Thomas, one of the most misunderstood characters in the biblical traditions, requires a special treatment. Though he appears as a cameo type character in the Gospels, he persuades the readers constructively. Thomas is popularly known by his nickname ‘doubting Thomas’ due to his demand for tangible evidence in order to believe that Jesus is alive (John 20:25; cf. Bennema, 2009: 164). In the biblical traditions, Thomas is called didumos or ‘twin’ (11:16; 20:24; 21:2). But, we are told nothing of his twin or how he came to have this name (cf. Culpepper, 1983: 123). While Thomas is paired with Matthew in the middle of the list of the Twelve in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), he is paired with Philip in the list of the Twelve given in the Book of Acts (Acts 1:13; cf. Collins, 1992: 6: 528). In John chapter 14, Thomas participates, along with Philip and Judas (not Judas Iscariot), in a dialogue with Jesus (14:5-26). Collins (1992: 6: 528) is of the opinion that, “A portrait of Thomas emerges with some clarity in the Fourth Gospel, where Thomas appears in four passages (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24-28; 21:2). In three Thomas is ‘called the Twin’ (ho legomenos Didymos; John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2)”. In the Gospel of Thomas, he appears as an extremely important person, a confident of Jesus, receiving from him advanced esoteric and mystical knowledge which no other disciple shared (cf. Trakatellis, 1998: 45). Just as in the case of other disciples in the Gospels, Thomas appears sans details about his background.
The Gospel of John alone included the incident of the appearance of the risen Lord to Thomas (20:24-29). This story presents the relation between ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’, where Thomas stands as a believer who believes after seeing the risen Christ. Thomas’ confession of Jesus as ‘My Lord and My God’ is considered as the utterance of a staunch believer with renewed experience of the divine presence (cf. Chakkuvarackal, 2007: 35). Among the various encounters between Jesus and his interlocutors in the Gospel, Thomas’ encounter connects the readers directly with the resurrection belief. Though ‘doubt motif’ is reported in several stories of the Synoptics (cf. Mt. 28:17; Lk. 24:11, 21-41), Thomas’ doubt is narrated only in the Gospel of John (cf. Lee, 1995: 38). It is believed that Thomas has been part neither of Mary Magdalene’s message (vv. 17-18) nor of Jesus’ appearance and commissioning (vv. 19-23; cf. Moloney, 1998: 536). Thomas’ demand that Jesus be ‘touchable’ is an unyielding attitude; a situation where belief is based on ‘proof’. In v. 25, according to Schnackenburg (1982: 3: 330), “all the emphasis falls on Thomas’ demand for stronger evidence of the reality and identity of the risen Lord”. Thomas’ philosophy is that ‘belief’ is the aftermath of ‘solid proof’; ‘unbelief’ is an existent phenomenon ‘sans proof’. Just as Mary clings to the body of Jesus and felt the presence of the resurrected Christ, Thomas requires Jesus’ nail-marks to be ‘seen’ and ‘touchable’. Thomas progresses from a situation of his absence (v. 24) to a situation of his commitment through touching the Lord (vv. 24-28). His decision from the cave of his heart was strong and he did not keep his ‘heart’s decision’ secret and played a hypocritical game among other disciples. He made his determination plain before his interlocutors and patient enough to see through it (v. 25).
Thomas’ determination to see and touch the Lord has more positive value. His statement in v. 25b proves that he was a witness of Jesus’ crucifixion: firstly, he saw that Jesus was nailed in his hands and other parts of the body; and secondly, he saw that Jesus was pierced in his side by the soldiers. His ‘wounded psyche’ with regard to the concern of his master is explicit through his memory statement about the crucifixion. While Jesus tells Thomas “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side, and do not be unbelieving but believing” (v. 27), he was accepting the challenge of Thomas placed before him (cf. Trakatellis, 1998: 38-9). A reader can notice a two-way initiative here: on the one hand Thomas who wanted to see the scars of Jesus, is present with other disciples, and declares that he will believe if Jesus is ‘touchable’; on the other hand Jesus who appears to the disciples for a second time to confirm Thomas, shows his scars to him, and sternly warns him “do not be unbelieving but believing”. O’Brien (2005: 293-94) states that, “Though he (Thomas) does not believe the other disciples’ testimony about the resurrection, still he is there the following week when Jesus appears again. Persistence in times of confusion is essential to coming to faith”. While Thomas placed a challenge before Jesus, Jesus appears for a second time, i.e., without abnegating Thomas’ genuine logic, in order to correct his misapprehension.
