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Doubting Thomas

Scripture Readings: John 20:19-29

Why does the author of the gospel of John tell the story of "Doubting Thomas?" The gospel has just related the appearance of Jesus to his disciples, and John 20:20 confirms that Jesus "showed them his hands and his side." In other words, the gospel of John has already verified the resurrection of Jesus. So, why tell a story about the doubt that Thomas had?

The verse at the end of the story provides an answer, for in John 20:29 Jesus says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." The story of Thomas is addressed to those who have not seen and are questioning the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel seems to assume that those questioning the resurrection may be convinced by the testimony of Thomas.

This story, and this belief in the authority of Thomas, is only found in the New Testament in the fourth gospel. Thomas is named as a disciple in the three other New Testament gospels, but has no speaking role and is unimportant. In contrast, in the gospel of John on two occasions prior to this story Thomas does speak.

In John 11:16, when Jesus is determined to go to Judea again despite the threats against him, Thomas says to the other disciples: "Let us also go, that we may die with him." The fourth gospel presents Thomas as a leader among the disciples and certainly as a man of strong conviction and courage. Then in John 14, when Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he is about to go away, Thomas is the first of two disciples to question Jesus. "Lord," he asks, "we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" And Jesus answers, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (Jn. 14:5-6)

It may be that the authors of the other New Testament gospels did not know of these statements, for it is hard to imagine that they would omit this material from their gospel accounts. These passages in the gospel of John remind us that the fourth gospel is remarkably different. In the gospel of John there are no parables, and only in his dialogue with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1-10) does Jesus refer to the "kingdom of God." In the first three gospels Jesus repeatedly proclaims the kingdom of God by teaching in parables.

Moreover, in these three gospels Jesus only goes to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. In the gospel of John, Jesus goes to Jerusalem several times during his ministry to teach, and the very first time he is in Jerusalem he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.

In the gospel of John the first time we meet Thomas he is identified as "the Twin," (in Greek Didymos) and this is repeated in John 21:2. This "name" for Thomas is not recorded in the other three New Testament gospels, and the fourth gospel does not explain whose "twin" Thomas is. But in the Syrian Church, there is no doubt that Thomas is the "twin" of Jesus.

This (astounding!?) belief comes from the gospel of Thomas, which begins: "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded." Some Syrian manuscript versions of John 14:22 identify the disciple Judas (the Judas who isnít Judas Iscariot) as "Judas Thomas," and in the Syrian Christian tradition the apostle Thomas and "Didymos Judas Thomas" or "Judas Thomas" are understood to be the same person.

The gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings, and not a narrative gospel. Prior to 1945, when a Coptic version of this gospel was unearthed near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, only fragments of the text in Greek had been discovered. Yet, the gospel of Thomas may be as old as the New Testament gospels, and it contains many of the same teachings.

Thomas 31 reads: "No prophet is accepted in his own village; no physician heals those who know him." A very similar teaching is found in Mark 6:4-6, Matthew 13:57-58, Luke 4:23-24, and John 4:44. Thomas 66 says: "Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the cornerstone." An almost identical saying is recorded in Mark 12:10-11, Matthew 21:42-43, and Luke 20:42-43.

There are, however, significant differences. In Thomas 13 Jesus asks his disciples to describe him, and Thomas replies: "Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like." In contrast, the disciple Peter tells Jesus, "You are like a just angel." And the disciple Matthew says to Jesus, "You are like a wise philosopher."

Jesus replies only to Thomas, saying: "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended." The gospel of Thomas then relates that Jesus privately gave Thomas three sayings. When the other disciples ask what Jesus told him, Thomas answers: "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you."

The gospel of Thomas is attributed to an apostle and may be as early as some of the New Testament gospels. So, why isnít it in our Bible? Because it lacks an account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which in the second century became the core of Christian orthodoxy.

The gospel of John appeals to Christian followers of the apostle Thomas by referring to him as a leading disciple, who followed Jesus with courage and conviction. And the gospel of John uses the testimony of Thomas to the physical resurrection of Jesus to try to persuade those who found no verification of the resurrection in the well-known and much revered gospel of Thomas.

Moreover, the gospel of John has Thomas present when the risen Lord appears to his disciples (John 21) and tells Peter to care for his sheep (meaning the church). The resurrection stories at the end of the fourth gospel are designed to support the leadership of the disciples (now apostles) under Peter and to appeal to followers of the apostle Thomas, who might otherwise resist Peterís leadership.

In the gospel of John the resurrection appearances of Jesus to Thomas and other disciples seem to be physical, yet Jesus appears among the disciples although the doors of the house are locked. (Jn. 20:19, 26) The gospel does not claim that Jesus has the body of flesh and blood he had before his death, but only that his appearance includes marks of the wounds inflicted on his physical body. This gospel in no way disproves Paulís earlier testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that resurrection is not resuscitation: "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God."

In John 14:6 Jesus says to Thomas: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." This is not a claim that Jesus, as a physical man of flesh and blood, will live forever. But this teaching does proclaim that the way and the truth and the life of God are in the life and the death and the renewed life of Jesus, among those who knew him and the church that remembers him.

27 April 2003

 

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1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Ü Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer