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In defence of an Apostle

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

When I was young I remember having the impression that after Judas the “next worst” Apostle was Thomas. The way he was presented to me was as close-minded or a fool, who was unable to accept the Resurrection and wouldn’t be faithful when all the other Apostles had perfectly embraced the truth. When I encountered him in the Gospels for myself, particularly in the Gospel of John, this was not the figure I found. The epithet “Doubting Thomas” seemed not merely harsh, but untrue. So here are my thoughts in defending this great missionary Apostle.

Let us first consider the events of that first evening after the Resurrection when the rest of the Apostles are gathered together. Already they have the reports from the women who have seen angels, and Christ himself has appeared to Mary Magdalen and explained so much to her, yet the Gospels are clear about what happened when the women delivered the good news to the Apostles: “But (the women’s) words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). Two of the Apostles went to see for themselves and even though the sight of the empty tomb and folded burial cloths has given Peter and John some belief it is still the case that “as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). This is not yet a band of joyful worshippers living in the light of the Resurrection; rather they remain disbelieving, sceptical, and so fearful that they have locked their doors. Only Thomas, it seems, has dared to go out. 

It is not until Jesus has stood among them, bearing his wounds, eating a meal, talking and blessing them that the other Apostles believe and begin to understand. Why do we forgive the others for not trusting Mary, yet demand that Thomas then believes without seeing? His doubt, if that is what it is, is no greater than the others. Jesus’ words “You have believed because you have seen me”, are true of all the Twelve. Among them none responds as Thomas will. The rest of the Apostles are filled with joy and perhaps relief, but none of them falls at Christ’s feet and declares “My Lord and my God!”, only Thomas.

I think to understand why Thomas seems slow to believe we must understand this declaration. “My Lord” is not simply a statement of honour. By this time the holy name of God was never said by the Jewish people, but rather “My Lord” was used in place of the name. Thomas could not be more explicit in his declaration of who he now recognises Christ to be! He sees the reality that Jesus is God incarnate. Not merely a favoured prophet, not just a servant of God or even an adopted son, but the one true God of Israel, of Abraham, of Moses, made incarnate, killed on a cross and now risen! Thomas is the first to realise the enormity of the Resurrection, to realise that that is what the Resurrection shows. His statement of faith arguably says more than even Peter’s had! So when the others tell him that they had seen Jesus alive Thomas, who understands what that would mean, wants to see the proof for himself. To accept this truth, to change from the Jewish understanding of God that Thomas had lived and loved his whole life, to the Christian experience of Him, revealed through the Incarnation and Resurrection, without asking to see the risen Lord isn’t doubt, it’s prudence! The fact that he needs to be sure of the Truth for himself is evidence that Thomas already grasps what the Resurrection means.

Earlier in the Gospel we had already been shown that Thomas’ grasp of this was stronger than many of the others. Before they even set off on their last journey he knew that the road to Jerusalem would not be the triumphal Messianic crushing of the Romans some are hoping for, but would be the road to Jesus’ death, and he is ready to follow and die with him. Then at the last supper he says “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Rather than expecting a plan of action, a set of rules, an earthly end, Thomas knew there was more, that Jesus’ mission meant going somewhere that they did not yet know or understand. Thomas’ questions can seem to us who have the benefits of the Church’s wisdom, of complete Gospel accounts and of hindsight, to be foolish questions. But in the context of the community of the Twelve, who were Jewish men, not yet reading the signs correctly, not yet understanding the scriptures, not yet grasping the enormity of the Incarnation and Resurrection, Thomas’ questions show him to be well ahead in his wisdom and understanding. 

In John’s Gospel Thomas speaks up more than most of the Twelve. Throughout this Gospel individual Apostles speak up more than in the synoptics. I wonder if this is due to the authorship. John knew these men as brothers, he loved them and remembered their quirks, their personalities. He, or those who finally wrote down his Gospel, passed them on to us. Sometimes the Scriptures can seem distant, even cold. Written centuries ago, analysed by commentators and academics, criticised by historians, it’s easy to forget what a personal and emotional account they must have been for the writers. Rereading John’s Gospel to find Thomas’ quotes has reminded me of that, and now I want to ponder the personalities of Philip, Andrew, Nathanael and the others that John called brothers. Thomas, not the doubter, but the wise, points us to the heart of our faith in his declaration “My Lord and my God”. Through gaining an understanding of this he also helps us to see the beauty of the Gospels, and personally encounter the people who knew Jesus, and through them, encounter Him.

Br Cuthbert Hartley O.P.

Br Cuthbert Hartley O.P.


David Crookes commented on 25-Apr-2018 11:17 AM
Well done Cuthbert (Tom)! I think this is a penetrating and helpful article on an apostle who has been wrongly, I think we both agree on that, described as a doubter. Many thanks for your thoughts on this.
Sarah commented on 25-Apr-2018 01:54 PM
I find this article very clear sighted and helpful, both in refocusing our ideas about Thomas and also in reminding us what a huge emotional, spiritual and theological upheaval the resurrection was for the first disciples (and still is for today's world).
It also made me a little sad: you ask why we 'forgive' the disciples for not being able to believe the women's story but disapprove of Thomas for not believing the men. I suggest that it's because the church has always seen women as less deserving of faith and respect - woefully unlike Jesus himself.
(Fr Martin J Clayton) commented on 29-Apr-2018 12:30 PM
What an insightful article. Thank you! I have long proclaimed Thomas as "Believing Thomas" rather than "Doubting Thomas". Faith is not always an easy option: it involves a journey, sometimes a bumpy one! But Thomas got there.
Also, "Sarah" (above) makes a good point, worth pondering on.
Robert commented on 29-Apr-2018 12:54 PM
Thank you for this insightful portrait of Thomas. I have always felt that he had a bad press undeservedly. This has reminded me how useful it can be to stop and spend time just putting oneself in the place of some of those mentioned in the gospel. Look forward to your thoughts on Philip and the others.
Ian Campbell commented on 29-Apr-2018 03:27 PM
Can I recommend Alexander Murray's, ' Doubting Thomas in medieval exegesis and art' as a way into a deeper understanding of Thomas? It's an easier read than the title suggests being the write-up of a leture. The critical point is that the Gospels don't actually say Thomas did put his hands in Christ's wounds. As soon as he hears the invitation, Thomas responds 'My lord and my God'.

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