Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

The Apostle St. Thomas Didymus (“The Twin”) was conveniently absent for the first Resurrection appearance to the rest of the Eleven. (Jn. 20: 24-29) Then he famously insisted on seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus, which he then got to do 8 days later. This reading comes to us every year at the close of the Easter Octave to commemorate the event. Let’s take a look.

Aside from “telephone” conspiracy theories (which ultimately don’t allow for any sensible understanding of what happened in 1st century Palestine nor of the text of the Gospels), there are usually three alternate explanations for the supposed Resurrection.

  1. Mass delusion.
  2. A spiritual resurrection proclaimed as if it were a physical one.
  3. The body was stolen and the disciples lied about it (the story that “circulated among the Jews”).

Each of these have plenty of issues, of course. Leaving aside #3 (which has the largest problems of motivation among the 3, and it ultimately just destroys the trustworthiness of the entire text), #1 and #2 do not explain the skepticism of Thomas. Why was he not part of the delusion or vision of the spiritually risen Christ from the beginning? How was he incorporated into it?  What sense does recounting Thomas’ separate physical encounter make given such scenarios? There is no good answer.

There is a fourth alternative. It is the scenario, in fact, which Thomas had in mind when he questioned the claims of his friends.

He clearly doubted that they had seen the Risen Christ… But he did not doubt that they had seen someone. It just does not make sense that he would think all his friends would lie.

The words of the Gospels are careful. If you see some little detail that is added, you can be sure it is an important detail… The author went out of his way to add it. Paper was expensive in the 1st century – no Kinko’s, remember – and drafting the Gospels would have involved the most serious attention to what was going into the text. And of course, this is all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in this passage we do not find the Apostle called plain old “Thomas.” We also don’t find “Thomas the Scientist,” or “Thomas the Physician,” or “Thomas the Skeptic.” We find “Thomas called Didymus,” or “Thomas the Twin.”

Why add that detail?

Thomas thought Jesus had a twin who until that time had been in hiding. He figured the supposed Resurrection was part of a massive scheme of some sort, like the tricks he and his own twin brother would have undoubtedly played as children but with an agenda far larger. It may even be the case that Thomas’ brother had died, and that one time Thomas was confused for him, no doubt producing a similar effect of shock and confusion and joy in the mistaken person or persons.

This also makes sense of Thomas’ startling insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, as he knew that this would be the best way to show that it was actually the same person who died on the Cross. (There was a recent movie based on this theme. Spoiler alert.) No mere man could walk around with those wounds! The others had been shown the wounds (Jn. 20: 20), but it does not seem they had “double-checked” as Thomas wanted to do by completely verifying that they were the same kind of wounds that one would get from a crucifixion rather than being some serious paper cuts.

This incident with Thomas the Apostle, then, also preemptively answers the Muslim objection to the Resurrection, which is simply the “twin claim” in reverse: Jesus had a look-alike who was killed. (The Muslims, however, wave their hands over the inconvenient parts of the New Testament though, so it matters little. If every clear bit of evidence from the text is a corruption, then there can be no efficacious textual demonstrations.)

All this can also help shed light on the slight differences in Christ’s appearance before and after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him at first. While identical twins can usually be told apart on close inspection, they are mistaken for each other easily. Jesus must have looked quite different indeed – unlike a twin, but close enough to His old appearance that one would be able to see that it is really Him. This is certainly not a twin – no one would dare try to pull off such a stunt unless he did indeed have an identical twin.

Perhaps seeing the Risen Christ was like running into a grown man you had been friends with in childhood… different, but the same. With the Risen Christ, the flesh-cloak of Adam’s sin has been shed so that the man Jesus, the New Adam, could be as glorious as the Divine Person He embodies. (See Gen. 3:21, Rom. 5:12-18) Yet He keeps the wounds, as if to be in solidarity with us and to remind us of His suffering, in addition to proving He has risen.

The Scriptures are wiser to objections than we are ourselves. That is not only because God understands us better than we do ourselves, but also because the Resurrection actually happened… That removes the need for creative thinking and gives the writer of the text the freedom simply to say what really happened.

