“Jesus said to her, ‘Do not take hold of me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Instead, Go, to my brothers and say to them, ‘I go up to my Father and to your Father and my God and your God.’”
For me, the real curiosity of this verse is its contrast with Matthew 28:9 when he encountered the women as they were on the way to tell the Apostles and they fell down, grasped his feet, and worshipped him. Now, he is telling Mary not to touch him because he has not ascended yet to the Father. On the surface at least, these two passages seem to contradict one another.
At first, I thought it might have been a matter of the wording. In John’s account, he employs the word ἅπτω (hapto) and in Matthew’s account, he uses the word κρατέω (krateo). Yet, both of these terms are fairly common terms in Koine Greek and are used broadly in both the Greek New Testament and in the Septuagint to refer to touching or to grabbing ahold of something. It could be argued perhaps that ἅπτω (hapto) has a broader range of meanings, but the idea of touching is consistently a part of its usage. Matthew’s term κρατέω (krateo) can be said to emphasize the idea of holding onto something, but to hold something you must touch it as well. So, in this case, the word choice made by each author does not prove to be helpful.
It seems, then, that the key to harmonization is to focus on each author’s intent. In the case of Matthew, you have more of a historical record that focuses on the events held in common by the various disciples — the women are returning in confusion and disbelief and so Jesus appears before them briefly to encourage them of the reality of what they have seen. In this chapter, John is focusing on the more personal experience of Mary and her desire to extend that time of worship that she has already experienced once along the road…yet, it is not time for that. And so, while earlier, they had been allowed to worship at his feet, Jesus is sending Mary along with a task to do. Peter and John are sure to tell others of the empty tomb; Mary will reinforce their witness with her own — but it is not yet time to be still and worship.
Others may harmonize these two events differently. The key with a harmony is to provide a reliable and reasonable timeline when reading multiple eye-witness accounts. The value of the harmony is not just that of discovering a fuller picture of what has taken place, but it is also to silence the doubters and the critics who look at variations and claim that the variations falsify the story. Yet, presuming a reasonable explanation can be offered, that lines up the accounts without contradictions, no charge of falsity can be made.
And so, we are perhaps left with a pair of experiences that is a little unexpected, but that is plausible given the purpose of John’s Gospel. Further, you have one more reminder of the kind of relationship had between Jesus and Mary — a relationship that was both reverent and affectionate, but that also needed that second encounter with the risen Lord to add gravity to what had taken place.