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BY MARJORIE REILEY MAGUIRE
Thomas the Apostle! Christians through the centuries have branded him with the
name “doubting Thomas” and have held him up to scorn as an example of weak
However, this treatment of Thomas
is unfair for three reasons. First, the Gospel of John names Thomas as one of
the few apostles who seem to have understood Jesus’ message about his mission.
Second, the Gospels do not support the idea that Thomas was the only disciple
who was a “doubter” of the resurrection. Third, John’s Gospel contains a clue
suggesting that perhaps Jesus had a reason for singling Thomas out to be a
special witness of the resurrection.
During Jesus’ lifetime, Thomas
made a profession of faith in Jesus that was important enough to be recorded in
John’s Gospel (John 11:16). In the story about the raising of Lazarus, (which
is read at Mass for the Fifth Sunday in Lent), Thomas is the only disciple who
courageously speaks up when Jesus’ other disciples are trying to discourage
Jesus from returning to Jerusalem.
Thomas boldly encourages the
others to go up to Jerusalem
with Jesus, “that we may die with him.” Thomas seems to have understood that
Jesus’ mission involved death, and he was willing to embrace that mission and
die as a martyr with Jesus. Yet, this act of Thomas’s faith and understanding
has been overlooked in Christianity because of Thomas’s simple request (found
in the Gospel on the Sunday after Easter) that he receive the same proof of the
resurrection that all the other disciples already received from Jesus on Easter
All the Gospels show that Thomas
was not the only apostle who was initially a “doubter” of the resurrection.
Matthew’s Gospel ends by saying that the Eleven went to Galilee,
as Jesus had directed, and “when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). None
of the doubters are singled out as “doubting” James or “doubting” John or
“doubting” Peter or “doubting” Andrew.
Similarly, Mark’s Gospel ends with
the story of how Jesus’ followers would not believe either the testimony of
Mary Magdalene, after Jesus first appeared to her, or the testimony of two
other disciples, who had seen Jesus while they were walking in the country. It
then says that Jesus appeared to the Eleven “and he upbraided them for their
unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him
after he had risen” (Mark 16:14). Mark does not single out any among the Eleven
as the “doubter” par excellence.
Again in Luke, all the Eleven and
the rest of Jesus’ disciples are “doubters” when Mary Magdalene and the other
women come to tell them that Jesus is risen. The
women’s words “seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Luke
24:11). Even after Peter responded to Mary’s testimony by running to the tomb
and seeing the burial cloths by themselves, the Gospel of Luke does not say
that Peter believed. It says, “He went home amazed at what had happened” (Luke
Luke also tells the story of the
two disciples on the road to Emmaus, possibly the same two whom Mark mentioned.
In Luke, Jesus walks with and listens to them. Jesus breaks into their story
precisely at the point where they recount how everyone doubted the resurrection
proclamation of the women. Jesus chides them saying, “O foolish men, and slow
of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25).
Later, after these two recognized
Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they returned to Jerusalem to tell the Eleven. Thomas was
obviously present, since Luke says “Eleven,” not “Ten.” Luke presents all of
the Eleven as doubters, not just Thomas. Luke says that suddenly Jesus was in
their midst, but they were “startled and frightened and supposed that they saw
a spirit” (Luke 24:37). In response, Jesus showed all of them his hands and his
feet and told them to touch him. They all still disbelieved. Jesus had to eat a
piece of fish to convince them. Yet, Jesus does not single out only one of them
as a “doubting” Thomas.
Like Luke, John also tells us that
Jesus showed his hands and his side to his disciples when he appeared to them
on Easter night. However, unlike Luke, John says that Thomas was not with the
other disciples that night. (John 20:24). When Thomas hears their story, he
says he cannot believe unless he too can touch the mark of the nails in Jesus’
hands and side. Christians through the ages have treated this as a request for
special treatment that made Thomas deserve to be called “doubting Thomas” for
all time. However, Thomas only asked for what all the others had received a
week earlier before they were able to believe. Moreover, John does not present
Jesus as critical of Thomas when Jesus comes into their midst a week after
Easter with Thomas present. Instead, Jesus gently tells Thomas to touch his
hands and side and “be not unbelieving but believing” (John 20:27).
The unfair historical Christian
scorn of Thomas as “doubting Thomas” is particularly poignant because it is
likely that there was a very important reason why Thomas was singled out to
emphasize that the hands and side of the risen Jesus were marked with the nail
prints and wounds. The clue to that reason may be in Thomas’s name.
When John’s Gospel tells us about
Thomas the Apostle, it says that he was “called Didymus”
or “Twin” (John 11:16; 20:24). How many times have we heard the line, “Thomas,
called the Twin,” and simply let it sweep over our head without wondering why
Thomas was called “Twin” and whose twin he was. However, if the name “Didymus” or “Twin” was important enough for the Gospel of
John to preserve in connection with Thomas, it must have some significance for
I discovered the possible
significance of the name in a footnote by the esteemed Catholic theologian,
Raymond Brown, in the Anchor Bible. Brown’s note at John 11:16 says that there is an ancient tradition that Thomas was the
twin of Jesus in appearance. If Brown
is correct that this is the actual source of the name, then “Didymus” was obviously a nickname, possibly given to Thomas
as the disciples traveled around with Jesus. Perhaps one day when the disciples
were waiting for Jesus and saw a figure approaching, one of the disciples
squinted into the sun and said, “No, it’s not the Master. It’s only the Twin.”
And the name stuck.
Perhaps the story about the
special resurrection appearance to Thomas was preserved in the Gospel of John
not because Thomas was a doubter and the other disciples were believers.
Instead, possibly it was because Thomas had a body that looked so much like the
body of Jesus that Thomas’ individual testimony was needed to say that Jesus
was truly risen. Perhaps some of the other disciples
who doubted that they had truly seen Jesus even after he appeared to them, as
the other Gospels recount, were saying that it was actually the “Twin” and not
the risen Lord.
Perhaps Jesus made a special
appearance to the “Twin,” not to condemn him as a doubter, but to personally
invite the “Twin” to touch the wounded body that looked so much like Thomas’
own. In this way, Thomas the “Twin” could become a sign of blessing for all
“those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29), because the “Twin” more
than all the others could testify that the body of the Lord was truly risen and
was not simply the body of the “Twin.”
Instead of condemning Thomas the
Apostle as a doubter, we should focus on the faith in Jesus’ message that
Thomas showed during Jesus’ lifetime and on Thomas’ special testimony to the
resurrection, so that our own faith in the resurrection can be strengthened.
Marjorie Reiley Maguire
She has a Ph.D.
in theology from The Catholic
University of America.