Christology and Dangerous Interreligious Questions

The invitation to contribute to the Noli Me Tangere project arrived while I was sitting in on a course taught by my colleagues Dr. Zeyneb Sayilgan and Dr. Benjamin Sax entitled “Jesus at the Borders of Islam and Judaism”[1] at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) in Baltimore, Maryland where I am currently serving as the Executive Director. The ICJS is an independent, academic non-profit that seeks to advance interreligious dialogue and understanding through educational lectures and programs for the public; fellowships for congregational leaders, civic leaders, teachers, and clergy; and rigorous scholarship. The ICJS reaches a diverse cross-section of the Baltimore-Washington area in our efforts to confront antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of religious prejudice. By constructively engaging with religious pluralism in education, outreach, and scholarship we are shaping a new relationship among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Baltimore area, and modeling a new conversation that affirms and values religious diversity in America.

In Sayilgan’s and Sax’s public-facing short course, I was helping facilitate small-group conversations with adult-learners around selected texts on Jesus from Jewish and Muslim traditions. The class challenged self-identifying Christians to really sit with a dechristologized Jesus, and hear not only how Jewish and Muslim traditions have viewed Jesus historically, but also how their Jewish and Muslim neighbors experience Jesus, here and now. Some Christians embraced this experience, and others firmly rejected the invitation to seriously entertain the Jewish Jesus and the Muslim Jesus. The latter said, in essence, “Touch him not.”

While many participants were familiar (and somewhat comfortable) with the Jewishness of Jesus due to the effective popularization of scholarship from the last forty years, many Christians engage the Jewish Jesus with the aim of enhancing (not challenging) their own Christological commitments. And most Christians know nothing of the Muslim Jesus, let alone entertain what a Muslim accounting of Jesus could do to enhance or challenge their Christological commitments.

The course brought to the fore the importance of Christological conversation within interreligious encounters, and the role of recognition, misrecognition, and the setting of boundaries. While acknowledging that the matter of seeking scriptural warrants for interreligious dialogue is an ongoing (and perhaps quixotic, though, for some, necessary) task, could the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus outside the tomb as depicted in the Gospel of John provide a context for exploring the place of Christology within a multireligious exchange?[2]

In a woman’s voice

With the above question in mind, I wish to offer the following experimental eisegesis with excitement about its possibilities, tempered by concern that such a project might be scuttled to the margins, or deemed too dangerous to pursue. To place the interreligious perspective in the scriptural hands of Mary Magdalene could affirm the continued marginality of the interreligious project theologically within Christianity. The interreligious, and women, stand on the margins of Christian tradition. The historical reception of Mary Magdalene is freighted by misogyny and sexism. And yet, to have a scriptural warrant for robust interreligious conversations on Christology is a possibility I am committed to exploring. As a person who identifies as a Roman Catholic lay woman, and who finds herself leading an interreligious educational nonprofit, I am very drawn to the eisegetical possibilities of this passage for grounding an Abrahamic dialogue on Christology, even if traditional clerical leadership should turn and say touch him not.  

Let’s see. 

John 20:11: But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

What does it mean to come to a conversation in grief? How does such grief shape the capacity to see or to recognize the person with whom you are speaking? Does grief dull or sharpen the senses? Does grief clarify or cloud perception?

In this pandemic, grief has been a regular visitor—for some, like Mary Magdalene, who have lost beloved companions, grief is close. For others, a loss of routine, of income, of personal touch has prompted grief that is more like a cloud, permeating life with a sense of bereavement. Experiences of grief have been varied, of course, dependent upon particular circumstances and the specific people involved. Pandemic grief has been clarifying for some, prompting individuals to radically reprioritize their lives and choices. This experience of grief might be understood as cleansing or refining—an occasion that opens up new possibilities for living and meaning-making. But for others, pandemic grief has been disorienting and destabilizing—shaking their sense of self and sense of the world. There is a paralyzing stuckness or brokenness—no new horizons or ways forward. And also no way back. Some cannot recognize what they loved before, and glimpse the edges of the void. Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. In this scriptural scene, the reader is reminded that grief and bereavement affect perception—both perception of self and perception of the world.

What does grief allow us to see? What, or who, do we recognize or misrecognize when we grieve?  

John 20: 11-12: As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary Magdalene knowingly talks to angels; she is neither afraid nor confused. She identifies the angels, her first conversation partners in this scene, without hesitation about what they are or what they might know about her beloved teacher. She does not respond with fear or surprise to the angels; rather, she sees them clearly, and speaks plainly. The angels ask Mary Magdalene directly why she is crying, and again without pause, Mary Magdalene succinctly names the cause of her grief: “They have taken away her Lord, and she does not know where they have laid him.” And that moment is one of clarity—clarity of thought and clarity of speech on the part of Mary Magdalene. She knows her teacher and companion is missing. Worse, Mary Magdalene knows that someone has stolen him away from her. But who?


