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Seeing and Believing: The Thomas Incident (John 20:24-29)

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His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis

The four Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - include in their Passion/Resurrection narratives a series of episodes related to the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples. In these episodes the disciples, after passing through a phase of doubt, unbelief, trouble, confusion and astonishment, come to the point of believing that Jesus has been risen indeed.

There is, however, a special episode preserved by the Gospel of John that stands out from among the post-resurrection scenes. This is the incident of the appearance of the risen Lord to Thomas, brilliantly narrated by John (Jn. 20:24-29). The specialty and the importance of this event lie in the fact that it presents the relation between seeing and believing in a splendid, superbly formulated manner. More specifically, it shows the significance of believing after, or because of, having seen the risen Christ, and believing without having seen him. Therefore, the Thomas incident as it is reported in John 20:24-29, is worth investigating and discussing. This precisely will be our task in the present paper, a paper dedicated to the memory of Bishop Gerasimos of Abydos, the erudite and humble Hierarch, insightful thinker, researcher of the Scriptures, and indefatigable student of Christology.

The Appearance of the Risen Christ to his Disciples

John is the only Evangelist who has preserved the story in which Thomas is depicted as moving from unbelief to belief after his encounter with the risen Lord (Jn. 20:24-29).[1] The episode took place one week after Jesus had appeared to the disciples in the absence of Thomas (Jn. 20:19-23). In the above mentioned appearance of Jesus to his disciples, he showed them his hands and his side (edeixen autois tas cheiras kai ten pleuran autou), and the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (idontes ton Kyrion) (Jn. 20:20).[2] What we have here, despite the brevity of the description, is the emphasis on the visible aspect of the appearance, even to the very specific mentioning of the hands and of the side. The two main verbs at the center of the narrative are verbs of optical impression, of seeing: Jesus showed … The disciples saw (edeixenidontes).

In the scene that immediately follows, namely John 20:24-26, the disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord” (eorakamen ton Kyrion) (Jn. 20:25).[3] Here again a basic verb of seeing (eorakamen) is employed by the Evangelist as an expression of the experience of the disciples’ encounter with Christ and of their faith in him.

Thomas’ response to the information/witness offered by the other disciples, includes in an emphatic way the very same verb of sight: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails … I will not believe” (ean me idon ... ou me pisteuso) (Jn. 20:25). Thomas without “explicitly dismissing out of hand the other disciples’ confession,”[4] refuses, nonetheless, to believe that Jesus is risen, unless he sees him with his own eyes.[5] The condition imposed by Thomas is clear and absolute: personal verification by sight, direct access by eye contact and nothing less.[6] Thomas even intensifies his terms by adding the need not only to see but also to touch Jesus at the very marks of his crucifixion: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25)[7]

Thus, Thomas makes his own individual test, his personal direct seeing of the visible marks of the crucifixion and even the touching of these marks, the absolute condition and the non-negotiable term for believing. Any other evidence is inadmissible. The disciples’ affirmation that they have seen the Lord is treated with utter skepticism that borders on rejection. An unyielding attitude is described here, a situation where believing seems to be unthinkable without seeing, without direct physical evidence and verification.[8]

Having thus prepared the ground, John continues now with the description of the main part of Thomas’ episode.

The Appearance of the Risen Christ to Thomas

The event occurred eight days after the appearance of Jesus to the other disciples. As they were gathered in the house, behind closed doors, the risen Christ came and stood among them (Jn. 20:27). This time Thomas was with them. Jesus, after greeting them with the traditional, “Peace be with you,” without any delay turns to Thomas and addresses him: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side, and do not be unbelieving but believing” (kai me ginou apistos alla pistos)[9] (Jn. 20:27). Obviously, Jesus accepts the challenge, if not the provocation, of Thomas and invites him to proceed with the demanded test. The unbelieving disciple already sees Christ, but he is now asked to complete the test by adding the touching of the hands and of the side.

He does not, however, complete the test.[10] With a giant step he moves from the state of unbelieving to the state of believing. Suddenly he is convinced that the one whom he sees, is the risen Lord, the very same Jesus whom he knew, after having been with him for three years. Unhesitatingly, without any other words, explanations or apologies, he responds with an astonishing confession of faith: “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God’” (o Kyrios mou kai o Theos mou) (Jn. 20:28). This declaration of faith is unique. No other disciple in the Gospel narratives has used such an advanced creedal formula for expressing his faith in Christ who is now called Lord and God.

