Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Did Thomas Teach Trinitarianism
at John 20:28?

“My Lord and my God!”

As Thomas was a strict monotheistic Jew, he believed that the almighty God was one person, the Father. (Deuteronomy 32:6, Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 31:9, Psalm 89:26; Malachi 2:10) He was also aware of Jesus’ preaching that the Father is the “only true God.” (John 17:1-5) Jesus even told Mary in John 20:17 that he will ascend to his Father and God. (Compare with Revelation 3:12.) And in verse 31 John tells us that the point of his Gospel is that Jesus is the Son of God. Notice how John did not repeat Thomas’ exclamation. This is consistent with Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 8:6, where he clearly stated that God is the Father and that Jesus is the Lord. Thomas was also likely aware that Jesus told Philip that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father also.” (John 14:9) Thomas’ declaration also shows the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer to his Father and God at John 17:21 that his disciples would recognize that he is in union with the Father, like what he said in John 10:30 that he and his Father are “one,” thus recognizing that seeing Jesus is like also seeing the Almighty God and Father, who is an unseen spirit. (John 1:18; 4:24) Thus, Thomas seeing the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ was the “same” as seeing his Father and God.

Context for “My Lord and my God!”:
  • Jesus and his God are “one.” John 10:30
  • Seeing Jesus is like seeing the Father. John 14:9
  • No one can see the Father and God. John 1:18; 4:24
  • Thomas saw Jesus, as Jesus remarked. John 20:29
  • Jesus commanded: “Exercise faith in God; exercise faith also in me.” John 14:1
Additionally, not without significance and not to be ignored is that Thomas calling Jesus “my God” has a number of OT precedents. For instance:
  • In Judges there are two appearances of the “angel of Jehovah” being called God or Jehovah:
    • Gideon’s angel representing God was called by the divine name in Judges 6:14-16, 23.
    • Manoah’s angel representing God was called God (Elohim) in Judges 13:22.

  • Hosea 12:3-4 calls the angel Jacob wrestled with God (Elohim).
    • This and the source account in Genesis 32:28 is best explained as the angel being the agent representative of God, thus as good as God himself.

  • Significantly, Exodus 23:21 calls an angel Jehovah God.
    • This God-assigned attending, guiding angel for Israel was identified in Daniel 10:21 and 12:1 as Michael the archangel. He represents Jehovah God as his personal agent.
Thus taking (1) the context of John 20 and (2) the OT precedents into account, John 20:28 would not prove that Jesus is a person of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead. Thus, there was nothing for Jesus to correct Thomas over. He was glad that Thomas had recognized that seeing him was like seeing his Father and God.

Professors John and Adela Collins in their book King and Messiah as Son of God contribute the following interesting point. After noting the Trinitarian view that Thomas’ exclamation proves that Jesus is God, they state on page 176 in a footnote:
This [Trinitarian] view fails to recognize, however, that the phrase dominus et deus, and presumably its Greek equivalent, is an honorific acclamation, used, e.g., by those who would flatter Domitian.
Thus, Romans would praise Emperor Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.) as “my Lord and God,” showing that it was an accepted accolade for the time. Presumably, Thomas could have used the Semitic equivalent for Jesus who represented the true God. Or, as John wrote his Gospel during his reign, it could be that while Thomas glorified Jesus, that his exact wording harmonized with “my Lord and my God,” but that these exact words were used by John to show that it was Jesus, not Domitian, who should be glorified in that manner. At any rate, the basic meaning would remain the same and would still harmonize with the above.

Additional support
As one scholar similarly noted: “Christians certainly would not be hailing him [Domitian] as “lord and my god” (cf. John 20:28).” He added:
It is likely no accident that Thomas’s climactic confession of faith in Jesus in the Gospel of John, “my Lord and my God,” is a direct echo of what Domitian demanded of others. Indeed, the Johannine corpus in general was written under the cloud of tyranny that hovered over the empire during the reign of Domitian.[A1]
Erudite researcher Roman Montero summarises:
It could very well be that John, in depicting Thomas as calling Jesus “my Lord and my God” is making an anti-imperial/pro-Christ polemic, since at that time Christians were being severely persecuted for not worshiping the emperor.

