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Theological Notebook: My Paper for my Johannine Literature course


Finished the John paper. For any interested in theology, I have it here without footnotes, missing all of my italicizing and such, so there may be a few bits that read roughly. Any Greek characters are surely gibberish. But this is gonna shake up some of the traditional reading of the Thomas story. I think I successfully leave the room splattered with the remains of the scholars of earlier generations. And man, does my head hurt. Time for bed.

Michael Anthony Novak
THEO 233—Johannine Tradition
Prof. William S. Kurz, SJ
Final Paper

Doubting Thomas? Sensible Thomas.
A Narrative-Critical Re-reading of John 20: 24-31.


It is traditional in the Christian exegesis of the West to hear the resurrection story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas as an exhortation for us, the hearers, to ourselves have faith in the risen Jesus. It is also usual to hear the story of Thomas’ demand to have evidence by which he could come to belief as an act of unadmirable audacity on his part. Thomas is held up in preaching and oral tradition as being at fault for his demands and faithlessness, so much so that “Doubting Thomas” has long since become a byword in the English language. His is not a model for Christian faith. In fact, we read, even Jesus severely rebukes him for his demands and his lack of faith. We are then encouraged, it seems, to look down upon Thomas as not being the possessor of a faith for which we—according, again, to Jesus—have a much more blessed form: a faith without the prop of proof.

But is this, in fact, what the text is actually saying? We shall contend here that the narrative, read in its wider context of the overall logic of the narrative of John’s gospel and with some of the insights available through a narrative-critical approach, instead reveals a story of Thomas that can and ought to be read in a very different light than that of the standard interpretation. The Apostle Thomas has been unfairly cast as “Doubting Thomas” when the truth is that Thomas has a perfectly understandable reaction to his circumstances and Jesus accepts this. In fact, Thomas’ questions lead him to the climactic insight of the Gospel.

The Traditional Reading

The traditional reading of the pericope has five significant features to which we must pay attention, a few of which have already been alluded to above. What is first apparent in the traditional reading is that this text is not about Jesus’ resurrection, per se. Instead, the subject of the pericope is in fact Thomas’ doubt. Read in this way, the real intention of the story is for the reader or hearer to consider the nature and ground of faith, and which faith is in fact a proper or worthy faith for the believer.

Another feature of the traditional reading is that Thomas is presented as being at fault for not believing the testimony of the other disciples as a sole basis for belief. Although they themselves have had an eyewitness encounter with the risen Jesus, and had themselves seen “his hands and his side” (v. 20), the testimony of the disciples is insufficient for him to come to belief. As the readers’ faith is presumably based upon the testimony of the apostles, Thomas falls short of the standard expected of all believers who are not eyewitnesses themselves.

Thomas is further presented as overstepping the bounds of a sort of “propriety of faith” by insisting that he would not believe until he not only sees what the other disciples saw, but can in fact touch the wounds on the risen Jesus himself. The demand for proof of what is being claimed by his fellow disciples is set up in this reading of the narrative as the opposite of faith. Faith becomes something for which there can be no proof or evidence, or it no longer remains faith.

A fourth feature of this reading of the text is that Jesus must then only tell Thomas to satisfy his doubt only as a concession to his faithlessness. Jesus is willing to allow Thomas to proceed, but this is presented as a deficient need on Thomas’ part. This deficiency makes it necessary for Jesus to go to extra lengths to ensure Thomas’ faith, but Jesus, who is read as variously being surprised, disappointed or irritated at Thomas’ demand, makes it clear that his granting Thomas’ request is an exceptional act on Jesus’ part.
The last aspect of this reading to notice here is that Jesus is presented as rebuking Thomas for his lack of belief. Whatever Jesus’ actual emotion, he is certainly presented as being disapproving, and after chastising Thomas for his faithlessness, further rebukes him by negatively comparing his deficient faith to the superior faith of all those who will believe without having seen what Thomas has seen.
The traditional reading is a consistent reading, and it has enjoyed a long popularity, being easy to understand, having a clear, memorable point, and highly reinforces a kind of loyalty in belief. Thomas is held up as an example of what not to demand for the hearer and what to do in order to have an “approved” faith by Jesus, as he is understood in this reading.

