Sometimes Thomas gets a bad rap.
The apostle was a doubter, a skeptic, someone who needed validation.
He also was a person who asked the kinds of questions on faith that Christians ask each day, and through Thomas’ questioning, Jesus provided an embodied answer.
“It’s my initial thought that John the Apostle magnifies the role of Thomas to accomplish his purpose of showing Jesus to be a real, flesh and blood person who was raised bodily from the grave and showed himself capable of being touched,” says John “Bud” Traylor, interim pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Baker, and a former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, a former interim president of Louisiana College in Pineville and a longtime pastor at First Baptist Church of Monroe.
“John wrote in point to combat the Gnostic idea of his day that Jesus was just a spirit,” Traylor continues. “The Gnostics denied that Jesus appeared in the flesh. They believed that he only appeared to be in the flesh.”
Thomas’ story is found only in the Gospel of John, which is believed to have been written by John the apostle, who was closest to Jesus. This also means John likely witnessed this reunion of Jesus and Thomas. The story is found in John 20:24-29: “Now Thomas, also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’”
Eight days would pass before Jesus again appeared before the apostles. He held out his nail-scarred hands and told Thomas to touch them. He also exposed the wound in his side and told Thomas to touch it.
Master painter Caravaggio, best known for his 1600 masterpiece “The Crucifixion of St. Peter,” captured this moment in his 1602 painting “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” In it, Christ places a reluctant Thomas’ finger in the wound, and tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe.
The Gospel of John doesn’t specify whether Thomas actually touched the wound, but John 20:24:29 ends with Thomas’ realization that Jesus did rise from the dead: “Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
“Each Gospel was written with a particular purpose,” Traylor says. “John’s story of Thomas’ doubt has a huge impact on Christianity. Thomas’ disbelief has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. ”
The episode of “Doubting Thomas” is the extent of the apostle’s story. John doesn’t discuss how Jesus and Thomas met or what Thomas did for a living.
“We do know he’s called, Didymus, which means, ‘The Twin,’ but we don’t know if he was actually a twin,” Traylor says. “And though we don’t know much about him, Thomas’ story is very important for Christians. He teaches us to doubt our doubts.”
Skepticism wasn’t Thomas’ only characteristic. He also was loyal, as is shown in the story of Lazarus’ death in John 11:16.
Jesus would go to Judea and raise Lazarus from the dead. But the disciples were uncomfortable with the idea because Judea’s Jewish residents had attempted to stone Jesus to death on a previous visit.
Thomas was the exception, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
This verse marks Thomas’ first appearance in the book of John.
He appears again in John 14:5 after Jesus explains that he is going away to prepare a heavenly home for those who believe in him.
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas asked.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Some call Thomas dull or dumb for asking this question,” Traylor says. “I call him determined to know exactly how to go to Jesus in the faith.”
As in the case of all the apostles, Thomas’ story continues past the text of the Bible. Tradition has it that he traveled to Parthia, now northeastern Iran, and Persia.
Tradition also has Thomas traveling to the seaport Muziris in Kerala, India, in 52 AD, where he baptized the first of what’s known as the St. Thomas Christians.
“St. Thomas came to India by ship,” says the Rev. Sanjay Kunnaseril. “He was the first to bring Christianity to India.”
Kunnaseril is a Kerala native who traveled to Baton Rouge 7½ years ago to work in the Baton Rouge diocese. He pastors three small parishes — St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church in Livonia, St. Catherine Catholic Church in Fordoche and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Maringouin. He also works in St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gross Tete.
On July 1, Kunnaseril will become an associate pastor in St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Baton Rouge.
He grew up with seven siblings.
His sister became a nun in Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. Kunnaseril is among the St. Thomas Christians, which also represent an ethnic group whose culture is developed by a blending of East Syrian, Indian and European influences.
“Thomas built a big diocese in Kerala,” Kunnaseril says.
The church is called St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Malayattoor, Kerala, where Thomas is believed to have left footprints on a rock. Thomas, according to the traditional story, faced hostility while traveling through Malayattoor and fled to a hilltop, where he prayed and left his footprints on one of the rocks. It’s believed that blood poured from one of the rocks he touched.
“Thousands of Christians go to where St. Thomas left his footprints to pray each year,” Kunnaseril says. “They get benefits out of it.”
According to tradition, Thomas built the Kerala church with his own hands, which is why his symbol is the builder’s square. It’s also said the builder’s square symbolizes Thomas’ strong spiritual foundation and complete faith in Christ.
Thomas is said to have died in Mylapore, the southern part of Chennai, capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
“He was killed by Hindus in the state neighboring Kerala,” Kunnaseril says. “He was praying when they killed him from behind with a spear.”
There are other stories, but that’s the traditional one told in India.
The point of that spear was placed in a monstrance — the vessel used to display the consecrated Eucharist — which is kept in San Thome Basilica, which stands on what is believed to be Thomas’ grave in Chennai. His feast day is celebrated on July 3.
“His tomb is beneath the altar. I have been there,” says Kunnaseril, adding that the church is packed on Sundays.
“There’s no space to sit, so people stand outside to attend Mass,” he says. “Kerala has the highest percentage of Christians in India. Even when I go home on vacation, the whole family gets together to pray the rosary and read the Bible.”