BMCR 2006.01.08

Doubting Thomas

, Doubting Thomas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. xv, 267 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 0674019148 $27.95.

In the best sense of the word Most’s book is exactly what his readers expect. Instead of adding just another interpretation to the numerous existing ones, Most analyses the trodden paths of interpretation from a higher plane. This time Most deals with the apparently well known story of Doubting Thomas. The central question of the study is not simply whether or not Thomas actually touches the wounds, but how it was understood by interpreters throughout the history of reception. Most follows up the threads that start from John’s account and lead him through centuries of European history and beyond. The first part of the book concentrates on the biblical tradition itself, i.e. the final chapters of the four gospels. The second part traces down the post-biblical tradition, i.e. on the one hand the written texts that in some way or another are related to the biblical story, and on the other hand pictorial artwork that displays this scene.

In this book there are no footnotes and there are no minute references to secondary literature. So the form of presentation is made up to meet the needs of a wider audience including also non-academic readers. But this outward ease never affects the line of argument which is no less sound than we expect in academic publications to be. In fact Most turns out to be extremely well informed on matters that as he himself admits are outside his usual scope. The book is good evidence that shrewd thinking need not be hidden behind bulky language. Most makes sure that any open-minded reader will be able to follow him and at the same time he manages to handle his material in a way that also specialists may find what they look for. The latter is achieved by “Bibliographical Essays” at the end of the book (p. 229-256) that in themselves provide an interesting reading guide through the masses of secondary literature. These qualities will make the book a welcome reading in smaller liberal arts colleges. But I definitely hope that larger research universities will include it into their reading lists, too.

Part I. The Textual Basis

The book starts with a fairly philosophical reflection on seeing and touching. Most goes on to introduce the three angles from which he will approach the texts. Behind them one easily recognizes the well-known question of who guarantees the sense of a text: the author, the text itself, or the reader. The rhetorical approach focuses on the author and how (s)he convinces the readers, the literary approach focuses on the text, and the psychological approach focuses on the readers. While the former two have a firm place in the history of Philology the latter one is new and requires some reflection. Reading a text means supplementing those gaps that are not explicitly stated in the text. And in the rest of his book it will be one of Most’s central tasks to show how narrative and pictorial interpretations tried to fill apparent gaps in the gospel of John.

Before turning to the reception of the biblical texts Most takes a close look at the final chapters of the synoptic gospels (p. 12-27). While the gospels share large portions of material concerning the earthly life of Jesus from his first public appearance to his fatal trip to Jerusalem, they differ considerably both in the depiction of his early youth and in the events after his resurrection. It is intriguing to note that doubt and tactile proof do occur, albeit not in connection with Thomas. In the gospel of Luke the tactile proof remains a mere offer (p. 21) and in Matthew there are some doubters (p. 25). However, Thomas does not play the same role here as in the gospel of John. The gospel of John is the only one which combines doubt and proof to create the famous story of Doubting Thomas.

What then follows is an extremely sensitive reading of the gospel of John (p. 28-68). Most detects many gaps in the John’s account, but only one of them is decisive for the present purpose: two parallel scenes end his gospel, in the first one Mary wants to touch Jesus as soon as she recognizes him and Jesus rejects this; in the second one Thomas says that he wants to put his finger and hand into Jesus’ wounds (20:27). And indeed this is exactly what Jesus offers him to do (20:27). But does Thomas indeed touch Jesus? Most argues convincingly that the occurrence of the verb ἀποκρίνεσθαι (20:28) leaves no space for any further action between Jesus’ offer and Thomas’s confession (p. 57). But since John takes no effort to make this point clear there surely was space for readers to mentally supplement something like “and then Thomas touched Jesus”. Consequently, the question just settled immediately returns open in the history of the story’s reception. This will be the subject of the second part of Most’s book.

Part II. Responses and Developments

Looking at the post-biblical developments of the Thomas motif1 provides an astonishing observation: as far as the question of touching is concerned, the two possibilities are not arbitrarily distributed. Certain groups in the history of Christianity tend to be quite uniform in the way they answer it.

Most first turns to narrative accounts of the story of Thomas (p. 82-221). These are basically the so-called apocrypha which fall into two groups: the Gnostic and the non-Gnostic texts. (a) The Gnostic2 accounts tend to be extremely sensitive to gaps in the gospel of John and tend to fill them. They are, whenever they touch upon this question, very explicit that there was no touching of Jesus by anyone. (b) The non-Gnostic accounts either put Thomas into new stories or have others do what Thomas does in the gospel of John. They always assume that Jesus indeed is actually touched whenever someone (be it Thomas or someone else) is about to do so.

Most then goes on to discuss the exegetical texts (p. 122-154). Again there are two groups: the catholic tradition and the protestant reformation. (a) The catholic tradition — both before the reformation and even more so after it — is fully assured that Thomas’s finger actually touched the wound, (b) the protestant reformation is less so and occasionally votes for the contrary.

In this chapter Most lists the hermeneutic strategies of Christian exegesis. They turn out to be five in number (p. 141-145):

(a) Detextualization: The text is read as a sequence of real events organized by God himself in order to transmit his message to the human race.

(b) Retrojection: The text is seen as to answer the current questions of the interpreter.

(c) Displacement: Marginal or secondary problems of the text eclipse the more central problems. This may be seen in the tendency to discuss the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body.

(d) Disambiguation: The text is simplified in order to give it a more straightforward message.

