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21 December 2018

St. Thomas, and healthy skepticism.

Thomas wanted his doubts addressed. So Jesus addressed them.

21 December is the feast day of the apostle Thomas. His name Tomás is produced by taking the Aramaic word taóm/“twin” and adding the Greek noun-suffix -as to it. John pointed out he was also called Dídymos/“twice,” so likely he was an identical twin. There’s an old tradition he looked just like Jesus, and that’s why they called him a twin, but since Jesus was likely old enough to be his dad, I think they’d have nicknamed him “junior” instead of “twin.” No doubt Thomas had a twin brother, though we know nothing about him.

What we do know is Thomas was one of the Twelve, namely the one who wouldn’t believe Jesus was alive till he saw him for himself.

John 20.24-25 KWL
24 Thomas, one of the Twelve, called Twin, wasn’t with the others when Jesus came.
25 The other students told Thomas, “We saw the Master!”
He told them, “Unless I see the nail-marks on his hands and put my finger on the nail-scars
and put my hand on the scar on his side, I can’t believe it.”

And we give him crap for this.

We call him “Doubting Thomas.” Forgetting none of the Twelve believed the women whom Jesus first appeared to. Lk 24.11 Simon Peter did bother to check out the sepulcher for himself, and John informs us he followed behind, but all of them thought the women were nuts. And when Jesus did show up to talk to them, at first they thought he was a ghost. Lk 24.37

Thomas just happened to be the only guy not in the room when Jesus first appeared, and like the others, couldn’t believe until he saw Jesus with his own eyes.

So Jesus accommodated him.

John 20.26-29 KWL
26 Eight days later the students, Thomas included, were indoors again.
Though the door was closed, Jesus came, stood in the middle of them, and said, “Peace to you.”
27 Then he told Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.
Put your hand on my side. Don‘t be an unbeliever. Believe!“
28 In reply, Thomas said, “My Master and my God!”
29 Jesus told him, “This you believe because you saw me?
How awesome for those who don‘t see me, yet believe.”

Jesus wants us to trust him wholeheartedly. Sometimes that’s hard for us to do. I get that. So does he. But he’s willing to work with us if we’re willing to make the effort, and not just close our minds to what he’s trying to teach us. Thomas, y’notice, didn’t abandon his fellow students just because they were sure Jesus was alive, and Thomas wasn’t so sure. Eight days later, there he was, the only doubter in a roomful of believers, holding out because you don’t just psyche yourself into believing things; that’s how people get led astray. You take your doubts to God—who might be the one making you doubt! You investigate. You look for evidence. You patiently wait. Thomas did all that, and his wait was rewarded.

So don’t give Thomas crap. Commend his patience. Jesus gave him the truth he sought. He’ll do that for you too, y’know.

Thomas in and after the New Testament.

Though Thomas is in all the lists of the Twelve, he’s only shown interacting with Jesus in John’s gospel. Like when he challenges one of Jesus’s statements (as rabbinic students were expected to do with their teachers):

John 14.1-6 KWL
1 “Don’t let your minds trouble you. Trust God, and trust me.
2 There are many rooms in my Father’s house.
If there aren’t, I tell you I’ll go prepare a place for you.
3 When I go and prepare a place for you, I’ll come back again.
I’ll take you to myself, so you might be where I am. 4 You know the way I’m going.”
5 Thomas told him, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
6 Jesus told him, I’m the way. And the truth, and the life:
Nobody comes to the Father if not through me.”

And there’s this pessimistic remark he makes when Jesus takes ’em to Bethany when Lazarus died:

John 11.14-16 KWL
14 So then Jesus told them bluntly, “Lazarus died.
15 I’m glad for you: Because I wasn’t there, you could believe.
But we could still go to him.”
16 So Thomas, called Twin, told his fellow students, “And we could go so we can die with him.”

Thomas later showed up when the students were fishing on the Galilee’s lake, Jn 21.2 and when the students gathered to pray before the Holy Spirit baptized them. Ac 1.13 Afterwards he’s not in the bible.

Tradition has it Thomas went to Medea, Parthia, Persia (locations inpresent-day Iraq and Iran), and southern India.

And tradition has attached Thomas’s name to not one, but two gospels. They’re probably the best-known books of the New Testament apocrypha, though they’re very different from one another.

INFANCY GOSPEL OF THOMAS. For centuries, the only Gospel According to Thomas was this one; we now call it The Infancy Gospel of Thomas ’cause it’s about when Jesus was a little brat. Yeah, you read that right. A little brat.

No, Thomas didn’t write it. It comes from the Nakhashenes, a heretic sect which sprang up in the mid-100s. The Nakhashenes were gnostics, people who sold you secrets about God and the universe, but their “secrets” were rubbish. So’s their gospel.

In it, the boy Jesus used his divine cosmic powers to pester his fellow Nazarenes. He’d make clay birds on Sabbath, outraging his Pharisee neighbors, outraging ’em even more when he brought the birds to life. Joseph would try to put him in school, where he’d frustrate teachers who tried to teach the already all-knowing Jesus the alphabet, and smite them when they lost patience with them. One variant has Jesus playing on the roof with a neighbor boy, who fell off and died, and when the neighbors accused Jesus of murder, Jesus raised the boy from the dead to defend him. Another variant has Jesus not even bothering to raise the boy, but have him answer from heaven; another variant does have Jesus shove the kid off the roof, but raise him, so it’s all good.

Whoever the author was, she must’ve believed Jesus hadn’t yet reached “the age of accountability” so it was okay for him to be a holy terror. But since Jesus is entirely fruitless in this gospel, it’s no wonder it’s not in the bible.

NAG HAMMADI GOSPEL OF THOMAS. This one’s far better known. It was discovered by Coptic Christians in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It actually dates from when the other gospels were written: Round the years 50–70. Arguably written in Thomas’s lifetime.

Technically it’s not a gospel; it’s a list of 114 teachings of Jesus. And unlike the Infancy Gospel, Jesus kinda sounds like Jesus. Some of the teachings sound mighty gnostic, which is why Christians are on the fence about it: Some say these are valid teachings of Jesus, and some say they’re gnostic distortions of what he did teach. We don’t know. Nor do we know Thomas wrote it.

Even so, biblical scholars find Thomas fascinating, ’cause it shows us a little about how the gospels were put together. The popular theory is Mark wrote his gospel first, and Matthew and Luke quoted him. The stories Matthew and Luke have in common, which aren’t in Mark, seem to be quoting a second source. Possibly a list of teachings, like we find of other rabbis in Jewish literature. Thomas seems to be exactly that sort of list: Sayings of Jesus, collected from people who heard him say them.

And some of the teachings in Thomas line up just fine with the other gospels. Others, we’ve never heard before. Maybe that has to do with the way they were translated into Coptic; maybe they are legitimately Jesus but the other gospel authors didn’t know these sayings; and maybe the gnostics or Christian fanboys made them up. Regardless, it’s a glimpse into the early history of passing Jesus-stories around till the gospels were finally written down.

As for why 21 December is Thomas’s feast day: Custom is to set the feast day on the day a martyr died, but since nobody has any idea when Thomas died, you’re gonna find different churches have different St. Thomas’s Days. As for how he died, we also don’t know. One story says he was killed with spears near Madras. Another is he was killed accidentally; somebody was hunting peacocks and shot the apostle.

Architects consider Thomas their patron saint, and of course he has a Caribbean island named for him. But as I indicated, he’s best remembered for holding out till he saw Jesus for himself. Yeah, Jesus said it’s awesome when we don’t see yet believe… but he did appear to Thomas just the same.