It’s possible nowadays to have very professional looking greetings cards made by a commercial company, using photographs you yourself have taken. My husband had one recently from our son. But I wonder how you’d feel if someone sent you a birthday card with a very unflattering photo of yourself on the front? Not very pleased, I would imagine.
But it seems to me we have something similar with our Gospel reading toady, as we celebrate the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. The passage we heard from John’s Gospel shows Thomas as the only one not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples, so the only one who failed to receive the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. What is more, he is portrayed as the only one who did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples, and who refused to believe in the resurrection until he had actually seen for himself, prompting what is usually seen as a a rebuke for his doubt from the lips of Jesus. It really can’t be seen as a very flattering picture.
Now, it is very difficult for us to celebrate the lives of the New Testament saints, because we know very little about most of them, apart from the ‘inner four’ of Peter, John, James and Andrew, and, of course, St Paul. Apart from his inclusion in the lists of the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, Thomas appears only in John’s Gospel, in three incidents which each portray him as someone lacking confidence in Jesus’ words and showing doubt.
In John 11, when Jesus resolves to go to Bethany after Lazarus’s death, and his disciples argue against going because of the opposition of the Jews, Thomas says, “Let us go so we can die with him”. This could be seen as loyalty to Jesus, but is usually portrayed as a failure to believe in the divine power of Jesus, which can overcome all opposition, and even raise his friend from the dead.
Then, in John 14, during the Last Supper, when Jesus says he is going to the Father, and that the disciples know the way he is going, Thomas is the one who objects that they don’t know where Jesus is going, so how can they know the way. Again, Thomas is shown as having little understanding and little faith. Jesus responds with one of the great ‘I am’ sayings, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” which has been much used by those who claim that only believing Christians can be saved.
Then, finally, we have this story in which Thomas expresses doubts, Jesus has supernatural knowledge of his doubts and his request to see and touch him, and as soon as Jesus appears, Thomas believes, and acknowledges him as “My Lord and my God”. Several scholars believe this was one of a number of later additions to the original resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel, since no-one in the earliest New Testament tradition would refer to Jesus so explicitly as “God’.
One is prompted to ask why there is such a negative portrayal of Thomas in John’s gospel.
Thomas has not been a significant figure for most Christians in recent church history; he is just one of the Twelve. But, in the Apostolic Age, he seems to have had more importance. There are legends that he travelled to evangelise Syria, Persia and India. The Mar Thoma Church, which still exists, traces its origins to the visit of Thomas to the Malabar coast of Southern India in AD 52, and believes he went on to be martyred in Mylapore. His followers were known as Nazraani Margam (followers of Jesus of Nazareth in the Way) and were mostly Jews. Only Gentile followers, originally, were known as Khristianos.
For many centuries, the Church has known of writings attributed to Thomas: a gospel, acts and an infancy narrative; but they were known only in quotations, mostly by writers who regarded them as heretical (though some of the more colourful stories from the infancy narrative, like Jesus turning children into goats, were favourite subjects for mediaeval stained glass windows). However, in 1945, a full text of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic was rediscovered in a manuscript that was part of a cache of documents found hidden in a pottery jar in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is thought they were placed there by the monks of a nearby monastery after Bishop Athansius of Egypt (him of the Athanasian Creed that we never say nowadays!) drew up an orthodox canon of Scripture in 367 AD and ordered all other ‘heretical’ writings to be seized and destroyed.
When scholars examined the Gospel of Thomas they were amazed to find that, far from being strange and heretical, about half of the 114 sayings had close parallels with passages in the Synoptic Gospels and John. For instance the saying about taking the log out of your own eye before the splinter out of someone else’s is there, as are versions of the parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed, the Thief in the Night and many more. Some scholars believe that Thomas’ version of these may be closer to the words Jesus actually spoke than the versions we have in the Gospels.
So why didn’t Thomas end up in the New Testament, whereas books like John’s Gospel (which paints a very different portrait of Jesus and his teaching from the one we get in the other three gospels) did? Thomas’s Gospel has only sayings, dialogues and parables; no stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood, or his trial, death, resurrection, or any talk of of judgement. But Mark has no birth stories and no resurrection appearances either. Mary Magdalene is prominent among the disciples in Thomas, asking questions and being the subject of a strange final saying about making females male to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but she appears in other gospels too.
