[Note: This post, like my previous one , is part of a personal study I did on the twelve apostles a few years ago.]
Dedication: To Elizabeth Zahar Russ, second child (and first daughter) of Bobby and Jackie Russ, born on March 14, 2005, and whose birth announcement was received as I wrote this paper the next day.
Thomas Didymus, so named because he was a twin (rare in those days before fertility drugs), has an assured place among those who know about the Bible, even second hand. He was a hero of the Gnostics, who forged a pseudonymous Gospel and attached his name to it. Among the legitimate Gospel writers, only John feels the need to go into any detail about Thomas, and the detail he chooses to write about is intriguing and worthy of exploration. However, even casual knowledge about the Bible will include Thomas’ most enduring legacy as the original “doubting Thomas.” While this reputation is not fair, the story of Thomas refusing to believe that Jesus Christ was actually resurrected has been responsible for his remaining common knowledge about the Bible. Personally speaking, as someone who favors underdogs and champions those whose reputations are unfairly maligned (whether they are humans, planets, or animals), Thomas is a character of interest for me personally. Given his lasting place in Christianity, it is important to consider the example of Thomas Didymus.
Gospel of Thomas
Before we go into the Biblical Thomas, it is important to realize that Thomas has an importance beyond true Christianity to the Gnostic sects. While the biblical (and true) Thomas appears to have been a somewhat rationalistic person (as this author is as well) with a somewhat dark and pessimistic nature (ditto), the Gnostic Thomas is an obscure purveyor of bizarre Gnostic teachings that include the changing of sexual natures from female to male, the slandering of the physical in place of greater spirituality, images of light and darkness, and the value of esoteric knowledge. Among the Gnostic sects, those who penned this forgery must be considered ascetics rather than libertines.
The Gospel of Thomas was probably written in the first century by an early Gnostic sect. Its writing can probably be narrowed to 70-90AD. This is true because Thomas does not appear by name, except in the general listing of the apostles, in the three synoptic Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke take little interest in Thomas or in stories about Thomas. However, after his recasting as a Gnostic hero, it was necessary for John to combat this false image of Thomas by giving stories of Thomas. These stories, of which there are four, are relatively minor, only one of them (the “doubting Thomas” story) gaining any remembrance for casual students of the Bible. Since John wrote his Gospel towards the end of the 1st century and makes a point of including Thomas in its discourses, the original forgery of the Gospel of Thomas can safely be dated before then.
The Gospel of Thomas has an odd organization, being made up of 114 sayings, most of them rather obscure. Preserved in fragments found at Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus (presumably Gnostic areas in Egypt), this book has achieved popularity again thanks to its inclusion as part of the heretical Gnostic “Jesus Project” and its inspiration of certain parts of The DaVinci Code, another Gnostic work. Most of the Gospel of Thomas appears to be a highly dualistic work, contrasting dark and light (That is not to say that the Bible does not take advantage of dualism, albeit in a less severe form, in John’s writings, for example.). Among the more troublesome parts of the Gospel of Thomas are its highly misogynistic leanings, which come to the fore in Sayings 15 (a Manichean saying concerning one not born of a woman) and Saying 114, which states that the female element must make itself male. Given the insistence of the genderless nature of God and the avoidance of the flesh, the radical asceticism of the author(s) of this Gospel cannot be disputed. The assimilation of other Gospel quotes and references to this fake Gospel is a demonstration of the prior existence of legitimate Gospels that the Gnostics distorted and pilfered for their own wicked ends.
The Gospel of Thomas is, on the whole, a rather quirky piece of literature. It seems to focus on the internal to the exclusion of the external. Also, there are references to the countryside as being superior to the city. These odd references would seem to suggest that the particular Gnostic sect responsible for the Gospel of Thomas had a pro-rural bias and was slanted against cities and towns. Also, comments as to God being everywhere smack of pantheism. Many comments about assassinations or deaths, as well as the immortality of the soul, would seem to suggest that the heretics responsible for the Gospel of Thomas were obsessed with death, as well as with being solitary individuals searching for truth alone, which is quite bizarre. Perhaps the Gnostics responsible for the Gospel of Thomas were an individualistic cult, which would make sense, and would account for the revival in popularity of the Gospel of Thomas today. The work, while intriguing and highly bizarre, is a blatant forgery, and John was right to act against it quickly and firmly.
