Frank Kermode

  • Doubting Thomas by Glenn Most
    Harvard, 267 pp, £17.95, October 2005, ISBN 0 674 01914 8

The story of Doubting Thomas, examined at length in this learned and fascinating book, has its origin in a brief passage near the end of St John’s Gospel. After the crucifixion, when the disciples were assembled behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’, Jesus appeared among them and displayed the wounds in his hands and side. He also granted them the power to remit sins, or not, as the spirit moved them; so they had good reason to rejoice at having seen the Lord.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

John 20.24-29

After two more verses the gospel ends; the 21st chapter, recounting a further post-resurrection appearance, is a later addition. Presumably the incident of Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds seemed an appropriate ending. It shares the 20th chapter with the story of the risen Jesus telling Mary Magdalene that she mustn’t touch him, and this collocation of prohibition and invitation is presumably significant.

For the last two thousand years or so, almost anybody who knew the Thomas story would have been puzzled if you’d asked them whether Thomas touched the wounds of Jesus, supposing his having done so to be the point of the story; yet in this book Glenn Most, after scrupulously examining the evidence, insists with great assurance that Thomas did nothing of the kind. He pleads ‘the clear evidence of John’s text’, calls that evidence ‘indisputable’, and assumes throughout his book that Thomas ‘never did actually touch’ Jesus’ body.

The least glamorous but apparently most decisive bit of evidence seems to be a point of New Testament Greek grammar that is far beyond my competence to adjudicate. Most maintains that when it is said of a speaker, as it is said of Thomas after Jesus has invited him to touch the wounds, that ‘he answers’ (apekrithe), it means that he is making a direct and immediate response to the speech of his interlocutor. In other words, nothing can intervene between Jesus’ invitation and Thomas’s reply; there is no grammatical room for us to supply a piece of narrative that describes the touching. This rule is said to hold good throughout the New Testament. It seems a strong point, blocking any attempt to fill that gap with a narrative sentence such as ‘Thomas touched the nail prints and the wound in the side.’ Most has some support from other modern commentators for his general contention that there was no touching, but I haven’t myself found anybody else making this grammatical point and anyway shouldn’t argue with Most, who is a Greek scholar as I am not. Nevertheless, I’ll return to this problem.

Not only does John omit to say that Thomas touched Jesus; he also uses the words ‘because thou hast seen me’. It can thus be argued that it sufficed for the doubter to see the wounds; he did not need to touch them, and after he’d been shown them to have touched them as well would have been impious or sacrilegious; the other disciples wouldn’t have wanted Thomas in their company: further evidence, though more speculative, that there can be no gap for us to fill between Jesus’ invitation and Thomas’s ‘My Lord and my God’.

Most’s purpose is not theological, though he is obviously concerned with questions of faith and doubt. His analytic method is familiar to literary critics going about their normal secular business. In reading any narrative we have to supply material missing from the text, usually to construct character or motive. The gospels are terse in style and leave more than most stories to the imagination of the reader. Their gaps and discrepancies are not, as was once supposed, the consequence of muddles in the compilation of sources, but a normal feature of this kind of writing. The influential German critic Wolfgang Iser explains his interactive ‘reception theory’ thus: ‘No story can ever be told in its entirety, the text itself is punctured by blanks and gaps that have to be negotiated in the act of reading.’ The gap between the speech of Jesus and Thomas’s reply may look like a pretty good instance of a gap that needs filling; and of course practically everybody, including the painters and their patrons, the priests and their flocks, has been filling it for centuries. But now it seems they were wrong.

Applying himself to the gospel text, Most finds that far from permitting the tradition that Thomas touched the wounds it actually ‘contradicts’ it. St Augustine may have argued that the verb ‘to see’ could cover the sense of touch; but Most is not impressed. Seeing is all Thomas has done, the text means only what it says and needs no amplification. Actually, the truly important point about the emphasis on seeing is that Jesus can go on to use for homiletic purposes the difference between seeing him in his resurrected state, as the disciples have done, and just hearing about him, which is all anybody else can hope to do; so that believers who have not seen but only heard are especially praiseworthy and are therefore called blessed. This is a fitting end to a gospel, for gospels can proclaim but cannot show the good news.

This message about believing without ocular proof may have been addressed to a Christian community which, near the end of the first century, was perhaps feeling that the Second Coming was long overdue; and it was at odds with unbelievers – other Jews (who expelled Christians, who were of course still Jews, from the synagogue) as well as the Roman overlords. (Thomas’s words ‘My Lord and my God’ were the salutation required by the Emperor Domitian: perhaps a coincidence, possibly apostolic defiance.) There may be a suggestion that some of these Christians were touched by scepticism concerning the resurrection, or anyway sensed it in others: ‘Some doubted,’ says Matthew (28.27).