It has been pointed out that Thomas’ confession of faith assigns to Jesus the attributes of Lord and God used in the Old Testament for Yahweh, for the one and only God. Thus now Jesus is addressed in the way Yahweh has been addressed by Israel.[11] The change is radical. It is interesting to note that Thomas, the skeptical, unbelieving and tough disciple, utters at the very end of the Gospel of John a superb declaration of faith which reflects in a variation the majestic opening lines of the same Gospel: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (Jn. 1:1).[12] This Logos became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14), was crucified and risen, and now in John 20:28 is acknowledged Lord and God. With the confession of Thomas we have a supreme christological pronouncement, a tremendously advanced expression of faith which, despite its utter brevity, constitutes the ultimate statement in high Christology.[13]

Thomas’ exclamatory statement is followed by a very important response from Jesus. Upon hearing his believing words, Christ addresses him with a remark and a beatitude: Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) have believed (Jn. 20:29).”

The first part of the statement, taken either as a question or as a recognition of a fact,[14] speaks of believing in the risen Lord as a result of seeing him. There is no doubt that Jesus clearly speaks here of an undeniable phenomenon of faith, a faith which is the consequence of a visual, a sight experience. As several exegetes[15] have pointed out, there is no need to discern in this instance an implied diminished value of such a way of arriving at the state of believing.

The second part of Jesus’ statement is a beatitude which presents a different type of faith, namely a faith not depending on visual experiences: “Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) have believed” (Makarioi oi me idontes kai pisteusantes).[16] Who are the recipients of such a blessing? Probably a number of the larger circle of the disciples who have not seen the risen Lord with their own eyes but relied on the eyewitness of the other disciples. But most certainly, they are the Christians living around the end of the first century AD for whom John the Evangelist writes his Gospel. The majority of these people were born years after the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, therefore they could not have seen him. They are proclaimed blessed because they have arrived at the state of believing in the risen Lord without the assistance or proof of immediate, direct and personal ocular experience.

Having run quickly through the pericope John 20:24-29, we can now proceed with the discussion of the most important points related to the question of seeing and believing which constitutes the essence of Thomas’ episode.

Seeing as a Cause for Believing

There is no doubt that seeing the risen Christ as a basic way of believing in him, is not rejected or downgraded in the whole chapter 20 of John and more specifically in John 20:24-29. Not only is it not rejected, it is, on the contrary, presupposed and considered indispensable as a way leading to faith.[17]

In John 20:1-10, for instance, in the case of Peter and John, the two disciples enter the empty tomb of Jesus and see his burial cloths and his face napkin neatly folded. This sight then becomes instrumental in generating faith as it is reported by the Evangelist: “Then the other disciple (i.e. John) who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (kai eiden kai episteusen) (Jn. 20:8). Here the connection between seeing and believing is not only direct but also etiologic. In this case believing is based on seeing or, to put it differently, seeing becomes a cause for believing.

There is an intriguing note attached by the Evangelist to the description of the above mentioned episode: For as yet they (i.e. John and Peter) did not know the Scripture that he (i.e. Jesus) must rise from the dead (Jn. 20:9). The note possibly suggests that the disciples, because of their ignorance or lack of understanding of the Scriptures, did not actually expect the resurrection of Jesus. Under the circumstances, they obviously needed strong, unambiguous evidence in order to understand what really happened, namely, in order to believe that Jesus was truly risen. They needed visible, sense verifiable data.[18] Seeing then the risen Jesus appeared to be indispensable as a way leading to believing in him.

In the incident with Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:11-18), seeing seems not to be an adequate condition: Mary in the garden next to the burial place of Jesus, turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus (Jn. 20:14).[19] Only when Christ called her by her name she recognized him (Jn. 20:16). Hearing, not simply the voice, which happened before (Jn. 20:15), but the special tone in pronouncing her name, was necessary in this case, which may be a subtle hint that seeing and even hearing, as such, cannot be sufficient all the time. At the very end of the pericope, however, when Mary Magdalene comes to the disciples, she announces (or proclaims, apaggelousa), “I have seen the Lord” (eoraka ton Kyrion) (Jn. 20:18). The verb to see is the core of the announcement, and this verb is indicative of a visual experience.