St. Thomas Didymus, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602

17 thoughts on “Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

    1. The advantage to this theory is that it makes use of the fact that he was called “the twin,” adding explanatory power to an otherwise merely curious appellation. That being said, I do appreciate the allegorical interpretation (above) that says that Christ is revealed in and with the Church.

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  1. I think the reason Thomas doubted was his absence from the body of the Church and it is through the Church that Jesus reveals himself. Jesus only appears to Thomas in the company of the apostles. Lesson learned: Missing mass on Sunday means you are missing Christ.

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    1. One must certainly wonder what Thomas was doing that was so important as to be away from the rest of the College when they were all gathered together in the Upper Room. We simply don’t know. Maybe they’d sent him to get food, or maybe he decided to go for a walk to try to clear away his despair and depression. Whatever the case, it seems that John adds the detail about Thomas being a twin VERY intentionally. I see no other reason for that addition than that Thomas must have thought that Jesus was pulling off a major political stunt with a secret twin. If Herod, Pilate, and the general population had known that Jesus was put to death, if “Jesus” then came back, it could have secured the confidence to lead a successful uprising against the Romans in Israel, which was the kind of messiaship that the Jews were really waiting for.

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  2. Knowing Jesus was the only child of Mary, how could Thomas have possibly reasoned Jesus had a twin? Even if we accept that Jesus had foster brothers who were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage, there wouldn’t likely be any resemblance in age or appearance. Perhaps his reaction is more of the same as when Mary Magdalene reported seeing Jesus in Mark 16:9, and when the two disciples reported meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Mark 12, Luke 24:13). As it was, the Apostles were so doubtful that even Jesus rebuked
    them in Mark 16:14 for stubbornly doubting those who saw Him immediately after the resurrection. In John’s Gospel, Thomas was most assuredly being stubborn, like they ALL were. But the fact that his name means “twin” is important because it speaks of the battle in the minds of all believers. See James 1:6-8 on the double-minded man who struggles with faith and doubt.

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    1. Hi GP,

      An interesting comment. If it were James or Thaddeus or Simon the Zealot (the Lord’s cousins or half-brothers), that would be a serious red flag, as they were related to Jesus and would have known Him prior to the public ministry. But Thomas we ought to assume began to follow Jesus after He manifested Himself at Cana, as we don’t hear anything of Thomas until after that point. He could have therefore been from anywhere in Judea, which would mean that he would almost definitely have no first hand knowledge of Jesus’ home life. Remember that Nazareth was probably a town of about 100 people or so… Nobody was paying attention to it.

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  3. I agree that if Thomas didn’t know Jesus before Cana, he would have had to start from square one when getting to know Him. But having been in His company for three years, I find it hard to believe Thomas couldn’t have discerned Jesus was the only son of Mary. But I think our focus on this consideration is taking us away from the really good fruit in the passage. Just as Jacob and Esau, who were twins, fought in their mother’s womb (Gen 25:22), faith and doubt fight in the minds of each of us. This is why I think the Gospel writer tells us the name Thomas means “twin.” It’s a literary device intended to show us that what’s going on in Thomas’ mind is going on in the minds of everyone confronted with the Resurrection. Accordingly faith and doubt are twins, as it were, in the mind. If one permits doubt to defeat its “twin” of faith, we risk becoming like the double-minded (or twin-minded) man mentioned in James 1:6.

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      1. It is an interesting theory. The beautiful thing is that they complement each other – there is no contradiction between Thomas being a twin being a providential commentary on double mindedness, and being part of his actual motivation for doubt. (Although, he did not actually seem at all double minded… He was pretty adamant about NOT believing, unlike what I think James is addressing.) As Augustine says in Confessions, good Scriptural commentary is whatever is illuminating.

        Although, my theory is testable by history. I could be completely wrong. Thomas’ actual thought could have been different. But I think that’s unlikely.

