Today’s gospel has told us about Thomas, who found it hard to believe his fellow Apostles, who told him they had “seen the Lord” when Thomas wasn’t there. He famously said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Exactly a week later, Thomas is there with his colleagues, when Jesus appears again, seemingly just for Thomas. Then Thomas makes the climactic confession of John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Many scholars believe the gospel of John ended after this story – that chapter 21 was added later. But let’s not worry about that now.
Thomas’ confession meant he didn’t need to put his finger, or his hand into Jesus’s wounds, and the text implies that he didn’t – though many people, especially in the Middle Ages, believed he did. Many artists, not least the renaissance artist Caravaggio, whose outrageous painting of this scene is in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square – and on some of your seats. .
Bear with me as I wander off for a few moments, but it is important. I want to take you to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and hear what some theologians have said about it. Particularly, Ivan Illich, a Dalmatian educator and catholic priest who worked in Central and South America.
Illich was critical about modernity, modern times, and our ways of thinking; that objectified, generalized and made abstract, much of our thinking. He also thought that this is what theologians had done to the story of the Good Samaritan. That it has been turned into the basis for another ‘rule’ about our neighbour, which misses the point of Jesus’ parable.
The Samaritan, an ‘outsider’, follows two clergy who see a (Jewish) victim of violence at the side of the road, and pass by on the other side. But the Samaritan can’t pass by; he is filled with compassion. The Greek word for ‘compassion’ (σπλαγχνίζομαι) splanchnidzomai, is a word whose root refers to ‘the bowels.’ It is usually used of Jesus’ compassion, of Jesus’ agape, love, and the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, for God’s love, God’s agape. The Samaritan is, literally, ‘caught short’ and must do something to help this victim. Further, where in English we have two ‘voices’ with verbs: the ‘active’ where the subject would do something; and the ‘passive’ where the subject would have something done to them. In Greek there is a third voice: the middle voice, somewhere between the two, which is about the subject (our Samaritan) doing something to or for himself. That the Samaritan both, has something happen to him – the gut feeling of compassion; and also, that he must do something to help the victim. He is not guided by his head, or even his heart, but his bowels.
Illich argues that what makes this ‘compassion’ possible is the incarnation – the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. That God has become flesh in Jesus, God’s ‘agape’ makes this kind of relationship – between the Samaritan the Jewish victim of violence – possible. And the Samaritan ‘gets it’: this new, Incarnational way of relating, through the gut-feelings of agape, love. A remarkable theological – incarnational – statement, and it brings me back to Saint Thomas. Or, rather, Caravaggio’s painting of this scene. In this painting, which is shockingly physical, even erotic, (remember, Thomas is unlikely to have actually put his finger into the side of Jesus) it is this Incarnational moment that Thomas suddenly understands. Just who Jesus is: the Word made flesh; God among us; taking us back to the beginning of John’s gospel. He is not another ‘failed’ disciple. Why is he remembered by the first part of the story, ‘Doubting Thomas’, and not the second, ‘Thomas the Confessor’?
There are several peculiar things about ‘Doubting Thomas’, that are important for identifying the Apostle and his later tradition.
First, Thomas wasn’t really a name in the first century, it was a description, it comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic for ‘twin’. John’s gospel mentions Thomas four times [in the story of Lazarus, at the Last Supper, here, and then in the final, 21st chapter, of John.] and the title, ‘called the twin’, added to his name three of these times – the word is Δίδυμος, Didumos Greek for ‘twin’. Such a triple repetition of a title is unique to Thomas in John’s gospel. So, there is something peculiar about Thomas in this regard. [I have to admit that I hesitated to go in this direction, but after dithering for some time, I decided to carry on, because it’s important. Incidentally, don’t worry about me dithering, it’s probably what I do best.]
It might be worth mentioning here that twins were rarer then than they are now: mortality rates for twins, and their mothers were higher – as they still are, though a lot less now. Twins were often frowned upon, because they were thought to be the product of the mother having two male partners. In mythology, they were sometimes fathered by a mortal and a god. [Like Heracles and his twin Iphicles.]
