Religious Trauma and the New Temple
How Jesus’ Scars Signal Healing for Spiritual Abuse
There is faith on the other side of spiritual trauma, because Jesus is building a temple of trusting disciples out of religious trauma survivors.
I just discovered that a scholar, Edward Wong, recently completed a doctoral dissertation on trauma in the Gospel of John. For those who have been following along for the past year or so, you can guess how excited I was to hear that. I’ve only read one open access article, but it was so illuminating that I had to spend time meditating and writing for this weeks post. What follows are in note form—tentative meditations on the possible relevance of temple imagery when Thomas touches the healed wounds of Jesus.
John uses a rare word, in the Greek LXX and NT at least, for the “mark” from the nails in Jesus’ hands on the cross. Thomas said, “If I don't see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe” (20:25). The word is typos (τύπος), from which we get the biblical feature of patterns or typology, and it can also mean scar or mark.
Given the rarity of it’s occurrence in the Greek OT (only in Ex 25:40 and Amos 5:26), and John’s preference for suggestive intertextual echoes, I can’t help but wonder about a possible allusion to Exodus 25:40 in the scene where Thomas touches Jesus’ scars. Here is a rough translation of the LXX text of Ex 25:40:
“See that you do according to the type shown to you on the mountain.”
This is God’s instruction to Israel through Moses for the construction of the tabernacle/temple. To begin examining the likely intertextual connection, we can first consider that many of the words in Ex 25:40 occur in John 20:
“See” used in multiple scenes for seeing Jesus or signs of his resurrection: vv. 8, 18, 20, 25, 27, 29
“Do” in John 20:30, “Jesus did many other signs”, implying the resurrection was one of the signs Jesus did
“Type” 20:25, “unless I see in his hands the type/mark of the nails, and place my finger on the type/mark of the nails”
“Show” 20:20, “he showed them his hands and his side”
“Mountain”, while not in near context of ch. 20, is previously used in 4:20-21; 6:3, 15 (& later mss in 8:1). The 40:20-21 occurrence is relevant in light of the temple theme noted below. Also, Matthew’s post-resurrection commission scene occurs on “the mountain which Jesus had designated” (Matt 28:16). This one might be a stretch, but Matthew may contribute to the echo as many scholars believe John assumed his audience was familiar with the synoptic gospels and/or the traditions behind them.
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In addition to word usage, we need to consider narrative connections and the broader context of John. After cleansing the temple (2:13-16), Jesus prophesied the raising of “the temple of his body”, and we are told that the disciples remembered this after the resurrection (2:21-22). If they were thinking about this saying (they “remembered that he had said this”), then after the resurrection they were thinking of Jesus’ body as the temple. It seems possible, even likely, that John and his original audience would be attuned for temple allusions in the post-resurrection narratives.1 Therefore, Exodus 25:40 is a likely echo, both thematically and lexically.
What would we find if we bring Exodus 25:40 forward into the narrative of John 20:19-29? Why and how would this allusion make sense in John’s Gospel? First we need to briefly consider the context of Exodus 25.
While on Mount Sinai God instructed Moses to collect materials for building the tabernacle from the people of Israel (25:1-7). Many if not all of those materials were obtained through suffering. Whatever gold, silver, bronze and all the rest that Israel possessed, it was from the plundering of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:36). Those materials were thus marks of suffering; reminders of redemption, yes, but also reminders of trauma and oppression. (For more on this theme, see my post Build with the Spoils of Suffering).
On Easter evening the disciples were afraid and doubtful, even though Mary Magdalene had relayed her commissioned announcement, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). Their rabbi was judged in the most cruel of ways by both Jewish and Roman authorities, and his entombed body was the final nail in the coffin of fear. All throughout the Fourth Gospel, John gives his readers emphatic reminders of religious oppression. It is helpful to read these verses all in a row:
John 7:13 Still, nobody was talking publicly about him for fear of the Jews.2
John 9:22 His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jews, since the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed him as the Messiah, he would be banned from the synagogue.
John 9:34 "You were born entirely in sin," they replied, "and are you trying to teach us?" Then they threw him out.
John 9:35 Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out
John 12:42 Nevertheless, many did believe in him even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue.
John 16:2 They will ban you from the synagogues. In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God.
John 19:38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus—but secretly because of his fear of the Jews—asked Pilate that he might remove Jesus's body.
When we get to 20:19, we are not surprised to read, “the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because they feared the Jews.“ The disciples did see the Jesus risen, and you might think that was enough to dispel their fear. But not by John’s telling. Jesus died at the instigation of the religious rulers, and Jesus was not the only one they were willing to kill (eg Lazarus, 12:10-11). Maybe the disciples were next.
In 20:19, this is the first and only time that John uses that distinct phrase “fear of the Jews” to describe Jesus’ inner circle. I can imagine them recalling Jesus’ words in 16:2 that “anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God.” After all, that is what the authorities claimed: “We have a law,” the Jews replied to [Pilot], “and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). Perhaps as they sat huddled together in the dark they heard haunting echoes of Nehemiah 6:10:
“I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was restricted to his house. He said: Let’s meet at the house of God, inside the temple. Let’s shut the temple doors because they’re coming to kill you. They’re coming to kill you tonight!”