Gap-filling is freely used by Most elsewhere: for instance, to build a portrait of Thomas – not, in this book, a very satisfactory character. Most doesn’t really care for him. He isn’t as shrewd as he might have been, perhaps because he was, as the evangelist insists, a twin (didymos in Greek, tau’ma in Aramaic). Most explains that twins, especially the second-born, were and perhaps still are obstetrically challenged and tend not to be very bright. He regards Thomas as having proved he was a bit thick when he earlier missed the point of the journey to the house of Lazarus, thinking he was going along just to be sure to be killed with his master, and not understanding that Jesus’ purpose was quite other, that he intended ‘to wake him’ – Lazarus – ‘out of sleep’ (John 11.12). Thomas’s mistake, Most suggests, prefigures his stubborn and stupid response to the news of the resurrection. ‘If Thomas does not understand here that Jesus is going to Bethany not in order to die, and not in order to visit a dead man, but in order to bring that dead man back to life, then we shall not be surprised later when Thomas doubts that Jesus himself has died and then is risen once again.’ But this is surely perverse. Thomas may have been wrong about the object of the trip to Bethany, but he must certainly have seen the resurrected Lazarus and so had little reason to be incredulous when asked to believe in another resurrected person, especially if it was the one who had raised Lazarus. So we ought to be surprised. Here interactive reading has gone wrong.

In defence of his thesis Most makes some more minute philological inquiries. He mentions that John uses the verb meaning ‘to believe’ 90 times, against Mark’s nine, and examines at length the verbs describing the discovery by Peter and John of the empty grave. John saw the grave-clothes and believed; Peter saw them and didn’t believe. What they believed or didn’t was in any case wrong, because they got from Mary Magdalene the false report that somebody had taken the body away. Or did ‘believe’ have the sense John gave it elsewhere, when, without an object, it means ‘believe in Jesus’? These are interesting matters. Take the Greek verb ballein, normally rendered as ‘to throw’: does it have an undertone of violence whenever and wherever used – for example, when Thomas uses it of putting his finger into the nail holes? I felt I’d come across non-violent uses of this verb, and indeed it is said by Liddell and Scott to mean ‘to put, place, with or without a notion of haste’. And see Matthew 8, where it twice means ‘to put a sick person to bed’. Perhaps Thomas is again, as in the Bethany incident and elsewhere, subject to a little interactive psychological blackening here.

He comes through in the end. We follow him far from the original text. The story of Thomas resembles that of Judas, of whom John’s portrait seems to have been the most enduring. It is easy enough to see that Thomas is what Raymond Brown calls ‘the personification of an attitude’. Telling a story, John invented or developed a sceptical person rather than talk abstractly about an atmosphere of scepticism. He did something similar with Judas Iscariot, working in a tradition of Jewish writing in which narrative could be supplemented by more narrative to make particular points, to explain difficulties or to update the story. Since there was obviously a betrayal there needed to be a betrayer; Judas filled the role, and earlier mentions of him were made to fit the character that had developed. It is a complex and rather beautiful process, and once the power of fiction is let loose on such a character there is no knowing how he will end up.

Thus, if the question arises as to why Thomas was absent when the resurrected Jesus made his first visit to the disciples, one can fill the gap with a new fiction: his son had died, and Thomas travelled to his tomb and raised him from the dead. He then got full value from his trip by baptising twelve thousand people and founding a church, before returning to Jerusalem and, eight days later, having his special meeting with the risen Christ. Like Judas, Thomas has abundant new life of this secondary sort in the apocryphal writings, and Most also tells the story of the Gnostic Thomas, probably another of the same name, unless our not very bright Thomas was the author of the remarkable gospel found sixty years ago in Upper Egypt. It was certainly none other than our Thomas who is said to have evangelised India, to have been entrusted with secrets by Jesus – even to have been his twin brother – and to have been martyred. A precious relic, a finger, can be seen in Rome to this day.

Despite Thomas’s posthumous involvement in Gnosticism, no text mentions the touching, since for people of that persuasion the risen body would not be material anyway. Not for them the problem that so exercised Paul concerning the nature of the resurrected body: ‘We shall all be changed,’ but into what? Perhaps because people have tended to worry about such points, the scene of Thomas’s encounter with the revenant Jesus has a rather eerie, mortuary quality not found, for instance, in Luke’s Emmaus story. The doors are locked; is this visitant flesh or ghost, are his wounds real and tangible or some ghostly representation? Yeats’s play The Resurrection conveys some sense of the shock that might be felt when the heart of a phantom is found to be beating.

After a chapter on the history of the exegesis of the passage in John from the Fathers to the Counter-Reformation (Catholics were especially keen to believe that Thomas really did touch), Most concludes that in a thousand years of commentary only two interpreters – and they only for moments – argued that Thomas did not touch Jesus. One was Augustine, the other a wholly obscure Greek called Zigabenus. Such a dearth of witnesses suggests a shameful bimillenary neglect of grammar; but now Most may have supplied the remedy. Arguing with him, I’ve said nothing about the liveliest part of his lively book: his study of the pictorial tradition. The illustrations provided are ample but unsatisfactory; Most’s commentary, however, makes up for them. His account of the Caravaggio, which you can see only if you’re willing to go to Potsdam, is so splendidly intelligent and acute that one can make do with the photograph provided.

This is the central document of the pictorial section, and of course it shows Thomas touching the wounds, and doing so with a certain show of violence. Images of the scene survive on a late fourth-century sarcophagus, on tenth-century ivory tablets, on 12th-century mosaics; and abundantly among the riches of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. Most writes well about them all, even though he believes that, unlike Zigabenus, they all got the story wrong.