Those who use the expression “a Doubting Thomas” to heap scorn on those who question some aspect of faith would do well to check out the story of Thomas a little more carefully. Even in the fragmentary glimpses of Thomas in the gospels, we get a hint that Thomas is a man to be reckoned with.
Thomas gets hardly a mention in the four New Testament gospels, but before we get to his famous doubts, we might also remember that earlier (Ch 11) when the disciples are trying to talk Jesus out of visiting Lazarus who was understood to have been very sick, and what’s more a visit in the very area where villagers had previously attempted to stone Jesus, it was Thomas who reportedly said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.
He may later have expressed doubts about Jesus coming back to life, but in the Lazarus episode he was showing clear signs of courage. Tradition makes the further claim that Thomas subsequently made his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then onto to South India where he was eventually martyred. This was hardly the mark of someone perpetually paralyzed by doubt.
As John the gospel writer tells the story, we tend to forget that Thomas was entitled to his doubts in that unlike the other disciples he had not already seen the risen Christ.
Certainly sometimes doubts can be corrosive, but Thomas used his doubts in a constructive manner. His challenge to meet with the risen Christ is portrayed by John as a test, and presumably, since we learn Thomas went on to use whatever he had discovered to inspire him to become a missionary, if anything his doubts appeared to lead to a firmer faith. If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting even seems more like rational thinking than credulity.
The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question.
Remember too that in one sense the claims are still outrageous. Since the Bible is a curious amalgam of patchy history, poetry, culture, inspiration, parable, myth and praise, it is always hard to be certain which narrative parts are being recorded as history and which parts are closer to parable to encourage us in faith. Even if we are of a mind to see faith in terms of a catechism in which the thinking is left to Church leaders who instruct us as to the acceptable answers to all the tricky questions, it seems to me that all the best answers have always come from squarely facing one’s own honest doubts.
Certainly it is true that Thomas’ doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet we might wonder if this had its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. Thomas, whose gospel was claimed to predate the other New Testament gospels, had Gnostic traditions interwoven with teachings of Jesus which were then used by the other gospel writers. This may help explain why his gospel got voted out of the final collection of books chosen for the New Testament. We might also note in passing that for the most part the gospel attributed to Thomas was mainly of sayings of Jesus and was clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.
For those who find it hard to countenance a Bible where editorial policy has helped shape the narrative, just remember that the four gospels already differ in detail when they report the same events.(See for example my article “Shaping God”). We now know for example some verses were added some years later by an unknown author to flesh out Mark’s version of the death of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. We know from earlier versions these verses were missing and they did not appear till well after the original author had died. Other changes have also been noted in other of the New Testament books, so it is reasonable to at least acknowledge later editing as a possibility.
One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus = the twin ( ie the Aramaic for Thomas gives us Tau’ma or T’oma also meaning twin) but within the traditions some have gone further and claimed he was no less than the twin of Jesus. If this was actually the case, it goes without saying that this would have serious consequences for anyone insisting on the reality of the story of the Virgin Birth. However the notion of Thomas being the Twin of Jesus is also thought to lend a little credence to the implication in one of the Nag Hammadi texts (the Book of Thomas the Contender), in which Jesus himself is quoted as saying: “Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion…….” If there was this family connection, this may even have been why another book “The Infancy Gospel of Jesus” purporting to tell the story of Jesus early childhood is also attributed to Thomas.
At the same time, these traditions are still important. There is absolutely no doubt that a Thomas , who by all accounts appears to be the apostle Thomas, was a major figure in starting the Church of South India. The Catholic Church also highly values the Thomas traditions and one of their major teachings, the assumption of Mary to heaven, lists Thomas as the only witness to this event.
It is hard to be certain of how much the record of readings attributed to Thomas or for that matter miracles later attributed to Thomas in India, are based on fanciful recollections by his later admirers.
My personal favourite Thomas story is one which has Thomas as architect and builder in South India getting the commission to build King Gundaphorus (sp?) a lavish palace. Thomas allegedly decided to teach the King a lesson by giving the large sum of money for the project away to the poor. According to the story, when the outraged King got wind of this trick, Thomas’s defence was that he was building the king a Palace in heaven with this act of charity. My own cynicism has me wondering if in fact Thomas would have been able to avoid death if he had actually tried that on any autocratic ruler of the age in that part of the world, but I still like the story.
In an even more improbable example in the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, there is the story of a five year old Jesus carving some sparrows out of wood on the Sabbath, only have them then come to life and fly away. This would be miracle indeed, but clearly quite different in type to the miracles in New Testament gospels.
Please don’t hear me saying that my doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories attributed to Thomas therefore mean the stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’ parables, the values that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.
I guess I am also implying that some dimensions of faith require a healthy skepticism, but in the same way that Thomas could express his doubts in an open and honest way without abandoning his faith altogether, I suspect that ultimately we must be free to ask our questions and do our own thinking before we settle on the main directions for our lives.
There are some forms of doubts which lead to progress. I would like to suggest that the natural skepticism towards current scientific understanding shown by most of the now famous scientists was actually the key to their progress. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science used to say that it is only when you try to disprove an accepted theory that science moves forward.
I suspect that has been the same for the prophets and theologians through the centuries. The first believers in primitive Judaism were satisfied that their limited tribal notions of a localized and partisan God were quite sufficient and it took first the prophets and finally Jesus himself to show why this notion of faith deserved to be doubted.
And historically this process did not stop with Jesus. Christian ethics have been continually doubted, questioned and reshaped to deal with the needs of a changing society. Slavery and blind nationalism, at one time cornerstones of tribal society, have gradually given way to understanding that neighbours do not have to share one’s own religion or status level in the community. The assumption that all disease and disaster had religious cause has been modified as science has informed us about the causes of disease. In the same way our growing understanding about the universe and the laws of nature has caused us to question previous superstitions about the night skies.
Since conditions for the World’s communities have continued to change we now have a whole raft of new problems to face. Now we can produce more food by mass food production techniques a whole series of issues relating to the fair distribution of this food are currently being debated.
We need those who can express their doubts about traditional trade practice and resource management regardless of what may have worked in the past. Love your neighbour needs new expression in changed circumstances.
In an age where physical strength was valued, it made sense to have a male dominated society. In a modern society where education rather than physical strength is the basis of leadership, it makes sense to re-evaluate the respective roles of males and females. To doubt the aspects of faith designed to retain the old values of male domination is not automatically anti-Christian. Since biblical statements about role were designed for a now out-dated culture, the ethics that came from that culture also need rewriting (women priests for the Catholic Church perhaps??)
Advances in medicine mean we now have the problem of euthanasia to consider for those being kept artificially alive long past the expected life span. Advances in weapons research mean we now have to reassess when war is morally acceptable.
There are those who object to all advances of thinking on the grounds that today’s understandings confront us with ideas incompatible with what the forefathers in religion used to believe. And a flat earth society still exists! Remember it was the orthodox Church who took Galileo to task for questioning that the Earth was the centre of the universe, just as their predecessors had done earlier when “heretics” had first suggested that the Earth was not flat nor supported on pillars as the Psalmist had asserted. It was the Bible literalists who objected to the science of geology casting doubts on a six thousand year old Earth, and no doubt there will always be those who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened.
Because we are blessed with those who continue to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and those who insist that apparently unreasonable assumptions are tested, we can be certain that transforming knowledge will continue to grow. Whether or not we are brave enough to do our own testing, and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith is a question for our own individual life story.
Postscript: Regular followers of my site will have noted that this is the same sermon I offered for Easter 2 last year where the same text from the gospel of John is in the lectionary. My only excuse is that this is an exceptionally busy week!