They (Christians) have taken him (Jesus) from Judaism.

Here…right here, let us begin to engage in some interreligious interpretative play. Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman. Jesus was a Jewish man. All the early followers of Jesus were Jewish (not yet Christianized). Scholars and religious leaders have spent the better part of seventy years popularizing these forgotten truths. Let’s see Mary Magdalene as one of those sages who speak plainly to God’s angels across space and time. What if Mary Magdalene were calling to us now, saying: They (Christians) have taken him (Jesus) from his Jewish roots and Jewish identity. They have Hellenized him beyond my recognition. I do not know where he is. 

Can those of us who self-identify as believing Christians be like the angels who hear her plea? Can we see the grief the Jewish Mary Magdalene is carrying as a clarifying, truth-telling grief? She sees the angels plainly, and she clearly names her loss. An interreligious reading of this dialogue with the angels can be creatively interpreted as a contemporary Jewish plea to Christians: you have taken away the Jewish Jesus, and I do not recognize him.

What do Christian ears hear when that plea is uttered? How do they respond? Many Christians are stunned into silence; they fall quiet, like the angels. Perhaps blind to Mary Magdalene’s grief and loss, they look ahead to the next verse and think, Jesus Christ is right behind you, Mary Magdalene, why don’t you see him? Why don’t you recognize him? Other Christians may hear the plea of Mary Magdalene and share in her grief, and join her in the search for the Jewish Jesus.

Both paths impact Christology: ignoring Mary Magdalene’s plea is to see her grief as a dulling of her capacity to see (indeed, one is reminded of Synagoga, an anti-Jewish trope in Christian art which depicts Judaism as a blinded woman), while embracing her call to see and reclaim the Jewishness of Jesus is to understand her grief as a clarifying force, and her words a prophetic call to witness. In that moment, the interreligious invitation is quite radical. Seeing Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene could push Christians to rethink their approaches to Christology.

Let’s continue with this interreligious scriptural play, with Mary Magdalene as the entry point for another interreligious perspective on Christology.  

John 20:14: When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

When she (Muslims) turned around and saw Jesus standing there, she did not know it was the (Christian) Jesus

Mary Magdalene turns and sees someone standing there, and she does not recognize him as Jesus. What does it mean to see but not to know? What does Mary Magdalene see at that moment? Is there a truth and clarity in her vision that we might be privy to? Let’s imagine Mary Magdalene giving voice to Muslim engagement with Jesus at this juncture in our interpretative play. When Muslims turn and see Jesus, they do not know him as Jesus the Christ; they encounter him differently, as distinct from the Christian Jesus—as a prophetic Jesus, as part of Muslim tradition.

What do Christians hear when Muslims talk about the Jesus of the Qur’an and Muslim tradition, when Muslims lift up Jesus as a revered prophet and teacher? When Muslims look at Jesus, they do not see Jesus Christ, but Jesus the prophet. Christians are surprised, then curious, about seeing Jesus as a prophet alongside Moses and Muhammad. Indeed that analogy (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad) stands firmer within a Muslim framework of prophecy than a Christian framework, where Christology necessarily pulls Jesus into the category of the divine. 

Interlude: Where is the danger? Where is the possibility? Jesus the Gardener, Jesus the Man

Jews, Christians and Muslims do not recognize Jesus in the same way, and the locus of the dispute revolves around Christian claims to Jesus’ divinity. Jews and Muslims reject Jesus as a divine figure, and instead affirm Jesus’ humanity – recognizing Jesus as a revered teacher and prophet respectively. For believing Christians, recognizing and affirming Jesus as God and as savior is necessary and indeed foundational to Christian identity. This point of disagreement is important to make clear here – for many practitioners of interreligious dialogue (both experts/professionals as well as adult learners) explicitly Christological conversations are avoided, either because they are seen as areas of deep disagreement, where there is nothing new to learn, and perhaps much to lose. Indeed, the specter of broken relationships and religious violence looms over Christological conversations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. That is the danger. 

What intrigues me about the exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the Gospel of John is that I think this sacred text could be a space of possibility for Christological dialogue; it could be a space where Christian scripture might allow for such a conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims to occur because of Mary Magdalene’s moment of misrecognition. When she sees Jesus as the Gardener, she makes space for interrepetations of Jesus that center his humanity. And when Jesus says, “Touch me not” there remains an option for Christians to affirm Jesus’ divinity. In that textual space, an interreligious dialogue around Christology between Jews, Christians, and Muslims seems possible.  

