3 July marks the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle
Thomas is often referred to as Doubting Thomas. The epithet refers to one of the stories in John’s Gospel, the only New Testament where he has a speaking role. In the other Gospels, he is simply named as one of the twelve apostles, with the suggestion that he is a twin.
In John’s Gospel, Thomas first appears shortly before Jesus’ fatal final journey to Jerusalem. When Jesus announces that he is going to Jerusalem, Thomas responds sardonically, ‘Let us go and die with him.’ After the Last Supper, he also expresses his bafflement when Jesus speaks of going away from his followers for a little time and then returning.
The exchange for which he is remembered takes place after Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to the disciples. Thomas is absent at the time and refuses to believe that Jesus has risen unless he can touch his wounds. When Jesus next appears to the disciples, Thomas is with them. Jesus invites him to see and touch his wounds to prove that he has risen. Thomas worships him, and Jesus praises those who have not seen but have believed. The final mention of Thomas in the Gospel of John includes him by name with other Apostles who agreed to go fishing with Peter and so found Jesus waiting for them on the beach.
The stories of Thomas fascinated many communities in the Early Church. One group used a Gospel of Thomas to explain its beliefs. The Acts of Thomas describes a mission that took him to India where he was martyred. He continues to be held in great respect by the Thomas Christians in Southern India.
In John’s Gospel, the stories of people always contain layers of meaning in which we seek the meaning of our own story. Thomas’ epithet ‘Doubting Thomas’ may lead us to think of him as a modern sceptic who won’t believe anything that is not scientifically proven. He is a plain blunt man who won’t put up with wishful thinking and reports from credulous people. In this reading, Jesus praises those who don’t need scientific proof. When Jesus offers him proof, he is totally converted. Jesus then praises those who believe without needing scientific proof. The doubt associated with Thomas is an intellectual doubt.
We can certainly read Thomas’ story in that way, but perhaps it cuts even deeper. Other stories in John’s Gospel present Thomas as conflicted in his decision to follow Jesus. When Jesus says he will go to Jerusalem, Thomas makes it clear he thinks it is a crazy idea and that he is not taken in by Jesus. But he still goes along. He leaves himself room to say afterwards, ‘I told you so’. Similarly, when Jesus speaks mysteriously about his disappearance through death and his return as risen, he doesn’t want to surrender to the mystery but demands to have things spelled out. Thomas does not want to be a credulous member of a group but to be his own person. He finds it hard to trust.
That reluctance to trust naturally leads him to go it alone after Jesus’ death and to react with frustrated fury when others tell him they have seen the risen Jesus. When Jesus appears to him and invites him to touch his wounds, Thomas is also invited to touch his own words and to respond wholeheartedly to the mystery of Jesus who is found within the community.
John’s last mention of Thomas as one of the disciples who agreed to go fishing is significant. He no longer points out the reasons why the fish won’t bite but is united in the trust of Jesus with the community of disciples.
The story of Thomas certainly speaks to us as believers tempted to share the doubt of a secular society. It also speaks to us as followers of Jesus tempted to give up on finding him within such a shonky community. The invitation to touch wounds was a good start for him, as it may also be for us.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.