Thomas In The Narrative Setting of the Gospel of John

One of the things that is immediately noticeable in the traditional reading of the pericope is that the character of Thomas—“Doubting” Thomas—is critical to the understanding of the narrative. This ought to be understood in both senses of the word “character:” both Thomas’ moral or psychological character is being considered here, as well as his role as a character in the narrative sense, where he acts as a foil for Jesus in highlighting the proper sort of faith that ought to characterize the believer. The first question that must be asked if we are going to determine the accuracy of the traditional reading must then be “Who is Thomas?” In order to answer that as best we can, let us consider the results of a standard historical-critical approach to the question.

“Thomas” is an Aramaic equivalent to “Didymus,” both of which mean “Twin.” It is most likely a nickname, as John is well aware, which can be seen in his habit of mentioning that this is “the one called ‘Thomas.’” Given the predilection that Jesus seems to have had for giving people nicknames, it may be one that came directly from him. What Thomas’ 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. The Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas likewise identifies its writer as “Didymos Judas Thomas.” Later Gnostic tradition made him an actual twin of Jesus. 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.

We can try to remain on firmer footing by focusing our attention on the narrative of the Fourth Gospel and discerning how Thomas is presented there. In John, Thomas receives his fullest development of any of the gospels. He is mentioned three, or possibly four, times in the text other than in the chapter 20 pericope. In the other gospels and in Acts, he is merely present in lists of the Twelve.

His first appearance in John comes in 11:16 after Jesus has determined to go his friend Lazarus. The disciples had objected that Jesus’ enemies in Judea were trying to kill him, but Jesus then revealed that Lazarus had already died. We then read, “Thomas, called ‘the Twin,’ said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” The saying is ambiguous, with commentators calling it everything from courageous loyalty to cynicism. Is Thomas expressing a unity with Jesus or with Lazarus? Is it a statement of faith or a despairing remark as Jesus marches off into what the disciples fear is the deathtrap that Judea has become for him?

His next appearance, in 14: 5, seems somewhat clearer. As Jesus speaks to the disciples in the “Last Supper” discourse, he says that he will be going away but that the disciples know the way to where he is going. “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” This seems to be a much more straightforward question. Jesus is speaking cryptically and Thomas expresses confusion.

His last certain appearance in John merely places him in the company of the disciples who appear in chapter 21, in what seems to be the epilogue of the gospel: Jesus with the disciples in Galilee. “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.” There is no more specific attention given to him, but we can at least see that he continues to be admitted into Jesus’ company after the high drama of the scene at the end of chapter 20.

There may be one more appearance of Thomas in the gospel, however, although we have to treat this as extremely tentative. 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?’” This saying would be much more akin to what we have already seen in 14:5, which is the straightforward asking of a question in response to a difficult saying of Jesus’. But given that Thomas is already mentioned (by that name) in the passage, the possibility that this is Thomas speaking again may be less likely.

Leaving aside, then, the account of the appearance to Thomas in John 20—since it is that account which we are examining—what might we then conclude about Thomas from these passages? Not a great deal, it seems. The first passage can be read in a variety of ways and the text gives us no further clues as to how to approach it. The second is a question, certainly, but by itself gives us little insight into Thomas. And in the third scene, Thomas is silent. Thomas’ appearances are ambiguous in providing us any firm sense of his character. It is from our reading of his extended appearance in chapter 20 that we will extrapolate a meaning, if we can, to these other texts. If we follow the traditional reading, “Doubting Thomas” is likely revealed as consistent with the other texts, for we may read the first account as Thomas expressing exasperation with the seemingly-reckless choices of Jesus, and the second (and the possible fourth) as the dogged persistence of the true skeptic in continuing to badger Jesus with questions. Even the third passage, the silent Thomas might be read as being cowed by the harshness of his rebuke in the previous chapter. But all of this is tenuous.

