Many Filipinos will recognize the Latin phrase “Noli me Tangere” as the title of Jose Rizal’s first novel, rather than as a biblical line from the gospel of St. John (20:17). In English, it is usually rendered as “Touch me not. ” This was what the risen Jesus told the startled Mary Magdalene when she tried to approach him after he had called her name. The meaning of this utterance has been the subject of much dispute, not least because it appears only in John and not in the other gospels. When later he appeared before his disciples, Jesus invited the doubting Thomas to touch his wounds.
Yet he would not allow Mary, whose faith needed no confirmation, to hold him. Why? Was it because she was a woman and not one of the original disciples, and therefore unworthy of being the first witness to Jesus’ triumph over death? Or was it because “Noli me Tangere” meant something else other than “do not touch me”? Curiously, Rizal’s particular use of this phrase as the title of his novel might give us a better understanding of its meaning. I remember as a child asking my father what “Noli me Tangere” meant.
He had come home one day with a freshly printed hardbound edition of Charles Derbyshire’s translation titled “The social cancer. ” Proudly, he presented it to me as if it was the most precious book in the world, enunciating every syllable in that enchanting phrase “Noli me Tangere. ” He uttered it as if it was a magical incantation. “What language is that? ” I asked him. “Latin for ‘touch me not’,” he replied. What’s that got to do with cancer, I pressed, pointing to the English title of the book. He answered: “The cancer of our society in Rizal’s time was already so advanced that no doctor would touch it anymore.
That perspective stayed with me throughout my first early reading of the Noli. My father clearly took the cancer analogy from Rizal’s own prefatory dedication, “To my country. ” In it, Rizal had written: “Recorded in the history of human suffering are cancers of such malignant character that even minor contact aggravates them, engendering overwhelming pain…. Therefore, because I desire your good health… I will do with you what the ancients did with their infirmed: they placed them on the steps of their temples so that each in his own way could invoke a divinity that might offer a cure. ”