It is also characteristic, as we explained before, that in the episode of the appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples inside the house (Jn. 20:19-23), the factor of seeing is prominent. After greeting them, Jesus “showed them (edeixen autois) his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (idontes ton Kyrion) (Jn. 20:20). Afterwards, when the disciples met Thomas who was not present[20] when the risen Jesus came, they told him, “We have seen the Lord” (eorakamen ton Kyrion) (Jn. 20:25). The verbs to show and to see, that is verbs related to direct optical contact and visual experience, are key words and concepts in the new condition of post-resurrection faith engendered in the hearts of the disciples.

Thus, when we come to the Thomas event described in John 20:24-29, we are already aware of the decisive significance of seeing related to believing.[21] The risen Lord does not discard the seemingly inappropriate request of Thomas. He appears when Thomas is present among the disciples, and directly invites him to put his finger into the prints of the nails and of the spear and to see his hands (ide tas cheiras mou) (Jn. 20:27).[22] Seeing is again absolutely important here, and this time is directly proposed by Jesus as a means proving the veracity of his resurrection and as a way of passing from unbelieving to believing.

All the episodes with the risen Lord in John 20, the episode with Thomas included, project in a crystal clear manner the notion that the post-resurrection experiences with Christ were real, visible, and accessible through the bodily senses. Not only Thomas, but the other disciples as well, have believed because they have seen the risen Jesus. This is a fundamental truth which makes the resurrection a firm reality, established on pragmatic and verifiable data, on plenty of eyewitnesses who were people difficult and slow of heart to believe (Lk. 24:25). A few decades before John, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, had already presented in a masterful way the same idea, i.e. the veracity and facticity of Christ’s bodily resurrection based on a large number of eyewitnesses. There, Paul repetitively uses for the risen Lord the verb “of the” (he was seen), namely the basic verb for seeing. The important thing is that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, considers the visual direct evidence an indispensable component of the Gospel, an essential article of the real Christian faith.

At the same time, the insistence on the visual experience as an undeniable evidence for the veracity and facticity of the resurrection, emphasizes the fact that the risen Lord is not a bodiless spirit but a complete human being. Perhaps this is the reason why John proceeds in chapter 21 of his Gospel with the narration of the lengthy story of the meeting between the risen Christ and his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (Jn. 21:1-22), a meeting involving talking, fishing, eating and walking. Here at the very end of his Gospel, John is eager to maintain what he has declared at its very beginning: The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14). Christ being a full and whole human being, being in the flesh even after his resurrection, is for John a fundamental christological truth.[23] This truth reveals the necessity for visual contact, optical evidence, direct seeing. Thus the inseparable connection between seeing and believing proclaims the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and, at the same time, his true, full, undeniable humanity.

An echo of the idea of seeing and being in sense-contact with Christ as a firm basis for truly believing in him, we encounter in the inspiring opening lines of the First Epistle of John:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the word of life ­ the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us -­ that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you ...” (1 Jn. 1:1-3).

In just three lines we encounter six verbs of seeing (eorakamen, etheasametha, efanerothe, eorakamen) and another three verbs of sense contact (akekoamen, epselafesan, akekoamen ).

Of course, the above cited passage from 1 John refers basically to the reality of Christ’s incarnation and does not mention the risen Lord. Nonetheless, the significant aspect here is the tremendous emphasis on sense experience and direct eye witness as a basis for the proclamation of faith.

A few years after the writing of the Gospel of John, Ignatios of Antioch in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (3:1-3), returned to the idea expressed in chapters 20 and 21 of the Gospel of John with an overt reference to the resurrection:

“For I know and I believe that he (i.e. Jesus) was in the flesh even after his resurrection. And when he came to those about Peter, he said to them: ‘Take, handle me and see that I am not a bodiless demon.’ And immediately they touched him and believed ... And after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.”

Ignatios’ reason for his statement is his anti-docetic polemic as it becomes obvious from Smyrnaeans 2.[24] Nonetheless, the passage is indicative of the paramount importance of understanding the resurrection of Christ as an event verifiable through sight, hearing or touching. Sense perception and direct optical access were decisive factors for believing in the risen Lord. At the same time, this type of believing after seeing the risen Christ, became a solid basis and unbeatable evidence for projecting the truth and the facticity of his resurrection.

