Support for Skeptics in an Ancient Christian Text? Hell Yes!

7 Mar

According to tradition, all of Jesus’ apostles gather together one last time to be with the virgin Mary before her death. But, since they’re scattered to preach around the world, how do they all reach her in time? They’re caught up in clouds and carried to Mary’s doorstep, of course: “All the disciples […] arrived on clouds and greeted her.” (Magical clouds sound like a lazy deus ex machina, although I guess that’s actually an appropriate plot device for these deus-infused tales.)

In one version of the apostles’ sudden cloud travel (from the Narrative by Joseph of Arimathaea), every apostle is present to pray with Mary at the end of her life, and bury her body as well, except Thomas. Thomas isn’t completely absent from the narrative, however. After the other apostles bury Mary’s girted, sweet smelling (!) corpse in a sepulchre, a bright light surrounds the tomb and brings them all to ground “covering their faces.” Then Thomas makes his appearance: one moment he’s in India saying Mass, and the next, he’s “suddenly brought to the Mount of Olives [watching] the holy body being taken up.” He then cries out to Mary, “‘Make your servant glad by your mercy, for now you go to heaven.'” After this intercessory prayer request, Mary tosses her girdle to him like the rock star she is: “And the girdle with which the apostles had girt the body was thrown down to him.”

What a sweet reversal from the Gospel of John! Here, Thomas sees what the other apostles miss. Once Thomas meets up with the rest of the gang after his encounter with Mary, Peter immediately chastises him, reading his absence at Mary’s burial as divine punishment for his “unbelief.”

After everyone prays for Thomas (who, to them, so desperately needs the prayers), Thomas asks coyly, “Where have you laid her body?” As they point to the sepulchre, he exclaims that “the holy body is not there.” Peter spits at Thomas, “Formerly you would not believe in the resurrection of the Lord before you touched him: how should you believe us?” Thomas simply replies, again, “It is not here.” Fuming, the apostles head to the tomb to settle this dispute. But once they remove the stone and see no body, they’re all speechless, “vanquished by Thomas’s words.” Finally, Thomas explains his story: how he was transported to the Mount of Olives and witnessed Mary’s ascent. He shows them the girdle Mary tossed him, and then “they all rejoiced, and asked his pardon, and he blessed them and said, ‘Behold how good and pleasant a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity.'”

Peter had it wrong: Thomas wasn’t simply missing at Mary’s burial because of his unbelief; he was present at her assumption into heaven because of his attention to tangible evidence. In true Thomas fashion, too, he brings hard evidence to the others: the girdle that they’d recognize from her burial. Scientific skeptics, 1, naive holier-than-thou believers, 0. This story not only supports understanding based in evidence (and not rash belief), it not only turns the idea of “praying for presumed sinners” on its head (Peter’s “negative evidence” shouldn’t have been enough to indite Thomas, and Thomas blesses everyone else at the end); it also, through Thomas’s final words, praises a community composed of many positions and perspectives, one that communicates well in spite of disagreements and differences. It also reads the Gospel of John itself as, ultimately, in favor of Thomas’ famous skepticism.

Sure, you might say, “a true skeptic should also be skeptical about that girdle, about the bright lights, about the travel by cloud–about the very kind of story they find themselves in!” I heartily disagree: this is metaphor, and it holds up well within the logic of the story’s world. Theist, Atheist, A/Theist, Whatever you may be: there’s something of use in this pro-skeptic parable.

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