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The Case for Thomas -- John 20:19-31 (2nd Sunday of Easter)



The case for Thomas:


Your honor. Ladies, gentlemen, colleagues of the jury. May it please the Court. My name is Scott Clark, and – together with my co-counsel Mr. O’Connor – I represent Thomas, also called the Twin. We are here today to ask you to correct a centuries-old wrong. For centuries of interpretation and tradition, Thomas has wrongly and unfairly been judged for doubting. Indeed, he has been labelled and is known worldwide predominantly by the epithet, “Doubting Thomas.” We ask you to reconsider that judgment, to embrace a fresh and scripturally-grounded interpretation, and to free Thomas, also called the twin, from the stigma of doubt.

In support of the Case for Thomas, we will offer three primary arguments:


1. First, the unfair judgment of Thomas for doubting is based entirely on a particular and unhelpful translation of the Greek text, one which is inconsistent with the whole of the biblical witness.


2. Second, Thomas has been singled out for persecution and judged for doubting, where the biblical witness is undisputed that Thomas’ response and reaction to the Risen Christ was no different than the response of every other follower of Jesus who encountered the Risen Christ.


3. Third, and most importantly, the judgment that history has made against Thomas is directly contrary to the judgment that Jesus made. Indeed, the evidence clearly demonstrates that Jesus did not judge, but rather embraced, what has been called Thomas’ doubt.


But as we begin, we should say something about the type of evidence that is before this Court. The evidence upon which the judgment against Thomas is based originates almost entirely in the written testimony that has come to be called the Gospel of John. This is unusual evidence for a Court to consider because it is, definitionally, hearsay. There are no living witnesses here in the courtroom testifying as to what they saw with their own eyes, what they heard, what they experienced. It is hearsay. Indeed, this evidence is not only hearsay – it is what we often call double-hearsay, or triple-, or quadruple hearsay. The original witnesses experienced the Risen Christ, and they told that story to someone, who told it to someone else, and perhaps they told the story together, and so on – for at least 50 years – until the testimony came to be written down by a community, likely revised, and then years later titled and attributed as “the Gospel of John.”[1]

Now, in pointing that out, we are not saying that this testimony is not true or trustworthy, but rather that this testimony is true and trustworthy in a particular way. What we have here – the evidence before this court – is the testimony of a community – spoken for years before it was written – that has then been shaped by centuries of interpretation. The court must consider the evidence in that context – and peel back the layers of interpretation – to consider what this story meant in the world in which it was first spoken and written – and then, and only then, can the court consider what it might mean for us here today.

With that understanding, we accept as true the testimony of this community – the testimony of the Gospel of John. That testimony is clear – and it in no way supports the historic judgment that has been made against Thomas. The relevant testimony – read in part by Ms. Snyder just moments ago – says that three days after the crucifixion of Jesus, his followers experienced the Risen Christ, in a series of encounters. Those encounters were ultimately recorded in the Gospel of John, and in the three other gospels set forth in the recognized canon of scripture.


In the Gospel of John – the testimony that is at issue here – Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, and then to a huddled gathering of Ten of the remaining Eleven disciples. Importantly, the evidence is undisputed that Thomas was not present at that time. Jesus says to the gathered community, “Peace be with you,” and immediately shows the Ten his wounded hands and side, and they are overjoyed.

When the Ten report this to Thomas – who, again, was not present at the first encounter – Thomas says, “Until I see and touch his hands and side, I will not believe.”

Then, a week later, the disciples are again huddled up, and this time Thomas is present. Jesus appears again, and again says to the gathered community, “Peace be with you!” And the Risen Christ then immediately invites Thomas to touch his hands and side, and to see. What Jesus says then is at the heart of the case against and for Thomas. It’s there in the Greek text. Leading English translations translate it as something like, “Stop doubting and believe.” We will come back to that dubious translation. Thomas’s response: “My Lord and my God!”


That is the testimony before the Court. It is the testimony that for centuries has been used against Thomas. BUT, when understood in its proper context and as part of the whole of the biblical witness, it is actually the testimony that frees Thomas.

The starting point for the Case for Thomas is in this phrase – “Me ginou apistos, alla pistos.” We contend that the judgment against Thomas has been based on a particular and inaccurate translation and understanding of the Greek. In standard English translations, this phrase has been translated and interpreted as an admonition from Jesus that goes something like this: “Stop doubting and believe” (NIV), or “Do not doubt, but believe. (NRSV) But the thing is – the word “doubt” isn’t anywhere in the Greek. The word “pistos” is the adjective for believing, and the word “apistos” is its opposite, “unbelieving.” So a closer translation of this is “Be not unbelieving, but believing.”


So in these few words, Jesus is in no way judging Thomas for doubting; instead, as Gail O’Day has pointed out, Jesus is “inviting Thomas to move from a position of unbelief to a position of belief.”[2] Indeed, this is echoed in the testimony just verses later – “these things are written so that you may come to believe.” Jesus is inviting Thomas into an experience and a process, and into a new way of seeing. Jesus is inviting Thomas to move from this position of “seeing to believe" – to a new life of Resurrection that leads to seeing and experiencing a whole new world – a New Creation.[3]


But we don’t have to stop with just the words of that one sentence. If we zoom out, and look at the broad range of Resurrection experiences set forth in the biblical testimony – we see that again and again this is the experience of everyone who experiences the Risen Christ: (1) They start in a position of disbelief; (2) They are offered a deeper experience of the Christ; and (3) They move to a position of belief, and into relationship:


· In Mark, the story is brief. The women go to the tomb, find it empty, are told that He is Risen, and will meet them. And they are left trembling, and bewildered. And they say nothing to nobody.