In the last fifty years, many Christians have become comfortable with exploring the Jewish Jesus, but frequently engage in this conversation on Christian terms. While acknowledging that Hellenizing Christian tradition arguably took Jesus away from his Jewish identity, Christians now seek out a return or a recovery of Jesus’s Jewishness, and see such recovery work in Second Temple scholarship as an opportunity to deepen and affirm their Christological commitments. However, in that work of the reclamation of Jesus as a Jew, a fundamental dispute between Jews and Christians around the recognition/misrecognition of Jesus as messiah, savior and god are elided; a Jewish rejection of Jesus’ divinity is not frequently centered in Christian explorations of Jesus’ Jewishness.

While Christians have been more open to Jewish-Christian conversations on Jesus, indeed seeing such conversations as a vital part of Christian learning, Christians do not give the same enthusiasm to a Muslim-Christian conversation on Jesus, perhaps because the theological dispute appears more pronounced. Indeed, Islamic religious tradition grappled with Jesus from the start, with a Qur’anic account of Jesus’s life and death and a robust Muslim interpretative tradition that rejected Jesus’s divinity, in favor of understanding Jesus as a prophet. Charges of heresy have flown both ways, with Muslims claiming Christology and Trinitarian theology to be in violation of tahwid (God’s oneness), and Christians claiming that Muslim affirmation of Jesus as a prophet is insufficient, placing Muslim Christology within the framework of Christian heresy.

Can Christians and Muslims talk about their differing views of Jesus, and how Jesus is portrayed within their respective sacred texts? At certain moments there will be a profound non-recognition within an interreligious encounter centered around identifying and categorizing Jesus. In turning back to the story Mary Magdalene & Jesus, I see an opportunity to no longer fear that a moment of non-recognition must be a moment of rupture. Indeed, as we see, that moment of non-recognition does not preclude a genuine moment of connection. I certainly hope that Christians and Muslims can continue their centuries-long conversation about Jesus. In fact, I believe that continuing that conversation is crucial, if difficult, work. And perhaps, Chriatians can find their footing (their desire?) for such an exchange in the moment when Mary Magdalene sees Jesus the Gardener.

John 20:15: Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

The Opportunity: Jesus the Gardener, Jesus the Human

Keeping with our interreligious eisegetical experiment— with Mary Magdalene standing-in for our Jewish and Muslim friends in the Gospel of John—can Christians imagine Jesus speaking directly to our Jewish and Muslim friends? Can we picture Mary Magdalene and Jesus having an intimate conversation, with angels as their only witnesses? What happens if we see this exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as an entry point into an interreligious conversation around the identity of Jesus—the gardener, the rabbi, the prophet? In John’s Gospel narrative, we hear the first words that Jesus speaks after the crucifixion. Jesus addresses Mary Magdalene directly, repeating the angels’ inquiry about Mary’s tears, but also assuming that her tears are the result of a lost beloved. Again, we are reminded of Mary’s grief, her capacity for perception, and the place of dialogical encounter between close friends.

Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus’s voice when he first speaks to her; she “supposes him to be the gardener.” Pause. Mary Magdalene sees and hears Jesus ask a question, and she thinks that Jesus is the gardener. Why does she not recognize him? Has her grief clouded her perception or sharpened it? What does Mary Magdalene see in that moment? What does she hear in Jesus’s words? For Christian believers, Jesus is in a Christological in-between space. Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus as the beloved teacher, over whom she weeps and searches. And Jesus is not yet the Christ of Christian tradition. When Mary Magdalene sees Jesus as the gardener, her perception is singular. What happens when we see Jesus with the eyes of Mary Magdalene in that very moment? Might we see Mary Magdalene’s mis/recognition as a Christian scriptural opportunity for considering Jewish, Muslim, and other dechristologized views of Jesus, views that center the human Jesus, welcoming both Jewish and Muslim interpretations of Jesus as teacher and Jesus as prophet?

Could the initial exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden serve as a scriptural warrant for Christian conversation about Jesus with those who do not see Jesus as Christ? I see this space of mis/recognition by Mary Magdalene as a scripturally warranted occasion to invite Jewish,  Muslim, and other believers or non-believers to weigh in on the question: Who is Jesus? Or perhaps, How do you see Jesus?

John 20:16: Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

The story does not stop with Mary Magdalene’s vision of Jesus the Gardener, but moves forward with a conversational exchange. According to John, Jesus calls Mary by name. In that moment of personal address, Mary Magdalene turns to him (was she walking away from Jesus the Gardener?) and offers an intimate acknowledgement of Jesus as her teacher. She has found who she was searching for in grief just a few moments earlier.