In fact, we have across the wider Christian tradition a real diversity of readings of the character of Thomas. Exegetes of the Indian/Syrian tradition take these very same passages and read him as a courageous leader of the disciples who asks his Master the most penetrating questions. This is a far cry from Western exegesis, which puts him on the bottom of the totem pole as “Doubting Thomas,” the most skeptical and least faithful of the disciples, and, by implication, perhaps the least worthy.

Doubting “Doubting Thomas”

We must note at this point that there are a variety of reasons why we might hesitate to endorse the traditional reading. There are cultural limitations or inclinations that come into play with the reading of the text, as well as profound dramatic limitations that can be placed upon how we read the text which have an enormous impact on its potential meaning. It can also be observed that the traditional reading involves a change of narrative focus in John’s resurrection accounts that is questionable, and finally that there seems to be a clash with the overall authorial intention of the Fourth Gospel. The cumulative weight of these points might especially give us pause in following the traditional reading.

Cultural Limitations. We have already begun to note the potential cultural limitations in the traditional reading of the text by observing that for the “Thomas Christians of the Syro-Indian tradition, the apostle Thomas is read in an entirely heroic light. As a wing of the wider church that traces their apostolic heritage back to Thomas himself, they are inclined to read him positively. Indeed, that is their tradition, supplemented by such later literature as the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. In contrast, the western tradition frequently focused on a doubt-faith polarity in the story (or a belief by word alone, as we see in Clement of Alexandria) and read Thomas as being on the wrong side of this divide. This tendency would only been heightened in western readings since the Enlightenment, for since then the West has had a particular fixation on questions of epistemology and this is likely to have pushed readings of Thomas even further in this direction.

Dramatic Limitations. There are even stronger reservations to be made once we realize the importance of the limitations that our dramatic understanding of the text would make on our reading. By “dramatic understanding” we mean that how we understand Thomas as a character in the story that we are reading or hearing is greatly affected by our choice of words to emphasize and how we emphasize them. Wildly different readings are possible with the very same text, depending on our tone and intention. If the traditional reading is truly dependent on showing Thomas as a consistently faithless apostle, we have already seen that this characterization of him is not a conclusive one based on the evidence of his appearances in the text. The supposition of Thomas’ faithlessness is then solely dependent on how we read this text.

But dramatically, the reason for Thomas’ demand for proof can only be inferred when we read the text. Is it purely obstinate of Thomas—a refusal to believe anything of Jesus, ever? Is it a disbelief that resurrection itself is possible, despite the experience of seeing Lazarus? Is it a disbelief that the dead Jesus cannot be the agent of his own resurrection? 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? Each of these is possible, and each of these if given to an actor as their “motivation” when reading Thomas’ lines would present a different picture of Thomas to us.

Even more importantly, our understanding of Jesus’ response to Thomas is radically dependent on our dramatic reading of Jesus’ words. It is possible to read or perform Jesus’ words in the traditional way, as in the following over-amplification of the RSV translation:
“[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 even this will finally satisfy you].”

It is equally possible, through a change in dramatic intent and tone to read or perform Jesus’ words in an entirely positive way, as in this opposing over-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!]”

It is also important here to not that a literal translation of the Greek in this passage would not be “don’t not persist in your unbelief.” Variations of this translation set a dramatic tone that strongly casts Thomas’ present, fixed state as “unbelief.” Literally, however, the Greek reads, “Do not become faithless but faithful.” This recognizes that Thomas’ dramatic moment is one of indecision. The drama is heightened by Jesus perceiving that despite Thomas’ caution and vocal reservations, he has not yet come to a final position: he is open to movement and Jesus encourages him to move properly.

Jesus goes on to bless future generations who do not have the advantage that Thomas and all the other disciples have in seeing him risen. This can only be read as a further rebuke of Thomas depending on how we have interpreted Jesus’ first saying to Thomas. It would be possible in a positive reading for Jesus’ second saying to be a simple statement of fact as it is written. What is clear is that 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.

