FRANCISCO-FACT: Was Thomas really a doubter?

What are we to think of Thomas Didymus (the Twin), who comes to faith in the resurrection after encountering Jesus in room while social distancing from the authorities; was he a doubter?

Thomas, the twin (his Biblical designation), never was a doubter, and this attribution by pejorative designation says more about those who made this his designation than it does about Thomas.

Here is some of what I discovered about Thomas after being reminded by the Reverend Joy J. Moore of Working Preacher fame, (a website, blog, and podcast for preachers who often do not have the time to do deep textual analysis for their sermon every week). The language of the text in John 20, deals with Thomas’ believing or faithing (I know, faithing is not a word—but in making translations from the Bible, it would help if it were).

The key to all of this is in verse 20.27 of the Gospel of John: as Jesus says to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe.” (NRSV, 1989) The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which is the direct descendent of the Standard Version of the Bible, 1611, popularly known as the King James Version (KJV), after its patron, James I of England, translates Jesus’ challenge to Thomas: “and be not faithless, but believing.”

Moving forward in time to the first widely accepted revision of English since the KJV, is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), copyright 1946, the same verse is phrased: “do not be faithless, but believing.” The Jerusalem Bible (1966), a Roman Catholic sponsored translation next on the chronological list, uses doubt, and may have influenced the translators of the NRSV.

Based on this quick search of translations, it seems that the moniker of “doubting” Thomas comes about in the twentieth century. Too bad for Thomas and too bad for all those sermons, including mine, about the doubter becoming the “faither” (another non-word that would be nice to have). All of this theology concerns a Koine Greek word (the Greek of the New Testament), pistis. And for all of the words in English, such as belief, faith, doubt, and their cognates, pistis, or its conjugation, is the word used in Greek throughout chapter 20.

Pistis is usually translated faith or belief, as it is done in all the verses surrounding verse 27. There are some subtle differences between belief and faith in English, but this is the closest we can get to what first century common Greek speakers meant. What Jesus was saying to Thomas in the Greek was “do not become faithless (apistos),” or someone not having faith. Though doubt may be the colloquial way we would phrase this statement of Jesus in the twentieth century, and now, I do not think it gets to what Thomas was experiencing. Because Thomas had not yet seen the risen Jesus before his encounter in 20.26, he could not yet become faithful, and that is different than being a doubter. Doubting was in the mid-twentieth century, and is still in the twenty-first century, a badge of intelligence and cultural sophistication. It is revered as sign of being modern. No wonder this is how twentieth century translators read Thomas’s condition. A reading that does not do justice to Thomas’s faith or character.

A wise Christian, Anne Lamott, noted either from her own understanding or by quoting another Christian, that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I agree with her observation. In the first century, however, for the Greeks, the opposite of pistis (faith) is apistis (not faith). That means Thomas had not yet experienced faith, not that he doubted, though he may have doubted. 

Thomas could not yet embrace faith because the messiness of Jesus’ last week, including his execution, obscured the reality of Jesus’ new state of being. When Thomas exclaimed “my Lord and my God!” in 20.29, he may still have had doubts and questions, but for the moment the messiness had moved aside for him to have faith and proclaim Jesus’ new reality.

We live in a world where doubt is considered a primary virtue. And, we are living in a time where doubt and uncertainty about the near future life is front and center to our daily emotions and reflections: pandemic, economic catastrophe, leadership missteps, and leadership misbehavior. What to do?

Faith in Jesus, the resurrected Lord, will not eliminate our doubts. But it can ground us with some clarity. Messiness will still abound but faith recognizes love through this messiness. To witness God’s faithfulness in Jesus is an affirmation of God’s love and persistence, a state of being which Thomas, the twin, embraced in that room in Jerusalem. Thomas was not a doubter; he was a “not faither” who became a “faither.”

Published by fr.david

Rector of St. Francis Church. Adopted son of the Old Dominion--Hampden-Sydney loving, Red Sox supporting, Burkean.

One thought on “FRANCISCO-FACT: Was Thomas really a doubter?

  1. St Thomas is my favorite apostle because he insisted on proof before believing. He had a week to doubt, an important feature of critical thinking. I agree with Paul Tillich that doubt is a part of faith.

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