21 December 2014

The Skeptic

 December is the feast day of the disciple Thomas, at least on some calendars. He was one of the Twelve, allegedly selected by Jesus himself to represent the movement. So the synoptic gospels, anyway, though the various lists differ in details. Thomas is on all of them, anyway, and so was presumably one of the followers to whom the risen Jesus presented himself, as Paul relates.
Thomas died a natural death according to Heracleon, though other authorities insist he came to a bad end in some way or another. The Acts of Thomas sends him off to India in a series of more or less allegoric scenes involving Jesus selling him as a slave and him building the king a palace in heaven—stuff like that—but I think he ends up getting a spear run through him.
The fact is that most of the followers who were allegedly in Jesus’ inner circle, to whom he appeared after he rose from the dead, promptly disappear from the narrative and are never heard from again. You want to know what really happened to Nathanael or Levi or Philip? If other movements are any parallel there is no guarantee that they even remained in it. Tradition may well be silent about them because there was nothing to tell. First the guy followed the Baptist until he got beheaded, then followed Jesus until he got crucified, then followed maybe Simon Magus or somebody else until the clock ran out on that guy’s moment of fame. Or gave up the whole thing and turned to something more profitable and less likely to end badly.
The fourth gospel has probably the most memorable scene involving Thomas. It looks obvious that its author had some sort of beef with him, or with his followers. When Jesus announces his insane project of going back to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, and the other disciples point out that the Jews had been quite ready to stone him just a bit before, the author has Thomas give it a backhanded endorsement: “Let’s go too—and die with him.” (Pedro de Ribadeneyra tries to paint it up a bit, calling it “a sign of the great loue which he had towards his diuin Majesty, seing that he was willing to lay down his life for him”.)
But the fourth evangelist’s attitude towards Thomas is manifested at the end of the original gospel, when he has Thomas refuse to believe that Jesus has risen on the mere say-so of eyewitness testimony. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. Thomas will not believe until he sees for himself—and only when the animated corpse of Jesus appears to him does he come around to belief. (My suspicion is that the author was taking a jab at followers of Thomas who claimed that the risen Jesus had been immaterial—but I don’t insist on it.) In any case the evangelist is quite clear on one thing: his Jesus commends those who believe without evidence over those who require some basis for belief. Stark credulity is the appropriate response on hearing of Jesus’ resurrection—not a demand for confirming evidence. Thomas’s skeptical faith is the wrong response; he should have believed in the resurrection sans evidence, just because somebody told him it had happened.
This is a good attitude for those who are peddling nonsense. The Beloved Disciple’s followers no doubt found it comforting, seeing as they were being called upon for belief without evidence, the more so as the first century CE came to its termination and the original generation died off. It’s a convenient out.
But Thomas’s attitude is really the right one; belief without evidence leads people to ignore the effectiveness of vaccination, for example, or to deny that the earth really is getting warmer, no matter what the thermometers say. Likely the historical figure that lies behind the legend was as credulous as the next guy—but whatever he may have been like, his legendary counterpart is a beacon of rationality that briefly shines through the darkness of the narrative. The author may have condemned him for it—but the character served as a reminder of the virtues of the skeptic.

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