Did the disciple we know as Thomas get a raw deal?
Doubting Thomas, by Caravaggio
Didymus, whom we know better as the disciple Thomas, is one of the only two disciples whose name has survived in fairly common usage in today’s language, Judas being the other. I imagine that at some time you have heard someone referred to as ‘a Judas’ and in Thomas’ case, you have probably heard someone called ‘a doubting Thomas’
Thomas, was sceptical that Christ had risen again. He was the only one of the remaining eleven disciples, Judas having already killed himself, who was not present at Jesus appearance in the upper room a week after Mary Magdalene told the disciples their Lord had returned. Thomas, when told of Jesus appearance, is reported to have said “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20: 25 NIV).
A week earlier, before Jesus’ appearance in the upper room, Luke writes (Luke 24: 11) that when Mary Magdalene told the disciples that Jesus had risen, they did not believe her. I think it is important to remember that when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, Thomas was the only one not present. The rest had not only seen the Lord, they met him all together.
For Thomas, Jesus’ resurrection was second hand information on both the first and second appearance of Jesus after his crucifixion. The first time when Mary Magdalene brought the news from the open tomb and on the second occasion, when the other disciples told Thomas what they had seen.
After what they had witnessed at Calvary, can we really blame Thomas for his skepticism? If it had been one of the others instead of Thomas, would he have put his doubt into words? How often do we keep quiet about things today, just so as not to stand out in a crowd, or look silly in front of our peers? Perhaps Thomas was the only one with the courage to speak out about his doubts.
The disciples had all seen Jesus perform miracles, including resurrecting at least two people, Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, although in both those cases their bodies were whole and without injury. In Jesus’ own case not only was the cadaver mutilated, it would mean a dead man healing himself.
Try and imagine yourself in Thomas’ place, would you have found it easy to believe such a momentous event without evidence of some kind? Thomas doubted, he was skeptical but let us not forget what Peter did; he lied. Three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus at all. Thomas never denied the Lord was alive, he just wanted something more than second hand testimony, after all since Peter had already lied, why should Thomas believe him at all.
Poor old Thomas’ woes don’t end there. When he sees the Lord for himself and Jesus allows him to touch his wounds, Thomas believes and he cries out “My Lord and my God!”. Jesus next words though “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” might be taken as an implication (at least in the NIV translation), that Thomas is less blessed than those who believed without seeing the Lord. Whilst almost certainly not intended like that, it can be read that way, so suppose that that was how Thomas took it?
When Thomas did see the risen Lord and touch his wounds, are we to believe that at least some of the other disciples in the room did not also want to reach out and touch but were afraid to, perhaps even afraid to ask? If I were a betting man, I would give good odds that they all the other disciples watched very closely as Thomas was given licence to, and had the courage to, touch Jesus’ wounds to satisfy himself. Perhaps Caravaggio’s picture that I included with this post makes the point. We do not know who the two disciples are in the picture with Thomas but, just look how closely they are watching what he does.
Thomas touched Jesus wounds almost two thousand years ago. We have no option other than to rely on the accounts in The Bible, on which to have faith. Could we have the same confidence in our faith without Thomas’ actions? So, to answer my own opening question; Yes I think Thomas (or Didymus) does get a raw deal, at least in the way his actions are reported in ‘the press’.
There is an old Chinese proverb that seems
to me it might be appropriate to Thomas:
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”