In the Biblical Studies Carnaval XXXVI, Jim West says that the text-critical matter presented in the previous instalment of this series (Camerarius on John 19:29), is “really fascinating stuff ..., but not for the faint of heart”. Well then, it gets even worse today (for the faint-of-heart, that is), for today’s conjecture, if accepted, would render obsolete beautiful paintings such as this one by Titian. (Not that art ceases to be art when it is discovered to be based on textual misunderstandings - perhaps a nice idea for a new series.)
In John 20:17, the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: “Touch me not (μή μου ἅπτου); for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (KJV). At the surface, the connection between the two phrases seems to be awkward, especially because of the word ‘for’ (γάρ). The current Nestle edition (NA27), as did NA26, records a conjecture by ‘Lipsius’, ἅπτου μου instead of μή μου ἅπτου. That is, Jesus asks (commands) Mary to touch him, apparently while it is still possible!
Somewhat surprisingly, earlier Nestle editions, from N13 to NA25, give ‘Lepsius’, not ‘Lipsius’ as the author of this conjecture, and ‘Lepsius’ turns out to be correct. So, in your copy of NA27, please take a pencil (not a ballpoint pen) and correct the ‘i’ into an ‘e’ (or strike the entire conjecture, see below; or supply a different author, see below). The error was easily made, for there is a conjecture by Lipsius recorded on Luke 16:17.1
As customary in this series, let us go to the sources and ask who Lepsius was and what he proposed.
Lepsius and his conjecture
Johannes Lepsius (1858-1926) was the son of Carl Richard Lepsius, a famous Egyptologist. The son was a missionary; he is especially known for his work for the Armenian cause.
From 1898 to 1911 he edited a journal, Das Reich Christi. It is in this journal that his conjecture can be found, in a series of articles on John’s gospel.2 First some context, therefore, derived from these articles.
In general, Lepsius’ approach must be characterised as harmonistic, that is, he tries to reconcile the differences between the resurrection stories as found in the four New Testament gospels. He follows for instance the idea according to which ‘Galilee’ in the resurrection stories in Mark and Matthew is actually found on the Mount of Olives.
In his remarks on Mary Magdalen in John 20, one also detects an interest related to harmonisation, namely to consider the story not as fiction (or narrative elaboration of a rather vague tradition), but as eyewitness report, with a reasoning that I do not entirely understand:
... entweder war der Verfasser Augenzeuge oder ein Romanschriftsteller ersten Ranges. Die unmittelbare sittliche Empfindung entscheidet für das erstere. (p. 31)
Perhaps someone can explain what ‘unmittelbare sittliche Empfindung’ is exactly, but I fail to see how such directness can be a criterion for historical authenticity.
The conjecture itself is introduced in rather simple terms, but theses words contain some surprises for those who know the conjecture only from secondary sources (the Nestle apparatus):
Daß in den Worten: Rühre mich (nicht) an – das “nicht” als Dittographie (im aramäischen Grundtexte des Evangeliums) zu streichen und “Rühre mich an” zu lesen ist, legt schon der Vergleich mit Joh. 20,19 [sic; probably John 20:20 is meant]; 20,27; Luk. 24,39-40 nahe. Alle Gründe, die die Kommentare für das noli me tangere geltend machen, offenbaren nur die Verlegenheit der Ausleger. (p. 31)
The last remark is to the point: the commentators betray many difficulties in explaining the verse in particular and the meaning of ‘Do not touch me’ in particular. All commentators tend to regard their solution as definitive, but the multiplicity of solutions, in this case, is telling.3
Lepsius’ conjecture is a literary one, that is, prompted by the comparison with other texts. Had Lepsius only referred to John 20:20 and 20:27, his would be a valid, if debatable, argument. With the inclusion of Luke 24, however, his harmonistic interest makes itself to be felt again. Such an approach almost automatically disqualifies the resulting conjecture, just as harmonistic variants, other things being equal, are not considered as original.
Even more problematic than the harmonistic approach is another aspect of Lepsius’ method, if it can be called thus. He appeals, albeit between brackets, to an original Aramaic source or version of the Gospel. Such conjectures, however, are not conjectures on the Greek text. Lepsius assumes a dittography in the original Aramaic, not even a dittography in an Aramaic copy or a translation error made when the Greek text was prepared.
There is no reference, and no elaboration on the Aramaic words Lepsius has in mind. If one (unscholarly) takes the Peshitta wording as a starting point, a dittography seems not very likely.
In general, I do not find such translation hypotheses very convincing, and the methods used for them are shaky, but I know that nineteenth- and twentieth-century research is full of such theories. In Lepsius’ case, the Aramaic source theory is not applied in order to better understand linguistic and other idiosyncrasies of John’s gospel, but to take away an inconcinnity as perceived by him.
