Doubting Thomas, Restaged
Between Athens and Berlin.
I begin in Jerusalem, with a famous episode from chapter 20 of the Gospel of John.1 Some context is in order: Jesus is crucified in chapter 19 of the Gospel of John; in chapter 20 he makes three appearances to his disciples as their risen Lord. In the first, he appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside his empty tomb, but she does not recognize him until he calls her by her name; he then expressly prohibits her from touching him—famously, noli me tangere in Latin—explaining to her that “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” A week later, and again a week later, Jesus makes a second and a third appearance, not out in the open as he did with Mary, but behind closed doors, where his apostles are gathered in fear.
 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” John 20:19–28 (Revised Standard Version)
After the second appearance, during which he is conspicuously and inexplicably absent, Thomas vows to his comrades that his belief will hinge not just on seeing, but on touching his Lord’s wounds. This touch connotes something quite violent: the Greek ballô could be translated “strike” or “punch.” It is perhaps hard not to imagine Caravaggio’s famous early-seventeenth-century rendition of this episode. Caravaggio has captured the probing, penetrating character of this verb ballô. Thomas’s first knuckle disappears into the open wound, guided firmly by his Lord’s steady hand. Caravaggio innovates on a long history of visual representation of this episode—but in one crucial aspect he is deeply traditional. From as early as the turn of the fifth century until, and including, Caravaggio and for centuries after him, visual media consistently depict Thomas touching, or at least reaching to touch, the open wound of Christ.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that a close reading of the Gospel of John reveals that this never happened, that this is an action imagined and inserted into the narrative. Nowhere does that Gospel say that Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds. I made this discovery the night before I was to preach on this passage, as I was reading it in Greek. (If nothing else, reading scripture in its original language slows you down so that you are more likely to notice narrative gaps and check your impulse to fill in those gaps.) And so I preached on what I had discovered the night before. Later, I returned to the passage and looked for corroboration for my discovery—which I expected was not new. But I was confirmed and denied in that expectation: confirmed in that Glenn Most, in his excellent book Doubting Thomas, offers a similar reading; denied in that he and I seem to be among the very, very few who have read the Gospel of John in this way.
I will return to the question of how this Gospel episode has been read, or misread, below. But let me return to my own reading: nowhere in John does it say that Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds—only that Thomas issued a defiant conditional to that effect and that Jesus then offered him precisely what he had earlier demanded. Fair enough, some might say, but the text doesn’t say that Thomas didn’t touch Jesus, so perhaps he did after all. Perhaps an astute reader is meant to infer that between verses 27 and 28 Thomas did in fact touch Jesus, and issued his acclamation upon doing exactly what he said he would do. Sadly, that can’t be the case, first on philological grounds; verse 28 begins with a verb that is unambiguous: apekrithê, “he answered.” As Most observes, the verb apokrinesthai, “to answer,” appears more than two hundred times in the New Testament, and it always introduces speech that follows directly and immediately upon other speech.2 In other words, if you’re writing in Greek and you want to suggest, or at least leave open, the possibility of a gap or a delay between someone’s speech and someone’s response, you don’t use apokrinesthai.
But the evidence need not be strictly philological. It seems, upon further examination, that the very point the author means to make in telling this episode is incompatible with Thomas touching Jesus. When Jesus appears to Thomas the week after he appeared to the others, he preemptively and freely offers Thomas precisely what Thomas had earlier insisted he would demand of his Lord. But the point is that it is precisely the invitation to touch him—not the act of touching him—that elicits Thomas’s faithful acclamation, “My Lord and my God!” Or, to be even more precise, it is the fact that his Lord’s invitation includes the demand Thomas uttered privately, if defiantly, to his fellows behind closed doors a week before. Thus, the Gospel of John turns on its head Thomas’s insistence that certain conditions be met before he recognizes Jesus: for it is Jesus who first recognizes Thomas and, moreover, recognizes him by knowing and naming his most ardent desire.Only by realizing that this episode is about Jesus’s prior recognition of Thomas can we appreciate how it forms a diptych with Jesus’s appearance to Mary in the garden. In both episodes, a human can only recognize a God if that God first recognizes him or her.3 If, indeed, this is the point of John’s narrative, as I believe it is, then Thomas cannot have touched his risen Lord. When Jesus recognizes Thomas’s ardent desire and defiant condition, when he names them in the free offer of his open body, the recognition and offer together fulfill a different desire Thomas had not known he had—namely, a desire to be known—and annul his defiant condition by rendering its satisfaction irrelevant.
