‘The tale of the apostle Thomas is a sea unspeakably vast.’ Thus the Syriac poet Jacob of Sarugh, who lived in upper Mesopotamia in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The words are stirring but to our ears perhaps surprising, because in the West we think we know Thomas’s ‘tale’ and its significance pretty well. He was ‘one of the twelve’, the inner circle of followers or disciples of Jesus. More particularly, he was the disciple who questioned the truth of Jesus’s resurrection. In John 20, the only gospel source for the story, he demands to see and touch the physical evidence of crucifixion – ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe’– and when invited or commanded by Jesus to do this he becomes a believer. This iconic scene echoes through Western culture, in paintings, carvings, miracle plays, poems and sermons. Another thing we know from the gospel story is that Thomas was a twin, for that is the meaning of his original Aramaic name, Tau’ma. The author of John helpfully points this out to his Greek-speaking readership when he thrice refers to him as ‘Thomas called Didymus’, the latter being the Greek word for ‘twin’. This is elaborated in the Apocrypha, which insist that his brother was Jesus himself, but that is a non-canonical tangent to be avoided for the moment. The Thomas we know is the familiar stubborn-minded questioner, the one we see in Caravaggio’s great painting, with his lined face, grimy thumbnail and russet-coloured coat torn at the shoulder. He has become proverbial, a part of everyday speech, his name indissolubly linked with his scepticism: ‘Doubting Thomas’.[*] For many today, compounded more of doubt than of belief, he seems the most admirable, or anyway the most sympathetic, of the disciples. We recognise him as someone not unlike ourselves.
LRB 8 November 2012 | PDF Download