Thomas’ Place Among The Disciples
As has been shown previously in the introduction to the Twelve Apostles , Thomas ranks in seventh place in the seniority of the twelve. As a member of the second tier of apostles, Thomas was probably not considered a high leadership character among the twelve. However, his loyalty to Jesus Christ was absolute. He appears to have known Peter, Andrew, James, and John before receiving his apostolic commission (we will explore the implications of John 21:1-6, where Thomas appears as a fisherman, possibly a native of Capernaum). Like the other members of the second tier of the twelve apostles: Philip, Bartholomew, and Matthew, there are a few incidents recorded of his role among the apostles, but nowhere near as many as the top four (and in particular the top three) apostles had. Still, among the recorded incidents involving Thomas we have examples of doctrinal musings, stubborn loyalty to Christ, and fellowship with his fellow apostles. Thomas certainly was a well-respected and constant member of the apostles, and deserves credit for it.
Popularity and Reputation of Thomas
Thomas’ popularity and reputation are somewhat paradoxical. Thomas is popular for all the wrong reasons (the spurious Gospel of Thomas, reviewed above). Among Christians, however, Thomas is not often considered as a positive example, and hence his reputation can be considered poor. Thomas’ bad reputation is unearned, as he was no less skeptical of the resurrection of Christ than the other apostles. However, no one is ever called a “doubting Peter” or a “doubting James.” No, people who are skeptical are called “doubting Thomases,” and this is an unfair maligning of the reputation of a stalwart apostle. This is not to say that Thomas was a perfect apostle or a perfect person. Certainly that is not the case. However, to judge Thomas for one incident in which he alone of the apostles was not present at first is a gross distortion of the biblical account. This paper, to some extent then, is an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Thomas, and to show his proper role as an apostle, and as an inspiration for us all, especially those of us of a dark and skeptical bend. Christ calls all sorts of people, not just sunny and cheery people who never doubt anything.
Thomas in the Bible
Besides the lists of apostles shown in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, the only mention of Thomas occurs in the Gospel of John. Some reasons for this, namely the need to combat the spurious Gospel of Thomas, were explained in the introduction. However, the four incidents in which Thomas plays a role are of interest to us as Christians, because they portray an apostle in a variety of circumstances. In the first incident, recorded in John 11:1-16, we find Thomas urging his fellow disciples to go with Jesus to Judea even as Christ proclaimed his own upcoming death. This is the act of a loyal disciple, even if a somewhat gloomy one. The second incident, recorded in John 14:1-6, finds Thomas pondering the imminent departure of Jesus Christ and wondering how he can find the way to follow Him. Again, we find a serious and loyal disciple struggling with understandable sadness. The third, and most famous incident, shows Thomas doubting that Christ has resurrected, and how he was gently convinced of the truth of the resurrection, recorded in John 20:24-29. The final incident recording Thomas is in John 21:1-6, where Thomas (as well as certain other disciples) goes fishing with Simon Peter, James, John, Nathanael, and two other apostles (perhaps Andrew and Philip, who are known to come from the area of Capernaum as well). This is the famous incident where Peter is restored as the leader of the twelve after his disastrous denials on the night Jesus was taken. In these incidents we find Thomas as a solid and loyal member of the twelve.
The first incident in which Thomas appears in a prominent (i.e. named) role is after the death of Lazarus, recorded in John 11. Jesus’ actions concerning the death of Lazarus are somewhat puzzling, and they must have appeared so the disciples at the time, though the reason for Jesus’ actions is readily apparent afterward. Christ delays going to Bethany upon hearing (presumably in Perea) about his sickness. Instead of healing the sick, which was a common enough miracle for Jesus Christ (recorded many times in the Gospels), or even healing someone who had recently died (which also occurs, albeit not as frequently, in the Gospels), Christ made it a point to delay going to Bethany so he could raise Lazarus after being in the grave for several days. This is a power that only God possesses, and his use of it would be an indisputable demonstration of his divinity, since the death of Lazarus would have been a known and incontrovertible fact to his friends and family.
The disciples, as can be expected, were not aware of this, however. They misinterpreted his comments (which is only natural for humans not given God’s Holy Spirit, and for which they really cannot be blamed), and thought that Lazarus was not dead, but only sick. After all, they had seen Jesus heal the sick many times, and had no doubt that Christ could do so again in the case of Lazarus, who like his sisters Mary and Martha was a friend of them all. Then, when Jesus said plainly that Lazarus was dead, He stated again that He was glad for them that they would be able to see Him raise the dead. Since His own death was imminent, seeing someone raised from the dead after being in the grave for days would be an incident that they would be able to draw hope on. Jesus’ concern for His disciples cannot be neglected, and is apparent in His behavior concerning the sickness, death, and resurrection of Lazarus.