Believing without Having Seen the Lord

Seeing as leading to believing is central in John 20:24-29 within the larger unit of John 20-21, and is accompanied by joy, an indispensable component of blessedness. But then we also have the crystal clear declaration/beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) have believed.” This beatitude introduces in a drastic manner the great importance of believing in the risen Jesus without having seen him.[25] In fact this declaration places the believers involved in this case in a special position and makes them "blessed" (makarioi), worthy of a special beatitude.[26] But what are the reasons for the inclusion of such a declaration in the pericope John 20:24-29 and what is its meaning?

a) The Gospel of John, as it is generally assumed, has been written during the last decade of the first century AD. By that time, as we already pointed out, more than fifty years had elapsed since the events described in the Gospel, and as a consequence, very few of the original eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were still alive. The big majority, if not all, of John’s readers were born after the time of the resurrection. Technically speaking, therefore, these people were excluded from the possibility of seeing the risen Lord. They had to rely on the testimony of the preceding generation, of the apostolic witnesses who have seen the risen Jesus. Personal eye witnessing for the readers of John’s Gospel was simply impossible, and was replaced by the very alive apostolic tradition preserved in the Church and by the Church.

Paul has saved for posterity a magnificent text in which we see exactly the description of the phenomenon we are talking about. It comes from chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, which we already have quoted:

“Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold fast ­ unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received (paredoka hymin en protois, o kai parelabon), that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

What we see here is the fact that the long list of the original eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection has become an indispensable and an inseparable part of the basic tradition of the Gospel and of the essential proclamation of the Christian faith.[27] Paul the Apostle himself has received this tradition and transmitted it to the new believers, who have to accept the resurrection as a fact on the basis of the apostolic eyewitness and tradition, and not on their own eye witnessing. And if this is so for Paul, it is even more so for John, who writes almost forty years later to an even younger generation.

The people then of the time of John’s Gospel, if they decide to join the Church and believe in Christ as Lord and God, have to rely on and fully accept the apostolic eyewitness and tradition about him. They have to follow a way very different from the way of Thomas as presented in John 20:24-29. Thomas, because he saw the risen Jesus, believed. The Christians of the time of John’s Gospel, and of the years and centuries to follow, are those who have not seen and (yet) believed (Jn. 20:29). The Evangelist has included the Thomas incident, with its concluding beatitude, in his Gospel, obviously in order to encourage all those people of the present and of the future who had to believe in the Lord without seeing him.[28] And what would be more encouraging than a beatitude coming from the mouth of the risen Lord?

b) The beatitude[29] encountered in John 20:29, however, is not there just for reasons of encouragement. It certainly has a much deeper meaning. What is this meaning? Why are the believers involved in this case called blessed (makarioi)? The answer seems to be twofold.

First, moving from the state of unbelieving to the state of believing, not through seeing but through relying on the apostolic eyewitness, seems to imply an increased amount of faith.[30] Seeing produces a degree of compulsion,[31] somehow diminishes the risk and makes believing easier. Not seeing yet believing, on the other hand, involves more willingness, more decisiveness, more readiness for exposure to all kinds of probable dangers. In this case, believing seems to acquire a high quality indeed,[32] and to engage more profoundly the whole human being. The people of this category are called blessed, because they have reached an enhanced spiritual level, simply by following a very demanding path on their way towards faith.

Secondly, the beatitude in this case might be understood with the assistance of another passage from the Gospel of John, namely, John 1:50.[33] This passage reads:

"Jesus answered and said to him (i.e. to Nathanael), 'Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.'"

This text, in terms of formation and syntax, presents strong similarities to the passage John 20:29: (Thomas) “because you have seen me, you believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) believe.” Both passages have a first part dealing with believing after sense related evidence. The second part of John 20:29 is a beatitude, and the second part of John 1:50 is a promise of astonishing things to come.[34] An aspect then, of the blessedness of the believers in John 20:29 could be the experience of the greater things promised in 1:50. These greater things were fully manifested in the post-resurrection time, more specifically in the time after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the Church and endowed her and the believers with extraordinary gifts and amazing experiences.[35] The Christians who at the time of John’s Gospel have believed without, of course, having seen the risen Christ, were truly blessed, because through their faith, they enjoyed in full all the promised experiences of greater things.

c) There might be another significant reason which explains why John mentioned the Thomas incident and concluded it with the beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) believed.” This additional reason could be the liturgical orientation and content of the Gospel of John.