        The thought that Thomas “knew” Jesus was an only child is also testable by history. I could be completely wrong. Maybe he frequently visited Nazareth. But I think that’s VERY unlikely… and the thing about conspiracy theories is that they grow deeper as the evidence against them mounts. “His twin was just hiding from a young age! His family was in on it!” Etc. Unless Thomas was one of the shepherds at Jesus’ birth, and then kept daily tabs on the Holy Family, this would hold. When confronted with the annunciation that a man has come back from the dead, one is likely to reach such extreme kinds of thoughts, no?

        That calling Thomas a twin is simply a Johannine literary device does not seem right to me. John, despite what many “scholars” say, did not take liberties with his narrative. He was intent on telling things as they are, though with a different emphasis and style.

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  4. An allusion is a literary device calls something to mind without explicitly mentioning it. This is the literary device I speak of when referencing the verses in Genesis and James. Neither of these passages are explicitly mentioned in the discourse on Thomas but they are called to mind by the name Thomas, which means “twin.”

    You don’t say it as plainly as I did, but your entire argument hinges on the same literary device! You said John …”went out of his way to add…” the detail that Thomas means ‘twin.'” Yes, I agree John added added this detail because it means something. But remember, this “something” that you offer for consideration is not explicitly mentioned. This my friend, is an allusion. Also known as a literary device.

    According to your argument, it is Thomas’ personal experience as a twin that fuels his belief that Jesus had a twin in hiding who was just waiting to perpetrate a hoax. Really?

    This supposition of yours is 100% conjecture. First because it can be found nowhere in the Bible. And second, because you’ve offered nothing in common but a reference to a recent movie with a similar theme. Shouldn’t there be something from an early church writing, a scholar, a saint, or even a secular document declaring this theory?

    Wait a minute, there is an ancient writing that says Thomas was actually the twin of Jesus. But that comes from the Gnostic gospel of Thomas…let’s not go there.

    So back to your theory, which is only plausible if it has two things going for it. First, you said Thomas had the experience of mistaken identity, which means he had a twin brother. Second, you said he couldn’t have any “first hand knowledge of Jesus’ home life…” lest he be sure Jesus had no twin brother.

    Well, what if Thomas actually had a twin sister? Surely no one would mistake a woman for her twin brother! In fact, there is a tradition that claims Thomas had a twin sister named Lydia. And in reality, there was 50% chance he had a twin sister! If this was the case, Thomas wouldn’t have the experience of mistaken identity to draw upon for later hatching a conspiracy theory. Thus, if Thomas had a twin sister, your theory is COMPLETELY implausible.

    And what it Thomas had a twin brother? There are traditions that link him with the either the Apostle Matthew or the Apostle Phillip. If either of them were his twin, why would’t they have they tried to reassure their suspicious twin brother?

    Even if Thomas had a personal experience of mistaken identity with a twin brother, it’s still a leap to assume he couldn’t know Jesus had no twin. Frankly, I don’t know how Thomas could be so ill-informed when he lived and traveled with Jesus for THREE YEARS. Did he really have to see the Nativity to know? Did he really have to keep tabs on the Holy Family to know? Surely Thomas would have come to know about our Lord from His mother Mary and from His brothers, who were extended male relations. Why would he think they would keep such a secret? And even if he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist, do you really think after all this time, in such intimate company, Thomas would be so aloof to such ordinary facts about the family of his Lord and Master?

    I dare say, if Thomas believed in a conspiracy theory, he was at great risk of becoming the double-minded man in James 1:8. So, albeit possible but HIGHLY improbable, Thomas could have harbored such thoughts.

    I do recall in my own confusion after my dad’s death, I had dreams that he was still alive. My older sister recalls happenings in our home that prompted her to wonder if our dad was doing them, though they were done by someone else in the family.

    Just as any of us can suffer a failure of judgment in time of grief, Thomas might have done the same.

    In any case, I praise Jesus for His later gift of presence to Thomas, without whom I might never not be urged to say, “My Lord and My God!”

    I have nothing else to say except that I’m with Linus. I don’t buy it.

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    1. if an implication or allusion is a “literary device,” then fine. My concern is whether or not John just decided to call Thomas a twin when in truth he was not. That throws the whole Fourth Gospel into the Twilight Zone, which I’m unwilling to do. John was there, he is honest, and he wanted to fill in gaps from the other gospels.