Thomas, however, makes a surprising comment in verse sixteen, saying: “Then Thomas, who is called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” It is likely from this comment that the disciples were (understandably) gloomy at this time concerning the impending death of Jesus Christ. Surely they had heard statements that he was going to Jerusalem to die, and this would have been depressing for anyone. Thomas, however, in this trial, showed a stalwart loyalty to Jesus Christ and urged his fellow members of the twelve to stand by Christ and go wherever they went. In fact, we see in Thomas a particular loyalty to Christ and a desire to follow Christ wherever He went, even if it was the grave. Thomas should not be faulted for such devotion to our Lord and Savior. Indeed, we should all count ourselves as loyal as he.
The next incident concerning Thomas occurs during the Last Supper. Thomas was not alone in wondering where Jesus was going, as they all knew He was going away. They were trying, in their minds, to deal with his imminent departure, and hoped (probably irrationally) that He was not to die. They cannot be blamed for not understanding the divine purpose behind the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or for their desire that Christ would stay with them forever. Indeed, Peter (another stalwart and loyal disciple) had proclaimed his absolute loyalty to Jesus Christ, only to be told that he would deny Christ three times before the cock crowed twice in the morning. The mood among the disciples must have been tense as they wondered what was about to happen.
In this atmosphere, Christ gave a puzzling comment in John 14:1-4: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” To us, reading the Gospels, it is obvious that the disciples were troubled. It is also obvious that the disciples did not understand that Christ was going to have to go back to heaven, where He would prepare positions of great importance and authority for the twelve apostles (presumably leadership over the twelve tribes of Israel). Also, it was clear that the apostles did not know that they knew the way to the Kingdom of Heaven—the teachings, laws, and faith of Jesus Christ.
In this circumstance Thomas’ question (which reminds me of the 2003 Lexington Winter Family Weekend sermon by Mr. Clyde Kilough, [former Chairman and President of the Council of Elders for the United Church of God] on “The Way”) in verse five makes perfect sense: “Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”” Note: I can almost hear the Fastball song: “The Way” in my head as I write this. Here we see again that Thomas, like the other apostles, did not want to be parted from Jesus Christ, and that they wanted to go where he went. We cannot ask for better friends than these.
It is noteworthy again that Jesus Christ responded gently to this question, pointing to Himself as the way to the Kingdom of God, in verse six: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”” Jesus Christ was trying, patiently, during the Last Supper, to bring the way to salvation within the mental grasp of the twelve. He was not successful at that time, but from the sterling record of the early church (at least among the disciples), we can be sure that the point eventually sank in. And again, Thomas’ concern for following God (in an earthy, rather than an esoteric, way) cannot fail but make an impression on us about how much Thomas cared for His Savior and how he sought to follow Him wherever He went.
It is the third incident concerning Thomas that he has become famous for. The setup for the incident is that ten of the elven apostles were together when Jesus Christ appeared to them. For whatever reason (we simply do not know), Thomas was not there. It is to his lasting discredit that Thomas did not see the resurrected Christ as soon as the other ones did. After all, all of the disciples doubted Christ returned, some of them disbelieving Mary Magdelene and the other disciples who first saw the resurrected Christ. None of them, however, have become synonymous with skepticism, however.
Thomas then made a rather foolish statement, saying that he would not believe Christ returned unless he saw the print of the nails in Christ’s hands and put his finger in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. These are words that Thomas would soon regret, and it appears likely that he said them out of intense grief over the death of Jesus Christ. Surely those of us who have suffered over the loss of loved ones can relate to how Thomas felt. When Jesus Christ next appeared to the eleven remaining disciples, He greeted them.
Again, Jesus was gentle in dealing with Thomas. Jesus’ main concern was that Thomas believe, though it must have been rather embarrassing for him. Jesus knew what Thomas had said, and told him to look at the wounds in the hand and feel the wound in the side. And, as can be expected, a rather grief-stricken Thomas believed Christ was resurrected. And again, Jesus lovingly reminded Thomas that while Thomas believed having seen, it was better to believe without needing to see. This loving response was an appropriate end to a truly embarrassing situation.
