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Monday, April 05, 2010

Doubting Thomas


Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) (1571- 1610)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
1601-02
Oil on canvas, 107 x 146 cm
Sanssouci, Potsdam

This is the most copied painting of Caravaggio, 22 copies from the 17th century are known. It is a shocking picture. Thomas pokes a dirty great finger right into the wound of Christ. Christ is guiding his hand to the wound.

It is based on the passage of St John`s Gospel:

John 20:24-29

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin,was not with them when Jesus came.

25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them,"Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe."

28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."


In his book Doubting Thomas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. 267. ISBN 0-674-01914-8. Professor Glenn Most examines the apparently well known story of Doubting Thomas.

He says:

"[M]ost people think they know about Doubting Thomas, namely that he stuck his finger into Jesus’ wounds, turns out upon inspection not only to receive no support at all from the source of this story, the Gospel of John, but indeed to be contradicted by it."

The central question of the study is not simply whether or not Thomas actually touches the wounds, but how it was understood by interpreters throughout the history of reception and how pictorial artwork displays this scene.

Most actually begins with the name Thomas which means 'twin' in Aramaic This explains why Thomas is occasionally called δίδυμος (John 11:16, 20:24).

More discusses how the words for number two and for doubt are etymologically related in many of the world's languages.

Most detects many gaps in the John's account, but only one of them is decisive for the present purpose: two parallel scenes end John`s Gospel, in the first one Mary wants to touch Jesus as soon as she recognizes him and Jesus rejects this; in the second one Thomas says that he wants to put his finger and hand into Jesus' wounds (20:27).

And indeed this is exactly what Jesus offers him to do (20:27).

But does Thomas indeed touch Jesus? Most argues that the occurrence of the verb ἀποκρίνεσθαι (20:28) leaves no space for any further action between Jesus' offer and Thomas's confession .

But since John takes no effort to make this point clear there surely was space for readers to mentally supplement something like "and then Thomas touched Jesus".

The importance of whether or not Thomas actually touched the risen Lord became a catalyst for many opposing views in the early church.

The Gnostics, who completely rejected the material world in favour of the world of knowledge and spirit, made Thomas an unlikely focal point; for them, the disciple could not have touched Jesus' body since such contact would mean the Lord had not transcended materiality.

Most considers narrative reactions to John's account by storytellers of various religious persuasions, and Christian theologians' interpretations of John 20 from the second century AD until the Counter-Reformation.

His work shows how Thomas's story, in its many guises, touches upon central questions of religion, philosophy, hermeneutics, and, not least, life.