It could not be about Christology at all but rather be a religio-political statement put in the mouth of Thomas, with perhaps a historical basis but shaped to address the concerns of Christians under the Domitian persecution.[A2]
As explained above, this “religio-political statement put in the mouth of Thomas” nonetheless harmonized with the substance of his “climactic confession.” If true, and I suspect that it is, then this famous Trinitarian proof-text evaporates like a drop of water hitting a burning frying pan. This is because Domitian’s accolade praised him as the ultimate authority before his supreme god Jupiter—as his accolade did not make him such.[A3] Thus, in application to Jesus, it praised him as the ultimate authority before his supreme God Jehovah, and therefore did not make him such either. Consequently, applying “my Lord and my God” to support Trinitarianism was always anachronistic, unhistorical, and laughably inappropriate to an extreme degree. It becomes a brazen, shameful example of Trinitarian misuse and abuse of Scripture.

[A1] Witherington III, Ben. New Testament History: A Narrative Account. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2003) 394
[A2] Facebook, July 9, 2018
[A3] Supra note A1, 391-2

Thomas’ Legacy?
Consider the historical angle of Thomas’ legacy. There is good reason to believe that this same apostle Thomas went to India later on in the first century to spread the Gospel there. (In fact, to this day the native ‘Christian’ community in southern India are known as ‘St. Thomas Christians’ for this reason.) Yet notice what historian Samuel Moffett has to uncomfortably concede about that community in the fourth century:
“The arrival of a less orthodox Christian visitor to India a few years later, about 354 [CE], is better known in Western church histories. He was Theophilus ‘the Indian,’ a native of islands in the Arabian or Indian Ocean, who was held in Rome as a hostage, converted to Christianity, and sent by Emperor Constantius on an embassy that included visits to Arabia, to his homeland in the islands, and to ‘other parts of India’ (which may or may not have been India proper). There he found Christians whose liturgical practices grated on his sensibilities. The Indians, he said, ‘listened to the reading of the Gospel in a sitting posture [as opposed to the orthodox standing posture prescribed in the Syrian Apostolic Constitutions], and did other things which were repugnant to divine law.’”
Now notice this next part:
“He did approve of their doctrine, however, though that is somewhat hard to believe, for Theophilus was an Arian heretic, as was the historian who recorded the visit, his contemporary Philostorgius (ca. 368-439). No other accounts speak of Arians in India.”
A History of Christianity in Asia, by Samuel Hugh Moffett; Volume 1, p. 267.

So “Arian heretics” noticed that the ‘Thomasine Christians’ were in agreement with Arianism. Therefore we have some indication from the scant historical record that the relatively isolated community of believers in India, quite possibly founded by the apostle Thomas himself, were originally more in-line with the ‘Arian’ claim that Jesus was not God.

While this line of reasoning cannot be used as definitive proof of anything (as it is based on extra-biblical sources), it is indeed interesting that while Trinitarians claim that Thomas clearly and perspicuously proclaimed that Jesus is God at John 20:28, he apparently and ironically did not pass this teaching along to those to whom he later preached the Gospel, for the ‘Thomasine Christians’ apparently believed that Jesus was not God.

Which View Has More to Explain?
The Unitarian (Patritheistic) view that God is monopersonal, the Father, has some explanations for Thomas’ exclamation. The first and best one is that of recognition, that seeing him was like seeing his Father and God according to John 10:30, 14:9 and 17:21. Another consideration is representational: that Jesus is God’s agent and may be called God as His personal ambassador as seen in OT examples.

The Trinitarian view that God is polypersonal (specifically tripersonal) in an impersonal matrix may seem like the most straightforward interpretation, but notice the ramifications of this view. Earlier in the same chapter, in verse 17, Jesus told Mary that her God and Father was his God and Father, thus God in this verse is monopersonal, the Father. Then notice John’s summary of his Gospel in verse 31, that his Gospel teaches that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God.” He did not repeat Thomas’ exclamation. These two verses, 17 and 31, support Patritheism but clearly not Trinitarianism, for it makes Jesus a liar who dissembled to Mary (violating 1 Peter 2:22), failing to mention that he is the second person of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead whose human nature will ascend to the first and third persons of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead (the Father and Holy Spirit respectively), and it turns John into someone who failed to grasp what his Gospel was teaching about Jesus, that he is not just ‘the Christ, the Son of God,’ but also the second person of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead and therefore rightly called God.

Therefore, objective and honest people who are not emotionally invested into the Trinitarian paradigm will quickly notice that Trinitarianism has more to explain, as it turns Jesus into a liar and John into an ignoramus.

Related blog entries:

Further Reading:

  • Introductory picture from The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, page 146.
  • Appendix B Thomas’ Legacy? reflects the writing and research of my online friend TJ.

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