April 14 (2): John 20:24-29

Jesus’ appearance to Thomas (along with the other Disciples) is the last of three Resurrection appearances which I am discussing for the three days of Easter (in the afternoon—you can find the first two for Sunday and Monday). Commentators have been puzzled by this episode (John 20:24-29), unique to the Fourth Gospel. Critical scholars tend to regard it as a creation of the Evangelist, perhaps to personify the disciples’ doubt—note that in the earlier appearance (John 20:19-20ff) there is no mention of any doubt or surprise (compare Mark 16:13-14 [long ending]; Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38, 41; but note the odd juxtaposition of John 20:8-9). Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, take the text at face value, as a second appearance which took place eight days later. However, the sequence does present certain chronological difficulties, particularly when one tries to harmonize the passage strictly with the Synoptic accounts. For what it’s worth, I suspect that, at the historical-chronological level, the sequence here in John perhaps should read: 20:19-20, 24-29, 21-23. But clearly, this sort of rearrangement would not be appropriate; for there is a definite purpose to the current placement of verse 24-29—they join the appearance and apostolic commission of vv. 19-23 to the concluding statement of vv. 30-31, “…but these (things) have been written so that you might trust that Jesus is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and so that trusting you might have life in his name”.

There are two primary themes or motifs which divide this passage: (1) “seeing” and (2) “trusting”, along with an intermediate theme of the presence of Christ.

1. Seeing (vv. 24-25)

(a) The other Disciples tell Thomas “we have seen (e(wra/kamen) the Lord!” This 1st person plural perfect form (of o(ra/w) is only found in the Gospel (cf. also 3:11) and First Epistle of John (1:1-3), and is virtually a credal formula of faith and witness in the early Christian (Apostolic) community. For this reason, some scholars have found its use in John 3:11 (Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus) to be suspicious—is it from the early Community rather than the historical Jesus? Certainly in Johannine theology, the two are united: the Community speaks what they hear Jesus say (through the Spirit), just as Jesus speaks what he hears from the Father. The 1st person singular form also occurs almost exclusively in John, including the parallel exclamation of Mary “I have seen (e(w/raka) the Lord!” (20:18; cf. also 1:34; 8:38). The verb implies more than the simple act of seeing (i.e., “look at, perceive”, etc)—in the context of John’s Gospel, there is perhaps also a revelatory quality involved: “to see clearly/truly”.

(b) Thomas responds, “if I should not see (i&dw) in his hands the tupos of the nails and cast my finger into the tupos of the nails and cast my hand into his side, no I shall not trust (pisteu/sw)!” Note the different manner of “seeing”—a different verb, and use of the subjunctive (“should/might see”) vs. the perfect indicative (“have seen”) along with the negative condition (“if I do not…”), also governing “trust/believe”. The combined negative particle (ou) mh) + aorist subjunctive indicates an extremely strong asseveration or denial, with a prohibitive quality: “by no means shall I trust!” I have left the word tupo$ untranslated above; it generally refers to a deep mark, as left when something is stamped or struck, but is used more commonly in the New Testament in a more abstract sense (“form, pattern”). There is some textual variation here: a few manuscripts read topo$ (“place”) or the plural form of tupo$/topo$.

(c) Consider what it was that the Disciples saw (and which Thomas demanded to see): in vv. 19-20, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, upon greeting them, he immediately (cf. the literary context, “and saying this…”) showed (e&deicen) them (his) hands and side. This actually takes place between his two-fold greeting “peace to [or with] you” (ei)rh/nh u(mi=n), repeated in verse 21. The verb deiknu/w/dei/knumi seems to have a special significance in the Gospel of John: everywhere else it is used in the context of revealing something of the Father (5:20; 10:32; 14:8-9). In the original tradition it may simply indicate a demonstration of Jesus’ identity and real body (see the similar account in Luke 24:40 [absent in key Western MSS]); but, in the Gospel of John, I would say it has a deeper meaning as well.

