THOMAS AND THE TANGLE OF INTERPRETATION

Here is a fresco in the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece.  It depicts a well-known scene from the Gospel called “of John” (20:24-29):

At the top, we see the title:

Ἡ ΨΗΛΆΦΗCΙC
or in full,

Ἡ ΨΗΛΆΦΗCΙC  ΤΟΥ ΘΟΜΆ
HE PSELAPHESIS TOU THOMA
“The Touching of Thomas,”

or as it would better be rendered in English,

“The Touching by Thomas.”

In Russian examples, it is often called
Уверение Фомы
Uverenie Fomui
“[The] Assuring of Thomas.”

or
Уверование Фомы
Uverovanie Fomui
“[The] Belief of Thomas.”

The account in “John” says that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, and it continues:

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

The other disciples therefore said  to him, We have seen the Lord [Greek ton kyrion]. But he said to them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be to you.

Then says he to Thomas, Reach here your finger, and look at my hands; and reach here your hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

And Thomas answered and said to him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus says to him, Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

It is noteworthy that this story of Thomas not believing the resurrection of Jesus until he touches the wounds inflicted by the crucifixion is not found in any other Gospel.  It is unique to John. That tells us the writer of John — whoever he was — had a particular theological interest in showing that Jesus — though risen — had a physical body.  There were other Christian groups at the time who believed that Jesus had no physical body, but only appeared to possess one.  Early Christianity was not monolithic, but consisted of a number of different Christian communities with differing beliefs.  The fixing of Christian teaching into “universally binding” dogmatic creeds came later, and was the result of the desire to eliminate such disagreements.

Now interestingly, this declaration of Thomas to Jesus, calling him “My Lord and my God,  has been a focus of endless controversy through the history of Christianity.  Some groups said it means that Thomas is here identifying Jesus as God himself.  Others said it cannot possibly mean that, given other statements about Jesus in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible.

The controversy is still going on within Christianity today.

While “John” obviously had a very high view of the nature and person of Jesus — much more blatantly so than the other gospels, he basically repeats the Hellenistic notion found also in Philo of Alexandria, that Jesus is in reality the Logos –– the Word, or better, the Reason, of the hidden God who functions in the world through the Logos as his emanation, using the Logos as his means of interacting with the world and with humankind — and even of creating “all things.”  So as Philo wrote, this Logos was a “second God.”  Students of classical Greek religion will recognize in this a more developed form of the same notion found in the tale of the origin of the Goddess Athena — the Goddess of Wisdom and intelligence (i.e “reason”) — who was born when she sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus, fully armed.

There was always much controversy in early Christianity over precisely in what sense Jesus was divine — whether he was actually the God, or divine in a somewhat lesser sense.  But controversy and bickering over doctrine has existed in Christianity from its very beginning.  In the writings of Paul — considered to be the earliest in the New Testament, we not only find Paul disagreeing with Peter and the Jerusalem Church, and in Galatians we even find the irritable Paul saying of other Christians with whom he disagreed on one point,

“Would that those who are stirring you up would castrate themselves.”
ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς.

The arguing never stopped.  The Christian writer Origin quoted Celsus, the 2nd century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, who said of the Christian groups of his time (Contra Celsum, 64):

You may hear, he says, all those who differ so widely, and who assail each other in their disputes with the most shameless language, uttering the words, ‘The world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.’

Regarding the declaration of Thomas  — “My Lord and my God” — those Christians who believed Jesus is God interpreted it as being addressed directly to Jesus by Thomas — Thomas declaring that Jesus is both Lord and God.

Some, however, had and have a different interpretation. In fact they have many different explanations of why this cannot possibly mean what it appears to mean — and cannot seem to settle on any one explanation as the definitive answer.  Sometimes they say it is just an exclamation, and not an address to Jesus as God; they appeal to the context, to other quotes in the Gospels that seem to indicate Jesus is not the God; or they say that perhaps it is an archaic manner of speaking no longer understood; some even use the excuse of Greek grammar, claiming that if Thomas had been directly addressing Jesus, he would have used the vocative case — that instead of saying

Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou

He would have said instead,

Kyrie mou kai thee mou

Interestingly we find the same grammatical construction — only with “Lord” and “Jesus” reversed in order —  in the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians, in Psalm 34:23:

ἐξεγέρθητι, κύριε, καὶ πρόσχες τῇ κρίσει μου, ὁ θεός μου καὶ ὁ κύριός μου, εἰς τὴν δίκην μου.

“Awake, Lord, and attend to my judgment, my God and my Lord, [even] to my cause.”

In Greek the text of “John” is:

ἀπεκρίθη Θωμᾶς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ὁ κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου.
apekrithe Thomas kai eipen auto: Ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou
literally,
“Answered Thomas and said to him:  The Lord of me and the God of me.”
Or, as we would put it in normal English,
“Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.”

Of course there is a vocative Kyrie found at the very beginning of the sentence in which the parallel construction is found in the Psalm:

ἐξεγέρθητι, κύριε…
exegertheti kyrie…
“Awake, Lord…”

My point in discussing these esoteric matters is not to defend any side of the question here, but rather to point out that historically, there was never doctrinal agreement among various Christian groups from the very beginning of Christianity, not even on such a matter as who precisely, Jesus was — whether man, spirit, angel, a lesser god or the God.

When the matter came to a head in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, and was put to a church council — the so-called “First Ecumenical Council,” the Council of Nicea — Constantine seems not to have much cared which opinion carried the day, as long as it stopped bickering Christians from creating divisions among the people of his empire.  It did not.

So historically in Christianity, there was and is still the question of just what John actually meant by having Thomas declare to Jesus “My Lord and my God.”  Many early Christians were subordinationists, believing that though Jesus was God, nonetheless, because he was begotten by the Father — or in other terms was an emanation of the hidden God — he was on a secondary and subordinate level to God the Father.  One even finds such an argument made in the Gospel of John (14:28):

You have heard how I said to you, I go away, and come again to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father: for my Father is greater than I.

My reason for discussing all of this is not to intentionally bore you, but to point out some of the problems inherent in Christian history.  It is quite obvious that, given the full history of Christian doctrinal disagreement from the beginnings to now — disagreements obvious even in the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts — that one can hardly successfully argue — as many fundamentalists do — for an inerrant Bible.  The frequent ambiguities of the component documents have contributed greatly to the ongoing differences among Christians as to just what was meant by this or that biblical writer.  And keep in mind that disagreements among Christians preceded the assembling of the various books of the New Testament, together with those of the Old Testament, into a Christian Bible.

Martin Luther got the Protestant Reformation underway with the principle of Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” as the deciding authority in determining doctrine.  But as he quickly found, “Scripture” still requires interpretation, and others who disagreed with Luther’s interpretations began popping up almost immediately.

Christianity had earlier attempted (or at least the political and religious hierarchy had attempted) to solve the problem by saying that the determining authority as to what any part of the Bible means is the Church and Church tradition, which is the view of Roman Catholicism.  Eastern Orthodoxy has a similar approach; that the Church created the Bible, and the Church — through the writings of the Church Fathers and tradition — is the only authority in interpreting it.  Of course there are great numbers of other Christian groups who did and do disagree.

It all reminds one of Mark Twain’s remark:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.