Thomas’ utterance in v. 28, “My Lord and My God”, proves that the challenge he placed before other disciples (i.e., indirectly to Jesus; v. 25b) was from the cave of his heart. Now, Thomas moves from misunderstanding to understanding, and he acts as a symbol of the way ‘Jesus’ very touch’ transforms human life from absurdity to insightfulness. His utterance in v. 28 is a confession about the divinity of Jesus and in so doing gives expression to Christian belief (cf. Hoskyns, 1940: 548). Similarly, Jesus’ initiative to show his scars to Thomas exemplifies his concern toward one of the most challenging personalities among the Twelve. Wilkins (1992: 180) opines that, “His (Thomas’) courage stands out when he urges the other disciples to travel with Jesus to Judea so that they might die with him (Jn. 11:16). His faithfulness is revealed when he gathers with some of the other disciples in Galilee after the resurrection (Jn. 21:2), and his spiritual insight is demonstrated in his confession of Jesus as Lord and God (Jn. 20:28), one of the most profound declarations of Jesus’ deity in the NT”. Thomas’ courage, faithfulness, and spiritual insight, along with determination, make him one of the most persuasive characters in the biblical traditions (cf. O’Brien, 2005: 293).
As the Gospel of John begins with a mention about the divinity of Jesus (1:1: “the Word was God”), it also ends with an affirmation about his divinity, for that Thomas’ utterance in 20:28 is instrumental. Bennema (2009: 166-67) says, “Thomas’ recognition of Jesus’ deity is the Christological climax of the entire gospel. Nowhere in the gospel is Jesus called ‘God’, except for the Prologue where John identifies the Logos as (being in nature) God (1:1)”. In 20:28, the Christology of John reaches its epitome. O’Brien (2005: 296) adds further by saying that, “In identifying with Thomas, the reader also experiences the risen Lord and sees his wounds and hears Thomas express the pinnacle of Johannine Christology”. The contextual significance of Thomas’ utterance can be outlined from biblical and non-biblical evidences. The LXX translation of the combination ‘Yahweh Elohey’ is ‘Lord, my God’ (cf. Ps. 35:23; Brown, 1966-1970: 1047). While Dodd (1953: 430) distinguishes the expression into two, as ‘My Lord’ and ‘My God’, Barrett (1978: 573) conjoins them together. What Trakatellis says is significant to quote here. He says (1998: 39) that, “It has been pointed out that Thomas’ confession of faith assigns to Jesus the attributes of Lord and God used in the Old Testament for Yahweh, for the one and only God”. As John’s Gospel developed within the traditions of the Old Testament, one can infer that the narrator’s attempt is to present Jesus synonymous with Yahweh and his/her attributes. Moreover, it is widely held that John’s traditions were developed in a context in which the Roman emperors ascribed the titles ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ unto themselves. Emperor Domitian’s claim that he should be worshipped as Dominus et Deus Moster is significant to reckon with (cf. Moloney, 1998: 539). By placing Thomas’ utterance toward the end of the Gospel, the narrator of the story is endeavouring to convey a message in sequence with the Old Testament traditions, over against the prevailing First Century context of Emperor Worship, and for the sake of the ever-present readers of the Gospel.
John narrates the story of Thomas with a positive intent. Thomas’ life proves that believing is a process. In the story, he develops from an unbelieving position to a deeper/authentic belief (cf. O’Brien, 2005: 302). Thomas as a person of courage, faithfulness, spiritual insight, and determination proves his ‘genuine nature’ as a follower of Jesus Christ. His four utterances (11:16; 14:5; 20:25b, 28) in the Gospel validate the view that he was an ‘outspoken man’ without any hypocritical attitudes, a man who was ‘wounded inside’ after the crucifixion of his master, a ‘genuine witness’ of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and a ‘staunch proclaimer’ of the divinity of Jesus. Do we still need to marginalize him as ‘doubting Thomas’?
Barrett, C. K., 1978. The Gospel according to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text. Second Edition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Bennema, C., 2009. Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John. Bangalore: Primalogue.
Brown, R. E., 1966-1970. The Gospel according to John. Vol. 2. Anchor Bible Series. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Chakkuvarackal, T. J., June 2007. “‘Seeing and Believing’: Jesus and Thomas in 20:24-29”. Faith Theological Review. Vol. 10. No. 2: 35-53.
Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Trinity Press International.
Collins, R. F., 1992. “Thomas”. ABD. Vol. 6: 528-29.
Culpepper, A., 1983. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Dodd, C. H., 1953. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: University Press.
Hoskyns, E. C., 1940. The Fourth Gospel. Ed. Davey, F. N. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Lee, D. A., 1995. “Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in John 20”. Journal for the Study of New Testament 58/01: 37-43.
Moloney, F. J., 1998. The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina. Ed. Harrington, D. J. Vol. 4. Collegeville, Minnesota: A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press.
O’Brien, K. S., April 2005. “Written That You May Believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric”. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67/2: 284-302.
Schnackenburg, R., 1982. The Gospel according to St. John. Vol. 3. New York: Crossroad.
Trakatellis, M. D., 1998. “Seeing and Believing: The Thomas Incident (John 20:24-29)”. Agape and Diakonia. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Wilkins, M. J., 1992. “Disciples”. DJG. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press: 176-82.
By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India