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Gregory J. Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy. Fortress, 1995.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


I think those biblical scholars serve us best who cause us, like an unpredictable old Zen master, to view familiar things in a different way. Gregory J. Riley does the trick pretty well in Resurrection Reconsidered. He tries to demonstrate the dialogical relationship of the gospels of John and Thomas, reflecting the disputations of the communities supposed to have produced the two documents. Riley reminds us of the Fourth Gospel's cooptative use of John the Baptist, to make a rival sect's figurehead seem to espouse the Christian view instead. Shouldn't it be just as obvious that John's pointed use of Thomas as a doubter of correct belief, lately converted to the same, is of a piece with the polemical rewriting of the Baptist? Just as John the Baptist symbolizes the Baptist sect, Doubting Thomas stands for Thomasine Christianity. And the chief points of Thomasine "heresy" are targeted in the scenes in which John features Thomas.

Chief among the points over which they differed was the fleshly reality of the resurrection of Jesus. Riley provides an interesting survey of ancient Israelite, Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian belief about the fate of the dead. From these data emerge the assessment that the notion of fleshly resurrection emerged late and piecemeal within some strands of Judaism, was unheard of everywhere else, and dominant in no form of Judaism or Christianity we know of until formative Catholic Orthodoxy mainstreamed the belief in the second century and later. Riley shows that those polemicists who did accept the doctrine had fellow Christians, not just outsiders, to argue with. Many converts to the Christian faith naturally interpreted their belief according to their inherited assumptions and thus believed Jesus had risen in spiritual form. (1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Peter 3:18 certainly seem to presuppose the spiritual body version of resurrection.) Riley shows how such traditional belief in soul survival was easily compatible with belief in postmortem apparitions in which the dead might be identified by the death wounds they still visibly bore--even though they lacked physical substance. One recurring theme (not without occasional qualification) was that the dead, however lifelike they might appear, could not be touched or embraced. When the mourners tried to touch their loved one, they found themselves clasping empty air.

Riley argues plausibly that Thomas Christians believed Jesus was spiritually resurrected (sayings 28-29, 71). This, we are told, John rejected, as he did the Thomasine preference for saving gnosis that made the illuminatus the equal/twin of the Living Jesus, and their consequent lack of any demand for saving faith. Whereas Jesus tells the Thomas of the Fifth Gospel he must no longer call him Master, having attained unto the same plateau of spiritual enlightenment (saying ), in the Fourth Gospel Thomas is patted on the head for worshipping Jesus as "My Lord and my God." (20:28).

All this makes good sense to me. But let me now propose a few "friendly amendments" to Riley's reconstruction. I wonder if the issue separating the Johannine and Thomasine traditions was really that of the fleshly resurrection of Jesus. My hesitations begin with the resurrection appearance scene in John 20. Riley reads the passage as affirming the fleshly resurrection of Jesus, over against the supposedly Thomasine notion of a spiritual resurrection. Why does he see it so? Because of the business about Thomas vowing he will not believe unless allowed to probe the open wounds of Jesus for himself. This element of tangibility seems to Riley to push the issue beyond what might otherwise look like a postmortem apparition. But is this issue really broached in the passage? I think not. What is it that Thomas swears he will not accept till he can touch the wounds? Thomas is skeptical of the claim of his fellow disciples to "have seen the Lord." No one is said to be debating the Pauline question, "But how are the dead raised? With what sort of body do they come?" We do not read that the other disciples told Thomas, "The Lord is physically raised! It wasn't some ghost, you can count on that!" Neither do we hear that Thomas replied, "Okay, a ghost I could accept! See 'em all the time. No big deal there. But fleshly resurrection? You're going to have to do better than that!" The story doesn't get into that sort of detail. I suspect Riley is reading in, from Luke 24:37, the disciples' initial fear that they were seeing a ghost. But nothing of the kind figures in John 20. The issue there is simply whether it was really Jesus the disciples saw. "We have seen the Lord!" "I will not believe." He will not believe that they really saw Jesus. What the telltale wounds will convince Thomas of is that the dead Jesus has manifested himself, period.

