National Catholic Register

Commentary

Defending Thomas

BY MARJORIE REILEY MAGUIRE

April 23-29, 2006 Issue | Posted 4/24/06 at 11:00 AM

 

Poor 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 faith.

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 night.

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 24:12).

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 us.

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 lives

in Milwaukee. She has a Ph.D.

in theology from The Catholic

University of America.