I fully expected to find my reading—namely, that Thomas might not have touched Jesus—corroborated in the visual and textual exegetical traditions. According to Most, however, the visual representations of this episode are unanimous in their interpretation, and the exegetical tradition is nearly so. He remarks, almost in awe:
In over a thousand years of detailed, intense, devout exegesis of John 20, only two interpreters seem to have recognized on their own, and each one for only a moment, that Thomas might not have actually touched Jesus: one Latin scholar, Augustine (and a couple of authors who derive from him); and one Greek one, Zigabenus (and no author seems to derive from him).
Tradition is powerful.4
Even more astonishing is that in neither case—Augustine or Zigabenus—does the exegete derive any significance from the fact that Thomas might not have touched Jesus. Only with the Reformers does this exegetical tradition shift significantly. Luther’s suspicion of works-righteousness leads him to reject the tradition that Thomas touched Jesus. For, if Thomas had touched Jesus, he would then have achieved faith by works. Luther remarks that the text says only that Jesus offered his wounds, but the display of his wounds to the disciples and especially to Thomas is meant to show them (and us) that salvation comes through his works alone, not theirs or ours. But not even Luther could turn the tide of tradition: visual representations of this episode continue along their same trajectory, with Thomas touching or reaching to touch the open wound.
Now return to the episode from the Gospel of John, trying to keep the Caravaggio and the weight of the visual and textual exegetical tradition at bay. Notice that the staging of the final scene is quite different: Thomas is not crouched down, prodding the open wound of Christ. Rather, the two of them stand opposite each other, face-to-face, the one displaying and offering his wounded body to the other, knowing the other’s private desire to be known and thereby annulling his earlier and defiant epistemic demand; the other, upon being known, in turn instantly acclaims the one who has already known him, “My Lord and my God.” But having restaged this final scene between Jesus and Thomas, I will now inquire into a strange detail of their relationship, namely, that Thomas, so it is said, was called “the twin.”
But in order to move forward, I must take a few steps back, return to the four canonical Gospels, and inquire into who this apostle is. To be clear: I’m not interested in the “historical” Thomas any more than I am interested in the “historical” Jesus. Instead, I’m after the Thomas of the text: who is this character, and what can we know of him from this text, or from others? The so-called synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all mention a disciple among the twelve who is known as “Thomas,” but they tell us nothing more about him. Only in the Fourth Gospel, John’s, does this Thomas emerge from obscurity as a central, if enigmatic character. When he is first introduced in 11:16, we are told that he is called “the twin,” or didymus in Greek. We are told the same in chapters 20 and 21, but in none of these three instances does the Gospel explain what this title “twin” means. For an ancient reader, it might have been slightly clearer: after all, the Aramaic name Thomas (tôma) means “twin,” and didymus is its best translation in Greek. But be that as it may, why would the Gospel pause to offer up a lesson in the etymology of an apostle’s name, and why only for this apostle? It doesn’t make sense. One possibility is that “Thomas” and “Didymus” are both titles—one in Aramaic, the other in Greek—in which case the Gospel of John does not record the proper name of this apostle, but simply refers to him by his Aramaic title, tôma, and then provides the Greek version, didymus. If this is right, the unnamed apostle was known simply as “the twin.”
But this then raises two further questions: First, does this apostle have a proper name? And second, why is this apostle’s title or nickname “the twin”? Let me start with the second question. Rather notoriously—and inconveniently for the subsequent doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary—both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer to Jesus’s brothers and sisters. They do so in a rather untroubled way, as if it were well known and would pose no problem to its readers. Subsequent readers have of course found these verses very vexing indeed, and have had to resort to creative genealogical accounting to insist that these brothers and sisters of Jesus are in fact cousins, or step-siblings. But for early readers of the Gospel of John, untroubled by these interpretive challenges yet on the horizon, one obvious interpretation is that this unnamed “twin” is in fact the twin brother of Jesus.
It is interesting to imagine Thomas and Jesus squaring off as twins, as two brothers (literal or figurative), the one alive, the other dead but now alive again, displaying his open wounds for his brother.
But here is not the place to follow the twists and turns that the notion “the twin” takes in those early Christian traditions that regard the apostle Judas as Jesus’s brother, a brother to whom is given the title “twin” in both Aramaic and Greek. The transformations of this figure—”the twin”—in early Christian literature are enormously hard to make sense of, although I am trying to do precisely that in a forthcoming book, “The Divine Double.” For the purposes of restaging the final scene of the episode from John 20, it is interesting to imagine Thomas and Jesus squaring off as twins, as two brothers (literal or figurative), the one alive and disbelieving that his other half has come back from the dead, the other dead but now alive again, displaying his open wounds for his brother.
