John's Gospel

The Way It Happened

John 20:28, “My Lord and My God”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

//Several passages in John’s Gospel we know are not original, but were added sometime later. John’s Gospel, though a personal favorite, may be the book in the Bible that has changed most since its original composition. This naturally invites a bit of skepticism about any passage which doesn’t seem to fit the theology or pattern of the rest of the book.

Here is an example. Near the end of the Gospel, the risen Jesus magically appears to his followers in a locked room, where he bestows peace upon them.  But the scene seems to happen twice, in the same house, with the same message of peace, as if two versions of the appearance story are presented side-by-side.

In the second story, Thomas becomes a guinea pig, his unbelief providing opportunity for a dramatic proof of the resurrection. Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” We all know Thomas’ response: He pronounces Jesus his “Lord and God.”

This “touching” opportunity contradicts the words of Jesus to Mary just a few verses earlier. So does Jesus’ pronouncement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” contradict Johannine theology, where “seeing” is never meant literally. According to John, one “sees” Jesus by being born again. But if this second story is a later redaction, what prompted its inclusion? Is it merely there to reinforce the doctrine of a corporeal resurrection body? Or is there something more to the passage?

Possibly, a clue to the story’s addition may be seen in the competition between Christianity and the cult of Caesar worship. Domitian had recently declared himself divine, and began to demand the title “Lord and God.” The Christian response, then, may have been to emphasize Jesus in that role.

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3 Comments

  1. Kibbles

    I have always belonged to the school of thought that John added the whole “doubting Thomas” story as a subtle jab at the rival theology being promoted by Thomas. If I recall correctly (and it’s been a while, so I quite likely do not), Thomas believed and taught that Jesus’s resurrection was more of a metaphysical resurrection than a bodily resurrection. In response, John inserted the character of Thomas into his story in an elaborate rebuttal where the character Thomas doubted Jesus’s corporeality, tested it, and was proven wrong.

    If I recall correctly, this was also the only passage in all of the canonical books where Thomas actually appeared as an actor in the story, rather than simply being a name in a list.

  2. Clarify for me, Kibbles: When you say, “John”, do you mean the original writer or a later redactor? When do you consider the Gospel of Thomas to have been written? Apparently before John? I haven’t formed an opinion on the dating of Thomas, but would be curious to hear your thoughts.

  3. Kibbles

    Typically when I’m talking about the author of a particular book, I’m referring more to the entire theological movement that produced the book than any individual writer who might have happened to set that movement’s theology to paper. Excepting cases where the edits are particularly egregious contrasts with the main theology (e.g. the resurrection story in Mark, the Comma Johanneum, Luke 19:27), I view the books of the bible more as collaborative works produced by a distinct Christian community than I do as manifestos produced by individuals. I’m sure a more nuanced view would probably be more accurate (I’m sure some of the books represent more of a single voice while others represent more of a communal theology), but the paradigm has greatly aided in my understanding of the New Testament, so it’s stuck around.

    Anyway, in that respect, it doesn’t really make much difference when Thomas was written or when John was written. Early Christian sects existed for decades before they finally started committing their theology to paper. I’m sure in 80 AD there was a sect of Christians who had followed Thomas and preached that the resurrection was metaphysical, while another sect of Christians followed John and believed that the resurrection was corporeal. As long as the Johannine Christians were aware of the Thomasine Christians, then the addition of the “doubting Thomas” story could have served as a rebuttal to the entire movement as a whole rather than simply being a strict response to the written text.

    Or maybe the entire story is nothing more than midrash. Either way, I’ve always favored that explanation for its elegance.

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