Seeing vs. Understanding: Mapping out the Complexity of Thomas’s Infamous Skepticism

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Published:
April 1, 2019

In contemporary vernacular, the word “seeing” is often used to imply “understanding,” as in “I see,” a common expression used to validate the information at hand. We often ask our listeners, “Do you see what I mean?” a juxtaposed question that invokes the visual to reaffirm the verbal. Academic and religious parlance has also exploited the use of this word to imply an understanding that goes far deeper than mere visual perception. When Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” he seems to be requesting a visual of what he believes to be the missing link in the, as yet, nebulous understanding of the Father’s character. Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (Note the translated word “know” to Philip’s request of “showing.”) “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”[1] In these verses, we sense a mild exasperation at their inability to recognize the divine through the corresponding visual that had revealed itself to them day in and day out for a solid three years.

The above serves as a preamble to my lifelong fascination with the biblical accounts of the apostles on the road to Emmaus the morning of Christ’s resurrection, Mary Magdalene’s initial reaction upon seeing the resurrected Christ, and, most notably, Doubting Thomas, our prototype of ocular observation vs. ethereal understanding. Thomas is the one that fascinates me the most because he has become the iconic symbol of skepticism, as opposed to the “blessed” ones that accept at face value, or rather, believe without having seen.[2] As one who is often hard pressed to buy into sensationalism without logical evidence, I have always believed his request to be totally justified. After all, what can be more “sensationalistic” for a skeptic than the announcement of the resurrection of someone who had been officially dead….for more than 24 hours!

The scriptures narrate the events immediately following the resurrection of Christ. They tell us of how Mary Magdalene struggled initially to recognize the risen Messiah, even as He spoke directly to her, and how the disciples on the road to Emmaus were unable to recognize Him throughout an entire seven-mile walk with Him! We also learn of Thomas’s refusal to believe that Christ was alive unless he were able to touch his wounds. So, why is Thomas the one crowned “doubter” for merely requesting evidence when the others confronted the evidence, yet initially failed the test? “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[3] I am inclined to apply the words of Jesus more to the apostles on the road to Emmaus than to Thomas. After all, they “saw” for an entire seven miles, and still fell short of truly “seeing.”

In a worship service held at Emory University, Dr. Carol Newsom, biblical scholar and professor of Old Testament, refers to these same stories as she expands on this complex phenomenon of ocular seeing vs. metaphorical understanding. Newsom reminds us that these stories show us “the stark difference between our utter conviction that we know in advance what the situation is, when, in fact, we are totally mistaken.” She goes on to say that they (the biblical characters) were not “…simply subjects in some divine attention and perception experiment. To understand the stories that the gospel writers shared, we have to grasp the emotional dimensions of the context because that’s where the deep waters lie.”[4] As I understand Newsom, the comprehension of these stories goes far deeper than merely grading each one according to their degree of observation, distraction, and reaction. There are deep, underlying emotions and convictions in the protagonists of these stories, each of which contributes to our understanding of the complexities that lie between observation and ratiocination, especially as they related to the event at hand. If we are to accept Newsom’s conclusions that they were not guinea pigs in an attention and perception experiment, then it stands to reason that our focus needs to shift elsewhere. Hence, my focus falls back to Thomas, not to conclude whether he doubted Christ, whether he doubted the probability of a resurrection at all, or whether he simply doubted that those recounting the event might have made a mistake in judgment. We cannot know the progression of his rationale, but in turning our attention away from the characters, we might learn something from the outcome of his demand. As Newsom suggests, I’d like to focus on the context.

In a review of Glenn Most’s work about Doubting Thomas, Most suggests that, “…following this minor New Testament character through history can, among other things, provide a window on historical issues and important movements in Christianity and Western culture.”[5] Mary, the apostles, and Thomas, were all witnesses and recipients of the historical turn of cosmic events. Their reactions and actions might be better served if taken collectively, rather than individually, if only to understand, not the epistemological results of their reactions, but to turn our attention to the enigmatic wonder that was the resurrection of Christ. If looked at from an entirely new perspective, perhaps it was Thomas’s act that serves to shed the greatest light on what truly occurred that miraculous Sunday, and what scripture was essentially attempting to show us.

Once again, I am drawn to art[6] to express what my discernment often falls short of articulating. I am inspired to apply image, in this case, the painting of Caravaggio’s, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” to add meaning to the context of the resurrection story as experienced by Mary Magdalene, the apostles, and Thomas. Margaret R. Miles, professor emerita of Historical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, writes, “Evidence, whether verbal or visual, can be interpreted only by relating a particular text to the discourse that gives it significance, weight as a symbol, and intensity value as language — in other words, meaning. In this sense, interpretation of images is similar to interpretation of texts.”[7] Miles’ words added greater substance to the importance of image as necessary tools for the amplification of meaning. As such, it was Caravaggio’s painting that afforded me an “a-ha” moment with regard to the context of these accounts.

