Did doubting Thomas make Jesus God?

Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God”: Reconsidering John 20:28 in light of context and scholarship

By Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

This is a favourite verse for Trinitarians when they argue for the divinity of Jesus. They say confidently that here lies a clear declaration of Jesus’ Godhood by his own intimate disciple. Granted that the person being addressed by Thomas in John 20:28 is Jesus, does it finally prove that Jesus is biblically approved as “very God of very God” (theon ek theou alethinou) as the Creed of Nicea of 325 states? Several explanations have been proposed to show that one need not go home with the Trinitarian interpretation but may well retain a strict Unitarian theology whilst still affirming the text in question. The ‘New Evangelical Magazine and Theological Review’ of 1822 gives a non-exhaustive yet good overview of some of the common propositions that are made by concerned monotheists to affirm Jesus’ unbroken humanity and reject the Trinitarian view of John 20:28.

“Of these it is impossible here to take particular notice, but we would solicit attention to a remark or two on the exclamation of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” These remarkable words have been variously interpreted. They are by some supposed to be a sudden, and almost involuntary, exclamation of conviction and astonishment: by others they are understood as an ejaculation of admiration and gratitude, addressed directly to God the Almighty Father: some suppose that the first member of the sentence was addressed to Jesus, and the next to God God the Father; and Unitarians, in general, refer the whole sentence to the Father.” [1]

While most interesting and one or two being rather favourable in our view, in this brief article, we are not interested in delving into any of the above Unitarian propositions as we shall instead consider three alternative interpretations that we feel are most probative.

If we read the context, Thomas’ testimony or exclamation ‘ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou’ (literally means ‘the lord of me and the god of me’) is preceded by his utter doubt in Jesus’ return (v. 25). The disciples had heard that their master had been fixed on a Roman cross to die on it, but we know from Mark that they were not eyewitnesses to that, “Then all the disciples deserted Jesus and ran away.” (Mark 14:50; International Standard Version) And so, basing their belief on hearsay, which was commonplace at the time as people did not have the time or sense of historical acuteness or sensitivity to verify rumours and gossip, that Jesus had died, they did not expect to see him again, but they did. Strangely though, the story goes that the disciples didn’t immediately recognise their master when he appeared to them (v. 19). It was only when he showed them “his hands and side”, allegedly having signs or bruises sustained from the crucifixion ordeal that they were “overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” (v. 20) Coming to verse 24, the author of John informs his readers that Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the other ten (Judas was not longer part of the original 12, diminishing the number to 11) and so those who were there informed Thomas of the meeting, but he did not believe it and said that he would only believe that Jesus had returned if he could put his finger where Jesus was alleged nailed and put his hand into Jesus’ side (in reference to John’s addition of the centurion’s spear thrust).* Before we proceed further, there is one important contextual point to be observed: The ten disciples who first met Jesus without Thomas were “overjoyed” at the sight of their master and their recognition dawned upon them through seeing the bruises that Jesus had sustained through the crucifixion ordeal, but conspicuously they did not declare Jesus’ lordship or godhood when they realised it was him. Returning to the story, one week after Thomas’ doubt and denial, the disciples all together including Thomas convened at the same house again and Jesus once again appeared and said, “Peace be with you!” after which, he told Thomas to put his finger on his hands and put his hand into his side to stop doubting and believe. To this, Thomas said, “ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou.” (My lord and my god” [I purposefully translate ‘kurios’ and ‘theos’ in the lower case as ‘lord’ and ‘god’ to indicate that capitalisation is only made based on a translator’s theological bias]). And Jesus finalised the meeting right after Thomas’ declarative statement that, “Because you have seen me, you have believed…” Now that we have gone through the context of the event of Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearance to the disciples in the Johannine tradition, we may critically assess the content and see whether the Trinitarian view actually holds water or is just hot air.

