Critical Bible scholarship—the air that seminarians of mainline Protestantism breathe—is in love with “low Christology,” the idea that if the earthly Jesus was, in any sense, God, he was unaware of it—as were his apostles until a long time after Christ’s resurrection (however that event would be construed by these scholars).
Therefore, Thomas’s confession of Christ as God in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”) couldn’t have been spoken by Thomas only a week after Easter. “John,” whoever he is, invented the story to reflect his community’s high Christology, which developed decades after Easter. After all, they say, there’s no hint of Jesus’ being God in Mark, the earliest gospel, written (so they say) around 70 A.D., because that belief hadn’t developed by then.
(I’m not agreeing with this assessment of Mark. I’m just saying that’s their position.)
Of course, since even critical scholars accept that Paul’s letters date from about A.D. 48 to A.D. 60, they have to explain away any high Christology found there. (Examples are plentiful, but I would start with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.)
When I was in seminary, few of us knew that there was any serious alternative to critical scholars. (I certainly didn’t.) We knew nothing about evangelical scholars, even those who, like N.T. Wright, keep one foot in each realm. We never read them. Professors never mentioned them. Critical scholars that we studied never cited them.
So it’s been eye-opening for me, as I’ve worked through John’s gospel in my current sermon series, to read, for example, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John, published by Eerdmans. Dr. Carson interacts with critical scholarship throughout his commentary—voicing both agreement and disagreement where necessary—from the classic skeptic Bultmann to one of my Candler professors, Gail O’Day, author of Abingdon’s New Interpreters commentary on John.
Carson tackles the alleged “plausibility problem” of Thomas’s confession on a number of fronts. For one thing, Thomas would have been familiar with Old Testament accounts of “believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself.”
This is exactly right: I’m thinking of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18 (before they destroy Sodom and Gomorrah). One of those visitors, without explanation, is referred to as Yahweh beginning in v. 17. Abraham knows he’s talking directly to God.
Or what about the story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Is he wrestling an angel, or is he wrestling God? The text is ambiguous: Jacob, at least, is convinced when it’s over that he’s wrestled God, and is relieved to have survived the encounter. In fact, the very name that he’s given during this encounter, Israel, means “strives with God.”
Carson’s point is that Thomas would have already had precedent within an orthodox Jewish framework to identify Jesus as literally God—just as Abraham and Jacob did in their encounters with the divine.
Critical scholars employ another tactic to explain Thomas’s confession away: they say that his wasn’t a confession at all; it was an exclamation, like OMG! As Carson writes:
Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew. In any case, Thomas’ confession is addressed to him, i.e. to Jesus; and Jesus immediately (if implicitly) praises him for his faith, even if it is not as notable as the faith of those who believe without demanding the kind of evidence accorded Thomas.
“Modern Arians.” That’s harsh, but why not call a spade a spade?