Of the many artistic renditions of Doubting Thomas, none speaks to my heart more powerfully than Caravaggio’s.[8] He reduces the scene to four characters whose heads are drawn together in a diamond-like formation. All background is removed that might otherwise distract the viewer from experiencing the power of what is about to occur. Caravaggio illuminates the body of Christ as if to give vision to Jesus as the Light entering the darkness.[9] Front and center stands Thomas, his fingertip entering a void as if searching for the missing link between fact and fiction, seeing and understanding. Caravaggio portrays Thomas with his eyes glancing away into the distance, as opposed to the two others who are looking directly at the finger as it enters the wound. Interestingly, they are not observing Thomas in order to see his reaction. Rather, they, too, focus on the insertion of the finger, perhaps secretly needing that “evidence” as well, but fearing to express their skepticism aloud. In stark contrast, Thomas stares into space, almost deliberately, as if allowing for no other influence except the sensation of flesh against flesh, granting the heart time to formulate what he prevents his eyes from beholding. The shoulder of Thomas’ tunic displays a rip that is similar in shape to the wound of Christ. Coincidence? Perhaps. But what better visual to unite these figures from a polarity that will soon be united by that one, simple touch. If we allow ourselves the same exercise, let’s close our eyes for a moment and feel that finger penetrating flesh, encountering the humid softness of the muscles, the hardness of bone, and the intricate web of nerves. Liken the experience to a medical student probing a body to learn all it comprises. Yet no description is more awe-inspiring than Andrew Graham-Dixon’s in his book entitled, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane:[10]

Four faces, arranged in the configuration of a diamond, bear mute witness to the miracle of the Resurrection. Christ gently accepts the indignity of being surgically investigated by his skeptical follower. Holding aside the folds of his burial sheet, he guides Thomas’s hand towards him and draws the disciple’s forefinger into his open wound. Two fellow-disciples crowd round, eyes fixed on the clinical probing of divine flesh. Christ too looks down, as though assisting at his own autopsy. The place where finger meets wound is a different kind of vanishing point, achieved without the calculations of perspective. All converges at the place where the miracle is proved to be true, and the metaphysical and the empirical meet.

Graham-Dixon also references the similarity between the finger of Thomas and the finger-touching act in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. “In the act of touching Christ, Thomas is born again in unquestioning faith.”[11]

I reflected long and hard on the process of visual and memory selection, and I was suddenly struck with the reality of how complex the process of hearing truth and “seeing” truth can actually be, in this case, the reaction of the apostles immediately following the resurrection. Yet my moment of clarity arrived when I attempted to embody Thomas, and feel my own finger entering the wound of Jesus. This “doubting” Thomas, who more closely reflects my own thought process, unveiled and simplified the magnitude of what our Savior had accomplished on that glorious Sunday morning. In having witnessed the death of his teacher and master, Thomas corroborated the miracle of Christ’s physical resurrection in that simple touch of the wound on the same flesh and bones that had walked and talked with him for three years. Thus, the experience of Thomas became, for me, not the demands and acts of a skeptic, but the visual image of a dogmatically challenging phenomenon of resurrection that will not consist of mere spirit, but will include the renewed bodies our Maker so lovingly sculpted for us.

I don’t presume to discredit Thomas any more than he already has been by confirming him as a skeptic, or a doubter. Nor do I presume to exonerate him. Scripture does not unequivocally confirm if he actually inserted his finger in the wound. Nevertheless, what Thomas did for me far surpasses any further discussions we may have regarding his motives. He shifted my focus to the greater, overarching feat of this story. That one, simple “touch” revealed to me the unfathomable act that scholars continue to research, i.e. the reaffirmation of the miracle of the true resurrection our Creator promises us. However we wish to dissect and understand Thomas’s actions and reactions is of no more concern to me. I’m grateful he demanded to touch the wound of the resurrected body of my Savior. The outcome of Thomas’s act does not serve to expose his faith as weak. Rather, that single touch reaffirms what the resurrection will consist of, and for that I am grateful to Thomas. As for the “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed,”[12] in the true nature of resurrection…that would be me!

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”[13]

 

Notes & References:

[1] John 14:8b, 9b (NRSV)

[2] John 20:29b (NRSV)

[3] John 20:25b (NRSV)

[4] https://vimeo.com/120093027, as viewed in December, 2017.

[5] Duff, Paul B., and Glenn W. Most. The Journal of Religion 87, no. 1 (2007): 95-96. doi:10.1086/511342.

[7] Miles, Margaret R., Image as Insight, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), Introduction, p. 29.

[8] Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” 1603, is currently housed in the Picture Gallery at the Sanssouci Palaces in Potsdam, Germany.

[9] 1 John 1:5 (NRSV) “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

[10] Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, (London: Penguin Group, 2010), p. 240.

[11] Ibid., p. 240.

[12] John 20:29b (NRSV)

[13] 1 John 1:1 (NRSV)

 

Lillian Rosa Correa is a native New Yorker living in Oslo, Norway, with her husband Tito and two grown sons. She is the co-founder and director of Comenius Education Services. She holds an MPhil in Religion, Society, and Global Issues. Her passions are her family, her Sabbath School class, religion, women's issues, and art.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 

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