(e) Mystification: The focus is on the miracles of the text.

He could have used this list equally well to add a further edge to his interpretation by applying it to the gospel of Matthew. For example, Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees are commonly thought to be instances of ‘retrojection’. The same might be said about the missionary command (Matthew 28:18-20). Obviously the mission itself is problematic here and needs to be corroborated by a divine command, so Matthew presupposes a discussion about the problem of mission which was a problem only after Jesus’ death. One might conclude that Matthew ‘retrojects’ later developments backwards into the constitutive time of Jesus’ resurrection in order to foster worldwide mission, whereas his own earthly Jesus strictly limited the mission to Israel (10:5-6, 15:24). Here Most has neglected an opportunity to show the wider applicability of the above mentioned hermeneutic strategies.

Finally, Most discusses pictorial versions of the biblical story (p. 155-214). Most has already proven himself capable in this field by his earlier interpretation of Raphael’s (1483-1520) “School of Athens”. There he argued that the model of Raphael’s painting was Plato’s Protagoras (314e-316a)3. But as far as I am concerned, this is the point where Most’s book exceeds the limits of my competence. I am not an art historian and I cannot judge whether he misrepresents matters. All I can do here is to describe what is there. And this is quite a lot. He discusses some thirty pictures, 28 of them reproduced in beautiful black-and-white prints. For the convenience of the reader the prints are placed on a page immediately neighboring (or at least very close to) each one’s discussion in the text.

Most starts with an in depth analysis of Caravaggio’s ‘Doubting Thomas’ (ca. 1601). He puts it into its place in the pictorial tradition. A detailed analysis of its compositional elements leads Most to the conclusion that Caravaggio’s model was “some form of northern influence” (p. 191) and goes on to “suspect that Caravaggio encountered the proximate source of his inspiration in a printed book” (p. 199), i.e. in some German woodcut4.

There is however one point that I do not fully agree with. Most lists two reasons why visual art presents Thomas almost always with his finger in the wound of Jesus (p. 178): As to the first one Most convincingly says that Thomas thus contrasts with Mary who was forbidden to touch Jesus. But as to the other one he says that “[t]he only thing that distinguishes Thomas from all other characters in the New Testament narratives is his expressed desire to put his finger and hand into Jesus’ wounds.” This is to say that it distinguishes him from others who merely point at Jesus. I, however, do not consider this entirely convincing. The mediaeval tradition was uniformly catholic and we have seen that the catholic tradition uniformly assumed physical contact between Thomas and Jesus. To me this seems much more probable a motivation for painters to depict Thomas with his finger in the wound even after the reformation.

The book closes (p. 215-221) with a short reflection on the sacred relic of Doubting Thomas’s holy finger. Let me explicitly re-state here that my own final judgement on Most’s book is fully positive. Despite the two minor (if not minimal) points of criticism referred to above, the book is an excellent piece of contemporary philology. I enjoyed reading it and I do not want to miss it in my library. To me personally its most sympathetic property is the entirely sober and unbiased reading and interpretation of a theological subject — those subjects do not always tend to be discussed in this way.5

A final remark may be allowed here: compared to the general price level that we unfortunately are accustomed to (although in the US the prices have not yet climbed as high as on the German book market) the book costs astonishingly little. With this in mind I am pleased to note that the book is produced in line with the best standards of good old craftsmanship which nowadays occasionally seem irreversibly lost in our times of paperbacks and on-demand prints: it is beautifully bound in two-color hardback with dust-jacket, the pages are sewn, the paper is acid-free. Compared to this expenditure its price seems even more unbelievably low to me.


1. Most actually begins with the name Thomas which means ‘twin’ in Aramaic (p. 78). This explains why Thomas is occasionally called δίδυμος (John 11:16, 20:24). Note that the words for number two and for doubt are etymologically related in many of the world’s languages.

2. The Coptic Gnostic texts are preserved in a library found at Nag Hammadi. The most accessible translation will be Robinson as given on p. 241, but add there: “4th ed. 1996”. I wonder why Most did not quote the Coptic texts from this book.

3. Cf. “Reading Raphael: the School of Athens and its pre-text”. Critical Inquiry 23 (1996), pp. 145-82. Unfortunately, I have seen only his German book: Raffael. Die Schule von Athen. Über das Lesen der Bilder. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1999.

4. There is an interesting woodcut depicting (a) Thomas to the left hand side of Jesus, i.e. on the right margin of the picture, and inserting two fingers into the wound and (b) Jesus pointing upwards with his right hand and using his left hand to guide or force Thomas’s hand. They are surrounded by the other ten disciples, and Jesus is standing “in heroic half-nudity” as Most would say (cf. p. 183). This is to be found in: Johannes Bugenhagen, Historia Des lydendes unde upstandige unses Heren Jesu Christi: uth den veer Euangelisten. [Niederdeutsche Passionsharmonie]. (Facsimile reprint of the edition Barthe 1586), Berlin-Altenburg: Evangelische Haupt-Bibelanstalt, 1985. The woodcut is to be seen on p. 182 of the reprint edition. To be sure, this was not Caravaggio’s model, but it certainly adds further evidence in favor of Most’s hypothesis (cf. his ill. 18 and 19 on pp. 194 and 196).

5. Most has a further publication on the present subject in preparation: “Reading and Interpreting the Story of Doubting Thomas,” in: Andreas Kablitz and Helmut Pfeiffer (eds.), Interpretation und Lektüre, Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, forthcoming (Litterae 80).