Actually, when doors are shut in the OT, it is often the doors of the temple.3 Perhaps this is why Bruno Barnhart picks up on temple typology in John 20:19 (and importantly, he also connects the Passover scene from Exodus 12):
The place where the disciples are gathered, “…the doors of the house…locked for fear of the Jews,” may have a multiple symbolic value for John. Here, near the end of the gospel, it suggests a drama not yet completed. The closed place recalls the houses where the Israelites sheltered themselves behind closed doors on the Passover night (Ex 12:22-27)…“Fear of the Jews” may here be taken in an extended sense: the disciples have not yet been liberated from the weight of the old order, symbolized in John by “the Jews,” and particularly the Jewish leaders. The closed house may therefore signify the synagogue, the Jewish religion, Israel, the temple…and the law which…governed a religious world characterized by fear rather than by grace or love. The closed space suggests also, however, the interior of the person. Jesus appears in the middle of this closed room as he manifests his presence within the soul, still shut within its fears.”4
Here we can try and gather all these threads together and trace them to the healed scars of Jesus. Those threads, some of which would require more space to unpack, are temple, new creation, rescue from oppression, and the “type [τύπος] shown on the mountain” / “mark [τύπος] of the nails in his hands”.
John’s narration slows time dramatically when he highlights Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of Thomas. Eight days pass from 20:19 to 26, and John wants his readers to slow down and focus on the significance Jesus’ wounds and their availability for embodied perception. Edward Wong, following Candida R. Moss, writes that “the body marks of Jesus should not be considered as open wounds but as healed scars that form a ‘bump’ on the skin.”5
Here is a longer quote from Wong’s conclusion to his article From Wounds to Scars: The Embodiment of a Forwarded Past through the Body Marks of Jesus in John 20.
The text’s presentation of the scars reflects the contemplation of the wounded past, a ‘working through’ backward as the scars become the carnal trace to the past. Concurrently, the scars also reflect the attempt to carry the past suffering forward, a ‘working through’ forward as John narrates the becoming of the tangible scarred body. It is through this cathartic and bidirectional process of ‘working through’ that John’s gospel invites a renewed way to perceive and commemorate the wounded past as it brings to surface a reoriented reality through the scars. Put otherwise, the scars give the wounded past of Jesus a different future, a future that is not marked by the torturers nor their inflicted wounds but by the scars of divine healing that prevail over pain and suffering.6
Jesus’ scars are a living portrait, painting for God’s people what kind of healing is possible. In addition to their redemptive significance on the cross, John’s narration of the “working through” of Jesus’ wounds also has a social element. I believe, or at least I am contemplating, that Jesus’ scars held particular relevance for Thomas—and thereby for John’s audience and for us—in light of his fear and doubt.
In 20:26 the disciples “were indoors again” and “the doors were locked” again, even though they had seen Jesus. John does not repeat the presence of fear on this second locked gathering, and perhaps he doesn’t mention fear because they were less afraid after Jesus’ first appearance. But they still locked the doors, so they were still afraid, to whatever degree. Was Thomas more afraid than the rest? Is he the one who made sure the door was locked? When Jesus offers his scared hands and side to be touched by Thomas, he is showing him what God can do after religious oppressors and imperial rulers do their worst.
But that is not all that is being shown, if we read Exodus 25:40 into this narrative. That brings in the theme of building the temple with the spoils of suffering.
John’s original readers could identify with Thomas. They knew fear from the threat of religious oppression. And John knew that doubt prevails as long as Jesus’ healed scars are unperceived. Jesus’ healed scars offer hope for healing from the fear and trauma of religious oppression. There is trust on the other side of spiritual trauma.
Even more, Jesus has inaugurated and is building the new temple out of the healed wounds of religious trauma. Where Moses collected gold and silver from traumatized Israelites, Jesus collects our scars of spiritual abuse and builds something new and beautiful.
Jesus collects our scars so he can create a temple of trusting disciples out of religious trauma survivors. Your wounds from spiritual abuse, when transfigured through the healed wounds of Jesus, can become the building blocks of a cleansed temple and a renewed house of worship.
Quote from Edward Wong
“John demonstrates that, ultimately, it is not the tortures nor the crucifixion that inscribe Jesus’s body but the scars that signify divine healing.”
What do you sense, see, think and feel when you slow down and enter imaginatively into the scene of John 20 where Jesus offers his scars to Thomas? What do you sense in Jesus’ scars? Can you tune in to your body and see what sensations arise, any somatic markers of your own wounded past, and offer those to Jesus for healing? (Please note, do not try this last prompt alone if it feels threatening or too triggering. If you are in need of counseling for spiritual abuse I would love to connect with you through my counseling website).
Temple imagery occurs in 1:14, 1:51, 4:20-24, in the temple festivals of 6-10, in the three Passovers, and in the Father’s rooms of 14:2-3. Cf The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John by Alan Kerr. New creation is also a running theme from beginning to end in John.
Most translations have a note on the difficulty translating “the Jews” in John. In these verses the reference is very clearly to a specific subset of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, not all Jewish leaders, and certainly not all Jews. This is a critical distinction to maintain, given the misuse of John’s Gospel throughout history to justify anti-semitism.
CF 2 Chron 28:24; Neh 6:10, 7:3, 13:19; Song 4:12 (provided one sees temple imagery in the garden scene); Ez 44:1-2, 46:1-2, 12.
The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center, pp. 251-252, emphasis original.
Wong, E. (2023). From Wounds to Scars: The Embodiment of a Forwarded Past through the Body Marks of Jesus in John 20. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 46(2), p. 194.
Wong, p. 212.