Thomas has an unfortunate nickname – doubting Thomas. Most people have heard the phrase even if they have no idea where it came from. This nickname has stuck, and Thomas’ character as a doubter is famous. The problem is, it is difficult to know whether his doubt was in fact doubt about Jesus, or confidence in his own understanding about the nature of the Messiah and resurrection. Commenting on John 11:19, Andreas Köstenberger says “doubting Thomas” replied “rather sarcastically and no doubt with gallows’ humor, perhaps under his breath, ‘Let’s also go that we may die with him” (Signs of the Messiah, 125).
Maybe. But it is possible to describe Thomas as a very faithful disciples who never lost hope in Jesus as the Messiah, despite his own misunderstanding. In fact, what seems like pessimism may also be read as a willingness to lay down his life for Jesus, to face his persecutors and force the issue of who Jesus really is.
Thomas is only mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but he is featured in three key stories in the gospel of John. All we really know about him on a personal level is that he is called “Didymus,” a word which means “twin,” presumably because he had a twin brother. In fact, the Hebrew name Tom or Tomas in Aramaic also means twin. There were Gnostics who thought that Thomas was Jesus’ twin, and died in his place. The so-called Gospel of Thomas was written by Gnostics and preserves some teachings of Jesus in an overly-spiritualized form. According to tradition, Thomas ended up as far east as India and planted many churches there before he was martyred.
After the resurrection, Thomas is not among the disciples when Jesus first appears, prompting his famous “doubt” about the resurrected Lord Jesus (John 20:24-30). Where was Thomas? Why was he not with the disciples? Was Thomas not with the disciples because he was still in despair over the death of Jesus? Possibly. On the other hand, it is possible that Thomas is the only disciple willing to show his face outside of the locked upper room! Perhaps he is out in the streets, going about his life, willing to “take the risk” that someone might recognize him and arrest him as a follower of Jesus.
Dorothy Lee suggested John used Thomas and Mary Magdalene as examples of two individuals who struggle to understand the resurrection. There a few parallels between the two witnesses of the resurrection. For example, both attempt to touch risen Jesus. Both Mary and Thomas mix faith with misunderstanding, and both receive a revelation from Jesus. For Lee, Thomas is no less faithful than the other disciples because of his absence from the upper room. Thomas’ reaction to the resurrection leads to a significant statement of who Jesus is in the conclusion of gospel of John.
Thomas is therefore singled out from the disciples to be the first to recognize Jesus as Lord and God after the resurrection. In the synoptic Gospels, Peter speaks for the twelve at the midpoint of the story to confess that Jesus is God’s Messiah, but in John it is Nathanael in the first chapter and Thomas in the twentieth chapter who confess that Jesus is the messiah. In Thomas’ case, he calls Jesus Lord and God – a highly theological statement which indicates that Jesus is not just messiah, but in fact God. Notice that Jesus does not correct Thomas, as an angel might if someone offered to worship it as a god. Jesus accepts this worship from Thomas because he is in fact God.
Bibliography: Dorothy A, Lee, “Partnership In Easter Faith: The Role Of Mary Magdalene And Thomas In John 20,” JSNT 58 (1995): 37-49.