The word ‘pistos’ or ‘believe’ is repeated three times in the story in verses 25 and 26 and the the context ends with the emphasis on “belief”. This means that the theme of John 20:19-29 is belief but belief in what exactly? We need to regale you with the story once more. The attentive reader will have noticed after reading the above retelling of the story that the belief had to do with recognising Jesus’ return which Thomas strongly doubted. Thomas is called “doubting Thomas” (and this has now become a common saying in English) because he doubted what he was told by his fellow disciples of Jesus’ return. And when Jesus commanded him to ‘me ginou apistos alla pistos’ (stop doubting and believe), it was to have him finally shed his doubt and accept the fact that Jesus was physically there with them again despite the alleged crucifixion. This “belief” that Thomas did not have initially but found later upon seeing Jesus himself was affirmed and praised by Jesus immediately after the verse under inspection, “my lord and my god”, therefore, we must conclude that Jesus affirmed his true belief in his return and not that he had recognised him as “very God of very God” as Trinitarians would have us believe. Whether Jesus had returned from the dead (resurrected) or survived the crucifixion, healed and returned to his friends, Thomas could not have moved from total unbelief to the amazing Trinitarian belief that Jesus was truly divinely God. There was simply no measuring rod or yardstick in Jewish thought that dictated that if a man returned from the dead or survived the crucifixion, he should be identified as God. That would be absurd. In John chapter 11, we learn of Lazarus who had died but returned alive. In the Old Testament we learn of a dead boy who was brought back to life by Elijah (1 Kings 17:22) and we learn of Elisha also bringing a boy back to life (1 Kings 4:35) and later, Elisha’s bones had the power to resurrect a dead man (2 Kings 13:21). Thomas and the other disciples would have known at least known the famous stories of Elijah and Elisha bringing the dead back to life and those instances did not have the people declare any human being God. Likewise, it would be unthinkable that Thomas would have so radically shifted from unbelief to the stupendous belief that Jesus was the very God that created him, the disciples and the entire universe simply by recognising Jesus’ return. Johann David Michaelis, the Prussian Trinitarian biblical scholar, writes:
“I do not affirm that Thomas passed all at once from the extreme of doubt to the highest degree of faith, and acknowledged Christ to be the true God. This appears to me too much for the then existing knowledge of the disciples; and we have no intimation that they recognized the divine nature of Christ before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I am therefore inclined to understand this expression, which broke out in the height of his astonishment, in a figurative sense, denoting only “whom I shall ever reverence in the highest degree”…Or a person raised from the dead might be regarded as a divinity; for the word God is not always used in the strict doctrinal sense” [2] And as we have noted earlier, the ten disciples did not in any way declare Jesus’ alleged divinity and godhood when they realised that it was truly their master and that he had returned. Since Jesus’ deification did not blossom in the hearts of the ten and was not verbalised by their tongues upon recognition of their master and teacher, it would be absurd to propose that Thomas unlike the ten solitarily declared his master’s deification simply from recognising that he had returned.

Thus, a careful consideration and analysis of the context shows that the story of doubting Thomas actually repudiates the Trinitarian belief and brings us to the question, “What then did Thomas mean by his statement?”

That question brings us to our second point, namely, the word ‘elohim’ in Hebrew or ‘theos’ in Greek may be used of God and men.** In the Old Testament, Moses is evidently called ‘theos’ or ‘elohim’ by God Himself in Exodus 7:1 and Jesus recapitulates 82nd Psalms where the Judges were called “gods” to refute his opponents who accused him of claiming to be God in John 10. But a Trinitarian may argue that in those instances the word ‘theos’ is used without the definite article whilst John 20:28 identifies Jesus as ‘ho theos’ meaning ‘the god’. Yes, it is true that Thomas’ words in the verse contains ‘theos’ attached to the definite article but if that makes Jesus Almighty God, then Satan according to 2 Corinthians 4:4 should be identified as Almighty God too for he too is labelled as ‘ho theos’. The verse says that Satan is “the God of the age” (ho theos tou aionos). No, the fact of the matter is Christian Trinitarians, Unitarians, Jews, Muslims and Atheists all agree that Jesus was flesh and blood, that is, a human being who walked this earth just like any one of us. And so it is firmly established that he was truly and most definitely a human being, therefore, when he is ever labelled as ‘theos’ or even ‘ho theos’ in the New Testament, it takes the inferior sense rather than the divine godly sense that is exclusively given to the One True God whom Jesus said was his God and your God (John 20:17) just a few verses before the doubting Thomas incident. And so, the Trinitarian Michaelis rightly says, “the word God is not always used in the strict doctrinal sense.” Also, Mark Graeser, John Lynn and John Schoenheit pertinently writes:

“Jesus never referred to himself as “God” in the absolute sense, so what precedent then did Thomas have for calling Jesus “my God”? The Greek language uses the word theos, (“God” or “god”) with a broader meaning than is customary today. In the Greek language and in the culture of the day, “GOD” (all early manuscripts of the Bible were written in all capital letters) was a descriptive title applied to a range of authorities, including the Roman governor (Acts 12:22), and even the Devil (2 Cor. 4:4). It was used of someone with divine authority. It was not limited to its absolute sense as a personal name for the supreme Deity as we use it today.” [3]

