the aorist imperative) usually conveys at least some sense of continued or repeated action, so that would seem to suggest that “don’t hold on to me” or “don’t cling to me” is a better translation of Jn 20:17 than “don’t touch me”.

    • basswulf

      I’ll have to raise that one with the director!