At the end of the 19th century some scraps of a book of what appeared to be Jesus’ sayings, in Greek, were found on the town dump in Oxyrhynchus, an ancient town in Middle Egypt. Then in 1945, in a place called, Nag Hamadi, in Upper Egypt, some farmers, looking for a naturally occurring fertilizer, unearthed a sealed jar, which they eventually opened, in spite of the risk of finding an evil spirit, a Jinn. One of them, broke the jar and discovered 14 ancient books in Coptic, an old Egyptian language. They had no idea what they’d found, or it’s worth. They were priceless, the books contained about fifty ancient Christian texts, of mostly gnostic scriptures; probably hidden by monks when these were proscribed around the year 400; from an ancient monastery nearby, founded by one of the Desert Fathers, Pachomius.
There are five texts with the name Thomas, an infancy gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, the book of Thomas the Contender, an Apocalypse of Thomas, and, the one you’re more likely to have heard of, the gospel of Thomas, which it turned out the Greek fragments mentioned earlier, were also from, the gospel was originally written in Greek. This gospel claimed to be written by one ‘Judas Thomas called the Twin’. Which brings us back to the peculiar use of this title in John’s gospel. This Thomas, called ‘Judas’ as well, was not just a twin, but the twin of Jesus, who gave him hidden knowledge of Jesus ‘secret’ teachings.
Before we had these gnostic texts, most of what we knew about Gnosticism was from the people who despised them, and said some nasty things about them. Gnostic/Gnosticism cover such a variety of religious movements that some say the terms themselves are almost meaningless.
This discovery, particularly the Gospel of Thomas, turned the world of New Testament scholarship upside down, and an agreed consensus has still not been reached as to the relationship between this gospel and our gospel of John (after whose author, this church is named.)
Two of the earliest translators of this text said it was earlier than some of our four canonical gospels, particularly John. John has in it some ideas that are not too far away from what many call Gnosticism. Some have said that the Gospel of Thomas isn’t Gnostic, that the sayings of Jesus are not ‘gnostic’, but may have been framed by a gnostic editor.
Many disagree with the dependency of our gospels on Thomas; but there is an important relationship between the gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas and the traditions about Saint Thomas, centered around the ancient city of Edessa, now part of eastern Turkey, from where Thomas is traditionally thought to have taken the Gospel to India, and founded a church, named for him the (Malankara) Mar Thoma (Syrian) Church, or Saint Thomas Church, in Kerala, now part of the Church of South India, and in communion with the Church of England.
I suspect that the community of Jewish, and gentile, Christians around The gospel of John has what you could call ‘gnostic undertones’. The dualisms of Light and Darkness, above/below, God/the world; the Logos doctrine (the Word made Flesh), that Jesus, the redeemer comes down from heaven and returns to heaven, led to a gnostic use of John’s gospel. The first commentary on John was by a gnostic; and the gospel was much mis-used by Gnostics, which led to it being the last of the four gospels to be accepted into the canon, only at the end of the second century.
What probably happened is that some of the people in the so-called Johannine community, or communities, misused John’s gospel in a ‘gnostic’ way at first. This is why the Epistles of John are important, since they were written to combat certain Gnostic groups within the Johannine community/communities.
[1 John 4:2; … every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God …. ]
This ‘gnostic’ influence may have extended to the Thomas community in Edessa in Syria/Turkey, and in Kerala in India.
The Thomas churches believe that Thomas, reluctantly, went to India to preach in 52, and was martyred by being stabbed by a spear (like Jesus!) in 72. A spear is a relic in Chennai [Madras] in India. When he died, his remains were returned to Edessa, where for centuries they have been tended and revered by Muslims, as well as Christians of course. There are legends about him taking the gospel to China.
In the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) in Rome, is another relic of Thomas: in a monstrance, Thomas’ finger, the one that was thrust into the side of Jesus. The only relic of the Resurrection!!
So, what is all this about, why have I spent time describing (far too briefly) these connections with the Thomas tradition? First, it’s about Thomas, whose day we celebrate today. I think it’s also fascinating to be able to trace these connections: a progression, or regression if you prefer, from our story in John’s gospel, with powerful connections to a number of texts and traditions around the Apostle Thomas, and on to the Syrian church in Edessa, and on over to India,. Remember that in the second century there were far more Christians in Syria than in Europe. And, Christianity went to India before most of Europe. Further, I think it’s important to realise that early Christianity was much more diverse, than we imagine. Also, that there wasn’t a ‘pure’ Christianity that eventually spawned various heretical groups, but that some with these ideas existed from the beginning; and some Syrian Christians didn’t realise they were ‘heretics’; and they all even got along with each other. Not entirely unlike the Christian world is today.