Thomas’ Scepticism is Our Assurance –

a reflection on John 20:19-31 by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, whose authors rely on sources that had their origin in the transmission of oral traditions, which Luke says were “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”,[1] the Gospel of John claims to be the testimony of one eyewitness,[2] identified not by name in the fourth gospel, but by the descriptor “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.[3]  According to a well-established church tradition, the name of the author of the fourth gospel was John, and because of this, the assumption has been that the John in question was the disciple who was a son of Zebedee the fisherman.  I am not convinced by this.  Rather “the beloved disciple” appears to have been a well-educated, well-connected, and probably well-heeled Jerusalem resident, and not an “uneducated and ordinary” man from Galilee as John was assessed to be by the chief priests, elders, and scribes who served on the Sanhedrin, before whom he and Peter were brought for judgment.[4]

While the identification of a John as the author of the fourth gospel is set fast in church tradition, that doesn’t mean that “the beloved disciple” was named John, let alone was the apostle John.[5] By the time the fourth gospel was written “the beloved disciple” would have been elderly.  It is possible that the John to whom the gospel is attributed was the scribe who wrote and edited what “the beloved disciple” had dictated to him. Chapter 21 is clearly a postscript written by a redactor.  The intended conclusion of the gospel is the final verse of chapter 20, where the author explains his motivation for writing his gospel, “so that you [the reader] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[6]  However, it appears that before his gospel had started to be copied and circulated “the beloved disciple” had died and this had shaken the faith of some in his community who thought he wouldn’t die before Jesus had returned.[7]  His editor added the last chapter, with its extra post-resurrection appearance, to clarify that the risen Jesus had not said that the author would not die.

For many years the four canonical gospels were thought to be a unique form of literature in the ancient world.  However, in the 1990s this was shown to be not so when Richard Burridge demonstrated that they adhered to the conventions of Greco-Roman biographies,[8] and while ancient biographies don’t meet all the requirements we demand for modern biographies, they were intended to be true records honestly told of great men, particularly those who had died nobly.  With regards to the Gospel of John, the claim is made that this biography of Jesus of Nazareth is based on the testimony of a reliable eyewitness, as his editor boldly states, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”[9] 

While the identity of “the beloved disciple” is less important than his truthfulness, there is evidence suggesting that he was a member of the Jerusalem elite with insider knowledge.  He knew about the plot to kill Jesus and that it had originated with Caiaphas the high priest and was motivated by a desire to preserve the peace in order to protect the temple and the nation,[10]  and he knew that there was another plot to kill Lazarus,[11]  leaving us with two options: the author either made this up or got this information from informants in high places aware of the decisions being made by the people in power.   In addition, he was known to the high priest well enough to have access to his house and to get Peter through the door.  The woman guarding the gate knew him to be a follower of Jesus whereas she only suspected Peter of being a disciple,[12] suggesting that “the beloved disciple” had been a guest of the high priest sufficiently often to become known to the palace staff, including the man whose ear Simon Peter had cut off, identified by “the beloved disciple” as the high priest’s slave Malchus.[13]  All this detail is provided to increase our confidence in the veracity of “the beloved disciple’s” testimony.  He clearly was present at the Roman trial of Jesus.  It is not by accident that the church chooses to focus its Good Friday services around the account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  “The beloved disciple’s” witness is completely logical and coherent, and unlike the synoptic gospels does not require the Jews to break their own rules around when and how Sanhedrin trials were to be conducted, and it closely follows the known procedures of a Roman trial.   In other words, it aligns with what we would expect of an eyewitness account. It rings true. 