· The testimony in Luke goes further. The women are amazed and terrified, but they begin to put pieces together, and they go and tell the Eleven. And the Eleven DISBELIEVE them – they think the women’s story an “idle tale.” Most of them dismiss it entirely; Peter goes back to the tomb, because he has to see for himself. Just like Thomas.


· Jesus appears to travelers on the road to Emmaus and explains everything, from the beginning to now – and they are utterly befuddled. They don’t even recognize Jesus, until Jesus breaks bread – and they can taste and see for themselves. Just like Thomas.


· Later in Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples, and asks them, “Why do you doubt?” (This time actually using the word Greek word that means doubt.) “Why do you doubt? Touch me and see.” Disbelief, and an offer to touch and see. Just like Thomas.


· And then in John, Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that the tomb is empty, but two of the disciples have to go and see for themselves. She then sees Jesus and tells the disciples, but it’s only when Jesus appears to the Ten, and offers them him hands and his sides, so that they can see for themselves – that they are overjoyed and believe.

But for whatever reason, over the course of the history, Thomas has been singled out, and labelled “Doubting Thomas” -- when, in fact, his reaction is no different from every other one of these Resurrection experiences. Thomas’ reaction is not an aberration to be judged. No, what we see here is a pattern in each of these Resurrection appearances:


1. The Risen Christ appears to the grieving disciples.

2. There is a reaction: The appearance is met by some type of disbelief, some type of incredulity – amazement, bewilderment: “This can’t be true.”

3. And the Risen Christ responds by offering a deeper, more intimate experience. A new way of seeing. In response to the bewilderment, Jesus offers himself.


Again and again. Jesus offers himself – and invites each one of them to move from disbelief and wondering, into belief and experience and relationship. Again and again – with Thomas, just like everyone else.

And that is perhaps the most important evidence that frees Thomas. Yes, the Greek text doesn’t judge Thomas. Yes, Thomas’ experience is no different from anyone else’s. But if you still have any doubt – look to Jesus. Look to how Jesus responds to Thomas. Thomas confesses his unbelief. He confesses the limits of his ability to comprehend. I just can’t believe this. And in response, Jesus does NOT judge Thomas. Jesus does not say, “Oh Thomas, Oh Doubting Thomas.” Jesus doesn’t even say, “Stop doubting.” No, Jesus responds: “Peace be with you. Thomas, put your finger here and see. Be not unbelieving, but become believing.” And we don’t even know if Thomas actually touches Jesus – Jesus says offers himself – and Thomas responds: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus does not respond to Thomas with judgment.

Jesus does not shame, or correct, or refuse Thomas.

No, Jesus responds to Thomas with – what Gail O’Day has called – “the gracious offer of himself.” Jesus gives Thomas what he needs for faith – for trust – what he needs to live a life of deeper intimacy in and with Christ.

And indeed, according to the whole of the testimony of the Gospel of John, this is what God has been doing all along. In the beginning was the word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt in our midst, and we have seen his glory – the one and only, who came from God, full of grace and truth. And then in these closing chapters of the testimony: “Because you have seen, you have believed. Blessed as well are those who have not seen, and yet have believed. These things are written, so that you may believe, and that by believing you may have life.” What Jesus offers is an embodied, flesh-and-bones experience of God – in our seeing, and our hearing the story, in our embodied experiences – so that we may have life.

There is no basis in this evidence for judging Thomas for doubt. But why, you may ask, why bother now? Why even bother with the case for Thomas, over two thousand years later. If ever there were a cold case, this is it.

Here’s why: Because the case for Thomas is the case for us. Ultimately, what we see in this testimony is life. The followers of Jesus are grieving an unimaginable loss. The world they thought they knew has crumbled around them – it no longer makes any sense. They are experiencing utter disorientation. Maybe you have known times like that.


And in their bewilderment, what they find is the Risen Christ standing in their midst. Saying, “Peace be with you.” Breathing on them the warm breath of the Risen Christ. And offering them himself, inviting them into a more intimate experience, inviting them into relationship, inviting them into life.


We have to free Thomas from this judgment for his doubt, for his not-knowing, for his bewilderment. We have to – because if we don’t – we just might miss the opportunity to free ourselves. We just might miss Jesus’ gracious offer of himself – God’s gracious offer of God’s self. We just might miss what all of this testimony is all about – we just might miss LIFE.


And so – along with my co-counsel– I ask you to free Thomas from this centuries-old judgment for his doubting – for his not-knowing – for his longing to touch, and to see, and to experience in his own flesh and bones, the Living Word.


The case for Thomas is the case for us. And it has been so from the very beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt in the midst of us. The Word became flesh, and dwelt in us. We have seen it. Full of grace and truth. These things are written so that we might come to believe, and in believing, come to see – come to seeing and experiencing the Living Word in our flesh and bones – so that we might find our life. And with that Good News, the defense rests.


© 2022 Scott Clark


[1] This understanding of how gospels are spoken and written (and come into life) in community comes from the teaching of Professor Antoinette Wire, San Francisco Theological Seminary. [2] Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 845-53. [3] See Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), pp. 422-424.


Photo Credit: Aziz Acharki, used with permission via Unsplash

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