The Basis for Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere
I have always maintained that Rizal was a devout Catholic and as such must have known the Bible. So it was not a total surprise to me when I learned that the title of his literary masterpiece, Noli Me Tangere was actually taken from the Bible.
The idea of writing a novel came out when Rizal realized that Filipinos were almost an unknown nation in Europe. In Madrid they were mistaken to be Chinese. “Street urchins ran after them shouting ‘Chink! Chink!’ And indeed, half in self-mockery, half in defiance, the Filipinos in Madrid referred to one another as ‘slit-eyed Chinese’” (Leon Ma. Guerrero, The First Filipino). In Paris they were mistaken to be Japanese.
Recognizing this predicament, Rizal submitted a proposal on writing a novel about the Philippines to the Circulo-Hispano on January 2, 1884. It was unanimously approved by the members of the association to which the members would contribute chapters on various aspects of life in the Philippines. “Graciano Lopez Jaena will write about the Filipino woman; (Evaristo) Aguirre, the same; Maximo (Paterno) about Letamendi” (Leon Ma. Guerrero/Diarios).
However, it did not materialize because those who were expected to contribute did not write anything. They were more interested on writing about women, so the project was shelved. “But one year after, Pedro Paterno published his novel entitled Ninay, with its subtitle Costumbres Filipinas (Philippine Customs). Rizal was very happy, considering that his purpose was partly fulfilled. Inasmuch as Paterno’s novel delved only on one particular aspect of Filipino culture, Rizal became more determined to write his own novel about the Philippines” (Garcia, De Viana & Cruz).
The title of Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere was taken from the Gospel of John chapter 20, not from the Gospel of Luke (Rizal made a mistake when he told Resurreccion Hidalgo that the title was taken from the Gospel of Luke in a letter dated 1887). Even heroes like Rizal can commit mistakes. In the said chapter from the Gospel of John, Jesus has risen from the dead and his disciples together with Mary, visited his tomb only to find out that his remains was not there. Though they somehow believed that Jesus must have risen they left the place confused. Mary stayed outside of the tomb alone weeping. She saw Jesus but did not immediately recognized him. But when he called out her name she knew it was him (20:1-19)
Thus John reports in verse 17,“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say unto them I ascend unto my Father and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” (KJV)
Rizal took the Latin translation of the verse which says, “dicit ei Iesus noli me tangere nondum enim ascendi as Patrem meum vade autem ad fratres meos et dice is ascend ad Patrem meum et Patrem vestrum et Deum meum et Deum vestrum” (Latin Vulgate, http://www.biblestudytools.com, italics mine).
“Noli me tangere” in John’s Gospel
The word “touch” in Greek is ἄπτομαι (haptomai) which means to “to fasten one’s self to”, “adhere to”, or “cling to” (Strong-Lite). Some suggest that there was an intention on the part of Mary Magdalene to worship Jesus just like what the other women did in Matthew 28:9. Jesus prevented her from doing so for he has not ascended to his Father. However, Clarke suggests that Jesus might have spoken to this effect: “Spend no longer time with me now: I am not going immediately to heaven – you will have several opportunities of seeing me again: but go and tell my disciples, that I am, and by, to ascend to my Father and God, who is your Father and God also. Therefore, let them take courage.”
This suggestion fits well with our purpose enhanced by the adversative conjunction ‘but’, Greek δέ (Strong-Lite). That is, instead of clinging to him Mary should go at once and tell his disciples that he has risen.
“Noli me tangere” in the Gospel of John is an urgent call to action!
In the Novel’s Dedication
That “call to action” can also be seen in the dedicatory note of the novel:
“Desirous of your welfare, which is also ours, and seeking the best cure for your ills, I shall do with you what was done in ages past with the sick, who were exposed on the steps of the temple so that the worshippers, having invoked the god, should each propose a remedy.“
“To this end, I shall endeavor to show your condition, faithfully and ruthlessly. I shall lift a corner of the veil which shrouds the disease, sacrificing to the truth everything, even self-love-for, as your son, your defects and weaknesses are also mine.” (Leon Ma. Guerrero, The First Filipino).
Rizal’s purpose was to expose the cancer (cancer of society), that has inflicted his country, so that those who would read would be moved to do something to cure it. As ‘sons’ of this country we share the same ‘defects and weaknesses’ and must therefore work hand in hand in our pursuit to rise above them.
Up to this part, we can say that the basis of the title Noli Me Tangere was the true state of the Philippines in Rizal’s time. He took the title from the Latin translation of John 20:17 to move his reader to respond to his urgent call to action and cure the illness of his beloved country.
The question is, Can we actually cure it or will it worsen even by “least contact” as stated in the first part of the dedicatory note?
“In the annals of human adversity, there is etched a cancer, of a breed so malignant that the least contact exacerbates it and stirs in it the sharpest of pains. And thus, many times amidst modern cultures I have wanted to evoke you, sometimes for memories of you to keep me company, other times, to compare you with other nations – many times your beloved image appears to me afflicted with a social cancer of similar malignancy.” (Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin, Noli Me Tangere)
“Noli me tangere” a real medical condition?
According to Prof. Xiao Chua in his article at manilatimes.net dated March 17, 2018, somebody told him that “noli me tangere is a kind of cancer which when treated, will only get worse.” He searched some medical books and found out that it was indeed an actual “cancer of the skin called lupus erythematosus” based on the The Medical Examiner, Volume 3, p. 86;The Medical Museum Or A Repository of Cases, Experiments, Researches and Discoveries, p. 491;A practical treatise on the diseases of the eyelids, p. 137. Dumol and Camposano in their book entitled The Nation as Project, said that, “There is an entry for the term “noli me tangere” in the Dictionary of the Real Academia Española that reads this way in English: ‘Med[icine]. A malignant ulcer that cannot be touched without risk.’ The social cancer that Rizal says the Philippines is afflicted with is of this sort.” The readers are challenged to act and do something about it.
It appears that the title Noli me tangere was also taken from an actual skin cancer or ulcer in Rizal’s time which was “so malignant that the least contact exacerbates it and stirs in it the sharpest of pains.” Thus, better not to get too close to a person with this type of illness, much less to touch him. Rather, say a prayer or do something to help him recover.
Dumol, Paul Arvisu and Camposano, Clement C. The Nation As Project. A New Reading of Jose Rizal’s Life and Works. Manila, Philippines: Vibal Group, Inc., 2018.
Garcia, Carlito D. EdD., De Viana, Augusto V. PhD., Cruz, Cynthia B. PhD. Rizal and the Development of Filipino Nationalism. A Textbook on the Life, Works, and Writings of our National Hero. Third Edition. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Books Atbp. Publishing Corp., 2015.
Guerrero, Leon Ma. The First Filipino. A Biography of Jose P. Rizal. Manila, Philippines: National Historical Institute, 2006.
Lacson-Locsin, Ma. Soledad. Noli Me Tangere. Jose Rizal. Edited by Raul L. Locsin. Makati City, Philippines: Bookmark, Inc., 1996.
Riversoft Ministry. MySword for Android/Strong-Lite and Clarke. 2011-2018