And does John really mean to picture the manifested Jesus as appearing in the flesh? As Riley admits, even many in the early church did not read the passage so. After all, John makes a point of saying the doors were closed and locked (20:19-26), surely pointless unless to highlight the ghostly passage of Jesus through them, like Jacob Marley in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. What about the tangibility factor? Note that the point of Thomas' exasperated vow is that he must see for himself. Actual touching proves unnecessary once Jesus appears and simply shows him the identifying marks. Thomas recoils abashed like Job: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3b, 5-6). Literal touching must not have been the issue.

Riley too quickly couples John 20 and Luke 24. Both have reworked a common reappearance tradition, but the point in Luke 24 seems to me quite different. There Jesus does specifically call attention to his fleshly corporeality. "No spirit has flesh and bones as you see me having." (As Riley points out, Ignatius had independent access to the same tradition: "Take hold of me and see, I am no bodiless demon.") But there is a form-critical point to be remembered here. Such scenes as Luke depicts (and Ignatius alludes to) appear elsewhere in the neighborhood. They are typically reunion scenes between friends or lovers, or master and disciples. In all such cases the point is that the unexpected return of the one feared lost does not mark a return from the dead, i.e., the apparition of a ghost, but rather denotes unexpected survival, escape from death. The parallel between Luke 24: and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana is especially close. Apollonius' disciples, having fled the scene of his trial before Domitian, are gathered mourning their master who can scarcely have escaped the tyrant's ire. But lo and behold, Apollonius himself suddenly appears in their midst. He is no ghost as they first suspect, but has simply teleported miraculously from Rome, just as Philip does from Gaza to Ashdod in Acts 8:39-40). He invited them to handle and prove to themselves it is really he, and no ghost. In other words, they should thus satisfy themselves that he is not back from the dead but has instead cheated death. Luke 24 and Ignatius seem to rely upon a version of the Passion in which the suffering righteous one, Jesus, was delivered out of the hand of his enemies by premature removal from the cross, another standard feature of Hellenistic romances, whose heroes rather frequently get themselves sentenced to the cross or actually crucified, and then escape. Note how often Lukan redactional material has Jesus "suffering" or being "delivered into the hands of men," instead of actually and explicitly dying. Jane Schaberg (The Illegitimacy of Jesus) raises the possibility that the virginal conception of Jesus is not a New Testament doctrine/myth at all, but has been read into the texts of Matthew and Luke through the conventions of second-century patristic theology. In the same way, I wonder if it is really John and Luke, as Riley thinks, who argued for a fleshly resurrection of Jesus, or rather perhaps Riley is still too willing to take the second-century Christians' word for what Luke and John meant.

At any rate, it seems clear that John has reworked the Luke/Ignatius tradition. The original form of the story stressed tangibility so as to prove Jesus had not actually died. John clearly supposes Jesus had died. The Johannine Jesus does not stress fleshly corporeality but rather identifying marks. Luke's closed doors provided the occasion for the flabbergasted disciples to erroneously suspect him a ghost. John's closed doors denote that the postmortem Jesus is a ghost, back from a genuine death. The point is quite different.

