Don’t get me wrong. I love John’s Gospel, but it has a serious problem. Due to a misreported episode around the resurrection of Christ (20:19–29), which I am hopefully about to fix, the Apostle Thomas has gone around for centuries with a cloud dodging his reputation.
In the accepted telling of John’s version, Thomas ends up being the only disciple who doubts that Christ was raised. Come this Second Sunday of the Resurrection, when this reading shows up like clockwork in the lectionary, Thomas is going to get roughed up all over again from church pulpits for his doubt. Don’t be like Thomas, we’ll be told. He did a bad thing.
The account opens (verse nineteen) on the evening of the first day of the week. Ten disciples, Thomas inexplicably absent, are sitting around the upper room hiding out behind locked doors.
Not too long before—that morning, in fact—Mary Magdalene had brought them a tale that Jesus had appeared to her. They didn’t believe her; they were probably too puzzled wondering why Jesus, if he was going to appear at all, had not appeared to them first. In any case, there they are, waiting for who knows what.
And very quietly they become joyfully aware of the presence of Jesus. You know the rest of this part. Jesus delivers very specific instructions to them. He gives them a mission. They are to go as he had come; the Father sent him, now he’s sending them. They are to go uninvited and undo sin—which is why they needed the peace he gave them. He breathes on them, granting them the Holy Spirit, and by that power and with that authority over sin they are sent.
But they didn’t go anywhere, did they? They stayed put. They didn’t venture an inch. They didn’t undo a single sin anywhere. They remained together and they were still there when Thomas finally shows, late. (That’s what we should call him, “Late Thomas.”)
The ten blabber away at Thomas, gushing about everything: locked door, Jesus in the room, breathed the Holy Spirit on them, gave them his peace, and told them to go undo sin.
To this point in the story, verse twenty-four, this is the standard text as it has come to us. It is midway into verse twenty-five that we run into textual troubles. Thomas frankly scoffs. The problem is that we think it’s his fault.
I am convinced there is an original version somewhere that has been replaced with what we have now. Fortunately, quite by accident, I have “discovered” that original version long “lost” to biblical scholarship. It was so “lost” in fact I have had to reconstruct it here on the spot.
The newly found version continues with the account of the ten disciples telling Thomas they had seen Jesus. Reading now from the “lost” version:
Thomas listens to the ten disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord.”
Thomas: Oh, the Lord came to you, did he really?
Yes, they say.
Thomas: Breathed on you, did he?
You got it, they say.
Thomas: He gave you his Spirit, did he?
Yes, they all say, heads nodding eagerly.
Thomas: Told you to go out and forgive sin, did he?
And they say yes, as bouncy as puppies, yes he did.
Thomas: And every one of you was here in this room when he said he was sending you?
Yes, they say, still bouncy, we were all right here in this very room.
Thomas (emitting a soft but abrupt snort): Sorry, I don’t believe a word of it. None of you are any proof of the resurrection because, see, if you’ve been sent, how come you ain’t went?
When Jesus does show up a week later, with Thomas present, and the disciples still haven’t moved, Jesus chides Thomas for his doubt, according to the accepted text. [But remember I’m reading from the “lost” version.]
Jesus asks Thomas, you believe because you have seen? “Hey, I needed to see something,” Thomas replies with becoming modesty. “It’s not my fault; these guys, they all acted like you were dead.” And Jesus says, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Tradition—a pretty strong one as these things go—says Thomas was the first of the disciples to leave Jerusalem. Once he was sent, he didn’t hang around. Whatever skepticism Thomas had, he made a huge theological leap that not one of the others did: “My Lord and my God.” And with that he traveled, according again to that same traditional thread, further and faster than all the rest, all the way to the tip of India.
Just my opinion, of course, but John should have added a postscript and, at the least, preachers this Sunday coming ought to mention how far Thomas went with his “doubt.”
Russell E. Saltzman is a former dean of the North American Lutheran Church. His latest book Speaking of the Dead, is available from ALPB Books. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous articles can be found here.