Next week's readings: St Thomas the Apostle

by
02 November 2006

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Habakkuk 2.1-4;
Ephesians 2.19-end;
John 20.24-29

JESUS stands with open palms and bare torso. On his hands are the marks of the nails; in his side, the wound from the spear. Approaching him uncertainly is Doubting Thomas. With mounting wonder, Thomas stretches out a hand towards the scar on Jesus's chest.

The scene is familiar from innumerable paintings. We are expected, as their viewers, to know the story. A week earlier, on Easter Day, Jesus had appeared to the rest of his disciples; Thomas had been absent. Told that the others had seen the Lord, Thomas scoffed: "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not have faith" (John 20.25).

At this next appearance, a week later, Jesus offers Thomas just this opportunity: "Put your finger here," Jesus says to Thomas, "and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not be faithless, but faithful" (John 20.27).

We imagine the next seconds in the scene depicted: Thomas will put his hand into Jesus's wounded side, and will finally come to faith. He will exclaim: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20.28).

We are in danger here of misreading John's story, and at least some of the paintings that show it. Thanks to the discoveries at Nag Hammadi of Gnostic texts - and in particular of the Gospel of Thomas - we can now reconstruct something of the beliefs and claims of a "Thomasine" sect within the Early Church. Thomas was its hero both for the knowledge he had been given of the risen Lord, and for the techniques by which he brought such knowledge within the reach of his adherents.

This knowledge was won by sight: by the mystical ascent to the throne room of God and the vision there of Jesus, the glory of God himself. Jesus's disciples ask: "When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?" Jesus urges them to seek in their lifetime the sight of heaven that is normally granted to the righteous only after death: "Look for the Living One while you are alive, lest you die and then seek to see him and you will be unable to see."

Such a mystic is transformed into the divine: "He who will drink from my mouth", says Jesus, "will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things which are hidden will be revealed to him" (Gospel of Thomas 37, 59,108).

John will have none of it. "No one has seen God, ever; the only son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (John 1.18). John's Jesus promises his disciples: "I will return and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also; and you know the way where I am going." But Thomas objects: "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus replies that he himself is the way.

Thomas had envisaged a journey. Jesus corrects him: "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him." Philip now takes up the question: "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied." Jesus spells out what his disciples still fail to grasp: "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (from John 14.1-10). Jesus, in his own person, is the total self-disclosure of the Father. There is no need for mystical journeys or the imagined sight of God's glory on the throne.

John's Thomas demands more even than sight; he wants to touch the risen Lord. But, at the critical moment, when Jesus is within reach, does Thomas touch him? John does not say so. Even Thomas, it seems, realises that he has asked too much. Those paintings should show Thomas, at the last moment, recoil from the wounds.

The Thomasine Christians demanded and offered the sight of the risen Lord. John has added touch; and so has reduced these offers and demands to absurdity. (No mystic touched the glory of God.) But the sectarians were not daft. It can be as hard now as it was then to believe that the glory of God was wholly revealed in the Jesus who lived and died on earth; and as tempting, therefore, to look elsewhere for a further, fuller revelation.

We have good reason to be grateful for the reaction that Thomas's adherents provoked from John: the gospel, the Paraclete and faith are all we need to lead us in all truth. John's Jesus responds to the confession of Thomas: "Blessed are those who have not seen and have faith" (John 20.31).

The dispute between the churches of John and Thomas is explored by A. D. DeConick, Voices of the Mystics (Sheffield, 2001).

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