Noli Me Tangere—An Introduction


by Jeremy Biles, Alexandra Brown, J. Kameron Carter, Luca Fitzgerald, and Winnifred Sullivan

We welcome you to this unfolding collection of reflections, in text, sound, and image, on the time of the pandemic. 

Our collection takes as a starting point the words noli me tangere—“touch me not” (or “do not hold/grasp/cling to me” in the Greek). These words from the New Testament (John 20:17), spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden after her discovery of his empty tomb, take on, we think, powerful resonances in the epoch of COVID-19, with its prohibitions on touching and imperatives around social distancing—but also in the context of the urgent contemporary politics of heightened social tension, conflict around racial difference, and climate catastrophe. Touch and intimacy in all of their senses and contexts, private and public, between persons and in the context of environmental crises, are both invited and forbidden.

Chapter 20 of John’s gospel invites us into a strange and compelling scene—one whose resistance to resolution prompts many questions: Why does Mary Magdalene not recognize Jesus when she sees him? Why does she mistake Jesus for the gardener? Who is the gardener? What of this burial ground as a garden? What kind of ecology is this? What does it mean that she recognizes the gardener only upon hearing her name spoken by him? How should we understand the prohibition announced with noli me tangere? What meanings does this phrase generate—both within and beyond its biblical context? How are various senses evoked and engaged in this passage? How might considering the questions around noli me tangere and the passage in which the phrase appears help us to respond to our present moment or anticipate its further unfolding? This ambiguous gospel scene has spawned a rich iconographic tradition. And as we hope this project will testify, noli me tangere continues to possess a generativity that finds expression across a wide and varied array of mediums, traditions, beliefs, and disciplines.

We launched this project with four pieces, giving you a taste of the depth and variety of the work of our contributors, and will be adding to it every two weeks. Some of the contributors have directly engaged the text. Others respond in more tangential or oblique ways, treating the text as a starting point for their creative work. Some speak from within a Christian biblical idiom, some from within other religious traditions, and some from places outside of explicitly conceived religion. In the months to come, we will introduce further pieces, building a conversation across communities, beliefs, genres, and imaginative visions.

The Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) digital archive is a project of the Center for Religion & the Human. It is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and supported by the Office for the Vice Provost for Research at Indiana University Bloomington. You can support this and other projects by giving directly to the Center through the IU Foundation. Request to join our email list by writing directly to thehuman(at)indiana.edu.