      I’ve admitted it is a conjecture. I think it is a really good one. I don’t have that thought about all Scriptural conjectures I have…

      I considered the twin sister possibility prior to writing and outright reject it for multiple reasons. Would having a sibling born at the same time really earn someone the nickname “The Twin”? Would John then make sure to add that detail for an esoteric point about double-mindedness which will only be spelled out by James in a later letter? This does not seem likely to me. It seems much more plausible that Thomas was thinking, “Wow, Jesus pulled a trick like I used to pull,” and John just wants to put out the dots and let us connect them. If he was twins with another apostle, then that seems it would have been added, as we know of other apostles who were brothers.

      The entire trustworthiness of the words and life of Jesus would be called into suspicion by Thomas in the scenario I am suggesting, so I simply don’t understand the trouble you’re having with him having “gotten to know” about Jesus’ family life. We are at the apex of “crazy things” – all bets are off. Which would be more likely… He had a twin and lied about it, or the Resurrection? If I had a twin and hadn’t seen Him the first time, I know which way I probably would have leaned… I would insist on seeing and touching the wounds.

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      1. This really the last thing I will say 🙂

        I think there is a misunderstanding between us. I do not believe John decided to call Thomas a twin when he wasn’t. His name means “twin” and I’m quite happy to believe he was a twin. Still, I think the greater meaning is in the allusion to James where we learn about battling twins of faith and doubt in the mind.

        And since John’s Gospel was the last one to be written, his account is written by one who saw through the lenses of both personal and corporate memory. This is surely how John knew what James taught. On top of that, the Holy Spirit is really the one putting out the dots for us to connect.

        Sure, it’s possible that Thomas doubted for reasons you offer, and I still don’t buy it. But even if you are right, Thomas reasoning is only it because his faith was challenged by his doubt….the twins who were at war in his mind!

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      2. Well, I don’t really buy the James allusion as something intentional on John’s part. That it is a product of providence and therefore contains something illuminating along those lines is unavoidable, but I still struggle to see exactly how Thomas was “double minded” when he very clearly had his mind made up. It just seems quite plain to me that the first thought a twin would have about friends claiming to have seen a man risen from the dead was a secret twin.

        Another thought occurred to me – John may only have had a suspicion about Thomas’ motivation, my theory being granted: it would mean that John is presenting the information he had while implying his thought about the mind of Thomas without explicitly stating it.

        FWIW. I could be entirely wrong… But I doubt it!

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  5. St Luke’s account of resurrection experiences has the disciples on their way to Emmaus tell that they only know of Jesus appearing to Peter and then to the rest of the Apostles … they have no knowledge of Mary of Magdela seeing Jesus, only of the women telling the disciples that the tomb was empty. Further Jesus appears to the disciples and emphatically tells Thomas to “touch Him”.
    But St John writing some 30 years after Luke has Jesus appearing to Mary and emphatically telling her NOT to touch Him. What is St John getting at to relate such a different story? Is his account simply myth and St Luke’s historical? The two stories cannot both be true. Not that there’s anything wrong with John’s account being myth, as myth is an important literary device, as long as we can see the important massage it contains. When my wife and I were in Ephesus we saw where Mary was being cared for by St John, and also that there was a large monastic area dedicated to St Mary Magdalen so that these were all in the same area and therefore talking to each other about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. Also there was a small roman temple that had been rededicated to St Luke, so he too was there and likewise familiar to the others.
    Why then does St John introduce the story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdela telling her NOT to touch Him, in stark contrast to Luke’s account of Jesus with St Thomas?

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    1. I think that is the function of mediocre translations rather than differing accounts. “Do not hold on to me,” or “Stop holding on to me,” is the rendering I’m familiar with. (John 20:17, yes?) I’m not aware of a contradictory statement in Luke. Presumably there is not merely a physical “holding on,” but also a spiritual one consisting of an attachment to Christ on Earth (as opposed to an Ascended Christ).

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