Today is the Feast Day of St. Thomas. Most Americans know the proverbial phrase Doubting Thomas. It is all most people—church-going Christians or not—know about the man.
According to all four of the canonical gospels Thomas was one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose to learn his vision and teachings. He later became one of the twelve Apostles sent to spread that message.
Catholic tradition says Thomas sailed to India with that message.
The appellation Doubting Thomas arose because of a story in the Fourth Gospel—the one attributed to the Apostle John. In the story, ten of the disciples have gathered in someone’s home in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution. (Judas was dead and Thomas needed to be elsewhere for the story to work.) Early that morning Mary Magdala had told Simon Peter and another disciple of finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The pair verified her story.
Suddenly, Jesus appeared among them. They were all delighted. When they later reported the incident to Thomas he scoffed, declaring he would not believe unless he saw for himself and touched the crucifixion wounds.
At that point Jesus suddenly appeared and the overjoyed Thomas declared himself a believer. (More on this, below.)
Though most people remember Thomas’ doubts, I prefer focusing on another episode, also from the Gospel According to John.
This particular episode involves the death of a friend of Jesus, a man named Lazarus, brother of the renowned Mary & Martha of Bethany.
This episode is problematic, in and of itself. It is nowhere else attested. The Gospel’s author cites it, rather than the riot Jesus incited in the Temple, as the instance leading to Jesus’ arrest. The only other mention of a man named Lazarus in the Gospel traditions is a character in a parable told by the author of Luke. My sense is that the author of John fashioned the episode using the parable as inspiration, though that is me thinking as a writer rather than a scholar. Still, long after formulating that idea I read other scholars suggesting the same.
In the Lazarus story Jesus hears his friend is sick and, rather than rushing to his side, dallies. Two days later he decides to head toward Bethany, against his disciples’ advice. They are concerned that it was dangerous to travel so near Jerusalem considering their conflicts with Judean authorities.
Only Thomas proactively supports their teacher’s decision, albeit with a bit of fatalism: “Come on,” he says, “let’s go die with him.”
That moves me, deeply.
It is more than the concept “Today is a good day to die.”
It is, rather, “We have been with him this long, how can we abandon him, now?” Greater love has no man, as they say.
Significantly, it is only in the Fourth Gospel and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas that he is given the name Didymus in conjunction with Thomas.
The Greek surname Didymus means twin. “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic T’oma, which also means twin. So the author of the gospel according to John calls him “Twin the Twin”.
Other, more obscure traditions speculated on whose twin Thomas was. Some branches of Gnostic thought considered him Jesus’ own twin brother.
Since its discovery in 1945, many New Testament scholars have considered the Gospel of Thomas a Gnostic document. There are certainly ideas which resonate in the Gnostic tradition. And the Coptic form discovered at Nag Hammadi was probably used and may have been redacted by a Gnostic community.
But I tend to agree with John Dominic Crosson and other scholars of the Jesus Seminar that the core of this Gospel dates from fairly early in the Jesus movement. I tend to accept Crosson’s hypothesis that Thomas forms a link, with the lost Q document, between an oral sayings tradition and the genesis of the synoptic documents with the Gospel According to Mark.
The likelihood that Thomas himself wrote the Gospel is low. It is more likely that the author was a member of a community of disciples associated with the Apostle Thomas.
Even among Christians today there is a wide-spread misconception that the early movement which evolved into what we call the Church was a fairly homogenous and monolithic movement. The notion persists that, with the exception of some heretical notions which the Apostle Paul corrected with his epistles, all early Christians believed pretty much the same thing.
It is probably more accurate to say there were more variations in the early Jesus Movement than there are Christian denominations today. And adherents of the faith affiliated with Thomas, for instance, had beliefs quite different from those affiliated with John or Mark.
Princeton religious scholar Elaine Pagels has speculated that the particular “Doubting Thomas” episode in the John was crafted specifically to discredit the teachings of the Thomas community of believers. (Sometimes I joke with friends that if I had been on the counsel that formalized the New Testament canon, I would have voted to include Thomas’ rather than John’s Gospel. But that’s the subject of another essay.)