A grumpy theologian from Carthage by the name of Tertullian once defiantly asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Here’s one answer: if we restage the final scene in John 20 as a pair of twins facing each other in mutual recognition—and a mutual recognition predicated on the display of wounds—then this scene recalls another from antiquity. And so, defying Tertullian, from Jerusalem I now travel back several centuries to classical Athens. Plato’s famous dialogue, the Symposium, records the events of a single raucous evening: in the drunken revelry celebrating Agathon’s victory in the Dionysia festival, friends of his gather at his home to drink and give speeches in praise of love, erôs. Several of these speeches are famous, including Socrates’s own ventriloquism of a female seer by the name of Diotima of Mantinea. But before Socrates comes Aristophanes, the celebrated comedian, who tells us that humans used to be very different. There used to be three genders among us: male, female, and androgyne. We used to have two faces on one head, eight limbs on a much larger and circular body; and we used to get about by wheeling ourselves around in a series of gangly cartwheels. The gods grew wary of us since we were apparently keen to storm heaven like some freakish tumbling troupe. But Zeus decided to use his thunderbolts, not to smite but to split us, quite literally down the middle. He then had Apollo play the plastic surgeon and stitch up the gory remains of these half humans into what we are today. The final suture is our navel, which Apollo put in plain view of our eyes so that we might recall our former hubris and its consequences.
Each half-human, Aristophanes insists, seeks out its counterpart. Men who seek out other men are of the male gender, sons of the sun; women who seek out other women are of the female gender, daughters of the earth; and men and women who seek out the opposite are of the androgyne gender, sons and daughters of the moon. Aristophanes says that “Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ [symbolon] of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him” (191d).5 In this case, a symbolon is a token to ensure recognition of contracting parties. A knucklebone or die is broken in two, and each contracting party is given one half. The bone breaks irregularly, uniquely, and so this symbolon then serves as proof of the identities of both parties to the contract. We are like that, Aristophanes says, broken irregularly and uniquely, “and each is ever searching for the half that will fit him.”
After the cruel cleaving, halves would sometimes eventually find each other, and embrace with such desperate hunger for the other that both would fail to eat and eventually die. And if one were left behind alive, he or she would seek out a substitute half, endlessly—that is to say, both interminably and pointlessly. But Zeus mercifully moved our genitals to our fronts so that when two halves embraced, in pleasure and procreation we could enjoy some semblance of union, this semblance sufficing to permit our two halves to carry on living as a couple, two and yet one.
Even with our genitals aimed artfully at our counterparts, we cloven couples wish for more, but our words falter and fail us: “No one would think it is the intimacy of sex—that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other. It’s obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle” (192c–d). Into this impasse of desire and speech a god intrudes. Hephaestus appears at the bedside of this couple, who are aching inarticulately for something more, and asks them what they would have. But because they cannot answer, he names their desire in the form of a question:
Is this your heart’s desire, then—for the two of you to become parts of the same whole, as near as can be, and never to separate, day or night? Because if that’s your desire, I’d like to weld you together and join you into something that is naturally whole, so that the two of you are made into one. Then the two of you would share one life, as long as you lived, because you would be one being, and by the same token, when you died, you would be one and not two in Hades, having died a single death. Look at your love, and see if this is what you desire: wouldn’t this be all the good fortune you could want? (192d–e)
The lovers are not allowed to answer Hephaestus, to speak their own hearts’ desire. Instead, Aristophanes breaks back into the scene he has just painted in his listeners’ minds with this confident conclusion on their behalf:
Surely you can see that no one who received such an offer would turn it down; no one would find anything else that he wanted. Instead, everyone would think he’d found out at last what he had always wanted: to come together and melt together with the one he loves, so that one person emerged from two. (192e)
But the god’s offer amounts only to that—an offer. He gives voice to their ineffable desire in his offer, but then fails to deliver on it. In other words, this image of a god set to right the wrong of another god is left open, like a wound, with the suggestion that the two are in fact never made one, that the god offers cruelly what he will not, or even cannot, deliver.
Where does this leave the pair of lovers? Aristophanes leaves his listeners with a picture of human being as unavoidably two-in-one: we are cut asunder, cloven, two halves of a former whole—suffering from a wound inflicted by one god and irreparable by another. But even if we chance upon our other half, our most heartfelt wish—union—remains ineffable and impossible. We continue to stand, or lie, opposite each other, offering each other our bodies for embrace, bodies marked by wounds, marked as a threat by a navel and as a false promise of union by genitals. It is, ultimately, a tragic vision of love, delivered of course by Athens’s most celebrated comedian.