John makes a good deal of Jesus’ side, a detail not found in the other Gospels (in Luke 24:40 Jesus shows them his hands and feet, but see the textual variant [interpolation?] at Matthew 27:49). It is possible that here the piercing (“pricking”) of the side (John 19:34-37) has been emphasized merely for the purposes of introducing the prophecy from Zechariah 12:10 (v. 37); however, I do not think this is the case. The emphatic authorial/editorial aside (v. 35) seems to refer specifically to the piercing and the “blood and water” which came out. The exact force of this reference is not entirely clear; it could be: (a) apologetic, that is to demonstrate that Jesus died a true physical death; (b) sacramental, symbolic of the Eucharist; (c) spiritual, symbolic of life or the life-giving Spirit [found in Christ]; or some combination of these. I should say that (c) is closest to the mark. Blood only occurs in John within the most difficult portion of the Bread of Life Discourse (6:53-56), which probably also has eucharistic significance (but note the qualification in vv. 62-63). Water also is connected with the Spirit (the life-giving presence and power of Christ, “living water”) in the great Discourses (3:5ff; 4:7-15; 7:38), but again not without a possible sacramental meaning as well (at least in 3:5).

2. Trusting (vv. 27-29)

This theme is prefaced by Thomas’ declaration in verse 25 (“if I do not see…no I shall not trust [pisteu/sw]!”)

(a) Jesus responds to Thomas, directing him to “touch” the hands and side. Scholars have sometimes been puzzled at this, since previously in the appearance to Mary Magdalene he ordered her not to touch him, and, according to the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts), Jesus still has not ascended (cf. John 20:17). Any number of attempts to explain or harmonize these details have been made, most of which are highly questionable at best. It should be noted that, apart from the fact that the appearances to Mary and Thomas may stem from entirely separate traditions, both the context of the scenes and the language Jesus uses is very different. Mary, it would seem, is responding in a natural human way to her recognition of Jesus (her exclamation “Rabbi/Teacher!”), perhaps with the attempt to embrace him (see Matthew 28:9, where the women grasp his feet). In my prior notes on this scene, I discussed the possible significance of the verb a%ptomai (“bind, attach to, touch”) as well as Jesus “going up” (a)nabai/nw). In the context of John’s Gospel, a proper understanding of Jesus’ return/ascent to the Father must center on the discourse[s] of chapters 14-17 (and earlier references), rather than the Ascension narratives in Luke-Acts. Thomas, however, does not respond with the limited emotional/visceral trust exhibited by Mary (who “sees” Jesus); his is a lack of trust in the witness “we have seen the Lord”. Jesus puts Thomas to the test (note the use of imperatives in v. 27), with the disciple’s own formulation: “carry [fe/re] your finger here and see [i&de] my hands, and carry your hand and thrust (it) [ba/le] into my side…” It is not indicated whether Thomas took up the challenge; perhaps in an early tradition he did, but the lack of any detail here is significant in the Gospel context, for it leads directly to the statements which follow—”…and do not be without trust, but (be) trust(ing).”

The Greek in 27b is rather obscured in many translations (“stop doubting” [NIV], “do not doubt” [NRSV]. “do not disbelieve” [ESV]). Literally, it reads kai\ mh\ gi/nou (“and do not come to be”) a&pisto$ (“without trust”) a)lla\ pisto/$ (“but trust[ing]”). However, this too is a bit misleading, for the present tense of gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) is probably durative—the negative + imperative would then have the sense of “do not continue to be”. As for pisto/$, it is typically translated “faithful, believing”, just as the noun pi/sti$ and verb pisteu/w are translated in terms of “faith” or “belief”. However, I feel that the English word “trust” is a better fit for the primary sense, and tend to translate the words this way, although in most instances little harm is done to the meaning if one uses “belief/faith”. The adjective pisto/$ could also be rendered “trust-worthy”, but I think it is important here to emphasize the act/condition of trusting (or “believing”, if one prefers). a&pisto$ is the opposite, indicating the lack or absence of pisto/$: “without trust”, un-trusting (or un-trustworthy). Jesus’ command here (“do not come/continue to be untrusting, but trusting!”) overrides decisively the earlier imperatives.