Because of its liturgical orientation the Gospel of John offers a very important presentation of the Eucharist. The magnificent chapter 6, stands out as a tremendously impressive text on the Eucharist. Just a few verses of that chapter will help us to see the connection with the beatitude of John 20:29:

“So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me'" (Jn. 6:53-57).

When John writes the Gospel, he is well aware that he is addressing Christians, members of the Church, members of an alive liturgical community, participants in the eucharistic celebration, people who have experienced a union with Christ through the communion of his blood and his body. For those people, seeing the Lord the way Thomas did, is no longer needed. They have believed, and as a result they have been given a tremendous experience of the presence of Christ. In a sense, such an experience contains elements of a visual nature, but is much more rich and multifaceted.[36] The senses are included in the said experience, and ineffable joy is its predominant characteristic. Communion of the body and the blood of the risen Christ which occurs after believing, has become now the amazing alternative to seeing him before believing. “Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) believed,” because they have an immediate, palpable, all-encompassing experience. The new experience of believing and being united with Christ, which constitutes the main characteristic of the post-apostolic christian generations, is an event of heavenly bliss, of utter and ineffable joy.

This truth has been handsomely formulated in 1 Peter 1:8:

“Without having seen him (i.e. Christ), you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy unutterable and full of glory.”

The passage by the repetition of the verb to see in a negative grammatical construction (ouk idontes, me orontes) underlines the fact that there is no seeing involved here. On the other hand, the predominant feeling in terms of post-believing experience, is real jubilation, chara aneklaletos, which could certainly be considered a manifestation of true blessedness.

d) John might have one more reason, not strictly referring to the relation between seeing and believing, for including the Thomas incident in his Gospel. This reason is perhaps the person of Thomas himself. Let me briefly explain this assumption.

John is the only Evangelist among the four who speaks about Thomas. He mentioned him in John 11:16 in conjunction with the resurrection of Lazaros, and again in John 14:5-6. In both instances Thomas appears as a person loyal to Jesus and ready to die with him, but, at the same time, skeptical, stubborn, and realist in a somehow negative way. The same picture, intensified to be sure, is sketched in John 20:24-29. Thomas is depicted here as a stubborn realist, as an unbelieving and skeptical individual who needs crude evidence in order to believe that Jesus is risen. However, when he believes, he offers a terrific confession of faith, a really unique, “My Lord and my God.”

John presents this picture of Thomas, having perhaps in mind the place of Thomas in the christian communities of Syria and the neighboring areas.[37] Especially in Syria, as we know at least from the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas appears as an extremely important person, a confidant of Jesus, receiving from him advanced esoteric and mystical knowledge which no other disciple shared. John, with the story in John 20:24-27, might well be offering a corrective. Certainly Thomas produced an extraordinary confession of faith. At the same time, however, he showed a pronounced skepticism and a crude realism which were not at all compatible with all the esoteric and mystical experiences, sometimes Gnosticizing, ascribed to him by the so-called Thomas tradition. The Evangelist in John 20:24-29 shows what the real Thomas was like, and without diminishing his importance and stature, aptly closes the door to all sorts of Gnosticizing and esoteric speculations wrongly associated with him. Thus the Thomas event in John 20:24-29, beyond contributing to the very significant topic of seeing and believing, seems to be functioning as a critique to the possible speculation about Thomas, which was in circulation mainly in Syria but also in the neighboring areas, a speculation particularly dangerous as it was later shown in the course of the developing Gnosticism.

Concluding Notes

There is no doubt that John’s central theme in the Thomas incident (Jn. 20:24-29), is the relation between seeing and believing. This theme seems to run through the two final chapters of the Fourth Gospel (Jn. 20 and 21). It is, however, in the splendid narrative of Christ’s appearance to Thomas that the question of the relation between seeing and believing receives its definitive answer.

