Michael Anthony Novak
THEO 233—Johannine Tradition
Prof. William S. Kurz, SJ
Final Paper Presentation
Doubting Thomas? Sensible Thomas: A Narrative-Critical Re-reading of John 20: 24-31.
Thesis: The Apostle Thomas has been unfairly cast as “Doubting Thomas” when in fact Thomas has a perfectly understandable reaction to his circumstances and Jesus accepts this.
I. The traditional reading of the pericope has five significant features.
A. The subject of the pericope is Thomas’ doubt.
B. Thomas is presented as being at fault for not believing the testimony of the 10.
C. Thomas is further at fault for demanding proof of the resurrection.
D. Jesus tells Thomas to satisfy his doubt only as a concession to his faithlessness.
E. Jesus rebukes Thomas for his faithlessness.
II. It is necessary to understand the character of Thomas in his narrative setting in order to determine
the accuracy of the traditional reading.
A. Who is Thomas?
i. “Thomas” is an Aramaic equivalent to “Didymus,” both of which mean “Twin.”
ii. 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.
iii. What his given name is, is unclear.
iv. 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.
v. Later Gnostic tradition made him an actual twin of Jesus.
vi. There is endless room for speculation. Given the original irony of naming Simon a “Rock,” the
“Twin” might just as easily be the disciple who was most unlike Jesus.
B. Thomas’ Appearances in the Gospel of John
i. (11:16) “Thomas, called ‘the Twin,’ said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may
die with him.”
ii. (14:5) “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know
iii. (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.”
iv. (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?’”
C. Thomas’ appearances are ambiguous in providing us any firm sense of his character.
i. Exegetes of the Indian/Syrian tradition read him as a courageous leader of the disciples who
asks his Master the most penetrating questions.
ii. Western exegesis puts him on the bottom of the totem pole: “Doubting Thomas,” the most
skeptical and least faithful of the disciples, and, by implication, perhaps the least worthy.
III. We must note at this point that there are a variety of reasons why we might hesitate to endorse
the traditional reading.
A. Cultural Limitations
i. The “Thomas Christians” of the Syro-Indian tradition , as we have seen, read Thomas in a
heroic light. They trace their apostolic heritage to Thomas and are inclined to read him
ii. The western tradition frequently focused on a doubt-faith polarity in the story (or a belief by
word alone) and read Thomas as being on the wrong side of that divide.
iii. Particularly since the Enlightenment, the West has a particular fixation on questions of
epistemology and this is likely to push our readings of Thomas in this direction.
B. Dramatic Limitations
i. If the traditional reading is truly dependent on showing Thomas as a consistently faithless
apostle, we have already seen that this is inconclusive based on the evidence of his
appearances in the text.
ii. Dramatically, the reason for Thomas’ demand for proof can only be inferred when we read
a. Is it purely obstinate of Thomas—a refusal to believe anything of Jesus, ever?
b. Is it a disbelief that resurrection itself is impossible, despite the experience of seeing
c. Is it a disbelief that the dead Jesus cannot be the agent of his own resurrection?
d. Is it the simple application of what we now call Occam’s Razor—that the simplest
explanation is likely the true one—and that more likely than Jesus having spontaneously
risen was the idea that his friends are simply hysterical?
iii. More importantly, our understanding of Jesus’ response to Thomas is radically dependent on
our dramatic reading of Jesus’ words.
a. It is possible to read or perform Jesus’ words in the traditional way, as in this
amplification of the text: “[All right, you obstinate fool, if this is what it takes,] Reach out
your hand and put it into my side. And do not persist in your disbelief, but become a
believer [if this finally satisfies you].”
b. It is equally possible to read or perform Jesus’ words in an entirely positive way, as in
this amplification of the text: “[Thomas! My good friend! As incredible as it seems, it’s
true! Rejoice!] Reach out your hand and put it into my side[!]. And do not persist in
your disbelief [which is entirely understandable—I would find it incredible, too], but
become a believer. [As you are really meant to be and, obviously, can’t help but be now
that I’m back and here with you!]”
c. Jesus’ noting that future generations who don’t have the advantage that Thomas (and all
the others) have by simply seeing can only be read as a further rebuke of Thomas
depending on how we have interpreted Jesus’ first saying to Thomas.
d. A variety of such readings are possible. At this point, however, it is enough to note that
the traditional western reading ought not to claim a monopoly on our attention.
C. The Change of Narrative Focus
i. The focus of the resurrection narratives are on Jesus, as both the source and the object of
ii. The traditional reading of this pericope takes the focus off of Jesus and centers it on:
a. the existential wrongness of Thomas’ doubt.
b. the sinful means by which Thomas would attain his flawed “faith.”
iii. Is the traditional reading compatible with the idea that Jesus is the point of the pericope?
D. There appears to be a clash with the intention of the Fourth Gospel.
i. The intention of the entire text, 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.”
ii. 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.
iii. Jesus’ resurrection is presented as the climax of these signs—belying the simple division of
the Gospel into a neat “Book of Signs” and “Book of Glory”—and the critique that John is
offering Thomas as an example of those who demand signs, as in 4:48 (Brown, 1045) is not
satisfactory. This is a sign that is to be seen and to be believed.
iv. If the traditional reading is correct, then Thomas’ demand for the same proof that the other
disciples received is to be read as sinful and worthy of rebuke. It is therefore problematic
that Thomas then gives the only verbal recognition by a disciple of who Jesus is—equivalent
to the reader’s introduction to this truth in the prologue—as a result of his allegedly sinful
IV. The question of who is the implied reader of the text is useful in determining how to best read
A. As we have just seen, the narrator has said that the intention of the text is that these signs
“have be 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.” The implied reader is clearly
then one who must be convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.
