Publications: Articles - Biblical
Saint Thomas - The Apostle Full of Faith An Exegesis of John 20:19-31
In the Orthodox Church, the feast day of St Thomas, the faithful disciple of the risen Lord, also known as ‘the twin’ (didymus) is celebrated precisely one week after Easter – that is, on the Sunday following Pascha, which is known both as the ‘Sunday of Thomas’ and the ‘After-feast of Pascha’ (Antipascha). Even though popular piety has wrongly attributed to him names such as the ‘doubting’ or ‘faithless’ Thomas because of his alleged suspicions concerning the resurrection of Jesus, his place in the Liturgical cycle of feasts affirms a radically different theological vision of St Thomas the apostle full of faith. Indeed, a correct exegetical examination of the Gospel passage which is heard on the ‘Sunday of Thomas’ (Jn 20:19-31) will confirm Thomas’ profound depth of faith, expressed, as we shall see, in his confession in the divinity of the risen Jesus. This exegesis will be carried out in two complementary stages: whereas the first will examine the passage from a literary perspective as this will shed light on the Evangelist’s true purpose for including the Thomas narrative in the Gospel, the second will reflect theologically on the person of St Thomas based on an interpretation of the Biblical text itself.
It has to be admitted that St Thomas’ ecstatic declaration of faith in Jesus Christ in terms of ‘My Lord and my God’ (Jn 20:28) is one of the most profound pronouncement of the deity of Jesus in the entire corpus of the New Testament since it not only attributes to Christ the highest Christological title in terms of His divinity [Jesus Christ is referred to as ‘God’] but also demonstrates the unconditional acceptance of Thomas in the risen Lord [this is seen in the use of ‘my’ God – the predicate of dedication]. In this way, far from being a story ostensibly about the lack of faith on the part of this apostle, the fourth Gospel writer presented St Thomas as a man who desired nothing less than a personal and palpable encounter with the risen Lord. And the reason why St Thomas wanted nothing less than an immediate encounter with the risen Lord was so that he could see for himself the continuity with the Jesus that he had known during His earthly life before His crucifixion - as opposed to One who had mysteriously risen and left the disciples orphaned. Therefore, throughout the episode involving the apostle Thomas the most important dimension of the self-revelation of Jesus as both the risen Lord and God is accordingly given. However, before looking specifically at the passage in question, a few brief remarks from other passages in the New Testament, where St Thomas is mentioned, will show the fidelity and trust in Jesus Christ even before His resurrection.
The fidelity and courageous character of St Thomas is seen in other episodes in the Gospel of St John. Two such examples are the following: firstly, upon hearing that Lazarus had ‘fallen asleep’, Jesus told the disciples that He would return to Judea to bring Lazarus back to life. Whilst the Gospel of St John records the disciples alerting Jesus of the dangers of the journey, since the Jews were trying to stone Jesus, the Evangelist notes the apostle Thomas as unhesitatingly stating: “let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). Surely such a spontaneously spirited and bold response by Thomas, expressing his willingness even to die together with Jesus is totally incompatible with a person characterized by doubt, hesitation and scepticism. A second episode in which the spiritual insight and unwavering faith of Thomas in Jesus is verified is when the resurrected Lord appeared to seven of his disciples after His resurrection – Thomas being one of them. When Jesus showed Himself to these seven apostles by the Sea of Tiberias and told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat (cf Jn 21:6), since they had caught nothing all night, the Gospel records that they obeyed Jesus immediately. Again such a response by St Thomas (together with the other disciples) would have nothing to do with a person who had doubted or lacked faith in Jesus. These two episodes, together with Thomas’ encounter with the risen Lord eight days after the Resurrection, will demonstrate without doubt Thomas’ profound depth of faith in Jesus Christ. And it is to this that we now turn.
Literary, Historical and Theological Exegesis
This Gospel passage in Jn 20:19-31 beautifully relates the faith experience of the apostle Thomas. Upon setting the scene (it was evening and all the disciples were gathered together in one room for fear of the Jews), the Gospel writer proceeds to describe Thomas with some precision: we read that he was called the ‘Twin’, that he was one of the twelve and that he was absent when the risen Jesus had formerly appeared to the disciples bringing His peace. The pericope continues to depict the appearance of the Lord eight day later, this time to all the disciples including Thomas. And after stating that Jesus had appeared amongst them, the Evangelist records how Jesus invited Thomas to touch His nail prints and put his fingers into them. With such a strong attestation, the Gospel writer does not tell the reader whether Thomas accepted Jesus’ invitation but simply recounts Thomas’ spontaneous and heartfelt outburst expressing his faith in the divinity of the risen Lord. What follows is Jesus’ universal blessing of believing without seeing, together with the conclusion of the Gospel which conveys the purpose of the entire book – that is, to lead all subsequent readers into their own personal and deepened experience of faith in the risen Lord.
For reasons of clarity and in order to appreciate better Thomas’ experience and confession of faith in Jesus [as opposed to his alleged dubiety], it would be helpful to see briefly how this specific Biblical passage fits in with the entire structure of St John’s Gospel as this will confirm our proposition that St Thomas was a man possessed by a profound depth of faith in the risen Lord. The episode of the apostle Thomas and his encounter with the risen Lord occurs within that part of St John’s Gospel which is called the ‘Book of Glory’ (Jn 13:1-20:31). According to most biblical scholars, in their commentaries on this Gospel, this part of the Gospel is usually further divided into three sections: A) The Last Discourse: Jn 13:1-17:26; B) The Passion: Jn: 18:1-19:42; and C) The Resurrection: Jn 20:1-29. Except for verses 30 and 31 of chapter 20 which form the conclusion of the Gospel before the Epilogue, the entire chapter deals with events which had taken place on Easter Sunday both in the morning and evening in Jerusalem, together with the appearance of the risen Jesus to Thomas eight days later. Its place within the ‘Book of Glory’ tells the reader immediately that the Thomas story is not concerned with highlighting Thomas’ doubt but rather showing the splendour and revelation of Jesus as God.
