Reflection on John 20:19-29 and 1 Cor. 15:1-11

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

The earliest written testimony to the resurrection is not to be found within the four canonical gospels but in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth.  While the gospels are thought to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church occurred almost two decades earlier.  Paul’s missionary work in Corinth coincided with the period when Gallio was the Proconsul of Achaia, before whose court Paul was brought.  Gallio dismissed the case against Paul as being outside his jurisdiction as a Roman judge.[1]  In 1905 an inscription from Claudius Caesar was found at Delphi, saying that Claudius had been proclaimed the Roman emperor for the 26th time, and referring to his friend the Proconsul Gallio.  The inscription can thus be dated to early in 52 CE.  Gallio would have become proconsul the previous May, which was when Paul’s opponents brought their case to the newly installed judge.

Paul probably left Corinth soon after the court case.  He accompanied Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus, where he left them to establish a house church, before embarking on a ship that took him to Caesarea.  From there Paul travelled to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Antioch, and then back to Asia, finally returning to Ephesus, the location where he wrote the first letter to the Corinthians.  It is reasonable to assume that all this travelling took a year or two, so Paul may not have commenced his correspondence with the church in Corinth until about 53 or 54 CE, a little over two decades after the crucifixion. 

While Paul’s information about the resurrection appearances of Jesus that occurred before the ascension is secondhand, many of the eyewitnesses were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing, and the Corinthian Christians could verify the truth of Paul’s claims from them.  Couriers carried letters all over the Roman Empire, so it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the Corinthian Christians to communicate with the believers in Jerusalem.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us that he met with Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ brother James three years after Paul’s Damascus Road experience.[2] Paul’s trip to Damascus to annihilate the Christians there had been sanctioned by the Jewish elite, who had conspired with the Romans to execute Jesus.  The persecution of the first Christians by the chief priests began within weeks of the first Easter, so Paul’s trip to Damascus probably occurred within a couple of years of the crucifixion.  Therefore Paul’s witness may go back to conversations he had with Peter and James five or six years after the events they described to him.  Ancient historians would be over the moon to have historic records so close to the memories of the people who were actual participants in well-accepted events that occurred long ago.  The problem with getting the resurrection accepted as having happened as described (even by many Christians) is the unique nature of this event.  We can’t refer to other similar occurrences to gain an understanding of what happened and what the witnesses actually saw.

We would be unwise to think that ancient people were any less skeptical than we are.  They knew, like we do, that dead people remain dead, that nobody can simply materialise within a locked room, and ethereal manifestations (that is, ghosts) can neither have their wounds touched nor do they prepare meals.[3]  The Gospel of John sets out to address our skepticism, by telling the story of a representative skeptic.  Doubting Thomas is an unfortunate title to give a man who was not a man lacking faith, but a perceptive young man with a keen sense of realism.  We meet Thomas in John’s Gospel when he and the other disciples have retreated with Jesus to a Bethany on the far side of the Jordan.[4]  A message is sent to Jesus about his friend Lazarus, who is suffering from a fatal illness.  It is Thomas who realises that their return to Bethany near Jerusalem would threaten both Jesus’ life and theirs.  “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” Thomas says to his fellow disciples.  At the Last Supper, when Jesus is attempting to prepare the disciples for life without his physical presence, Thomas acknowledges that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about.  “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” says Thomas, “How can we know the way?”  Thomas was undoubtedly saying aloud what the other disciples were silently thinking.   Now, his earlier predictions have eventuated.  Jesus has been murdered and his disciples are in hiding fearing for their lives. 

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them for the first time.  Speculation about the absence of Thomas includes the suggestion that he had gone out to purchase food for the group, who had probably eaten nothing since the last supper they had shared with Jesus on Friday evening.  It was now Sunday afternoon.  We are told that Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of the first day of the week.  We shouldn’t think of that as being after dark.  We follow the Roman custom of beginning the day at midnight, but for first-century Jews, the new day began just after sunset when the first stars appeared, so evening for the Jews would be what we would call late afternoon.  Certainly, Thomas could have been at a market at that time purchasing needed provisions.  Maybe the disciples had concluded that it would be unwise for them to be seen out and about altogether, and had selected one from their number to do what needed to be done outside their hiding place.  We’re not told, so we don’t know. 

Thomas was out doing whatever he was doing, and suddenly the risen Jesus appeared in the midst of the other disciples and greets them in a customary manner, “Peace be with you”, which was clearly intended to calm their terror.  That Jesus has to say “peace be with you” twice, indicates that it took more than one greeting to still their agitation.  Between the two proclamations of peace, the risen Christ shows the disciples his wounds, proving his identity to them.  In other words, the disciples present are no different to Thomas.  They also need proof that what they are experiencing is not an apparition. They then rejoice, in accordance with Jesus’ promise: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”[5] Jesus then commissions them to be missionaries, or apostles (which means one sent on behalf of another).   “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says to them and then empowers them for the work awaiting them by gifting the Holy Spirit to them.  This is in essence an ordination service.  They have been given the authority to forgive or retain sins, which is a reference to the Jewish custom of granting rabbis the right to decide what constitutes sin and what does not.  That is, they are permitted to interpret the law (or in the case of Jesus’ disciples, his teachings).  When Christianity became estranged from Judaism, it embraced a more literal, and more personally applied, understanding of the authority the risen Christ was entrusting to the disciples.

On his return, Thomas was undoubtedly astonished by the claim being made by his fellow disciples that they had seen the risen Christ.  He probably thought they had all gone mad.  He told them that unless he got irrefutable proof that Jesus is alive, he would not believe such a thing.  A week later that proof was provided to him.  Jesus reappeared and invited Thomas to not only see but touch his wounds.  John doesn’t tell us if Thomas took up the invitation to touch.  What John does tell us is that Thomas fully understood the implications of the resurrection of Christ.  “My Lord and my God,” Thomas proclaims.  Referencing John 17:20, the words Jesus prayed just prior to his arrest – “I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”[6] – the risen Christ says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  The author’s use of the past tense shows that at the time of writing many had come to believe as a result of the disciples’ testimony about the resurrection.  We are among those believers.  Thomas is our witness that we don’t believe in a fantasy.

Thomas’ given name may have been Judas. To distinguish him from the other disciples with that name, he was called Thomas, meaning “the twin”.   His life testifies to the truth of the resurrection as much as his words did. According to church tradition, Thomas took the gospel to India, where there was on the western seaboard an established Jewish community.  A great amount of trade occurred between India and the Roman Empire, with merchant ships sailing between Egypt and India pushed along by the prevailing winds, as the Romans never learnt to tact across the wind in order to sail against it.  After twenty years in India, Thomas was martyred in 72 CE when a spear was thrust into his side. He is the patron saint of India, and of theologians!  Amen.  

[1] Acts 18:12-17

[2] Galatians 1:18-19

[3] John 20:24-27; 21:9-14

[4] Compare John 1:28 with John 10:40

[5] John 16:20

[6] John 17:20-21a