The Apostle Thomas
by Lois Donahue
Probably the first thing which comes to the minds of most of us when we think of Thomas is that he doubted the Resurrection of Jesus. I know ‘Doubting Thomas’ was his I.D. for me until I had this opportunity to learn more about him and I was, in deed, pleasantly surprised.
THE APOSTLE THOMAS
To begin — I’m sure, after having read similar accounts of some of the other Apostles, it won’t come as a shock to you to learn that there seems to be little more than question marks when it comes to exactly when and where Thomas was born. I find no record of the names of his parents or specific circumstances under which Jesus called him to be His Apostle. One thing which might give us a hint as to his ‘day to day’ life involves, not surprisingly, disagreement. One author I found thought of him as a fisherman from Galilee but was overwhelmingly outnumbered by those who said he was a carpenter and apocryphal writings, as well as legends, (which so often have at least some foundation in truth) agree. The fact that, even today, we might see a builder’s square pictured with Thomas would seem to further verify that popular belief.
Now let’s turn to Scripture which can truly bring Thomas to life for us. Thanks to scholarly explanations of what appears in the Bible, we do learn many things about him. Although Syrian writers give him the name Judah or Jude; Matthew, Mark and Luke refer to him as Thomas and John calls him – Didymus – a Greek translation of his original Aramaic name which means ‘twin’. Whether his twin was a brother or sister and whatever happened to him or her seems to be, at best, in the land of the ‘unknown’. With Thomas it is different. We meet him first in Jn 11:7-16. Jesus says, “Let us go back to Judea.: The other disciples immediately warn against it, reminding Him of the great danger of returning to the area of Jerusalem where His enemies were ready to kill Him. Only Thomas, demonstrating unselfish courage and unquestioning loyalty to Jesus, said, “Let us also go to die with him.” Then in Jn 14:4-7 we do find a questioning Thomas. After listening to Jesus, but not understanding His words – “Where I am going, you know the way.” – he asks, as quite many of us might well have done, “Master we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Thanks to Thomas, we all got the answer, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Of course, our most familiar and memorable encounter with Thomas can be found in Jn 20:19-25. We all know that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them after His Resurrection and, when told about it, he said, “Unless I see the marks of the nails and put my finger into the nailmarks, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” There, without question, is our Thomas the ‘doubter’. But think about it. Would we have acted differently – If, having stood at least within viewing distance, we had seen the hanging, bloody, limp, dying body of Jesus? If we knew for sure the sentence of ‘crucifixion’ meant nothing less than ‘death’? If we saw that motionless, helpless, lifeless body being placed in a tomb, a huge stone rolled to completely close the entrance and soldiers posted to guard that entrance? We will never know for sure will we? But we do know what happened when Thomas did see Jesus – He not only believed, but with his words, “My Lord and My God!” declared most explicitly not only the Lordship of Jesus but that He was also Divine. We must remember, too, it was that moment of doubt on the part of Thomas which brought us and all generations to come some of the greatest of Jesus’ words of encouragement and promise — “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have believed.”
As to the life of Thomas after what is recorded in Scripture, I learned that of all of the other Apostles, his ministry was the most active and that most of it took place beyond the then Roman Empire. It is said that he evangelized in Osroene (in what became part of Eastern Turkey), as well as Armenia, India, Iran and Southeast Asia. He was even given the title, “Apostle to the Orient”. There are a great many legends, stories and traditions revolving around the years Thomas spent spreading the ‘Good News’, building churches, performing miracles, making converts and finally paying the price for all of that by being stabbed to death. It is said his last words were, “Lord, I thank Thee for all Thy mercies. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” So he earned his martyr’s crown from God and God’s Church proclaimed him a martyred saint, giving him the Feast Day of December 21st. As was true in the case of some of the other Apostles, there are questions regarding his mortal remains. Where was he originally buried? Was his body moved, if so, how often and to where? Were parts of his body sent to different churches, as became the custom? Pages have been filled with these speculative possibilities but I must confess, of all the words I read on such pages, it is a bit of trivia which first rises to the surface of my disorganized brain — reportedly, Marco Polo visited the ‘tomb’ of Thomas in India.
So much for sharing with you at least some things about Thomas with which there appears to have been a reasonable amount of agreement and which certainly helped me ‘know’ him better. I will leave it there and close on a lighter note by telling you briefly just some of the, shall we say, ‘believe it or not’ things which supposedly happened to Thomas during his lifetime.
When in Persia, Thomas met and baptized the two remaining Wise Men, Melchoir and Baltazar.
When Jesus told Thomas to go to India, the Apostle resisted so Jesus had him sold as a slave to a merchant returning to that country.
Thomas built himself a house outside the doors of which were kept troughs of holy water.
Let me preface the last thing by reminding you that the Church does not affirm Mary’s actual death, saying only “when the course of her earthly life was finished”. — but on to the story —
When Jesus’ mother was dying, the news about her was revealed to those Apostles still alive. All of them, except Thomas, were present at her ‘death and burial’. When Thomas did arrive and heard the details, he told them she was not where they had ‘laid’ her. Well, with that remark we can certainly imagine the other Apostles shaking their heads in the belief that here was just another of Thomas’ expressions of doubt. But I want to go one step further and, apologizing to Thomas for thinking of him as humanly weak as I, imagine, with a smile (perhaps even a smirk) what could have been his thoughts when they found he was right — her sepulcher was empty except for roses and lilies.
So now, as we leave Thomas, let’s remember this — the fact that he only briefly doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead is almost inconsequential in light of the fact that he never doubted what Jesus preached or promised and may we never doubt what Thomas’ life has proven – he was courageous, loyal, devoted and holy.