Two Overlooked Biblical Heroes

Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Carvaggio

“Martha and Mary Magdalene”, circa 1598, by Michelangelo da Carvaggio


Both Martha and Thomas are often viewed negatively by Christians, but when we look at their lives more comprehensively, there is a lot to be admired.

For those of us who have grown up in a Christian family, Bible stories have been drilled into us from birth.   Children’s Sunday school classes are often filled with a colorful cast of biblical characters who become examples of virtue and vice.  These stories, brought to us in full-color flannelgraph (the prime storytelling medium for evangelical Christian children prior to the advent of Veggie Tales), introduced us to heroes such as Joseph, Moses, David, Esther (her story doesn’t mention God by name but is still much beloved for its entertainment value, practical lessons, and female protagonist), and Daniel.  They also brought us a wide array of villains: Pharaoh, Goliath, Ahab, Judas, etc.

These Bible stories can be a double-edged sword for the people included in the narrative.  Only a small portion of a person’s life is actually recorded in scripture, with the majority happening “off stage”.  However, since we are talking about the Word of God, whatever details show up in the text are sure to be highly valued and endlessly repeated.  It could be that your best day gets immortalized, but it is also possible that the biggest mistake of your life will be the thing for which you are forever remembered.

Take the example of the character Jabez, who has just two verses in the Bible dedicated to him:

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, “Because I bore him with pain.”  Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!”  And God granted him what he requested. – Chronicles 4:9-10

To my eyes, there is not much that is special about this little prayer.  After all, who among us has not asked God to give us lots of blessings and protect us from harm?  Sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t.  Apparently, Jabez was a better guy than his brothers, but he caused his mother a lot of pain when she gave birth to him.  I have to say that his resume is not that extensive.  Still, these two verses led to Jabez being hailed as a biblical hero in the bestselling book The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson.

Not every biblical character ends up as lucky as Jabez.  Two New Testament figures in particular have managed to end up as negative examples for our children even though they are not really villains: Martha and Thomas.  Their reputations have suffered greatly due to their inclusion in scripture.  Martha was the obsessive compulsive, bossy woman who was too busy berating her sister for not doing chores to spend time listening to Jesus when he came to visit her house.  Thomas was obstinate in his unbelief in the resurrection of Christ, insisting unlike the other twelve disciples that he put his hands in Jesus’ wounds before he would accept the truth.  At least, that is how the stories are often told…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1654, Johannes Vermeer

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, circa 1654, by Johannes Vermeer

Both of these characterizations are unfair even if we solely examine the two biblical narratives in question.  After all, Martha should get some credit for being the one to invite Jesus into her home in the first place. (Luke 10:38) We should also consider that her frantic efforts to make things as nice as possible for her guest are a sign of how highly she valued His company.

If you knew that Jesus was coming over for dinner, I’m guessing you would clean your place ceiling to floor and not spare any expense when it came to creating the nicest meal possible.  It is true that Martha was wrong when she tried to get Jesus to chastise Mary for not helping with all of this work (v. 40), but anyone who has dealt with the stress of an important house party could understand how a person might fall into this trap.

Likewise, Thomas’ doubts about the resurrected Christ are also very understandable.  Based on the other two times that we see him speak  in scripture, it seems that he was a man keen to face up to practical realities.  When Jesus tells his disciples that they will return to Judea after the death of Lazarus, they know full well that this will put the group in danger due to the antipathy of the Jewish religious leaders. (John 11:8) In what appears to be a spirit of resignation, Thomas tells the others, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” (v. 16b) He seems to have accepted the reality of their impending demise, but agrees to go anyway.

During the Last Supper, Christ told His disciples He would go ahead of them to prepare a place for them and then return so that they may join Him.  “And you know the way where I am going,” He insists. (John 14:4) This confuses Thomas, who does not realize the spiritual aspect of Jesus’ comments.  He is anxious to do as the Lord says, but needs more details.  “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” he asks. (v. 5) I have to admit, it seems like a fair point: you cannot possibly determine the correct directions to an unknown destination.

After Christ’s resurrection, John tells us that the disciples were all huddled together in some kind of safe house “for fear of the Jews”. (John 20:19) It is at this time that the risen Christ first appears among them.  “He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (v. 21) As it turns out, one of their compatriots was not present at the time this event occurred.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” – John 20:24-25

These comments seem to be very much in line with Thomas’ character.  He has accepted the reality of Christ’s death and is not going to allow himself to succumb to false hope.  While he undoubtedly would love to believe what his friends are saying, he knows that such claims of supernatural occurrences often prove to be cases of mistaken identity or an overly active imagination creating what the person wants to see.  Practical Thomas needs evidence to convince him of something so incredible – he is not going to be the one falling victim to a hoax.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1602, Carvaggio

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”, circa 1602, by Michelangelo da Carvaggio

Notably, Christ does not judge Thomas for these doubts, presumably because He knows that they do not come from a hard heart that is unwilling to accept the truth of God.  A few days later, He makes another appearance among His disciples when Thomas is present.  His words to the doubting disciple are meant to encourage and even comfort him.

“Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (v. 27b) This is the same evidence that had previously been shown to the other eleven men, and it is enough to convince Thomas of the truth.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas proclaims, clearly accepting both Christ’s resurrection and His divinity. (v. 28)

Still, when we talk about this story, we all too often focus on Thomas’ unbelief rather than his eventual belief, perhaps forgetting that we were all unbelievers until we became believers.  The final verse in this story could be contributing to our misunderstanding.  “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.’” (v. 29) This statement leads us to conclude that Thomas’ belief was only second best because he was weak and needed to see evidence.  Yet, let us remember that the other disciples also struggled to believe before Jesus appeared to them. (vs. 9-10)

Beyond these details, our impressions of Martha and Thomas would also be better shaped if we examined other aspects of their lives.  While Martha may have messed up in her first biblical appearance, she shines in the second one.  A few days after the death of her brother Lazarus, Martha and her sister Mary were both in a state of grief and distraught over the fact that their friend Jesus had not come to heal him in time.  When Jesus and his disciples arrive at the house, Martha is the one who goes out to meet him.

“Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died,” she tells him, obviously very pained by his decision to stay away. (John 11:21b) Still, we can see that she is attempting to cling to faith.  “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” (v. 22) This statement makes it seem as if Martha actually believes Jesus has the power to raise Lazarus, and He assures her, “You brother will rise again.” (v. 23)

However, we now see that Martha is still unable to break out of her usual mindset.  “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha answers, her words fully in line with orthodox Jewish doctrine. (v. 24) She doesn’t seem to believe that God will bend the most fundamental law of nature prior to the end of time.

Once again, Christ sees straight into the heart of Martha.  In the midst of her despair, she needs to be encouraged and reassured in her faith.  “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vs. 25-26)

Martha is struck by this direct appeal, and while she likely still did not understand that Jesus was about to physically raise her brother from the dead, she makes a firm declaration of her belief that Jesus is not only the Messiah but actually divine.  “She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.’” (v. 27)

This is a tremendous statement by Martha.  Even among Christ’s closest followers, there were few who truly grasped who He was until after the His death and resurrection.  John’s gospel was the last one to be written, and it came at a time when there was apparently a great debate over the nature of Christ.  In order to clearly demonstrate Christ’s divinity, John focuses on stories such as this one that clearly demonstrate His divine nature.  Martha’s statement is thus a very powerful one in the context of the book.

While Thomas did not receive such a second act in the pages of scripture, there is a large volume of non-biblical accounts that give us some clues about his further exploits.  While I would not place all my faith in any one of these writings, there is a general consensus among all sources that Thomas went out from Jerusalem and traveled east to conduct missionary work.  Early Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and the author of The Acts of Thomas (admittedly a Gnostic work) all state that he traveled into Persia and even India preaching the gospel.

Santhome Basilica in Chennai, Wiki PlaneMad

San Thome (St. Thomas) Basilica in Chennai, India. Photo by Wikipedia user PlaneMad

“Thomas, tradition tells us, was chosen for Parthia,” Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church. (Book 3, Part 1, translated by G.A. Williamson) The Indo-Parthian Kingdom was located in the area that is now the nations of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, far outside of Rome’s jurisdiction.  There is significant debate over how far into modern day India Thomas might have traveled, but a historical group of Indian Christians traces their founding back to missionary work conducted by the Apostle during his time there.  “St. Thomas Christians” can still be found in India today, and his purported original burial place was on the site of the current San Thome Basilica in Chennai, India.

Thomas must have felt like he was traveling to the ends of the earth when he went on this mission.  He was undoubtedly heeding the call to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28:19a, emphasis mine) He had enough faith to follow Christ’s command to be a witness “to the remotest part of the earth”. (Acts 1:8) Once he encountered the risen Christ, Thomas’ doubts  were put to rest, and tradition tells us he ended up being killed in his efforts to share the story of Jesus with the people of India.

Thomas’ story is a particularly special one for me.  Half of my husband’s family is rooted in India – not only that, but they are from the very part of that vast country where Thomas is supposed to have ministered.  Almost two thousand years after he made that journey, my husband and I celebrated our Christian marriage ceremony, one of multiple unions on that side of the family that have brought together East and West.  It is a testament to what a small world we live in, but I think it also shows how Thomas’ vision to introduce people of all nations to Christ has borne fruit.

Both Martha and Thomas were biblical heroes, even if that isn’t always made apparent in Sunday school classes.  Their flaws only increase the value and applicability of their eventual statements of faith.  They prove that any of us are capable of achieving great things when we allow ourselves to be transformed by the risen Christ.  Thus, I am not surprised that both of these first names have been given to members of my own family.  The parents who bestowed them must have grasped that these two biblical characters could be good examples for their children.  I hope that we can all take this view when reading about them in the future.

All Bible verses are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.