So having presented evidence that we can rely on this gospel to tell us what really happened, can we establish that “the beloved disciple” was an eyewitness to the appearances of the risen Jesus in the upper room?  Well, not directly, but we can perhaps infer it.  The early church remembered the whereabouts in Jerusalem and the significant events in the last week of Jesus’ physical life happened.  The traditional location of the upper room is in the upper city not that far from the high priest’s residence.  In other words, in the posh area of town.  The gospel records “the beloved disciple” occupying a position of honour at the last supper,[14]  as would be appropriate for a wealthy man who likely had provided the venue and paid for the food and wine at the dinner party.   Today’s reading does not specify that only the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples were in the same upper room when Jesus appeared among them twice.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that “the beloved disciple” was continuing to host the frightened disciples after the crucifixion and was with them at the time of Jesus’ visitations.  If so what we have here is his account of what he saw and heard.

The resurrection is what makes Christianity unique among the world’s major religions.  It is an event that defies a scientifically plausible explanation because it is an event that does not adhere to the norms of a material universe.  Although we cannot explain how the resurrection happened, we aren’t asked to believe in mythology either.  The ancients well understood the finality of death, probably more acutely than we do because death was so prevalent in their world.  They well knew that normally a dead man didn’t come back to life and couldn’t appear on the far side of a locked door.  That’s Thomas’s problem with the story his friends are telling him.  He clearly thinks they have been hallucinating.  Throughout the gospel, Thomas shows himself to be a down-to-earth realist.  Without empirical evidence proving what the other disciples are saying is true he is not going to believe them.  When, however, a week later the risen Christ puts in a second appearance, and invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Thomas not only believes what he can see for himself but he understands the implication of Jesus’ resurrection.  It is Thomas, not the other disciples, who proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus responds that those who have come to believe in him without having seen him first are blessed.  Thomas’s scepticism is our assurance that what he came to believe is true and that we can be among the blessed who believe without seeing proof for ourselves. 

While I have been arguing that John’s gospel provides a trustworthy witness to the resurrection, the earliest written record we have is that of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, recalling information Paul was given about six years after the resurrection.  Three years after his Damascus Road experience, Paul visited Jerusalem and stayed with Peter for fifteen days.   He also met James the brother of Jesus.[15]  About seventeen later, in 53 CE Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that he had been told that the risen Jesus had appeared to Peter, to the other core disciples, to James, and to hundreds of other followers many still alive at the time when Paul was writing.[16] 

Since the Enlightenment, a materialistic worldview has prevailed in the Western world.  It is the view that everything that exists is either matter or energy, and therefore all things can be explained by the laws of nature, and what cannot be thus explained cannot have happened.  For some on the extreme progressive end of the theological continuum from fundamentalism to liberalism, who have been influenced by this prevailing materialistic worldview, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to be understood as the body of the church which continues the work of Jesus to this day.  Indeed the metaphor of the church being the body of Christ can be found in scripture,[17] but this is not the dominant understanding of Jesus’ new body.  Should the first Christians have simply wanted to propagate the teachings of Jesus, and follow the lifestyle he advocated, they could have done so without creating a fantastical story of a bodily resurrection, and would probably have experienced a lot less persecution.    I don’t consider myself a fundamentalist, but the resurrection as described in scripture is so foundational to Christianity that I find efforts to spiritualise a way around it lacks credibility.  Either Jesus was raised with a new but recognisable body unconstrained by materiality, or there was no resurrection, and as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”[18] But if, as I have argued, the Gospel of John provides a reliable record of a historic event, then as Peter writes, God “by his great mercy has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”[19]

[1] Luke 1:2

[2] John 21:

[3] E.g. John 21:7

[4] Acts 4:5-13

[5] See for Ben Witherington’s suggestion of a possible source for the fourth gospel

[6] John 20:31

[7] John 21:23

[8] Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography

[9] John 21:24

[10] John 11:45-53

[11] John 12:10

[12] John 18:17

[13] John 18:10

[14] John 13:23

[15] Galatians 1:18-19;

[16] 1 Corinthians 15:5-7

[17] 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27; Eph. 4:12

[18] 1 Corinthians 15:17

[19] 1 Peter 1:3