Don’t get me wrong. I like First Things, but it has a serious problem. It has been a while since I have read an issue of First Things, but I remember the articles always being thought provoking. If I didn’t agree with the author, at least what they wrote was well-written and thought out. It allowed for engagement and challenged the intellect. Online, however, the posts are often subpar. The latest of many examples is “Correcting St. John” by Russell E. Saltzman. Mr. Saltzman does not have a problem with the Gospel according to St. John; rather, he has a problem with the way a great many Christian pastors, priests, and others interpret St. John concerning the Apostle Thomas and his encounter with the Lord after the Resurrection. So when he writes, “Due to a misreported episode around the resurrection of Christ (20:10-29), which I am hopefully about to fix,” or “In the accepted (my emphasis) telling of John’s version,” or “I am convinced that there is an original version somewhere that has been replaced with what we have now”, he his not being literal. He goes on to say that he discovered the original version that had been long lost, by which he means his interpretation of this particular pericope in St. John. Perhaps Mr. Saltzman was trying to be clever and I certainly do not think he intended to facetious, but really that is what happened. It is unfortunate especially since he makes a good point concerning how Thomas will be treated in homilies and sermons across the world this coming Sunday. It is also unfortunate because in his lack of seriousness he makes some blunders in his interpretation of St. Thomas and the Resurrection, particularly in laying unwarranted criticism on the other Apostles that Thomas seems to be exempt from. Finally, the end of his “account” his shallow, which often accompanies facetiousness.
In the “lost” account which Mr. Saltzman “discovered” (meaning his personal interpretation of this account in the Gospel of St. John), the other Apostles are blamed for Thomas’s lack of belief, an excuse which Jesus accepts. As St. John relates, when Jesus appears during Thomas’s absence, He says to the other Apostles, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” After which He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” At this point in the “lost” narrative it is pointed out that the Apostles were still hiding in the upper room. They had not gone out (hadn’t they been sent), nor had they forgiven or retained sins (is this not power they were given for their being sent). Thomas hears the other say, but he does not see them do it. Thomas does not believe because the other Apostles did not act on what they were proposing for belief, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. So says the “lost” account. When Jesus again presents Himself the Apostles in the upper room Thomas is there. In the Gospel of St. John after Thomas confesses belief – My Lord and my God! – Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Here we have a divergence between the Gospel and the “lost” account. Mr. Saltzman is no longer interpreting, but is now rewriting. In our “lost” account after Thomas is “chided” by Christ, he defends himself saying, “Hey, I needed to see something…. It’s not my fault; these guys, they all acted like you were dead.” To which Jesus replies, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Mr. Saltzman is so focused on righting the wrongs committed against St. Thomas throughout history that he neglects the larger resurrection narrative. First, there is the general mystery surrounding the Resurrection encounters: Mary Magdalen not recognizing our Lord, nor the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; multiple disciples not recognizing Him when returning to shore on the Sea of Tiberius; the sudden and inexplicable appearance of our Lord in a locked room accompanied by His sudden and inexplicable disappearance. There may have been certainty among the Apostles and other disciples that Christ had indeed risen from the dead, but this does not by any means mean that their was understanding, clarity, or knowing what this meant for them. These things would come with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
This sheds a little light on Saltzman’s accusation that the Apostles acted like Jesus was dead because they had not gone forth forgiving sins. Jesus gave multiple commands during His time on earth after the Resurrection. The 40 days from the Resurrection to the Ascension was a period of formation just as the 40 years had been for the Israelites in the desert. His final command was given just before He ascended into heaven: to go forth to all nations proclaiming the Good News and baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles did not immediately go and do this. No, they returned to the upper room, not to hide (they had already stopped doing that) but to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who Jesus had told them would be sent to them. They knew they could not carry out Jesus’s great commission without the Holy Spirit. On another note, it is odd that Mr. Saltzman would accuse the Apostles of acting as if Jesus were still dead without leveling the same accusation against St. Thomas. He finds fault with the Apostles for not immediately going out and forgiving sins. Thomas, however, did not immediately go out either. Why does St. Thomas get a pass when the other do not?
To end, I’d like to point out one place where you are sure to hear a positive presentation of St. Thomas: the Orthodox churches, both those in communion with Rome and those that are not. It would have been better if Mr. Saltzman had pointed to their example so that Christians could learn from one another and from the great and vast tradition that belongs to the Church. If he does not know about these prayers from Orthodox liturgies, I hope that he soon may.
“As the disciples were in doubt, / the Savior came on the eighth day / to where they were gathered and granted them peace, / and cried unto Thomas: / Come, O Apostle, and feel the palms in which they fastened the nails. / O good unbelief of Thomas, / which hath led the hearts of the faithful to knowledge! / Hence, he cried out with fear: // O my Lord and my God, glory be to Thee.” (Sticheron from Lord I have cried, vespers for St. Thomas Sunday)
“O strange wonder, / unbelief hath given birth unto steadfast faith! / For Thomas said: / Unless I see, I shall not believe. / And when he touched the side of Christ, / he spake with divine authority / concerning the Incarnate One Who is the very Son of God, / and recognized Him as the One Who suffered in the flesh. / He proclaimed the Risen God, and cried with a radiant voice: // O my Lord and my God, glory be to Thee” (Aposticha, vespers for St. Thomas Sunday)