The Change of Narrative Focus. Another reason why we might hesitate to follow the traditional reading of the pericope is that this classical reading seems to shift the focus of the narrative in an odd direction. The focus of the resurrection narratives are on Jesus, as both the source and the object of faith. The traditional reading of this pericope takes the focus off of Jesus and centers it on two points: the existential wrongness of Thomas’ doubt, and the sinful means by which Thomas would attain his flawed “faith.” The first point creates a definition of faith that is ideal in the extreme: faith becomes the existential absence of doubt. It is a level of faith arguably demonstrated nowhere in the Hebrew tradition, where faith comes at the cost of Abraham bargaining for an ever-lower standard for God’s judgment of Sodom or Moses’ people being adrift in the desert for forty years. The second point criminalizes Thomas’ behaviour in wanting to approach and understand God: a motivation that one could also arguably present as underlying all of Jewish spirituality. This shift in emphasis away from the resurrection of Jesus per se, and into a self-absorbed, self-assessment of the potency of one’s faith raises the question of whether the traditional reading compatible with the idea that Jesus is the point of the pericope?

A Discrepancy with the Intention. This leads directly to the final reason for reservation that we must consider. There appears to be a clash between the traditional reading of the Thomas pericope and the very intention of the Fourth Gospel. 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 have life in his name.” 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. 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 , is not satisfactory. This is a sign that is to be seen and to be believed. 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 action.

We may or may not be convinced that we need to be cautious about reading this pericope because of the cultural limitations of the traditional reading, the dramatic limitations of it, the effect of the change of focus in the text, or the seeming-discrepancy between the traditional reading and the stated intent of the Gospel. The cumulative effect of these reservations, however, should give the reader great pause in being willing to endorse the common reading. But this is merely a negative argument. How then might we try to determine, in a more positive fashion, the proper way to read the account?

The Implied Reader

The narrative-critical concept of who “the implied reader” of the text is can be useful for determining how to best read the pericope. 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 have life in his name.” The motifs of both signs performed by Jesus and of dialogue centered around the identity of Jesus are spread throughout John’s gospel. This assures us of our ability to identify the stated intention for the reader in 20:31 with the reader who is implied throughout the gospel. The implied reader is clearly one of two possibilities. The text could either be addressed to someone who is already a Christian believer and who needs to be affirmed in their faith, or the text could be directed at one who must be convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.

These two possibilities actually lead to a very similar existential point. The implied reader is either one whose faith needs a kind of reinforcement, or is one who may presumably be unconvinced that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. Broadly speaking, this seems to put the implied reader in the same state or category of “doubting” as Thomas. For whether one is already a believer who needs their faith feed, strengthened or augmented, or whether one is uncertain of making the commitment of faith, both of these states are similar to the state in which Thomas found himself. Thomas felt that he needed the proof of seeing and handling the risen Christ for faith be enacted for himself. Whether you choose to describe that as a faith that needed something more, or whether you call that no faith at all, it seems to amount to the same thing. Since the implied reader has this commonality with Thomas, the idea that Thomas is supposed to be condemned by the reader therefore becomes problematic.

The identity of the implied reader is also illuminated in the structure of the pericope. In verse 29, Jesus draws attention away from the state and person of Thomas and then gives to those who have not seen but believed:

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

We must take very seriously the placement of this scene’s final saying of Jesus immediately before the narrator’s statement of intent in 30-31:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

The connection of these two by the author strongly implies that those who are to believe on the basis of this gospel are those who “have not seen and yet believe.” Far beyond any scholarly talk of a “Johannine Community” for whom the Gospel was written, the text itself endorses a much wider audience: we may presume that we are the intended readers of the text. Not “we” conceived of as “21st Century readers,” but “we” conceived broadly as belonging to those “who have not seen,” but through the words of the Gospel are given what the author conceives of as sufficient vision for “seeing” to become believing.