The Thomas story (verses 24-29) occurs immediately after the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (verses 11-18). It is precisely within this context that the reader would know that the Evangelist would have wanted to show that, just as Jesus had led Mary Magdalene on her journey to faith, so too would He now lead Thomas to an unconditional faith. That is to say that, just as Mary Magdalene and the Myrrh-bearing women in general were the first witnesses to the empty tomb and announced its meaning to the disciples, so too would Thomas bring the Christian faith in the resurrection to its climax becoming in this way a bridge for future believers. Even from this brief yet succinct literary analysis, one can see that the Thomas narrative, which is intertwined with dialogue is part of the Evangelist’s central purpose: namely to record the appearance of the risen Lord to an increasing number of people and to lead them to a faith which is not dependent upon seeing. That is to say, the Evangelist wanted to emphasize that just as St Thomas was an apostle who embraced the risen Christ, so too were subsequent communities to do the same, since faith in the Lord was not purely dependent upon ‘seeing’. We now turn our attention to exegete the Biblical text itself.
The Appearance and Blessing of Peace of the Risen Lord to Thomas (Jn 20:24-26)
In the verses preceding verse 24, the Gospel begins by pointing out that even though the doors of the house, where the disciples had gathered, were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood amongst them. And before showing His hands and side to Thomas in order to demonstrate the continuity with His earthly life before the resurrection, Jesus said to all the apostles: “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:26). Firstly, the gift of peace was a fulfilment of the words which Jesus had formerly spoken to His disciples during His earthly ministry. In chapter fourteen in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus had said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). From this it becomes apparent that Jesus’ peace was totally unlike the peace of the world, which was built upon violence, oppression, self-assertive competition and victimisation. Rather, the peace of Jesus was His gift of reconciliation and communion with God. That is to say, Jesus’ gift of peace to His disciples was nothing other than the very gift of the presence of God in their midst. Accordingly, the peace that Jesus bestowed was the gift of His own very self to His disciples.
From this we can see that it was this experience of the very presence of God in the person of the risen Jesus that dispersed the disciples’ panic and fear so that they could embrace entirely the miracle of Christ’s victory over death. As we shall see, having also experienced the very gift of God’s presence, in the peace of Jesus eight days later, Thomas also would be led to embrace the Lord without the need to physically touch the side of Jesus. However, before this, it was quite natural for Thomas to be afraid, confused - as the other disciples had previously been – and hoping for nothing other than his own immediate and personal encounter with, and gift of peace from, the risen Jesus. That the outcome with Thomas would be a favourable one can be presumed by the Johannine phrase: “and eight days later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them” (Jn 20:26). This can be surmised specifically by the phrase: “and eight day later” (Jn 20:26). In the ancient world, the number eight was highly significant and would have given an insight to the reader that the story would have a favourable ending. In the ancient tradition, the eighth day – the day after the seventh – signified the beginning of a new reality, the inauguration of the time of the Resurrection and the presence of heaven on earth here and now. Already we can see a positive portrait of the apostle Thomas which will further be confirmed in the second part of this article.
In the next part, we will look at Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to teach Him along with Thomas’ confession of faith and Jesus’ universal blessing of believing without seeing in order to uncover the profound depth of Thomas’ faith.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Thomas is also known as ‘the twin’ because his name comes from Aramaic meaning twin, for which the Gospel of John gave the Greek equivalent Didymus. However the Gospels do not tell us who Thomas’ twin was. It is said that after the Resurrection, Thomas went to India to preach the Christian message. Today the Oriental Orthodox Church of St Thomas in India claims St Thomas to have been its founding apostle.
2. In a deeply insightful article on the person and faith of St Thomas, Archbishop Stylianos of Australia rightly argued that since Pascha is the climax of the entire ecclesiastical year, then one would have expected the Sunday immediately following Easter to be considered a most significant feast, indeed more important than the remaining Sundays of the Liturgical year. (‘St Thomas and the Truth’, Voice of Orthodoxy 11.5(1990): 41). Furthermore, I am gratefully indebted to many of the thoughts expressed in this article regarding the faithfulness of the apostle Thomas.
3. The Gospel according to St John is conventionally divided into five sections by Biblical schools: 1) The Prologue (Jn 1:1-18); 2) The Book of Signs (Jn 1:19-12:50) -there are seven signs: a) Jesus changing water into wine; b) the healing of the nobleman’s son; c) the healing of the lame man; d) the feeding of the multitude; e) the walking on water; f) the healing of the man born blind; g) the raising of Lazarus; 3) The Book of Glory (Jn 13:1-20:31); 4) The Conclusion of the Gospel
4. Even in the ancient Greek world ‘peace’ was considered to be a state of rest between conflicts and wars – that is to say, a time when there was reconciliation and positive relations between people.
5. Cf Phil 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in union with Christ Jesus.”
6. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos, St Thomas and Truth, 42.
(Jn 20:30-31); 5) The Epilogue (Jn 21:1-25).