This is a brief re-examination of Thomas’ famous declaration “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28. I looked at this some years ago, noting the common argument that the wording of the confession reflects the “custom,” recorded in Suetonius and Dio Cassius, of addressing the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) as “our master and our god”:
With no less arrogance [Domitian] began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, “Our Master and our God (Dominus et deus noster) bids that this be done.” And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation. (Suet. Dom. 13.2)
For [Domitian] even insisted upon being regarded as a god and took vast pride in being called “master” (despotēs) and “god.” These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.4.7)
When [a conspirator] was on the point of being condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and thereupon did obeisance (proskynēsas) before him and after repeatedly calling him “master” (despotēn) and “god” (terms that were already being applied to him by others), he said…. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.13.4)
We could imagine that this custom was a matter of common knowledge and at least loosely attached to the fitful persecution of Jews and Christians under Domitian. If the majority view is correct that the Gospel was composed in Ephesus towards the end of the first century, it seems plausible that Thomas’ confession functions as a figure for a transfer of allegiance from the emperor to the risen Christ. The Christian in Ephesus does not do obeisance to the emperor but to the risen Christ, even though he or she has not seen him.
This rhetorical purpose seems to make good sense of the context of the confession in the Gospel. There is something very odd about a direct identification of Jesus as “God” at this juncture.
1. A little earlier, when Mary moves to touch or clasp (haptou) Jesus, she is told that he is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17). She then goes to the disciples and tells them that she has “seen the Lord.” This differentiates quite emphatically between Jesus as “teacher” (Jn. 20:16) and “Lord” and the God who will exalt him, precisely when the physical body of Jesus is at issue.
2. Thomas’ acclamation functions as an expression of his belief that Jesus who was recently crucified is actually alive. That is why so much is made of seeing the marks of the nails and placing his hand in the wound in his side (Jn. 20:25, 27). That accounts for “my Lord,” but why would belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus elicit the further “and my God,” especially when Jesus has himself just uttered the words “my God”?
3. We are then told, in what may originally have been the closing paragraph of the book, that the signs which Jesus performed have been recorded so that John’s readers may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31). In the Gospel, the “Son of God” is not God but one who receives the Spirit of God (Jn. 1:33-34), who can be addressed as “Rabbi,” the “King of Israel” (Jn. 1:49), who is sent into the world by God (Jn. 3:17-18), and who is executed as a false messiah (Jn. 11:27; 19:6; 20:31). So the definitive and climactic confession, at the close of the Gospel, ought to have been that Jesus is the “Son of God.”
It seems likely that the assumed readership here—the Johannine community in Ephesus, in the first place—is already Christian: John’s Gospel is not an evangelistic tract but an encouragement to those who already believe that they might persevere and have life in the name of the one who was raised from the dead (cf. 1 Jn. 5:13).
If that’s the case, the immediately preceding account of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus has in view those who are “blessed” because they have believed without seeing and touching. It is just one of many “other” signs that have been written down for the benefit of a later generation of believers, who perhaps are having a hard time maintaining their commitment to an intangible Lord under the intense and very tangible social and political-religious pressures that prevailed in late first century Roman Ephesus—whether or not direct imperial persecution was involved.
It would make sense, then, to look for an explanation of Thomas’ anomalous confession in the circumstances of the reading community.
For these reasons, I think it may be better to regard Thomas’ confession as a rhetorical statement, an affirmation of political-religious loyalty on the part of the Johannine community, than as anything like an ontological or direct identification of Jesus as “God.” To do obeisance to the risen Jesus was somewhat like doing obeisance to Domitian as “master” and “god.” It begins as a response to the human person, not as a revelation of divine nature.
Still, it also appears that this acute practical dilemma was just one of several channels along which Christian thought flowed on its way towards the sea of trinitarian orthodoxy.