(b) Thomas responds to Jesus in a most extraordinary fashion, with the exclamation o( ku/rio/$ mou kai\ o( qeo/$ mou (“My Lord and my God!”), v. 28. This is unquestionably a theological exclamation, and perhaps the most exalted in the all the Gospels; for o( kurio$ and o( qeo$, in the Jewish context, both refer to the one true God (YHWH). It also represents, arguably, the first time in the Gospels that Jesus is identified directly with the arthrous o( qeo$. (the God, as opposed to being “God, divine” more generally). In John 1:1, we do not find the article (kai\ qeo\$ h@n o( lo/go$ “and the logos was God”); both the article and the word qeo$ are textually uncertain in John 1:18. There can be no doubt, however, that in the Gospel of John, Jesus identified himself with God the Father (cf. esp. 8:58), and that even his opponents understood the implication (5:18, etc). And yet, Christians of a later time, influenced by Trinitarian doctrine, were very sensitive to this point—Christ (the Son) and the Father may have both been God (qeo/$), but they were not the same person. It is not surprising then, that a few MSS of John 20:28 omit the article. Such Christological issues are largely foreign to the Gospel; one need not look any further than Philip’s request to Jesus in 14:8 (“Lord, show [dei=con] the Father to us…”), to which Jesus responds o( e(wrakw\$ e)me\ e(w/raken to\n pate/ra (“the [one] having seen me has seen the Father”, v. 9).

(c) This exclamation would seem to be a supreme testament to faith and trust; however, Jesus, without contradicting Thomas’ statement, responds in turn with an interesting question (assuming it is a question): “(now) that [i.e. because] you have seen (e(w/raka$) me you have trusted (pepi/steuka$)?” (verbs both in the perfect). Many commentators interpret it as a rebuke of Thomas; possibly, but I am not so convinced of this. Certainly, the disciple was rebuked earlier (v. 27) for his lack of trust; but, Jesus’ statement to him here should not be understood as a simple comparison of his trust (only after seeing) with a superior level of trust from those who have not seen. The conclusion of the statement: “happy the (one) not seeing (i)do/nte$) and trusting!” (verbs both aorist participles). It is tempting to insert “yet” (i.e., “not seeing and yet trusting”); this may be the sense intended. However, this happy state (maka/rio$) is not so much a blessing due to greater trust, but a result of the greater power and witness which will occur (through the disciples) by the Spirit after Jesus returns to the Father. To make the sense clear in English, I might translate Jesus’ words as follows: “you trust because you have seen me—how happy, then, will they be who trust without seeing!”

3. The intermediate appearance of Jesus (v. 26)

In between these two episodes of seeing (emphasizing lack of trust) and trusting (emphasizing lack of seeing), Jesus himself appears suddenly in the midst of the disciples. This repeats (pa/lin, “again”) the earlier appearance (vv. 19-20); in fact, the appearance itself is recorded in almost identical wording: the doors being closed, Jesus came and “stood in the middle and says/said to them, ‘Peace to you'” However, there are two small but significant points of difference:

(a) In the first appearance, the doors were closed, where the disciples were, “through fear of the Jews”. Now, however, there is no mention of fear.

(b) In this second appearance, it states that the disciples were (h@san) within (e&sw). Now, in the simple context of the narrative, this would mean nothing more than that the disciples were inside the room. However, in about half of the instances where the adverb e&sw is used in the New Testament (including all non-narrative uses in the Epistles [Rom 7:22; 1 Cor 5:12; 2 Cor 4:16; Eph 3:16]), the reference is to inward (spiritual) rather than outward (external) matters. Is it too much to understand something of that connotation here? The rest of the disciples, who have already seen (and trusted), are now within.

In conclusion of these Easter-season notes, I would like to suggest a possible chiastic outline, indicating certain thematic parallels in the appearances of Jesus to Mary and Thomas:

Exclamation (title of Jesus)—”Rabbi (Teacher)!” 20:16

“Do not touch…I am going up to my God (and your God)” (Jesus’ rebuke of the disciple) v. 17

Disciple’s exclamation—”I have seen (e(w/raka) the Lord!” v. 18

Disciples’ exclamation—”We have seen (e(wra/kamen) the Lord!” v. 25a

“If I do not place my finger…my Lord and my God!” (Disciple untrusting/trusting, with Jesus’ rebuke in between) v. 25b, 27-28

Exclamation (title of Jesus)—”My Lord and My God!” v. 28

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