How might Aristophanes’s portrait influence our reading of the final scene between Jesus and Thomas in the Gospel of John? Specifically, how might his tragic vision of wounded twins who cannot find ultimate reconciliation influence our interpretation of the rather triumphant scene in the Gospel of John, where two twins face off and one displays a wound that prompts the other to recognize and reconcile with his divine double? Thankfully, someone else has posed similar questions, but to follow this line I must leave the drunken post-party in Athens and travel forward in time many centuries to Berlin.
Enter Hedwig, of the 2001 cult classic film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here is the plot in a nutshell: a boy named Hansel is born to a German mother and an American GI in postwar West Berlin; the German mother sends the American father packing upon finding him sleeping tenderly with their young son; the mother defects—contrary to expectation—to East Berlin. Hansel grows up imagining America and listening to the glam rock of the 1960s and ’70s. As a teenager, he falls for a much older, African American soldier in the U.S. Army named Luther. Luther wants to take Hansel back with him to West Berlin and then to the United States, but they must be married to do so. Hansel’s mother blesses the union, arranges for a fake passport, and finds an East German doctor who will perform a rushed sex change operation. The operation is botched, and Hansel is left with what he will later call “an angry inch.” The operation suffices, however, to arrange the marriage, and Hansel takes his mother’s name, Hedwig, and accompanies Luther back to a trailer park in the United States. On their first wedding anniversary, Luther leaves Hedwig for a new teenage boy, who now, for Luther, needn’t be made a woman. On that same day in 1989, the Berlin Wall falls and Germany is reunited—one year too late for Hedwig. She survives by serving as a babysitter and nanny to servicemen’s families near an army base in Kansas. There, she meets a young and awkward teenager, an earnest evangelical Christian named Tommy, and they fall in love, or at least she does. They play music together and Hedwig opens her body and his eyes. As a sort of joke, she gives Tommy a stage name—Tommy Gnosis, Thomas Knowledge. And she writes a song called “The Origin of Love,” based on Aristophanes’s speech about halves finding their other halves.
Tommy is clearly Hedwig’s other half, except that he seems not to want to be found. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Tommy refuses to behold and to hold Hedwig from the front—that is, he refuses to look upon her wounds, which in this context are both her navel and her angry inch. And so Tommy abandons Hedwig and enjoys a wildly successful career as a rock star named Tommy Gnosis, stealing all of her songs. Hedwig forms a band, “The Angry Inch,” which trails Tommy’s tour, playing small gigs in coffee shops and at senior centers—something of a nuisance or gadfly, and something of a wounded lover, aching for reconciliation.
What has any of this to do with Doubting Thomas? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the only representation I have seen that accurately—if also imaginatively—restages the final scene between Thomas and Jesus in a way that departs from centuries of tradition. And it does so by pairing Athens with Jerusalem, by bringing Aristophanes’s speech and the Doubting Thomas episode together to speak one tragic truth. One would be hard pressed to miss the fact that the relationship between Hedwig and Tommy is a recapitulation of the Aristophanes tale: besides the song they compose, “On the Origin of Love,” the film includes a cartoon version, which, for anyone who has ever read or heard of this tale, is perfectly clear, complete with an angry Zeus slicing humans in half with lightning bolts.
The connection to the Gospel of John is perhaps harder to discern. There is, of course, Tommy’s name, and his title, “Gnosis.” And then there is the fact that Tommy is clearly Hedwig’s other half, counterpart, or twin. However, as if he were an inverted Thomas, Tommy knows of Hedwig’s wound and does not want to see it, never mind touch it. For Tommy, the wound does not bring them closer, but drives them apart.
The film introduces others ironies and inversions. For all his glowing evangelical enthusiasm for Jesus, Tommy the teenager fails, or refuses, to recognize that the wounded Hedwig is playing Jesus opposite his Thomas—not the Jesus, some distant Christ, but a Jesus who is his own tragic twin. In addition to stealing his songs, Tommy also steals Hedwig’s role as Jesus. But, just as he can’t quite get the songs right—and botches certain lyrics, to Hedwig’s outrage—Tommy Gnosis can’t quite get the role of Jesus right, either. In place of Hedwig’s intimate wound, Tommy dons a cross of silver paint on his forehead. The irony and inversion is clear: Tommy cannot accept the wound of Christ he finds on Hedwig’s body, so he takes shelter instead in the symbol of the cross—almost as if the symbol of the cross were a means of repressing the trauma of the wound, of the real suffering on offer in the body of his twin.
