Thomas’ primary claim to fame is as a DOUBTER. But I would like to suggest that a better description of Thomas is as a FAITHFUL DOUBTER
or perhaps FAITHFUL SCEPTIC. I have suggested before that “faithful and doubting” might be better than “faithful.” Faithful and doubting means a faithfulness that has been tempered in the fires of doubt. Faith that is simple… blind… is inspirational in many ways, (a “star” quality) but I still wonder how prepared it is to stand a true challenge. (I don’t know… maybe simple faith is stronger than doubting faith… I wonder how one would objectively test that?)
Thomas has relatively little to say in the Bible as an individual. If it were not for John, we would not know anything individually about him. As part of the Twelve, one might presume that when the disciples bickered, complained, and questioned, he was part of that. But there are a few incidents where he is singled out that gives a bit of a clue to his character.
- John 11:16. When Jesus decided to go to Bethany and Jerusalem,Thomas says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” One might be tempted to focus on the prescience… his recognition of the danger that may not have been recognized by the others. Or one might be tempted to focus on the pessimism or cynicism. “Bad things are coming, you wait and see.” For me, Thomas was faithful. He decided to go with Jesus, even though he believed that he would be safer if he left Him. This was a faithfulness NOT borne out of an idealism or optimism. He did not want to go to Jerusalem, felt bad things would happen if he went to Jerusalem, yet still he went… because Jesus was going there and Thomas had agreed to follow Him.
- John 14:5. When Jesus said that He was going to prepare a place for His disciples, and that they (the disciples) already know the place He is going, Thomas responds, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” This statement doesn’t in itself provide much information about the person, but maybe it does. Thomas could have asked a simple question, “What is the way for us to go?” or he could have contradicted, “No Lord, we don’t know the way to go.” Instead, he makes a logical argument. Essentially, to know the way to go, we need to know the destination. Since we don’t know the destination, we don’t know the way. The logic here makes one think of the Greek philosophies. The quote in John 11:16 reinforces this with the determination to do what is right despite emotions that may lead elsewhere. This seems to me to be a bit from the Stoic School (I will welcome correction here… Greek philosophies are far from my strength). If he was a brother of Matthew (Levi), he would have come from a richer family (rich to get the job of a tax collector, and rich to keep the job). The willingness to take on a role like this (as tax collector) for the Romans suggests perhaps that Matthew was Hellenistic Jew. If these conjectures are accurate, then Thomas would have been raised as a rich Hellenistic Jew, making his education in the Greek philosophies quite likely. (Yes, this is highly speculative.)
- John 20:19 – 31. The most famous part of Thomas’ story, the part that created the term “Doubting Thomas” was after the death of Jesus. Jesus showed Himself to many of the Twelve. Thomas was not there. We don’t know why he wasn’t there (on the other hand we KNOW why Judas Iscariot wasn’t there). His absence shouldn’t be read as a rejection of the Twelve. Certainly, afterwards the other disciples told him about Jesus’ appearance, suggesting they felt he was still part of the team. But Thomas needed to be sure. What if it was a ghost? What if it is an imposter? What if it is a cruel joke by the other disciples? Was it out and out disbelief or was it caution. We don’t know. But Thomas was with his friends (the Twelve) the next time Jesus appeared… and his doubts were satisfied.
So what does this say about Thomas? It seemed to show an educated man… cautious… not one to jump to conclusions, and not one to be guided by emotions. He seems to be in personality the opposite of Peter, a very emotional and impulsive man.
In the Bible we don’t know much about what happened to Thomas after that. We know he was in Galilee in John 22 fishing. We can feel pretty certain that he was present at Pentecost and part of forming the church of Jerusalem. We might suspect that he was part of those Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem due to persecution. However, to know more we have to go to extrabiblical sources. Sadly, these must be looked at with a certain amount of doubt and caution.
There are several apocryphal writings regarding Thomas, or credited to him. The Acts of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, and the Revelation of Thomas, to name three. None appear to go back far enough to be particularly reliable. But the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas are fairly old, possibly to the late 2nd century.
There was a tradition that the Twelve, in a sense, divided up the known world and then went into their respective territories to spread the Gospel. This sounds a lot more organized than evidence seems to suggest for first century missions. However, one has to consider the possibility that it expresses some truth. The Acts of Thomas is highly fanciful but MAYBE have a grain of truth in them as well.
The Twelve were known as Apostles. By the late 2nd century AD, it seems as if Apostle became a term limited to a the Twelve, with the focus on being an authoritative church leader. However, in the first century, the term “apostle” suggested more of a church-planter rather than a church leader. The idea of the apostles spreading out to share the Gospel seems more in line with a first century tradition than a second century tradition. Paul was (correctly) described as a great missionary… but the vast majority of his mission work was limited to a few provinces in modern day Turkey and Greece. Adding his noted desire not to build on others’ foundations, there may be some suggestion of territories. Peter described himself as being in Babylon. Although there seems to be a solid church tradition placing Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, it seems likely that he did minister in Babylon for a time. Some have suggested that Rome was being figuratively described as “Babylon” but this appears to be anachronistic. John was described as an apostle, but it appears that when he settled in the church of Ephesus, he began to describe himself as John the Elder. This suggests that he transitioned from a mobile role outside the church, “retiring” to a leadership role inside the church. Anyway… if there is any truth to the tradition, the question is “where did Thomas go?”
According to the Acts of Thomas, he ultimately went to India, ministered there, and was martyred there. Is this possible? In theory, it is quite possible. First, traderoutes from the the areas around Judea to India were quite active. One route was from Alexandria through the Red Sea by boat and then straight across to Southern India. Another way was from Damascus and through Mesopotamia, down through the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf and then sailing along the coast of Persia to India. Since very early Christian communities existed in both Alexandria and in Northern Mesopotamia, this certain makes such a trip possible. In fact, the Acts of Thomas is believed to have been written in the 2nd or early 3rd century in Edessa (in northern Mesopotamia). Second, Christians of the ancient Orthodox faith in Southern India claim to be of the church founded by Thomas. These Christians do date from an ancient period, having been already well established no later than the late 2nd century.
So did Thomas found the church in India? I don’t know, but somebody did and probably did it within a hundred years of Thomas’ death. It seems likely that if Thomas did not, then one of his disciples, perhaps in Edessa, did.
I find Thomas inspiring. He was a man of faithful doubting… a somewhat rare but powerful combination. But that is not the main reason I like him, I suppose. Christians today like boisterous, emotional, vibrant Peter. But John appears to have had a high opinion of Thomas. Written late in the 1st century, the Gospel of John gives Thomas a much more prominent place than the other Gospels. I would like to suggest that his influence was seen more in the later years than in the early years of the church. Sometimes, it is the “other guy” who starts slow, but comes on strong at the end.
Christians today like dynamic, driven, literate Paul. Not sure Christians have much of a place for Thomas… doubting, cautious, logical, and faithful to the end. Right or wrong, I feel a certain kinship with Thomas… Thomas who is often seen as an example of how a Christian is NOT to be. But Jesus chose Him. Out of all of the impassioned, pietistic, dynamic people Jesus could have chosen, he chose Thomas. I like that. Jesus has chosen many others like Thomas as well, and may their numbers increase.