St. Thomas the Apostle, Pray For Us!| National Catholic Register

What we know from Scripture about the different Apostles varies. Some (Peter and John) are prominent and have a lot to say. Some (James the Greater or Andrew) have more supporting roles but still feature prominently. Some (Simon or Jude) are simply mentioned in the list of the Twelve as having been chosen by Jesus. A middle group (Philip and Thomas) are more than mentioned: they play roles in few but important scenes in the Gospel. Philip, for example, is the Apostle who, when confronted with a hungry multitude, tells Jesus that “200 days’ wages” would be inadequate to feed the crowd for whom Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes. 

If Philip is remembered for the crowd, Thomas’ fame comes from his incredulity. If you doubt it, just do a random search on paintings of St. Thomas. The vast majority depict “Doubting Thomas.”

The episode is reported in John 20:24-29. Jesus had appeared to his Apostles on Easter Sunday night. Thomas was absent. The others insist, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas does not believe them, demanding manually to probe Jesus’ nail and spear wounds. 

The following Sunday (which is why this episode always appears as the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter), Jesus once again appears to the Apostles, this time including Thomas. Without any prompting Jesus invites Thomas, according to the latter’s stated criteria, to “put your finger here” and “put your hand in my side! Stop doubting and believe!”

Did Thomas probe Christ’s wounds? Did their sight suffice? Was the fact that Jesus already knew the standards Thomas set to believe convincing? (Some think this was a debate between some Catholics and Protestants over faith during the Reformation).

What we know is that Thomas acknowledged who this was: “My Lord and my God!” (Once upon a time, Catholics recited this quietly while looking at Jesus’ Body and Blood when elevated at the consecration). Note, too, what Thomas says and does not say. He doesn’t say, “Hello, Jesus!” The titles he uses — “my Lord and my God” — are also declarations of faith, and confessions of Jesus’ divinity, because only God could be standing alive after those wounds.

The episode concludes with Jesus’ final beatitude: “You believed because you have seen me; blessed are those who have not seen but believed.”

Human life is complex, rich, and variegated. But while men’s lives encompass many experiences, they are sometimes summed up in one event where God’s grace encounters him and demands his choice. For everything a certain Roman procurator of Judea did in his life, history (and we) remember him for one Friday morning: “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” 

Likewise, though he has some smaller parts in John’s Gospel, history (and we) remember Thomas for one Sunday night: “my Lord and my God!”

One final note on that episode: it begins with the statement, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus) …” (v. 24). Thomas in Aramaic and Didymus in Greek both mean “twin.”

Like Philip, Thomas also has briefer mentions in John’s Gospel. After Lazarus died, the Apostles are reticent (John 11: 8) about returning to Judea. Jesus had only recently (10:31-33) been almost stoned in Jerusalem. By human standards, while it might have made sense to return to Judea while Lazarus was sick, why go back when he was already dead? They judge by human standards, even though Jesus had already said that this episode was so “that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4). Motivated by human standards, Thomas sums up their apparent frustration: “Let us also go to die with him” (11:16). One might suggest the raising of Lazarus — which was the occasion by which “many of the Jews … believed in him” (11:45) — was Jesus’ first faith vaccine for Thomas.

Thomas pipes up again at the Last Supper. After Jesus declares that he is going away to prepare a place for his disciples to which he would then return to take them, our very literal Thomas tells Jesus, “Master, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? (14:5). That question likewise lets Jesus correct Thomas’ perspective about whom, not what, to believe in. “The way” is not on some map or GPS; “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6). 

That’s all the Gospels tell us about Thomas. There is an apocryphal “Gospel” attributed to Thomas, full of all sorts of fantastic claims, supposedly the “secret sayings” of Jesus that were used to draw people to heretical, gnostic cults. 

There are, of course, elements from Tradition about Thomas. Tradition associates Thomas with the preaching of the Gospel in “India” (whatever that term meant in the first century). Legend put him on various parts of the subcontinent’s east coast. Indian Christians trace their roots to St. Thomas. 

Two accounts are associated with Thomas and India. One claims that an Indian king gave Thomas funds to build a splendid temple but, when he was asked to account for the appropriation, Thomas presented the poor to whom he distributed the money, a “living temple of the Lord.” Legend claims the king was eventually converted. (The third-century martyr, St. Lawrence the deacon, who used church money to support the poor, also presented them to the prefect when ordered to account for those goods. It resulted in his martyrdom). The “temple construction” legend is the reason why one attribute typically associated with artistic depictions of St. Thomas is a builder’s square.

The other attribute connected with Thomas is a spear, because legend has it that Thomas was martyred in India by being driven through with a spear, just as Christ on the cross had been. 

Following on the “Doubting Thomas” tradition, there is also an apocryphal legend that allegedly came from a heretical source that claims that, while the Apostles were all gathered around the Blessed Virgin at her “falling asleep,” Thomas was absent and so did not believe in her Assumption until the belt on her waist fell from heaven for him.

Our saint is artistically depicted in the “Rockox Triptych” by the Flemish Catholic painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). A triptych is a three-part painting, often on altars, whose side panels could be closed over the main, central scene. In this oil painting from circa 1613, the side panels depict the donors who paid for the work: Nicholaas Rockox and his wife, Adriana. Rockox was the mayor of Antwerp in today’s Belgium, a friend of Rubens, and he wanted this painting on his grave. The sponsors’ piety is accented: he carries his Bible, she holds her rosary. Both are clearly attired in well-to-do attire of the 17th-century Flemish lands. 

The large (almost 5 by 7 feet) panel shows Jesus with three Apostles. Tradition has held that this is a scene involving “Doubting Thomas.” That would put Thomas in the middle, peering at the nail mark in Jesus’ hand. If that is Thomas, the young Apostle on his left is likely John. John and Thomas gaze at the wound. A third Apostle, on Thomas’ right, looks at Jesus. 

I say this painting was “traditionally” thought to depict “Doubting Thomas,” because some contemporary art historians dispute that. They claim this is a painting of the first Easter Sunday evening, when Jesus first appeared to the Apostles. If that is the case, this representative group is grounding their own belief in Jesus. John would obviously be John, but the bearded middle Apostle would then likely be Peter. It seems the main argument for this thesis is that Rubens does not depict Jesus’ chest wound, which was usually a prominent feature in “Doubting Thomas” depictions from the time (e.g., Caravaggio). 

I generally tend to favor traditional understandings, and I do not necessarily think the presence or absence of Jesus’ open chest wound is determinative: the chest wound did not appear between Easter Sunday and the week after. His heart was opened on Good Friday. Furthermore, Jesus’ chest is exposed to below the navel: if the Roman spear was intended to pierce his chest cavity to ensure death, it would not occur lower on his torso. And Thomas’ belief criterion stipulated first that he “see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks” (John 20:25). The chest wound is listed third. And, in this instance, the middle Apostle is doing the first thing, i.e., seeing “the mark of the nail in his hands.” 

The painting is in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. They impartially simply speak of the Triptych as Epitaaf van Nicolaas Rockox en zijn vrouw Adriana Perez (“the epitaph of Nicolaas Rockox and his wife, Adriana Perez”).

For more reading on St. Thomas, see here and here.


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