The intended reader appears to be lead through a set of readings designed for the express purpose of bringing the reader from and to the very same places on the scale of doubt and belief that Thomas was on. By taking the reader through the signs and through the discourses, the narrative’s Jesus is presumed throughout to be encouraging the reader’s movement toward belief. The text—and Jesus as he is presented in the text—does not insist on belief occurring without going through the process of becoming—through the text—an “eyewitness” to what is sufficient for belief.

The Plot of John 20

The plot of the Thomas pericope must be understood as being part of the larger plot of John 20. While what later centuries have come to call the 20th chapter of John is not meant to stand alone, isolated from the rest of the Gospel, it is clear that John 20 has a distinct structure. The organization of how the story moves in this chapter—its plot—is also of great use for us in determining the intent of the narrative.

John 20 is divided into two acts and a conclusion. 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. Act II relates the appearance to the 10 and then, a week later, the appearance to Thomas. The conclusion is the (original?) conclusion and intention statement of the entire gospel, which we have just examined above. The Thomas pericope appears in the second act and has its most obvious relationship to the rest of the second act, but it also has a distinct relationship to the first act, both of which merit our attention.

The Thomas pericope is more immediately paired with the previous week’s appearance to the other disciples. Many of the circumstances of the two scenes are alike: both appearances are on Sunday, when the disciples are in a secure location. Both appearances result in belief connected to the vision of Jesus and of his wounds. Both appearances are in the context of Jesus wishing Peace upon his disciples. The only thing making a distinction between the two—which also supplies the chief drama contrasting 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. This heightens the drama. An outline is given by Thomas for what would constitute credible belief. Expectation is put upon Jesus, if Jesus is really there. What is perhaps most striking in Act II is that Thomas’ demands are met. Even if there is some debate as to whether Thomas actually touched Jesus or probed his wounds, the offer was made, and what was sufficient for Thomas’ demands and expectations on Jesus was met. In fact, Jesus is presented as immediately addressing Thomas’ concerns: Thomas’ concerns are Jesus’ concerns. This is in great contrast to Jesus’ refusal to meet other demands for signs. So is this a concession to the same kind of demand, as the traditional reading would have it, or is this a recognition by Jesus that there is something qualitatively different about Thomas’ needs? It is difficult to see that Thomas is unusual in what he needs for belief to occur. He merely repeats, in more graphic form, the core of what the other disciples have already experienced. He might better be portrayed as honest or self-aware rather than as deficient. Those who questioned Jesus earlier questioned him in order to disbelieve; Thomas questioned Jesus in order to believe.

The Thomas pericope is more widely paired with the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:11-18. A number of similarities are readily apparent. Both appearances happen to one who does not expect an appearance. Both appearances result in a title being confessed for Jesus. Both appearances are connected to touching Jesus. 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. 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!” In analyzing these two incidents in terms of plot, we take the following under consideration: that the differences are important, and that plot must move forward toward climax, resolution and understanding. The paired appearances of Jesus appearing to the disciples without Thomas and then with Thomas are clear in this: the plot is moved forward by having Thomas’ lack met by Jesus. With the strong parallels between the appearances to Mary and to Thomas encouraging us to connect them, we then must ask how the contrast between the prior appearance to Mary and then the latter appearance to Thomas advances the plot.

The differences, again, are in terms of touch and confession. If we assume that the differences are seen by John as advancing the plot, we must look to Thomas’ encounter with Jesus as being given some sort of added emphasis. Thomas is invited to touch Jesus and confesses Jesus as Lord and God. Since the confession is clearly a climax, we can reason backward to Mary’s encounter with Jesus to see what was the unfulfilled potential in her encounter that then goes on to fulfillment in Thomas’ scene. 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. Hers is the first witness to the resurrection, but it remains insufficient in itself. Were her confession to be the last word of the Gospel, the intention stated in 20:31 and underlying all of the plot since the beginning would go unfulfilled. In contrast, 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: Lord and God. Thomas’ confession is the climax of the Gospel and the conclusion of both the plot of the entire Gospel and of chapter 20. He is the first disciple to articulate the knowledge into which the reader has been initiated with the Prologue: that Jesus is divine. The Gospel has continued to reinforce this one conclusion to the reader through demonstration after demonstration, but only now, with Jesus’ resurrection, has the insight been achieved in the time and plot of the narrative.