Believing after seeing the risen Christ was, according to John, the way of the disciples and apostles who have been with Jesus throughout his ministry. This truth has been convincingly demonstrated in John 20 (also in John 21). The Thomas episode eloquently attests to that truth. Thomas was not denied his request to see the risen Lord in order to believe. In his case, even touching and handling were added to seeing. And after the meeting with him and Thomas’ astonishing confession of faith, Jesus unequivocally states that the previously unbelieving disciple has seen him and, as a consequence, has now believed. Both in his case and in the case of the other apostles, seeing was instrumental in leading to the faith that the crucified and buried Lord has risen indeed.

If John presents in such a masterful manner the various post-resurrection meetings of Christ with his disciples and especially with Thomas, he does so in order to establish once and for all Christ’s resurrection as a fundamental and undeniable fact. The disciples, including the unbelieving Thomas, saw and believed that Jesus was risen indeed and that he truly is their Lord and God.

Believing after seeing the risen Christ, however, was a way limited only to the apostolic generation. John was fully aware of this fact, thus subtly and powerfully projected another way, namely the way of believing without previously seeing, and more specifically of believing on the basis of the testimony of the apostolic eyewitnesses. For such a way of arriving at the state of faith in Christ as Lord and God, John has preserved, as we have seen, the masterpiece of narrative art and sophisticated theology which is the story of Thomas: A story deeply human and divine, strategically placed within a superbly articulated context, and culminating in the supreme dominical proclamation/beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and (yet) believed.”

The Evangelist did not add anything beyond that. Probably he did not have to. He knew extremely well that the people who have believed without having seen the Lord, were already experiencing the blessedness about which John 20:29 speaks. In a paradoxical reversal of terms, these people probably were now enjoying a most unexpected state of faith and existence: the state of seeing after having believed.

[1] In fact John is the only Evangelist who in addition to John 20.24-29 has two more episodes with Thomas as the central person (Jn. 11:16 and 14:5-6). This might well be an indication of the significance ascribed to Thomas by John.

[2] The phrase, The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (Jn. 20:20), probably is an implicit reference to Jesus’ promise at the Last Supper, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice” (John 16:22).

[3] It should be noted that in John 20.24, Thomas is mentioned as one of the twelve (eis ek ton dodeka). Rudolf Bultmann (Das Evangelium des Johannes [Gottingen: Vandenhoeck, 171964] 537), sees here a possible connection with Q. More significant, however, is the possibility that the mentioning of the twelve aims at stressing the importance of Thomas and of his witness that follows in John 20:24-29.

[4] See Stanley Marrow, The Gospel of John (New York: Paulist, 1995) 363. Cf. Chrysostom (Commentary on John, PG 59,473): “It was not so much (on Thomas’ part) a refusal to believe the other apostles as it was more a conviction that resurrection from the dead is an impossible thing.”

[5] Nicholaos Damalas (To Kata Ioannen Euaggelion [Athens: Myrtides, 1940] 720), thinks that Thomas’ request has to do with his claim to his right to be granted a direct sight of the risen Jesus as it happened with the other disciples. This is an interesting but rather untenable idea, in view of the context. Raymond Brown (The Gospel according to John [Garden City: Doubleday, 1970] 1045), correctly notes here that “Thomas is asking more than was offered to the other disciples.”

[6] Origen in his Commentary on John (Exegetika eis to kata Ioannen) (Fragments from Catenae, Fragm. 106), notes that Thomas, motivated by a desire for precision and proof after scrutiny (akribes kai exetasmenon), is not so much rejecting the evidence of the other apostles as he is eager to make sure that what they have seen is not a ghost (fantasma) in the sense of Mark 6:49-50 and Luke 24:37-38. Theophylact of Bulgaria on the other hand, in his Commentary on John (Ermhneia eis to kata Ioannen Euaggelion, PG 124,301), has a very different opinion and sees here not a desire for precision but a crude unbelief.

[7] John Chrysostom in his Commentary on John (Hypomnema eis ton Agion Ioannen ton Apostolon kai Euaggelisten, PG 59,473), observes that Thomas’ inquisitive attitude here, goes beyond the limits (peran tou metrou periergazesthai kai polypragmonein), and this shows a dull mind (pachytate dianoian). Hence, continues Chrysostom, Thomas would not trust even his own eyes and would look for evidence through the most crass of the senses (pachytate aisthesis), namely, touching and handling. Similarly Theophylact (Commentary on John, PG 124,300), and Euthymios Zigabenos (Commentary on John, Ermeneia eis to kata Ioannen Euaggelion , PG 129,1488).