In the climax of the film, in the midst of an ecstatic but tortured performance, Hedwig strips herself of the glam kitsch in which she has clothed herself as if in armor. And so Hansel reappears in the last scenes, shorn of Hedwig, a thin, lithe, almost naked young man who stumbles from the club onto a dark, ethereal, disembodied stage—very reminiscent of the dark room, behind closed doors, in which Caravaggio imagines the risen Jesus appearing to the apostle Thomas. Hansel, now stripped of Hedwig, assumes the role of Jesus, and his body, I contend, is to be read as the resurrected body, complete with its own grievous wound. On this dark stage, he meets Tommy Gnosis, face-to-face. Tommy is singing one of the songs he stole from Hedwig, “Wicked Little Town.”
The film’s restaging of the final scene between Jesus and Thomas is faithful to the Gospel narrative—in a way that the tradition is not—in that the two face off, and one is displaying a wound that, so we are expecting, will elicit an exclamation of recognition from the other. But the restaging also imaginatively inverts the Gospel narrative. Tommy has changed the lyrics of Hedwig’s song, and his version serves to replace the simple, faithful acclamation of Thomas in John 20:28: “My Lord and my God.” Tommy does recognize Hansel as “so much more / Than any god could ever plan, / More than a woman or a man.” And while he does ask for forgiveness from Hansel for all that he took from Hedwig, Tommy denies any “mystical design,” any “lover preassigned”—indeed suggesting “maybe there’s nothing / up in the sky but air.” Instead, he insists that “the stranger’s always you,” that Hansel will never find his homecoming with him or, by suggestion, with anyone.
In this retelling of the Gospel, Doubting Thomas emerges as a much more serious, even sinister skeptic, who recognizes the divinity of his double only to walk away from that recognition. Hansel, playing Jesus, weeps at the rebuke; Tommy whispers “good-bye” to Hansel and turns his back on him one last time. The scene ends with no embrace, no reconciliation or reunion of these star-crossed twins; it ends with only the tragic recognition that the wounds on Hansel’s body are what brought them together and allowed them to see each other as twins, and are also what keep them apart. Tommy abandons Hansel to this “wicked little town”—which, from the perspective of the Gospel of John, is not a bad description of Jerusalem.
The film effectively inverts the triumph of the Gospel narrative and delivers a tragedy. Tommy does not offer a devout acclamation, nor does he refuse to recognize Hedwig. He does much worse: he recognizes the suffering god, the wounded vulnerability standing before him, and then turns his back. In the final scene of the film, we see Hansel from behind, now entirely naked, with his wound on full display to the world, slowly staggering—not as if drunk, but as if learning how to walk for the first time—from a dark alley onto a busy city street, this “wicked little town.” Hansel, as Jesus, is left to wander city streets alone, naked, and wounded, which may be the film’s way of saying that the wounded body of Jesus, the resurrected body, is in fact wandering city streets waiting to be recognized and embraced.
There is no neat correlation between these three staged scenes. But an important, if elusive, thread seems to run through them: twins, facing each other, and their wounds, open and fresh or closed and scarred; twins, who recognize their other halves but, at least in Aristophanes and Hedwig, also recognize that reunion is now impossible. I haven’t juxtaposed these three scenes in order to suggest that they are the same. They are not. Yet, I would like to suggest that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in many ways a more interesting, imaginative—and yes, more faithful—response to the Gospel narrative than much of the Christian exegetical tradition, visual and textual. I mean faithful in both senses of that term: faithful to the letter and the spirit of the text in a way that the tradition seems to me not, and faithful in that it realizes what is fundamentally and theologically at stake in this episode—gods and humans, twins or doubles, bodies that are wounded and thereby holy, given a new life, and the challenging imperative of mutual recognition, but also its impossibility.
- In 2010, I was asked to preach to a small student fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and the lectionary prescribed the day’s reading: chapter 20 from the Gospel of John, the famous episode of “Doubting Thomas.” That sermon became the seed for the Sternberg Lecture on the Study of Religion, which I delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in November 2011. This essay is a revised version of that lecture.
- Glenn W. Most, Doubting Thomas (Harvard University Press, 2005), 57.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 141.
- English translation by Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff, Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett, 1997), 474. Greek text may be found in Plato III: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias, trans. W. R. M. Lamb (Harvard University Press, 1925).
Charles M. Stang is Associate Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School. His book, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: ‘No Longer I’, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012.