Doubting Thomas

How best do we know what we know? What proof, gained by what sense, most assures us that what seems so, is in fact so? Is it sight, as often claimed, that best comforts us: “To see is to believe”? But the eyes are notorious liars. We are fooled by appearances again and again. Plato was right about that. Hearing is no better: if the eyes cannot distinguish appearances from reality, the ears are just as bad at discriminating the valid proposition from the arrant falsehood. No one has ever claimed much for either smell or taste as epistemological tools, tied as they are to our stomachs, chained as they are to our appetites. Then there are touch, feeling, sensitivity. Though not first considered, touch is often first consulted when we seek to confirm what we suspect. Is the iron hot? I wet my finger, touch the surface, and “see”; is what I have heard, what I may have beheld, really there? My awe, my doubt, will not be satisfied until I lift my hand, reach out, and bring its shape into contact with my own. “Now I see,” I say, but not with my eyes.

This way of knowing is of particular import to St. Thomas. The significance of his actually touching-or not touching-the risen Christ is the focus of Glenn W. Most’s absorbing book. His stated aim is to “reconstruct the conception and organization of certain textual and pictorial documents [concerning the Thomas episode] that have played a significant role in European culture over the past twenty centuries.” To that end, Most divides his work into two parts. The first makes close textual analysis of the Thomas episode in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John; the second explains the exegetical tradition regarding the gospel narratives, then reveals how the story has been translated into the world of art. It is the first part of the work, and the first part of the second section, that provokes the most interesting questions.

In Most’s opinion, the Synoptics-Matthew, Mark, and Luke-offer troubled, conflicted accounts of Jesus’ post-Resurrection corporality, and leave lacunae where they most intend to resolve doubt. The grief-stricken Mary Magdalene is cautioned not to touch the risen Lord, but the “hyperbolically” skeptical Thomas (“Not unless I put my hand into his side will I believe”), strangely absent from Jesus’ first appearance, is worthy of a special theophany; unlike Mary, he is offered not only the wounded hands and feet for his rough inspection, but also the gaping hole in Jesus’ side. The Synoptics, says Most, move between this tension of skepticism and confirmation, and neither those accounts nor John’s state that Thomas’s “pious outcry” (“My Lord and my God!”) is accompanied by evidence of actual physical contact. John may not have meant to emphasize the need for touching the Lord as proof of his Resurrection, says Most. Rather, the rebuke of Thomas that privileges faith without direct verification is most likely the larger point. But the powerful tactility of the episode, and the ambiguity of whether the touch actually took place, overshadowed the episode’s purpose. Consequently, the effects of this ambiguity can be seen in the succeeding exegetical traditions, theological arguments, and even in some of the folklore of the Western tradition.

Most makes his best points here. For the importance of whether or not Thomas actually touched the risen Lord became a catalyst for many opposing views in the early church. The Gnostics, who completely rejected the material world in favor of the world of knowledge and spirit, made Thomas an unlikely focal point; for them, the disciple could not have touched Jesus’ body since such contact would mean the Lord had not transcended materiality. The “hole” in the text as to the actual “touching” was widened by the Gnostics until contact became impossible, and this interpretation engendered its own narrative tradition in the Gnostic apocrypha.

Conversely, the anti-Gnostic writers insisted on actual physical contact as experiential proof of the bodily Resurrection. This reading also engendered a narrative tradition that valorized the touching of what is holy. In the theologically unsettled times of the first centuries, rife with heresies as to Jesus’ true nature, the incident provided special reassurance, both about the bodily Resurrection of Jesus-and its attendant promise that such a bodily resurrection awaited the faithful-and the idea that communion with God is not inferior simply because it is not firsthand. “Something we have heard, seen, watched, touched with our own hands-this is our theme,” begins the first letter of John, comforting a generation of the faithful who live long past the disciples. Most explains that the episode continued to have import for the Reformers and Counter-Reformers, the former stressing the aspect of faith over signs and wonders, the latter focusing on the physicality of the risen Lord and on experiencing him in the sacraments.

The book sometimes avails itself of a lit-crit terminology-pointing out “aporias” of meaning, “logocentrism,” and textual conflicts that are not as conflicting, at least to me, as the author implies. In addition, the second half of the book’s conclusion that the idea of actual tactile contact in the Thomas episode was solidified by its depiction in art-particularly Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas (an interpretation of which seems excessively sexualized)-is more instructive as to art history than it is elucidating.

Nevertheless, Most’s thorough, clear explanation and erudite, while still elegant, style sets before the reader a fascinating history. It also generates an array of questions for reflection, especially with regard to epistemology. For Catholics, what is to be made of Jesus’ admonition to Thomas, his privileging of word over sign? For Protestants, despite this admonition, what is to be made of a God who nevertheless appears to the senses, suffers us to feel him, and comes in a form that bumps against our own bone and blood, against our own world of shape and texture? Just as God condescended to giving the Jews the king they did not need, he also condescends to offer this coarse, physical intrusion as hyperbolic proof for the hyperbolically skeptical; it is consistent with the divine modus operandi.

The work prompts other questions. Yes, we who have not seen are blessed when we believe-but believe what? Believe the witness, the testimony of those who have seen. In the end, it seems we come full circle. We believe that someone saw, and heard, and touched. As Most points out, not all knowledge gained through the senses is censured. Jesus did not, after all, leave a divine, calligraphic note on the wall of the sepulcher: I AM RISEN. BELIEVE. Rather, he appeared in the flesh. So how far are we to take this admonition of belief without need of witness? These are only some of the conundrums the book sets us wondering about.

Most finally claims that Thomas, in his faith and in his doubts, stands for all of us, both believers and skeptics. He also concludes that the Gospel of John gives doubt a kind of scriptural justification. Perhaps. A reflective skepticism can be healthy, in that it keeps us from gullibility, from seeing what is not there. Still, Thomas’s doubt always seems a limitation that has to be overcome. Doubt is certainly part of the faith journey, but is not itself commendable. It is what we strive (however imperfectly) to resolve, lest even that which we do in fact see, hear, and touch with our own hands, we fail to believe.

Published in the 2006-01-27 issue: 

A. G. Harmon teaches at the Catholic University of America. His A House All Stilled (UT Press) won the Peter Taylor Prize for the novel in 2001.

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