There is considerable debate in scholarship over 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. Thomas’ satisfaction in experiencing Jesus’ physical, living presence—his resurrection—is easily read as being “pro-touch” and the “champion against the docetic tendencies.” Likewise the narrative would stand against Raymond Brown and those who feel that Thomas actually accepting Jesus’ invitation would be a further act of faithlessness and that he “would have ceased to be a disciple.” The idea that Jesus, in inviting Thomas’ touch, would then become the Tempter of Thomas is unappealing.

All four of the appearance stories in chapter 20 end in belief, despite their different circumstances. Each of the narratives thus serves as an example and precedent for the belief that the narrator has hoped to engender, as is stated in his intention for the Gospel. This shows a strong contrast to the final appearance story of chapter 21—the “epilogue” of the Gospel—in which belief is not produced by Jesus’ appearance because belief in the resurrected Jesus is already taken for granted, although the experience of encountering him is still stunning, as can be seen in 21:12.

The final component in the plot of chapter 20 is Jesus’ response to Thomas’ confession of him as Lord and God.
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Greek for the first sentence— #Oti e9w&raka&v me pepi/steukav—is not necessarily a question. It is just as easily translated “Because you have seen me, you have believed.” What is the difference? In pure information content, it is a simple conditional connecting Thomas seeing to his belief. But in dramatic delivery, there is a strong difference. As a question, it creates a level of confrontation—expressed, it seems, somewhat disdainfully—that it lacks as a statement. The decision to translate it as a question, then, makes it consistent with the traditional reading of the text, and may indeed be the primary reason to translate it that way. But given the reservations raised thus far to the traditional reading, we will opt for reading it as a statement and see how this would affect our reading of the text. The argument here, in short, is that Jesus’ words to Thomas are unnecessarily read as a rebuke in the traditional reading. Jesus’ blessing of those who have not seen but believe is not a backhanded slap at Thomas, but rather is a simple blessing and observation. Again, there are no words of condemnation, but merely of contrast. Jesus notes and recognizes the sensible basis of Thomas’ belief—the same basis for the other disciples’ belief after he appeared to them the previous week. He contrasts Thomas opportunity to see with those who will not have that benefit and adds a blessing for them, addressing all future believers in an indirect way. Jesus, having recognized, accepted and satisfied Thomas’ doubt, has linked this doubt to the lives of all subsequent believers. Thomas’ doubt and subsequent belief therefore becomes paradigmatic of our own, for, as we saw, we are the implied readers of the text. The stated intention in the concluding remarks of verse 31, “so that you may have faith,” indicates that, like Thomas, our need or doubt is pre-supposed and accepted. 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. This reading is much more consistent with the tone of Jesus throughout the rest of the resurrection appearances in chapters 20 and 21, where he has no harsh words for even Peter, but instead speaks towards the restoration and commissioning of his disciples.

Conclusion: Problems Solved By The Positive Reading

We can summarize by noting that the positive reading of the text solves several problems of the traditional reading. The cumulative effect of these solutions then constitutes in themselves a final argument in favour of reading the pericope positively.

∑ 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 as the one who is Lord and God.

∑ 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.

∑ 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.

∑ The traditional reading creates a doubt-faith dualism out of Jesus’ words. The attention of the text is focused on an internal state within the subject, both in Thomas and, by extension, the self-awareness of the reader. Especially in our contemporary reading, we can see here 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 this same reality in his invitation to Thomas to move through his doubt and into faith.

∑ 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.

So 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. Not only were they normative, it is Thomas, the one who expressed the most careful and vocal reserve regarding Jesus’ resurrection, who is shown as having the truest insight to it, an insight that the reader and hearer of the Gospel are invited to share.
Tags: gospels, jesus, jewish mysticism, johannine literature, theological notebook, writing

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