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2nd Sunday of Easter

02 April 2024

Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-end

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IN THE back of our minds, Thomas is almost always “doubting Thomas”. The criticism implied by that “doubting” influences our response to this Gospel. It seems to condemn him for being cautious, and to commend credulity instead.

Some read it as a fictional warning to Christians not to doubt. But that means believing that John invented a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus while Thomas was absent, and then a subsequent appearance when he was present, admitted that he was wrong, and repented of doubting. That is unlikely. It is not John’s way to tell a story, then extract a moral, and quote it as a teaching verse: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

This passage has a history; for Thomas’s life did attract speculation and fabrication, in texts that were (correctly) judged not to be authentically apostolic. They never made it into the New Testament because it was obvious then (it is still obvious) that they were not genuine primary witnesses to the events of Jesus’s life. One of these writings is the so-called “Gospel of Thomas”: part of a collection of texts discovered in Egypt in 1946.

You might think that it is inappropriate to be referring to such a text in this holy season of Easter. But it might reassure Christians to hear that there is no ancient conspiracy among church authorities to hide the truths of Jesus’s life, and peddle instead their own “authorised” version of that life, in order to protect their own powerful position and perpetuate their control.

There are still things that we can learn from writings not found in the Bible. For one thing, they show us how excited people were about the new faith, and how hungry for information about its founders, the apostles, after the resurrection. Then, as now, where information was lacking, speculation filled the gap. Most of it was not malicious or deliberately misleading: it was just a by-product of the overwhelming appetite for material — for facts about this new way of understanding ourselves, and our place in God’s plan.

So, I was fascinated to learn of a fragment of anonymous commentary, probably dating to the third century, which has a more positive “take” on Thomas. It is not scripture; so it is not “required of any man, that it should be believed . . . or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles). But it is refreshingly free from the moralising approach of some readings, and from that human tendency to zoom in on negative interpretations.

The writer admits that he is describing his personal view of Thomas, but he appeals to passages of scripture to corroborate his position. That method of analysis is so habitual a way for us to read texts that we do not even think of it as a technique of corroborative reasoning (which it is). Now, when Thomas refuses to believe unless he sees and feels for himself, he is found to be “meticulous and questioning”, properly cautious rather than sceptical or cynical. He is also, the writer argues, obedient to Jesus in exercising that caution, pointing to Mark 13.6: “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”

This is not the only insight into the place of Thomas which our anonymous writer supplies. Unlike him, I had never given Thomas’s second name, “Didymus”, much thought. But he has noticed that only those disciples whom Jesus singles out acquire extra names: Simon becomes Peter and Cephas; James and John become Boanerges (Mark 3.17). Those are the three disciples blessed by having witnessed the transfiguration. And Thomas, whose Aramaic name sounds like the Aramaic word for a twin, has his name translated into Greek by John, as “Didymus”.

Only John mentions — three times (11.16, 20.24, 21.2) — this extra name, “Thomas, who is called the Twin”. That is not the standard way of recording a double name, but the phrasing (“is called”) hints that Jesus gave him that translated name. Perhaps, our writer suggests, it was because Thomas was like a twin to Jesus, following his example in the way that he taught.

That is unfounded speculation. But it helps to show how calling the apostle “doubting Thomas” could be misleading, and how, in earlier times, his careful attitude to verification was seen as a proper virtue for the Lord’s disciples.

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