Both Thomas and John have a great emphasis on knowledge and on light, but whereas in John the light is in Jesus, in Thomas the light is in everyone. In John, people are saved by believing the ‘truth’ as defined by the gospel, and in particular in John’s account of the things that Jesus did and said. In Thomas, Jesus says that the evidence for the truth is here in the world, available to everyone, and the disciples need to work things out for themselves.
There is evidence from the history of the Early Church that there were many different groups of Christians who believed different things about Jesus and ‘The Way’, who had different church structures, different ways of accessing the truth about God, and who honoured different apostles and their writings. These co-existed, although as we see from the New Testament letters, some groups’ beliefs were condemned by others. Elaine Pagels in her book on the Gospel of Thomas called “Beyond Belief”, puts forward the argument that the stories told against Thomas in the Gospel of John were put in to discredit those groups in the church who followed Thomas, and their practice of seeking knowledge of God through direct experience.
It may surprise many who love St John’s Gospel to know that this book was at one time considered unsuitable for inclusion in the Bible, as were Revelation and the Johannine Epistles. However, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the 3rd century promoted the belief that the Gospel was written by the disciple John, brother of James (a position strongly contested by many present day scholars). He also argued that there could only be four true Gospels, since, just as the throne of God seen by Ezekiel was held up by four living creatures, so the Word of God was supported by four pillars, the memoirs of the apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He resolved to destroy all apocryphal and illegitimate writings, which included the Gospel of Thomas.
It was only in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire, and ‘orthodox’ beliefs were defined by the Creeds drawn up by the great Church Councils like Constantinople and Nicaea, that some groups were declared heretical, and their writings not just opposed but destroyed. It was about the same period that the canon of the New Testament was decided. The list of authorized books included the four Gospels championed by Irenaeus, and the other Johannine writings, but not Thomas’s Gospel, most copies of which were destroyed.
All this may seem like a squabble from nearly fifteen hundred years ago, with no relevance for the church today. But throughout Christian history there continued to be a suspicion of believers who encountered God through visions and prophecy, and an insistence that only those visions that conformed to orthodox belief were acceptable. There also continued to be disputes between different groups of Christians about what was orthodox belief and practice, and those disputes were at the root of the great splits in the Body of Christ, like the Reformation.
Disputes in the church continue nowadays between exclusivists – those who maintain that only those who believe certain things or follow certain practices will be saved; and universalists – who believe that God is too great to be contained within any one human system of belief, and that a God of love will provide many ways to salvation.
This division is still very much a live issue in the church. Some of you may have heard of a writer and preacher named Rob Bell, who was accused of ‘universalism’ (a dirty word in some Evangelical circles) because his book ‘Love Wins’ said that God wants everyone to be saved. Bell also says that the Bible suggests it’s what people do, rather than what they believe, that God is interested in; that a God who condemns people to eternal torment cannot be a God of love; and that Heaven, Hell and Judgement may be as much present in this life as they are in the afterlife. This goes against the beliefs that many Evangelicals insist are central to Christian faith.
This debate is also very alive in the worldwide Anglican Church at the moment. Some groups of Anglicans maintain that there are beliefs and practices that put you outside the limits of God’s people, and that churches who allow these must be excluded from the Anglican Communion. Many of these have to do with gender roles and sexuality.
These groups take the Bible as the only standard for Christian behaviour and don’t think that tradition or the use of reason are important.
Others in the Communion would argue that in a worldwide church there is room for a variety of beliefs and practices, all of which can be considered ‘Anglican’; and that reason and modern knowledge can change what we believe about God and Christ. They would say that the Holy Spirit is still active, leading the church into truth.
These disputes between Anglicans today remind me of the disputes between groups of Christians in the early Church, which led to the declaration that some ways of believing in Jesus were ‘heretical’ and some saints less worthy of honour than others. The reputation of Thomas seems to have suffered from this.
St Thomas attracts me as a saint to follow precisely because he doubts, and asks questions, and doesn’t just accept what other people tell him is true. I’ve been intrigued by the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and by its difference from the canonical gospels, and by the alternative message of Jesus that it contains.
So happy Feast Day, Doubting Thomas, I say! Long may you continue to be the patron saint of those who ask questions and seek direct experience of God, free from dogma, free from exclusiveness.