In the realm of interreligious dialogue, the importance of relationship cannot be overstated. The capacity to engage in a serious conversation of commitments, to explore the worldviews and beliefs of others, requires trust and intimacy. Engaging in conversation with a beloved teacher or close partner invites the best kinds of learning. ICJS organizational values highlight that interreligious learning involves interpretation/misinterpretation, and arguably moments of recognition, misrecognition, or presumed misrecognition.[3] Yet recognition/misrecognition need not end a relationship; it is not necessarily a moment of rupture. Rather, the intimate call of a friend by name can keep a relationship whole. And perhaps it could even make that relationship stronger.

But even if the relationship is intact, what happens to the moment of recognition/misrecognition? Once that moment occurs, it cannot be forgotten. Again, John’s gospel is silent on this interpretative possibility. And yet, John’s gospel did preserve the story of Mary seeing Jesus as the Gardener.

John 20:17: Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto me (Noli Me Tangere) because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them he had said these things to her.

The Christian interpretative tradition of this encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus rushes ahead to what is next—the moment of reunion shifts to a moment of separation, when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not.” The intimate moment between them is fleeting. After Jesus has secured Mary’s attention and offered acknowledgment of their special relationship, he commands her not to hold onto him, not to touch him. What might we make of this instruction in the context of the interreligious encounter?

Setting boundaries to dialogue

If this passage from John serves as a scriptural warrant for interreligious encounters around Jesus, then one possible interpretation of “Touch me not” would be a recognition that there are certain non-negotiable faith claims about Jesus (Christology) that Christian partners in dialogue hold. When confronted with Jesus the Gardener / Jesus the Jewish teacher / Jesus the Muslim prophet (a Jesus they do not recognize, or see as a misrecognized Jesus), these Christians in turn say No, this is Jesus the Christ…..touch him not. Such a posture, I believe, describes the current state of affairs regarding the topic of Christology within Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. Yet, my experience in the course with my colleagues highlighted the possibilities of a different future, one in which Jewish and Muslim traditions of Jesus are part of the conversation.

Welcoming Mary Magdalene’s recognition/misrecognition as an opportunity for interreligious conversations on Jesus

So let’s not rush to the moment when Jesus says “Touch me not.” Rather, let us linger with Mary Magdalene when she speaks to the gardener. Let us take a cue from “noli me tangere” paintings by Rembrandt and others who depict Jesus with horticultural tools and a sensible sunhat. This misidentification is an opportunity to see Jesus in a new light, through Mary Magdalene’s eyes, in that moment of in-betweenness. And even if a Christian slides to the next verse, and says No, what you said was a misrecognition, the possibility of the exchange, of that encounter, remains. In locating a possible scriptural warrant for interreligious encounter in an exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I find some hope. Even if interreligious work and women remain marginalized in Christian tradition, and some critics of this eisegesis say Touch him not.

[1] Course Description: Both Muslim and Jewish thinkers have written about Jesus and the role he plays in the respective traditions. Even though the importance of Jesus varies according to each tradition, the variety and depth of views about Jesus by Jews and Muslims provides a fascinating and important way into interreligious dialogue. In this minicourse, we will explore a few Muslim and Jewish interpretations of Jesus over the centuries in order to appreciate (a) how the central figure of Christianity played a role both dialogically and polemically in Jewish–Muslim, Jewish–Christian, and Muslim–Christian relationships, and (b) how these discussions can provide useful and interesting ways into interreligious dialogue today.

[2] In my role at ICJS, I understand myself to be a scholar-practitioner. I am committed to both fostering interreligious learning and dialogue, and I actively engage as a participant and leader in these efforts. I regularly reflect on practices and pedagogy in interreligious learning, and I try to think creatively about the problems and the possibilities of interreligious endeavors. In this essay, I am both describing my colleagues’ class, as well as offering an experimental, eisegetical interpretation which I think grounds in Christian scripture the kind of interreligious dialogue and learning fostered in this course. In this effort, I am claiming a more constructive voice. Recognizing my claim of scholar-practitioner, I am using both a third person descriptive voice and a first person constructive voice with my eisegesis. I am both observing interreligious encounter, participating in the practice of dialogue, and offering a creative eisegesis that might inform, in particular, a robust Abrahamic conversation on Christology. 

[3] “Through the give-and-take of learning together, our understanding of ourselves and others expands through a process of encounter; translation; interpretation and/or misinterpretation; and clarification. We endeavor to create learning spaces where productive discomfort stretches us toward mutual discovery and deepens relationships.”

Heather Miller Rubens is the Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) in Baltimore, Maryland. Rubens holds degrees from Georgetown University (B.A.), the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (G.Dip.), and the University of Chicago (A.M. and Ph.D.). In her research and writing Rubens creatively focuses on the theoretical, theological, ethical, legal and political implications of affirming religious diversity and building an interreligious society. Connect with Rubens at LinkedIn and follow ICJS on Twitter.

Our project takes the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden after she discovers his empty tomb — noli me tangere (“touch me not”) — as a provocation for reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on other pandemics, viral and social, that engulf us.