Question: "Why was Thomas called the Twin (John 11:16)?"

Answer: Twins are two children of the same parents born from the same pregnancy, usually within minutes of each other. One of Christ’s twelve disciples, Thomas, was “called the Twin” (John 11:16, ESV) or “nicknamed the Twin” (John 11:16, NLT).

John’s Gospel mentions in three passages that Thomas was called the Twin (John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2). The Greek name Thōmas is a transliteration of an Aramaic word (te’oma), meaning “twin.” Thomas is also a transliteration of the Hebrew word (te’om) for “twin.” The Greek Christians of Jesus’ day tended to use the Hellenistic name Didymus (also meaning “twin”), which appears in John’s three remarks about Thomas being called the Twin.

The Bible does not name Thomas’s twin. The best we can do is speculate. Some believe that Thomas and Matthew may have been twins because their names often appear together in biblical lists of the disciples (see Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15).

The Acts of Thomas is an apocryphal book that suggests Thomas was called “Twin” because he looked like Jesus. In the Syrian church, Thomas is believed to be the twin brother of Jesus. Another gnostic writing, the Gospel of Thomas, reinforces such claims of secret knowledge about Thomas, even expounding on his fate: “Against his wishes Thomas traveled to India under the command of the Lord. There he was martyred with spears by the hand of an Indian king. He was raised up and his empty tomb took on magical properties. Today in St. Thomas, India, Christians assert that they descend from the apostle” (Elwell and Beitzel, “Thomas, The Apostle,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Baker Book House, 1988, p. 2,057).

Besides what we glean from John’s Gospel, the Bible provides little concrete information about Thomas. From John 11:16, we learn that Thomas possessed courage and commitment to Christ. When Jesus decides to return to Bethany because His friend Lazarus has died (John 11:14–15), the disciples are reluctant to go, fearing the Jews there might try to stone Him again (John 11:8). John records, “So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:16, ESV).

In John 14:1–4, Jesus tells the disciples that He would prepare a place for them in heaven, adding that they would know the way to get there. Thomas is unafraid to be vulnerable with Jesus and honestly expresses his skepticism: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). The Lord is keen to give Thomas His answer, one that has illuminated the only path for believers ever since: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The best-remembered passage about Thomas is John 20:24–29, where he doubts the report of the other disciples who claim they have seen the risen Lord. He tells them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (verse 25). One week later, Jesus appears to Thomas, saying, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (verse 27). From this famous episode, Thomas receives his second nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” Of course, Thomas does believe, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28).

The Doubting Twin Thomas also takes part in a fruitless fishing trip in which Jesus appears to seven of the apostles, telling them to cast their nets on the opposite side of the boat (John 21:1–14). When they do, they catch so many fish they cannot haul them in. Jesus is teaching His disciples to be “fishers of men” instead of fishermen. He shows them that their success in all future endeavors will depend on always following His direction.

The Bible doesn’t say why Thomas was called the Twin, nor who his twin may have been. The only certainty we can glean from Scripture is that Thomas was dubbed the Twin. The title may have been a nickname because he resembled another person, or he may have had a biological twin sister or brother. If Thomas did have a twin, we can only hazard a guess about the twin’s identity.