In the story of post-resurrection appearances in John 20, Thomas seems to ask for proof of Jesus’s resurrection. But was he also asking for something else?
When Jesus made a surprise visit to the disciples, he showed them his hands and side, apparently to convince them that he had risen from the dead. There was much celebration of this joyful reunion that Thomas learned about from other disciples. The Greek word elegon, a past continuous verb, suggests that the disciples kept telling him that they saw Jesus, but Thomas wasn’t ready to believe yet.
He wanted proof that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples was the same Jesus who was crucified. He wanted concrete proof of the risen Jesus.
It must have been hard for Thomas, and others, to believe that Jesus who confronted the Roman empire and challenged its status quo could actually survive and tell the story. It would have been hard to fathom that anyone could beat Rome’s death machine which had effectively eliminated every single challenge to its apparatus of oppression. Understandably, the idea of meeting the risen Jesus seemed unrealistic to Thomas.
For communities ravaged by imperial violence, the idea that justice can prevail seems like an impossible scenario.
However, John 20 suggests that Thomas was not interested solely, or even primarily, in proof that Jesus rose from the dead. If he only wanted proof of resurrection, he would have simply asked to see Jesus and perhaps touch him. But Thomas is asking for much more: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Why was it especially important for him to see Jesus’s nail marks, feel the holes left by the nails and touch the wound in his side that had been pierced by the Romans?
Apparently, Thomas wants proof of Jesus’s crucifixion and suffering as well. He seems more interested in visible and tangible proof that Jesus who appeared to the disciples was in fact crucified. Later, when Jesus makes another appearance, he invites Thomas to examine his nail marks and put his hand in his side. All this begs the question: Why was it important for Thomas to be convinced that Jesus did in fact die on the cross?
Gerard Sloyan helpfully noted that John’s gospel was likely addressing an early form of Docetism. The word Docetism is derived from Greek word dokein which means “to seem.” Docetics believed that Jesus was a phantom-like figure who did not suffer on the cross but only appeared to do so. Within that context, John likely employed the Thomas figure to address such doubts and highlight the significance of Jesus’s suffering on the cross. Hence, the emphasis on the nails and putting his hand in the side that was pierced.
On a practical level, Thomas and others must have known at least a few figures who led popular movements against the Roman empire, gave powerful speeches about confronting oppressive structures, built an image as champions of justice, but quietly slipped away when they had to put their bodies on the line. Which is why Thomas wants visible and tangible proof that Jesus put his body on the line in the process of confronting the empire.
He wants assurance that Jesus wasn’t just an eloquent teacher and a charismatic leader, but actually had his skin in the game, nails in his flesh and a spear in his side.
When Jesus finally met Thomas, he invited him to touch his wounds and side. The text doesn’t say whether Thomas actually touched them. He likely did not. He did not need to. The scars left by the nails and spear were too big too miss and too scary to touch.
Thomas responds by saying, “My God and My Lord.”
What made Thomas call Jesus God and Lord was not his power but his wounds and scars. It was not the resurrection alone that convinces Thomas of the Lordship of Jesus but the assurance that Jesus did in fact place his body on the cross.
For Thomas, the scars represent Christ’s commitment to challenge the power of the empire, to suffer along with the powerless, and stand in solidarity with them.
In a culture that celebrates the resurrection and its power as key aspects of the Christ event, the story of Thomas highlights the cross and suffering as the hallmarks of the Christ event. Many Christians gloss over Good Friday and move too quickly to Easter Sunday, perhaps due to a discomfort with the motif of Christ suffering. Within such contexts, this text celebrates embodied solidarity that was quintessential to the story of Jesus — God who became flesh, dwelt among us and suffered in the process of confronting forces of evil. Incarnation was about the word becoming flesh and the flesh putting itself on the line alongside the oppressed and allowing itself to be pierced and scarred.
In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone observes powerfully that “The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.”
The hope that Cone highlights can only be realized when God’s people carry each other’s crosses in our everyday contexts and stand in solidarity with each other to bring life out of death and hope out of despair.
As we continue to reflect on Easter, meeting the risen Lord should not be solely about celebrating his victory over death but should focus on embracing his wounds and scars that signified God standing in solidarity alongside us. (Jesus’s invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds and put his hand in his side are an invitation for us to be in solidarity with each other and place our bodies on the line for those at the margins.)
The story of Thomas and the gospel of John in general tell us that embodiment matters in the struggle against injustice. They caution us against substituting words for embodied solidarity in the process of challenging the powers of our time. At a time when many Christians these days have invested right words and theologies to causes of justice but have largely not invested much skin in the game, the Thomas story insists on tangible proof that we have placed our bodies on the line in order to transform oppressive structures.
Raj Nadella is the Samuel A. Cartledge Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. His research and teaching interests include postcolonial biblical interpretation, migration and New Testament perspectives on economic justice and their ethical implications for the Church and society. He is the author of Dialogue Not Dogma: Many Voices in the Gospel of Luke (T&T Clark, 2011) and an area editor for Oxford Bibliographies Online: Biblical Studies. He is the co-author of Postcolonialism and the Bible and co-editor of Christianity and the Law of Migration, both forthcoming in 2021. He has written for publications such as the Huffington Post, Christian Century, and Working Preacher.
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