Historical Cultural Context
Believing Without Seeing
Poor Thomas! Branded forever with the adjective “doubting” in a story that scholars agree is a creation of John the evangelist. Thomas is made to typify the “doubts,” skepticism, and hesitation that plagued all the early witnesses to the risen Jesus.
Secrecy, deception, and lying are so common and prevalent in day-to-day life in the Middle East of past and present that every native entertains a healthy skepticism about everything. While a native Missourian insists that people who make mind-boggling claims should “show me!” thus implying that “seeing is believing,” natives of the Middle East would not agree.
Remember the parable of Lazarus and the greedy man (Luke 16:19-31)? When the greedy man experiences the punishment that his lifestyle has merited for him in eternity, he begs father Abraham to send Lazarus back to his surviving brothers to warn them. Abraham replies: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets [that is, believe the Scripture that they read or hear], neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Would Thomas be offended to know that the evangelist created a story featuring him as a “doubter”? Probably not. This characterization is quite in accord with what is known of him in John 11:16 and 14:5. Some think that he may indeed have been with the group in John 20:19 (today’s Gospel) when the risen Jesus appeared and that Thomas initially didn’t believe his eyes.
At this appearance Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side (Jn 20:20). This action was most definitely intended to dispel their unspoken but very real doubts and to assure them (and us) that this person is not a ghost but the self-same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and died on the cross. For these disciples, it seems that seeing is believing. No one asks to touch and verify the wounds.
Thomas presents a contrast. He wants to physically probe Jesus’ body to confirm the miraculous. Yet when confronted with Jesus invitation to touch him (Jn 20:27), Thomas backs off. He rapidly comes to his senses and confesses his faith: “My Lord and My God.” He accepts Jesus’ new invitation: “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer.”
Writing for a later generation of Messianists who were gradually being deprived of apostolic witnesses by death, John composed the story of Thomas and the “beatitude” that concludes today’s episode: “Truly worthy of esteem are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Just as Thomas and his fellow apostles were able to make a significant cultural leap and suspend their suspicions of deception to believe what they saw, so too, modem, scientific-minded Christians who no longer have anything to see must believe what they hear. Paul reminds us that “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17).
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University