Riley does an admirable bit of detective work matching up clues from the Gospel of John on the one hand with those from the Thomas canon (Gospel of Thomas, Book of Thomas the Contender, Acts of Thomas) to indicate points where the two theologies collided, but I wonder if perhaps we cannot find a few more and, in the process, hypothetically reconstruct some theological evolution within Thomas Christianity. I suggest John is trying to correct Thomas Christians at two stages. First, let us suppose that the Thomas Christians believed in a "Living Jesus" who had neither died on the cross (despite being crucified) nor ascended to heaven shortly thereafter. We are acquainted with similar beliefs among Gnostic Christians who believed Jesus remained among his disciples for 18 months to 11 years after his resurrection. Similarly, Matthew's Great Commission says nothing of any ascension but rather pictures Jesus accompanying his disciples on their missionary journeys (of course, harmonizing, we never read it that way). The Ahmadiyya sect and various others (including, recently, Barbara Thiering) pictured Jesus surviving or escaping the cross and leaving the Holy Land to continue his teaching elsewhere. Apart from whether such a thing happened, we may ask whether there is any textual evidence that any New Testament era Christians thought it happened. And there is some. As it happens, John, who habitually places current misunderstandings on the lips of Jesus' opponents, has someone "mis-"understand Jesus as predicting, not that he will ascend to heaven, but that he will "go to the Diaspora among the Greeks and teach the Greeks" (7:35). I submit that this means John knew some believed this is just what Jesus did. I'm hazarding the guess that the Thomas Christians believed this. The anti-Thomas polemic Riley sees John engaged in would include this attempted refutation. And against the idea of a surviving itinerant Jesus John aims his stress on the genuine death of Jesus, something not made sufficiently clear in previous gospels.

Let us take a look at the same three Johannine references to Thomas that Riley examines. He sees much. Taking his hint, we may be able to see more. First there is the Lazarus story in chapter 11. Riley notes that here Thomas is made implicitly to doubt the resurrection of Lazarus, just as in chapter 20 he will be made explicitly to doubt the resurrection of Jesus. How is that? Because, as Riley strikingly points out, Thomas' fatalistic sigh, "Let us go, too, so we may die with him" refers to dying not with Jesus (since Jesus has just assured Thomas that he is not yet in any danger), but to Lazarus. Jesus has announced his intention to raise Lazarus up (11:11), but all Thomas expects is Lazarus' death (and their own, in an ambush). On the one hand, we may ask Riley why it is that Thomas should take Jesus' word that Jesus is in no danger and yet expect that he and his fellow disciples will die in Bethany. On the other, we may ask if Riley's argument proves too much. If it is the fleshly nature of the future resurrection of believers (of whom Lazarus is an advance specimen) which is at stake here, does John mean that the dead will be merely resuscitated like Lazarus, whom we must imagine to have died again some time later, perhaps at the hands of the Sanhedrin (12:10)?

I suspect that the point of chapter 11 is to furnish a dress rehearsal for the death and resurrection of Jesus himself, and that the goal is to demonstrate the reality of the death of Lazarus explicitly and of Jesus implicitly. This is why John tells the tale of Lazarus rather than those of the daughter of Jairus or the son of the widow of Nain. Those did not pass muster precisely because it was not completely clear that the patient was really dead. Of Jairus' daughter Jesus actually says "The child is not dead but sleeping" (Mark 5:39), and in a number of contemporary stories (featuring Asclepiades the physician, Apollonius of Tyana, and several others) the point is that someone not yet dead is rescued at the last possible moment from premature burial by people who lacked the keen diagnostic eye of the master physician. Form-critically, then, we ought to expect that any such story in which someone very recently dead is said merely to sleep is not a resurrection miracle but rather a rescue from premature burial. So the Jairus and Nain stories would very likely have been read by the ancients as Scheintod, apparent death, stories. And this was not good enough for John, who did not like the fact that some, including Thomas Christians, understood the crucifixion of Jesus the same way, as only an apparent death. So he supplies the Lazarus story as a prelude to the Passion of Jesus and as a guide for interpreting it. His point is to rule out the possibility that the death was only apparent. He seems first to set up the possibility ("'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep'"--11:11), only to knock it down ("Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead'"--11:13). This is obviously why John has Jesus stay put so that when he finally does arrive, Lazarus has been moldering in the tomb long enough that he must by now be a rotting corpse (11:39). The point is not just that Jesus has rescued Lazarus from the tomb (which would still be the case even if Lazarus had been prematurely buried as in the other stories), but that Lazarus died and came back. (Even after all this, it must be pointed out, John has not completely succeeded, since we only hear that Martha expected there to be a stench. She assumed her brother was decomposing, but if he lay in a cataleptic state, he wouldn't have.) Are we to infer, then, that John also envisioned a grossly physical resuscitation of Jesus, since Lazarus returns physically? Apparently not, since, again, no one in the early church wanted Jesus raised in that way. a resurrection unto mere mortality. So John probably doesn't want Lazarus' resurrection to anticipate Jesus' in every respect. But he must have the reality of the death itself in mind, since this is where he goes out of his way to make that point.

