The most well-known painting of ‘Doubting’ Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Jesus may be the one by Caravaggio. And yet, paintings like his are misleading, as is referring to Thomas as ‘the doubter.’ Why? Because paintings and labels like these lead us to overlook or misperceive some very important details within John’s Gospel story. Rembrandt’s painting of the event (above) helps us notice the difference.
As John tells it, we first find ten of the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. Consider how, during Jesus’ ministry with them, he had more than once told them to fear not. And at the Last Supper, he had given them ‘his peace.’ Yet, rather than remember what Jesus had shared with them, as well as his miracles, all of them have succumbed to fear. Even though Mary Magdalene that morning had already told them that she had seen the Lord. How can these details be squared with any other description than that the ten behind locked doors are doubting, as well?
Second, observe how John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ initial appearance to the ten, when he finds them fearful and doubting. At first, they do not recognize him. It is only after Jesus shows them his hands and his side that they then recognize him, and rejoice at his presence. When they see him, then they believe, and not before. So, once again, Jesus leaves them with his peace. And now, he gives them his Spirit.
Notice what the ten say to Thomas when he then arrives: “We have seen the Lord” ~ the very same witness Mary had earlier offered to them without having had much effect. Thomas naturally replies by saying something like this: ‘Look, I haven’t see him, like you guys just did— and so, just like you, I won’t be able to believe until I see him, either.” Thomas’ statement to them therefore does not need to be heard as him setting the conditions for his belief. It may simply be a practical prediction of fact.
We need to be equally perceptive about John’s description of Jesus’ later visit to that same locked room. It is a week later when Jesus returns to the eleven, among whom Thomas is present. It is vital to notice what Jesus says to Thomas. It’s even more important to observe how John describes Thomas’ response. Jesus invites Thomas to touch him and to believe. But the Gospel does not say that Thomas has any physical contact with Jesus. It does not tell us that he reaches out, or that he makes an effort to touch Jesus. Instead, and just as Jesus gives him credit for doing, he sees, and then he believes. Just like the prior experience of the other ten!
Rembrandt’s image, like the painting by Carl Bloch, is faithful both to what John tells us, and to what he does not. Observing this, we should refer to this story in John’s Gospel in a different way ~ ‘the doubting disciples, and how they all came to believe.’
The above image is of Rembrandt’s (I think mis-titled) painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. This post is based on my homily for Easter 2, April 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.