Finally, we come to our third proposition, which is perhaps the strongest of the three and yet it is fascinatingly often missed by commentators one and all. Immediately after the tale of doubting Thomas, as he closes the chapter the author of John gives the firm conclusion of his writing. He tells his readers the very purpose of why he chose to write about Jesus:

“but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31; English Standard Version)

According to the scholar Pheme Perkins, this is the original conclusion by the author of John before chapter 21 was appended to it:

“(D) Conclusion: The Purpose of the Gospel (20:30-31). These verses are similar to the conclusions in John 21:24-25 and 1 John 5:13. They appear to have stood as the conclusion of the Gospel before the edition which appended chap. 21.” [4]

And commenting on the verse the excellent work ‘One God & One Lord’ says that, “The purpose of John’s gospel is clearly stated, and therefore the prologue introducing this gospel must also support the theme that Jesus is the Son of God, which it does magnificently.” [5]

If John had meant to truly and completely deify Jesus, the conclusion seems at odds with that. And so John 20:31 undermines the Trinitarian interpretation of John’s prologue just as it does with the Trinitarian interpretation of John 20:28.

Finally, we refer to the Unitarian scholar, Prof. (Dr.) Sir Anthony Buzzard’s translation and commentary on the New Testament and specifically his comment on John 20:28:

“Finally seeing what he had earlier in ch. 14 missed, that in seeing Jesus you see God the father in action and word. This of course does not mean that Jesus is the Father! No son in his own Father! Thomas certianly did not think that the creed of Israel and Jesus (Mk. 12:29) was suddenly destroyed! John 17:3 defines the Father as “the only one who is true God.” John wrote his whole book to prove that Jesus is the Messiah (20:31).” [6]

I have little doubt in the primacy of Mark, the synoptic problem (solved by the two-source hypothesis) and John being non-synoptic and utterly unique of the four gospels. There is little contention against the fact that John presents a rather high christology compared to the other three evangelists depicting Jesus in ways that never entered the recesses of the synoptics. However, John makes it evidently clear that the purpose of his gospel is to confirm Jesus’ messiahship and his sonship. Had the redactors of John disagreed with this original conclusion, they may have edited it to suit their purpose, but lo and behold what we have is what was there. As such, one would be hard pressed to argue for John’s deification of Jesus, for if that was his intention, he would have rather concluded, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who is Almighty God deserving our worship and adoration and that by believing you may have life in his name.” It is only in the mind of the Trinitarian that the appended “who is Almighty God deserving of our worship and adoration” exists. Had John intended Thomas’ testimony to truly mean a declaration of Jesus’ Godhood, he would not have closed the passage with John 20:31. He would have said that his purpose was to make his readers know that Jesus was indeed God as the Father was God. What greater doctrinal belief to be taught than the deity of one’s Creator, which as Jesus affirmed “is the most important commandment of all” (Mark 12:29)? The stark absence of deification in John’s inescapable conclusion successfully ends with the destruction of the Trinitarian interpretation of Thomas’ words, “my lord and my god”.

 

Notes:

[1] Anon. (1822). New Evangelical Magazine, and Theological Review, Volume 8. London: J. Haddon, Tabernacle Walk, Finsbury. p. 206

* The nails and the spear thrust bruises mentioned by John here are probably ahistorical and are John’s own addition to the alleged crucifixion. A more detailed discussion on both the spear thrust and nailing can be read at http://unveiling-christianity.net/2016/…/07/jesus-die-cross/

** As discussed above, the word ‘theos’ employed in John 20:28 may not necessarily mean the same thing as when the term is used of the Almighty God. In the biblical corpus, we find numerous instances of human beings labelled as ‘theos’ throughout the Old and New Testaments and in none of those instances are they promoted to Godhood. A further discussion on this very issue can be read at http://unveiling-christianity.net/…/…/25/jesus-almighty-god/

[2] Cited in Smith, J. P. (1837). The Scripture Testimony to the Messiah: An Inquiry with a View to a Satisfactory Determination of th Doctrine Taught in the Holy Scriptures Concerning the Person of Christ, Volume 2. London: Jackson and Walford. p. 287

[3] Graeser, M. H., Lynn, J. A. & Schoenheit, J. W. (2010). One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith. Indiana: Spirit & Truth Fellowship International. p. 469

[4] Perkins, P. (1990). The Gospel According to John. In Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer & Roland E. Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 984

[5] Graeser, M. H., Lynn, J. A. & Schoenheit, J. W. Op. Cit. p. 198

[6] Buzzard. A. F. ( 2014). The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation: New Testament with Commentary. Restoration Fellowship. p. 301

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