Either way, I'm pleased with my read of the text. Too much biblical exegesis--and I think that this was particularly the case here--seems to glory in making needless complexities, to the neglect of the obvious drama of a text. So many of the articles I read as background for this assignment were so consummed with abstractions that they paid no attention to what I would have to assume is the central existential drama of the account: dead people appearing and talking to you alive again is a damned freaky thing.
Additional Note: I can't get LiveJournal to accept any of my outlining formating. So I think the format of what follows is a bit annoying.... A thousand apologies.
Michael Anthony Novak
THEO 233—Johannine Tradition
Prof. William S. Kurz, SJ
Doubting Thomas? Sensible Thomas
A Narrative Critical Re-reading of John 20: 24-31.
Thesis: Thomas has been given a “bum rap” is being cast as “Doubting Thomas” when in fact Thomas has a perfectly understandable reaction to his circumstances and Jesus accepts and affirms this.
1. The Thomas pericope appears at the end of a series of four resurrection accounts
a. Mary Magdalene (vv. 1-2, 11-18). Mary finds the empty tomb, reports this to the disciples and later returns to the tomb to become the first eyewitness of the Risen Jesus.
b. Peter and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 3-10). On the basis of Mary’s account, they run to the tomb to find the empty wrappings. The Beloved Disciple, at least, believes.
c. The gathered disciples, minus Thomas (vv. 19-23). In hiding, the disciples are visited by Jesus and witness his wounds. This is the immediate and most important context of the Thomas pericope, as it is specifically crafted as a parallel to this narrative.
d. Thomas (vv. 24-29). Absent during the previous visit, Thomas refuses to believe unless he, too, sees and touches the wounded, risen Jesus.
2. The Thomas pericope appears as the climactic scene before what may be the original ending of the gospel.
a. The intention given in 20: 31 is that these signs “have been recorded so that you may have faith that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God, and that through this faith you may hae life in his name.”
b. Thomas’ confession of faith—“My Lord and my God!” (v. 28)—is the clearest and climactic statement of the theme of Jesus’ divinity, which has been developed throughout the gospel.
1. Who is he? “Thomas” is an Aramaic equivalent to “Didymus,” both of which mean “Twin.” It is clearly a nickname, as John is well aware, in his habit of mentioning that this is “the one called ‘Thomas.’” Given Jesus’ seeming-predilection for nicknames, it may be one that came directly from him. What his given name is, is unclear. The Syriac tradition leans toward identifying him with the other of the Twelve named Judas as a way of distinguishing him from the now-infamous Judas Iscariot, and attributed his being “Twin” by identifying him strongly as a close and worthy follower of Christ. Later Gnostic tradition made him an actual twin of Jesus. There is endless room for speculation. Given the irony of naming Simon a “Rock,” the “Twin” might just as easily be the disciple who was most unlike Jesus.
2. Thomas definitely appears three other times in John’s Gospel.
a. (11:16) “Thomas, called ‘the Twin,’ said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
b. (14:5) “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
c. (21:2) “Gathered together were Simon Peter, Thomas (this name means “Twin”), Nathaniel (the one from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.”
d. If Thomas is to be identified with “the other Judas,” then 14:22 would also be an appearance of Thomas in the text. “‘Lord,’ said Judas (not Judas Iscariot), what can have happened that you are going to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?’”
3. The readings of these appearances of Thomas in John are all ambiguous. Exegetes of the Indian/Syrian tradition read him as a courageous leader of the disciples who asks his Master the most penetrating questions. Western exegesis puts him on the bottom of the totem pole, the faithless cad.
II. The narrative of the encounter of Thomas with Jesus can and ought to be read positively.
A. Thomas’ disbelieving reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection is perfectly sensible.
1. The dead tend to stay dead. This is a commonplace, whether of the first century’s agrarian society or of the twenty-first century’s biology lab.
2. Thomas may have seen the miraculous from Jesus before, but there Jesus was always the active cause of the event, however he did it. There is no visible, active cause in this purported event, so this may reasonably push the bounds of Thomas’ credulity.
3. This reaction would be in character for Thomas if we read 14:5 and 14:22 (if Thomas) as being aggressive questions on his part, and if we read 11:16 as the irritated comment of a man following Jesus into what has just been identified as a deathtrap. (11:8)
4. Thomas is not demanding something new or extraordinary. The previous narrative explicitly mentions (20:20) that Jesus had appeared to the disciples and had identified himself by showing his hands and his side. Thomas likewise desires to have his own disbelief satisfied.
5. Thomas’ motivation is simply that it will require unusual evidence in order for him to accept an unusual conclusion.
B. Jesus does not condemn Thomas, but satisfies his needs.
1. Jesus repeats the previous appearance’s greeting (and gift?) of peace to the disciples. He does not except Thomas from this.
2. Parallel to the previous text where Jesus shows the disciples his wounds, Jesus demonstrates knowledge of Thomas’ disbelief and vow to not believe until he can see the wounded Jesus alive, and invites him to satisfy his curiosity.
a. There is considerable debate in scholarship of whether or not Thomas actually touched and probed Jesus as there is no “blow-by-blow” description of Thomas’ examination. The text is ambiguous on the matter, but the clear implication of the narrative is that the evidence of the Jesus who could be identified by his wounds was overwhelming.
b. Thomas in being satisfied of Jesus’ physical, living presence—his resurrection—is easily read as being “pro-touch” and the “champion against the docetic tendencies” (Athikalam, p. 337) and against Raymond Brown and those who feel that Thomas actually accepting Jesus’ invitation would be a further act of faithlessness and he “would have ceased to be a disciple.” (Brown, 206) The idea that Jesus would then become the Tempter of Thomas is unappealing.
3. Thomas’ needs, which have been made explicit, are so satisfied that he becomes the most explicit witness to Jesus’ identity in a gospel consumed with the question of Jesus’ identity: he addresses Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” The narrator’s point-of-view or intent climaxes in Thomas.
C. Jesus’ blessing of those who have not seen but believe is not a backhanded slap at Thomas, but a simple blessing and observation.
1. Again, there are no words of condemnation, but merely of contrast. Jesus notes and recognizes the sensible basis of Thomas’ belief. He contrasts it and adds a blessing for those who will not have that benefit.
2. Jesus, having recognized, accepted and satisfied Thomas’ doubt, then links this to the life of all subsequent believers. Thomas’ doubt and subsequent belief becomes paradigmatic of our own, for we are the implied readers of the text.
a. The stated intention in the concluding remarks of v. 31 “so that you may have faith” indicates that, like Thomas, our doubt is pre-supposed and accepted.
b. The final words of Jesus—if this is the original ending to the Gospel—are a recognition of our own belief and a Messianic blessing for it.
3. A canonical observation can here be made that belief subsequent to the appearances of Jesus still comes through personal encounters, but now with those who are filled with the Spirit.
Conclusion: The affirmation of Thomas by Jesus, with Jesus’ further affirmation of believers who are not eyewitness, shows us that the experience of Thomas’ doubt was not something that Jesus condemned but accepted as natural and even universal. The narrative effect of the pericope is to ground the resurrection accounts not in some obscure code of spiritual symbolism and authorial mystification, but to affirm the normality of the reader’s questions regarding this extraordinary claim by showing that the same questions were normative for the eyewitnesses themselves.