Any time we read about Doubting Thomas, we celebrate the diversity of our faith which reaches as far as we can see - certainly as far as the oldest Christian writings.
The Bible itself represents some of that diversity, as it includes four different gospels together with the writings of the apostle Paul and his disciples, as well as writings associated with the name of John and some other apostles. But the diversity of the early church was even broader; many alternative streams of Christianity were never represented in the official Bible.
One such distinct alternative stream of the early Christianity was associated with the name of the apostle Thomas. It was possible, some biblical scholars hypothesized, that the story of Doubting Thomas was actually a narrative theological explanation and polemic against this alternative early Christian tradition. This story acknowledged and yet it undermined the Thomasine tradition by maligning its legendary spiritual founder.
But the religious writings of this early group survived (sometimes almost miraculously) and today we can read the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Thomas and the Book of Thomas the Contender. The oldest writing of these, the Gospel of Thomas, is as old as other biblical writings.
These Thomas writings are different from what would become the orthodox tradition. But that is their real value. They show us the original broadness and diversity among early Christians.
In the Gospel of Matthew (13:45f) we hear a parable in which the Kingdom of Heaven (God) is compared to a precious pearl. The Gospel of Thomas (logion 76) contains a seemingly identical parable, but the meaning of the pearl has slightly shifted - it is said to be an image of the Kingdom, but becomes ever more an image for the human soul. And in the Acts of Thomas the author quotes the ancient Hymn of the Pearl - a fully developed allegory of the pearl as a human soul which is to be liberated and rescued from the ugly material world.
It is most likely that the pearl as an image of the soul is the oldest form of this metaphor. But the early orthodox Christians did not like the dualistic theology which it implied (ugly material world, beautiful spiritual world) and even less did they like the concept of salvation as a deserved escape from the material world.
Orthodox Christians suppressed the Thomasine version of the parable. But times are changing as is also our understanding of the world. Almost two thousand years later, and with our modern biology (conchology - study of shelled molluscs) we can perhaps re-coin this ancient allegory. Now we know that pearls do not grow on their own. Molluscs grow pearls in self defense. Pearls grow around irritating grains of sand, some other particles and foreign objects or parasites.
Beautiful pearls, just like beautiful souls often grow in response to adversity or pain. One can spend an entire lifetime as happy as a clam (as the saying goes) and remain just a slimy blob of a mollusc, or encounter adversity and start forming character like a beautiful precious pearl. This image is in harmony with the Christian understanding of sacrificial (understand - meaningful) suffering. I also find this allegory deeply meaningful to true life and my personal experience. The nicest souls I have met all overcame some major adversities.--------------------------
|A Gothic painting of the apostle Thomas by Master Theodoric of Prague overlaid with the first page of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (NH II.2).|
And for those who are still looking for the Margarita of our title - margarita is the Latin name for a pearl. It is a lone word from Greek language - ο μαργαριτης (HO MARGARITES) and most likely further adopted from ancient Sanskrit's majari. This brings us full circle back to India to the original home of the narrator of The Hymn of the Pearl. And the legendary mission field of the apostle Thomas.