The final incident in which Thomas is mentioned by name occurs in the next chapter. Peter decides to go fishing, and Thomas is one of those who goes with him. While the incident (as far as Thomas is concerned at least) is unremarkable, it does demonstrate that Thomas was interested in fishing, and had suffered no long term effects over the recent incident concerning Jesus Christ. Indeed, it appears that Thomas himself could have been a Capernaum fisherman, which would put him in a rather honored league of other apostles from that background. At any rate, Thomas certainly appears to have valued the fellowship of his fellow apostles and was not a “solitary” in any fashion.
Lessons From Thomas
There are many lessons that we can learn from the apostle Thomas. These lessons include understanding we can gain from the personality of Thomas as displayed in the Gospel of John. We can also learn lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of Thomas. In all of this it must be remembered that Thomas was one of the Twelve, part of the inner circle of Jesus’ earthly ministry. If we resemble Thomas in our own lives, surely that can give us hope that Jesus Christ is working with people like us and has before. Too often it is easy to feel that Christ only works with a certain kind of person. Sadly, this thought is often encouraged by human organizations, who mainly value certain types of believers over others. We must learn from Jesus to value diverse personalities and quirks and not to value only those people who support us and are like us in every way. God created us as unique individuals for a reason, and we ought to appreciate personalities of different kinds, even if we do not share the same quirks.
Thomas as a Type of Disciple
In one sense, Thomas represents a certain type of disciple. Namely, Thomas can be considered as a loyal but somewhat dark disciple, who may not always be quick to understand what is going on but is very steady in his beliefs. The firmness of conviction in Thomas is also to be admired, as is the fellowshipping of Thomas with fellow disciples (as seen in John 21). Furthermore, the devotion of Thomas to Jesus Christ is a trait to be followed by us today. Thomas can, in whole, be seen as a type of disciple who is loyal, pessimistic, and is very concerned about keeping everyone together. Thomas is also a type of disciple with a skeptical and rational bend as well. There are undoubtedly many such people among the disciples of Christ, and truly they ought to know that God values such qualities, even if man does not.
Gifts of Thomas
Many of the gifts of Thomas have been previously discussed, but are worthy of mention here for the sake of remembrance. First of all, the loyalty of Thomas to Jesus Christ was commendable. Thomas was willing to follow Jesus Christ to the death, and urged his fellow disciples to do so. This loyalty cannot be doubted. We as Christians should all be absolutely loyal to God and Jesus Christ. Also, Thomas’ somewhat skeptical rationalism can itself be taken as a gift. After all, there are many fakes and charlatans around, and one has to be somewhat skeptical of things at first glance. However, Thomas’ skepticism was that of a genuine seeker of truth, for when proof of Jesus Christ’s resurrection (in the form of Christ Himself) was presented, Thomas believed. So we should all be willing to accept proof when it is demonstrated, even if we are skeptical of what falls short of proof. Furthermore, Thomas genuinely sought the company of his brethren and valued fellowship. We should as well. All in all, the gifts of Thomas are impressive, and worthy of emulation in us all.
Weaknesses of Thomas
Thomas, however, was not a person without weaknesses. However, it is important to note that all of us have weaknesses, and most of us do not suffer the opprobrium that Thomas has. Thomas was a gloomy and dark person. In most of his statements, Thomas strikes us as somewhat macabre and very pessimistic. For those of us who are also gloomy pessimists (or even fatalists), we see in Thomas a kindred spirit. However, pessimism, even if it is usually right, is often taken as a weakness, and at any rate is a personal bend that one must be aware of and must act accordingly. Also, Thomas’ somewhat vocal skepticism about the resurrection of Christ can be taken as a weakness. When one makes statements as vocal and as uncompromising as Thomas did (this author shares, again, that predilection), one must be prepared to eat crow. However, these weaknesses, for which Thomas has suffered a horrible loss of reputation, are minor in comparison to the great gifts that Thomas has that are largely unrecognized.
In conclusion, I have presented Thomas as the Bible presents him. We find that the biblical Bible disagrees largely with the perception of Thomas as a solitary, speculative hero. For whatever reason, Thomas is remembered either as an obscure philosopher or as an obstinate doubter. Neither of these views is correct. Thomas was a loyal and respected member of the twelve apostles, was a member of middle rank and prestige, and was, a tendency for gloominess notwithstanding, a figure for all of us to model ourselves after. If we can look at what the Bible says about Thomas rather than our own slanted misconceptions, we can come to a greater understanding about who God calls among us, and what qualities in personality and character that God values. And that is a lesson we should all learn and learn well.