In any case, Lepsius does not assume an error in the Greek transmission. Therefore, his opinion on this text does not belong to the realm of textual criticism, but to source criticism. Interesting though it may be, with Lepsius’ argumentation it has no place in the Nestle-Aland apparatus.
Yet the conjecture can perhaps remain in the apparatus, as an apt reminder of the exegetical difficulties of this verse, but if so, a different author should be indicated: Christoph Gotthelf Gersdorf (1763-1834). This German pastor wrote a single influential book (and even only vol. I of it), namely Beiträge zur Sprach-Characteristik der Schriftsteller des Neuen Testaments. Eine Sammlung meist neuer Bemerkungen, Erster Theil, Leipzig, Weidmann, 1816. Gersdorf is mentioned in older German commentaries (though mostly without a proper reference), making it somewhat strange that only Lepsius’ name appears in the Nestle editions.
Moreover, Gersdorf’s proposal clearly differs from Lepsius’, for it really qualifies as a conjecture (found in the long footnote on pp. 79-80 of the xxxvi+579-page book). His reasoning is as follows (in my words). Exegetically, the verse is both strange in itself, and odd compared with John 20:27. Textcritically, the concurrence of the variant readings μή μου ἅπτου, μὴ ἅπτου μου and even the difficult μὴ ἅπτου may suggest that an original μου ἅπτου was miscopied as μὴ ἅπτου, to which subsequently μου was supplied in two different ways, as ἅπτου evidently needs an object. One can also imagine ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ corruption alike, for a text in which the risen Jesus asks a woman to touch him may not be to everyone’s taste. Finally, from a psychological point of view, one would more readily imagine fear to be the first reaction of someone confronted with a friend who is risen from the dead.4
There are other conjectures known to the same words, the most popular of which is μὴ πτόου (‘don’t be terrified!’), addressing precisely the psychological point made by Gersdorf. However this post is already getting too long. Once again, it feels like I have only scratched the surface of this intriguing verse.
1. Lipsius, in this case, is the nineteenth-century theologian Richard Adelbert Lipsius, not the sixteenth-century classical scholar Justus Lipsius.
2. See ‘Das Johannes-Evangelium. I. Der Text’, in Das Reich Christi 5 (1902), issues 2-5 (February-May), and ‘Die Auferstehungsberichte’, in issues 7-8 (July-August). From the latter, a separate publication exists, entitled Reden und Abhandlungen von Johannes Lepsius. 4. Die Auferstehungsberichte, Berlin, Reich Christi-Verlag, 1902, which will be quoted here.
3. Lepsius may have had Bernard Weiss’ commentary (KEK II, 81893) in mind. There, I easily count 12 different opinions mentioned in the footnotes on pp. 611-612, which makes at least 13 together with Weiss’ own solution, and all that more than a century ago.
4. Compare Gersdorf’s own words (pp. 79-80 footnote): ‘Für μη μου ἁπτου hat aber B. (Vat. 1209.) μη ἁπτου μου, und Mt. B. (b. Wetst. auch D. codd. lat.?) bloss μη ἁπτου. Durch diese Weglassung oder Versetzung des μου, das, wenn ἁπτου echt ist, nie gefehlt haben kann, dürfte man vielleicht auf die Vermuthung geführt werden, dass die Negation μη in diesem μου auf eine oder die andere Weise bereits früherhin ihren Ursprung fand, und es anfänglich bloss hiess: ἁπτου μου, oder auch μου ἁπτου, das aber mit der Heiligkeit des Erstandenen nicht ganz verträglich schien, und den Freunden des Docetismus anstössig seyn mochte. Denn wenn gleich v. 16. Μαρια eine freundliche Zusprache des Herrn und sanfte Ankündigung seiner Persönlichkeit war; so wird doch gewiss Maria ihr Ραββουνι jetzt, bei einer so unerwarteten Totenerscheinung (v. 15.), nur mit Graus und Schrecken, gleich einem Angstschrei, erwiedert, und sich wahrscheinlich mehr entfernt als genähert haben. Auch scheint v. 16. στραφεισα, und v. 14. ἐστραφη εἰς τα ὀπισω eher an die Flucht als an eine Annäherung zu erinnern, und v. 5. οὐ μεντοι εἰσηλθεν (vgl. v. 11.) offenbar an ihre Furchtsamkeit, so dass aus dem Munde Jesu zunächst zu erwarten war: “fürchte dich nicht, tritt näher, rühre mich an; ich bin noch derselbe und in eurer Mitte; habe mich noch nicht zu meinem Vater erheben!” (vgl. Luc. 24,37-40.).’ For the reading μὴ ἅπτου, Gersdorf depends on Griesbach's edition; Griesbach in turn refers to Matthaei for it (hence ‘Mt’).