B. The implied reader may therefore presumably be unconvinced of this. This puts the implied
reader in the same state or category of “doubting” as Thomas. The idea that Thomas is
supposed to be condemned by the reader therefore becomes problematic.
C. The attention that Jesus draws from the state and person of Thomas in 29 and then gives to
those who have not seen but believed is placed immediately before the narrator’s statement of
intent. We may presume, then, that we are the intended readers of the text.
D. The intended reader appears to be lead through a set of readings designed to bring the reader
from and to the very same places on the scale of doubt and belief that Thomas was on. Jesus is
presumed throughout to be encouraging the movement toward belief, not insisting on it
without going through the process.
V. The plot of the Thomas pericope must be understood as being part of the larger plot of John 20.
A. John 20 is divided into two acts and a conclusion
i. Act I relates the race of Peter and the beloved disciple to the empty tomb and the
appearance to Mary Magdalene, who discovered the empty tomb.
ii. Act II relates the appearance to the 10 and then, a week later, the appearance to Thomas.
iii. The conclusion is the (original?) conclusion-statement of the entire gospel.
B. The Thomas pericope is immediately paired with the previous week’s appearance to the 10.
i. The immediate circumstances are alike: both appearances are on Sunday, when the disciples
are in a secure location.
ii. Both appearances result in belief connected to the vision of Jesus and of his wounds.
iii. Both appearances are in the context of Jesus wishing Peace upon his disciples.
iv. The only thing making a distinction between the two is Thomas’ absence in the first account
and his insistence that he could not possibly believe without having the same proof that the
others had that what they saw was indeed the crucified Jesus alive again.
v. It is difficult to see that Thomas is unusual in what he needs for belief to occur. He might
better be portrayed as honest rather than as deficient.
C. The Thomas pericope is more widely paired with the appearance to Mary Magdalene.
i. Both appearances happen to one who does not expect an appearance.
ii. Both appearances result in a title being confessed for Jesus.
iii. Both appearances are connected to touching Jesus.
iv. The appearances are distinct in that Mary is instructed not to cling to Jesus (the present
imperative of “stop touching me”) whereas Thomas is invited to touch Jesus.
v. The appearances are further distinct in the titles confessed for Jesus, Mary hailing Jesus as
“Rabbuni, which means ‘Teacher’” and Thomas confessing Jesus as “my Lord and my God!”
vi. It may be argued that the narrative makes a theological point that Mary is instructed to not
continue clinging to Jesus because she only recognizes him as what he has appeared to be
—only a prophet or teacher—whereas Thomas is invited to touch because, in the midst of
his doubt, he is prepared—unlike any other disciple—to confess Jesus for who he truly is.
a. There is considerable debate in scholarship of whether or not Thomas actually touched
and probed Jesus, as there is a narrative gap of any such description of Thomas’
examination. The text is ambiguous on the matter, but the clear implication of the
narrative that Jesus could be identified by his wounds is overwhelming.
b. Thomas’ satisfaction in experiencing 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, in inviting Thomas’
touch, would then become the Tempter of Thomas is unappealing.
D. All four of the appearance stories end in belief, despite their different circumstances. Each of
the narratives thus serves as an example and precident for what the narrator has hoped for in
stating his intention for the Gospel.
E. Jesus’ words to Thomas are unnecessarily read as a rebuke in the traditional reading.
i. Jesus’ blessing of those who have not seen but believe is not a backhanded slap at Thomas,
but a simple blessing and observation.
ii. 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.
iii. Jesus, having recognized, accepted and satisfied Thomas’ doubt, then links this to the life of
all subsequent believers.
iv. Thomas’ doubt and subsequent belief becomes paradigmatic of our own, for we are the
implied readers of the text.
v. 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.
vi. 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.
VI. The postive reading of the text solves several problems of the traditional reading.
A. In the traditional reading, the focus of the pericope is Thomas’ doubt. In the positive reading,
the focus of the pericope remains on the risen Jesus as the object and enabler of faith.
B. In the traditional reading, Jesus’ saying to Thomas is harsh, negative and unfair, given the slow
belief of the other disciples. In the positive reading, Jesus’ saying is restorationist and
consistent with the rest of the resurrection appearances.
C. In the traditional reading, Jesus’ blessing of those who have not seen but have still believed
becomes a veiled threat or warning that if we—the unseeing—do not believe, we are going to be
condemned like Thomas was. This is inconsistent with the tone of the other appearances. In
the positive reading, Jesus’ blessing is simply that—a blessing—for the non-eyewitness.
D. The traditional reading allows the red herring of Thomas’ touching-or-not-touching to be
connected to, and to dominate, contemporary debate over the mode of Jesus’ resurrection. The
positive reading recognizes Jesus’ physicality to have already been established in the scene of
the appearance to Mary Magdalene and allows the Thomas pericope to be about the
resurrection as such.
E. The traditional reading creates a doubt-faith dualism out of Jesus’ words and to focus the
attention of the text on Thomas and the self-awareness of the reader on an internal state within
the subject. Here we can see the impact of Bultmann’s insistence that belief or faith ought to
exist (both in the disciples and in ourselves) simply on the word of Jesus without any positive
impact of the “signs” of Jesus. The positive reading of the pericope recognizes a more sound
doubt-to-faith continuity (doubt not being the same as denial) in spirituality and in Jesus’
recognition of the same reality in his invitation to Thomas to move through his doubt and into
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.