[8] For an insightful presentation of Thomas’ attitude see Panagiotis Trembelas, Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen Euaggelion (Athens: Zoe, 1954) 708-709.

[9] As Rudolf Schnackenburg (Das Johannesevangelium, 3. Teil [Freiburg: Herder, 1976] 391) notes, this is the only instance in his entire Gospel where the Evangelist uses the two words apistos and pistos. The uniqueness of the appearance of these two words and their connection through the antithetical conjunction alla (but), emphasizes the importance of believing and unbelieving in the Thomas incident.

[10] The Evangelist says nothing about Thomas proceeding with the touching of the body of the risen Lord. Cf. Brown, Gospel of John, 1046. Some ancient exegetes, like Origen (Commentary on John, Vol. 13,30) and Cyril of Alexandria (Commentary on John, Hermeneia e Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen Euaggelion, PG 74,728), thought that Thomas actually put his hands on the marks of the nails and of the spear, whereas others like Augustin (In Johannis Evangelium, Tract. CXXI,5), claim that Thomas did not touch the risen Christ. Cf. Zigabenos, Commentary on John, PG 129,1489. Marrow (The Gospel of John, 363), appropriately notes that Thomas’ confession of faith “is not a reaction to a conclusive and successful scientific experiment.”

[11] See more in Brown, The Gospel of John, 1047. Cf. Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes, 538, Trembelas, Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen,712.

[12] As C. H. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963] 430-31) notes, Thomas’ confession “links up with the opening of the Prologue. Thus the identity of Jesus with the incarnate Logos is finally affirmed on the testimony of the disciple who having seen Him after His resurrection became not faithless but believing.” Cf. Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes, 539.

[13] It should not pass unnoticed that the observation made by Cyril (Commentary on John, PG 74,733), that Thomas’ confession of faith uses the definitive article o (the) before the words Lord and God (o Kyrios mou kai o Theos mou), which gives to the statement a characteristic of absoluteness. Brown (The Gospel of John, 1047), considers Thomas’ confession “the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel.” The addition of the personal pronoun my (My Lord and my God) gives a strongpersonal tone without detracting anything from the solemnity of the pronouncement.

[14] Some codices, and in addition Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact and Zigabenos, read the statement as a fact; some other codices read it as a question. Nestle-Aland (27th edition, 1993) prefer the question variant. Among modern commentators there is no agreement on the subject. Cf. Schnackenburg, Das Johannesevangelium, 398, Bultmann, Das Evengelium des Johannes, 539.

[15] For instance Origen (Commentary on John, Vol. 10,43), Chrysostom (Commentary on John, PG 59, 473-74), Brown (The Gospel of John, 1050). On the other hand, Bultmann (Das Evangelium des Johannes, 539), argues for the opposite by insisting on the “adversative relation” between v.29a and 29b.

[16] In the English translation of the second part of v.29, I put the word yet in parenthesis: … (yet) they believed. The reason is that there is no antithetical conjunction in the Greek original, hence even a translation completely omitting the yet could be legitimate. I retained, however, the yet in parenthesis, because there is a possibility that the participle me idontes might be construed as being an antithetical participle.

[17] Cf. Cyril, Commentary on John, PG 74,756. Cf. also Brown, The Gospel of John, 1046.

[18] A characteristic text, indicative of the situation of the disciples is the passage Luke 24:36-43: “As they (i.e. the disciples) were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And hesaid to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see, for a spirit has no flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and some honeycomb. And he took it and ate in their presence.”

[19] Cf. Marrow (The Gospel of John, 359): “To recognize Jesus of Nazareth as Lord, ocular vision alone is not enough. Divine revelation is necessary.” An analogous case we encounter in the incident with the disciples in John 21:4-5, and with the two disciples going to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35).

[20] There has been a number of suggestions related to the reasons of Thomas’ absence from the scene described in John 20:19-23. Cf. Trembelas, Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen, 708. We do not have, however, any data on the subject.