In the Farewell Discourse of John 14:5, John assigns Thomas these lines: "Lord, we do not know where we are going; how can we know the way?" Of course Jesus replies that he himself is the way, but this scarcely contains all of John's answer to the question, an answer he certainly feels (as Riley says) the Thomas Christians do not know. And that, I suggest, is the way of the cross. "... if it dies, it bears much fruit... If anyone serves me, he must follows me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him...  I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (12:24, 26, 32). It is perhaps Thomas Christians who are in view at 19:34-35, where the narrator swears up and down that he saw Jesus' fatally wounded and wants you to believe. Believe what? Simply that, as in The Wizard of Oz, Jesus was "morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead."

And, as we have seen, finally, when the risen Jesus appears to Thomas, the point is showing the wounds (which conspicuously do not get touched!) is probably to show at once that Jesus did die but is now back, not in the first instance, how he is back.

Perhaps the Thomas Christians pictured Jesus, like Elijah or al-Khadr ("the evergreen one"), as "with you always, even unto the consummation of the age" (Matthew 28:20). No ascension rounded off their myth of Jesus such as wrapped up Luke's. John's emphasis on Jesus' ascension as an item likely to offend (John 6:61-62) might have been aimed at the Thomas Christians.

My guess is that the Thomas Christians first believed that Jesus had survived the cross and set out to the East to resume his preaching, going as far as Syria or, as some would later say, Kashmir and India. Against this belief John aims (or preserves) the polemic that Jesus was "not only really dead, but most sincerely dead." The Thomas Christians then accepted this belief from the majority of Christians. But then what of their belief in the missionary travels of the post-cross Jesus? At this point they would have believed in the (saving?) death of Jesus, but not in his resurrection. So the bearer of their faith to the far reaches of Syria, Edessa, and India must not have been Jesus (martyred and seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father) but rather someone who might have been mistaken for Jesus, say, a twin brother of Jesus who carried on in his name. This stage of the Thomas tradition remains visible in the Acts of Thomas in the several places where Jesus is said to appear in the form of his brother Thomas as well as those in which Thomas is said explicitly to resemble his brother Jesus.

This was not good enough for the Johannine community, who sought to correct the belief by means of the Doubting Thomas pericope. As an exegete of an earlier day (alas, I cannot recall whom) suggested, the reason the risen Jesus must appear to Thomas in particular is to counteract the belief of some that the resurrection was a case of mistaken identity, that people saw Jesus' twin brother Thomas and took him for Jesus himself returned from the dead. By showing the risen Jesus and Didymus Thomas side by side, as in a Superman cartoon wherein the Man of Steel contrives to be seen side by side with Clark Kent (probably a robot double), John means to show that the two cannot be the same. The subsequent orthodox overlay on the Acts of Thomas (which Riley discusses) implies that eventually the Thomas Christians were drawn into the Johannine orbit, and the theological gaps closed. Part of this redaction was the scene in which the reader again is shown Jesus side by side with Thomas, as the former orders the latter to missionize India, making it clear that even though it was Thomas who had missionized India, he was not replacing a dead Jesus but acting on behalf of a risen one.   

Thomas the renegade left his mark in the New Testament. Riley notes how only Judas Thomas and Judas Iscariot are characterized in the New Testament as "one of the Twelve," and needless to say, both are shown in a dubious light. I suggest this is because they were originally one and the same character. From the "Orthodox" side, Thomas' heresy became narratively transformed/concretized into Judas' betrayal of Jesus, while the subsequent cooptation of Thomas Christianity created the repentant Thomas of John 20.



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