[21] Attention should be drawn, however, to the fact that seeing as such and by itself does not automatically lead to believing. John is emphatic on this subject. In John 6.36, for instance, Jesus says to the Jews, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” And in John 14:8-11, in the episode with Philip, when he asks Jesus to show them the Father, Christ responds, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”

[22] Schnackenburg (Das Johannesevangelium, 394-95, 396), has pointed out the interesting similarities between John 20:27 and John 1:47-50 (the episode with Nathanael), especially in terms of Christ’s supernatural knowledge and its connection to significant christological confessions. Cf. Trembelas, Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen, 711.

[23] Cyril (Commentary on John, PG 74,724 and 732), underlines the fact that Thomas’ believing after seeing and touching is used by John for posterity, as unshakable evidence that the risen Jesus had the very flesh that suffered and died on the Cross.

[24] It should be noted, however, that as Schnackenburg (Das Johannesevangelium, 391, 393) has argued, anti-docetism is not the main concern of the Evangelist in the Thomas incident.

[25] Origen in his comments on this passage (Commentary on John, Vol. 10,43), insists that this beatitude should not be interpreted as meaning that those who believed without having seen are more blessed than those who believed after having seen the risen Lord. If this were the case, then the apostles who have seen and believed, would have been less blessed than the Christians of the succeeding generations, a thing totally absurd (oper esti panton eliothitaton). Damalas on the other hand (To kata Ioannen Euaggelion , 723), claims the opposite, namely, that here a pronounced difference in blessedness is clearly projected.

[26] It is interesting to note that exegetes like Theophylact, were very careful in applying this beatitude only to the believers who have not seen the risen Lord. As Theophylact remarks (Commentary on John, PG 124,301), Christ issued the beatitude not in order to exclude Thomas from it but in order to give comfort to those who have not seen Jesus. Cf. Zigabenos, Commentary on John, PG 129,1489, Trembelas, Hypomnema eis tonkata Ioannen, 713. Brown (The Gospel of John, 1049), justifiably insists that in John 20:29 the contrast is “between two types of blessedness, not between blessedness (v.29b) and an inferior state (v.29a).” Cf. Marrow, The Gospel of John, 364.

[27] As C.K. Barrett (The Gospel According to St. John [London: SPCK, 1956] 477) put it, “but for the fact that Thomas and the other Apostles saw the incarnate Christ there would have been no Christian faith at all” (Cited by Brown, The Gospel of John, 1050).

[28] The Evangelist here, as Schnackenburg (Das Johannesevangelium, 391) pointed out, aims at addressing the question of believing without seeing related to the believers of the later times who, in contradistinction to the disciples, have no experience of any appearance of the risen Lord but who have to share the same faith with them. Marrow (The Gospel of John, 364), notes characteristically that “it is for those who have not seen and yet believe that the whole Gospel was written.”

[29] It should he underlined again that this is not a simple, somehow limited beatitude, but a beatitude with a tremendous significance. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 443), is right when he says that “this is the true climax of the Gospel, the rest, however true and however moving is mere postscript.”

[30] “This is really faith,” observes Chrysostom at this point (Commentary on John, PG 59,473-74), “to accept and believe things that are not visible (Touto gar esti pisteos to ta me oromena dexasthai). “For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).

[31] Cf. Cyril (Commentary on John, PG 74,721): “Sight . . . pulls to consent, somehow through necessity and force (e theaex anagkes kai bias elkousa pros sunainesin).”

[32] Cyril (Commentary on John, PG 74,735-36), characterizes this kind of believing as pistin axiologotaten , i.e. “a most remarkable faith.”

[33] Marrow (The Gospel of John, 25), offers an insightful note that connects John 1:50 to John 20:29.

[34] Cf. Chrysostom, Commentary on John, PG 59,129.

[35] As Brown remarks (The Gospel of John, 1048), Jesus here “praises the majority of the people of the new Covenant who, though they have not seen him, through the Spirit proclaim him as Lord and God. He assures these followers of all times and places that he foresees their situation and counts them as sharing in the joy heralded by his resurrection.”

[36] Cyril (Commentary on John, PG 74,725) in his exegesis of John 20:29, offers an extensive passage, in which he handsomely connects the participation in the Eucharist with the question of seeing and of not seeing and believing.


[37] Cf. Schnackenburg, Das Johannesevangelium, 399.

Copyright: 1998, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA

Source: taken from the book: Agape and Diakonia: Essays in Memory of Bishop Gerasimos of Abydos

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