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Post Info TOPIC: The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part I): The Forgotten Thomas


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The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part I): The Forgotten Thomas

Posted: January 2, 2013 in General

egallery4-5Apocryphal book that delineates the twelve great acts of Apostle Thomas (cc. 1-107, 114-158), his martyrdom (cc. 159-170) and the Hymn of the Pearl (cc. 108-113) is commonly entitled as “The Acts of Thomas” (ATh, i.e., Periodei Thoma). This non-canonical work is usually considered as an early third century (i.e., AD 200-250) literary composition. Reference to the ATh by Epiphanius Salamis shows that it was in circulation in the fourth century. According to Charlesworth (1995: 378-79; cf. Quispel, 1975), “The Acts of Thomas is so late that we should expect that it reflects knowledge of all the intracanonical gospels; perhaps a Diatessaron was quoted… The Acts of Thomas must antedate Epiphanius (315-403) who refers to it”. It is important to note that the complete version of the text in Syriac and in Greek is available (cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68; cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72). Attridge (1992: 6: 531; cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68) comments that, “Like other apocryphal acts combining popular legend and religious propaganda, the work (i.e., Acts of Thomas) attempts to entertain and instruct. In addition to narratives of Thomas’ adventures, its poetic and liturgical elements provide important evidence for early Syrian Christian traditions”. From the above quotes of Charlesworth and Attridge we can infer/conjecture that the author(s) of ATh would have incorporated the readily available Gospel traditions as well as the ‘popular legends and religious propaganda’ circumscribed around the historical personality of Apostle Thomas.

There are divergent patristic recordings with regard to the destination of Thomas’ missionary activities in the Eastern hemisphere. While Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Rufinus, and Socrates connect Thomas with Parthia, in Ephrem’s works, i.e., Hymni disperse V-VII and Carmina Nisibena XLII, we find references about his first travel to India (cf. Klijn, 1962: 27). Majority of the church fathers are unanimous in their opinion about his travel to the Eastern hemisphere. Their disagreements are usually with regard to Thomas’ mission destination within the Eastern hemisphere. Klijn (1962: 20-21) says that, “For the Acts of Thomas we may refer to Ephrem Syrus. From his writings it appears that he knew about Thomas having gone to India. This is also found in the Manichaean Psalms. Whether we are justified in saying that Ephrem knew the Acts of Thomas cannot be determined”. Connecting Thomas with the Parthian kingdom would not dissolve the possibility of his coming to India. The Acts of Thomas, along with Ephrem and the Manichaean Psalms, records that India was the mission platform of Apostle Thomas. This global tradition is supported by the local Malabar tradition of his arrival at Maliankara (see here), his foundation of churches at certain places, his ordination from certain families, his further travels and his death at Mylapore (cf. Firth, 2001: 14). Moreover, the historical evidences from the First Century like the Indo-Parthian connections and the relics of a native Indian king called Gundaphoros and his brother Gad support the view that Apostle Thomas had long term connections with several native kingdoms (at least three native kingdoms) of the First Century India.

As in the case of the other apocryphal Acts, the ATh shares the following three characteristics: firstly, the propagation of the Gospel; secondly, the deeds and words of the Apostle; and thirdly, the martyrdom of the Apostle. While the Acts of the Apostles received its written format in the First Century itself, the traditions related to Thomas were circulated in their oral format at least until the beginning of the Third Century. While the early church was too much obsessed with Peter, John and James and more extensively with Paul and the traditions related to all of them, we lost Thomas who was one of the inquisitive personalities of the first century Christendom. While Acts of PeterActs of Paul, and Acts of John were emerged as works concerning the ‘key figures’ of the Early Christian church, ATh didn’t emerge as a work around such a figure who was admired by the mother church at Jerusalem. The ATh shows considerable parallelism with the APet and the APaul; but it shows very less parallelism with the AJn (cf. Klijn, 1962: 23-26; Bauckham, 1997: 70-72). While APet, APaul, and AJn were composed as complimentary works after the well acclaimed Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine corpuses of early Christianity, there is no evidence to prove about the existence of an acknowledged ‘Thomas corpus’ after which the ATh would have been written down (except the possible existence of the unacknowledged Gospel of Thomas) (see here). In that sense, the endeavour to write down the traditions related to Thomas, who was one of the most misunderstood and even forgotten personalities in the First Century, deserves special mention.

While Peter and Paul were magnified as the leading figures in the annals of Christian history, the whole world had to embrace a western type of Christianity. In that process, the activities of apostles like Thomas were not regarded and acknowledged by the early church. This further leads us to state that the neglect of Thomas and his involvement as a missionary preacher ultimately resulted into the marginalization of one of the significant episodes in the eastern annals of Christianity. Paul, though was neither an eye-witness nor an apostle, came to the limelight through his rhetorical skills, his socio-religious influences, his Western-focused missionary activities, his arguments concerning his ‘apostleship’, his constant visit to/touch with the Jerusalem Church, and the moral support he received from the mother church. But, the mission of Thomas, though he was an apostle, an eye-witness to the resurrection, and a strong proclaimer of the divinity of Jesus, didn’t receive any attention due to his eastward movements. This factor can be proved in the following ways: firstly, there is no indication that Thomas received any support from the Jerusalem church toward his missionary endeavours; and secondly, there is no evidence that somebody was sent to assist him from the mother church. While the Petrine-centric Palestinian church and Pauline-centric Gentile church were the attractions of the early Christendom, Thomas’ mission in the Eastern context and the socio-religious challenges he confronted there were abnegated considerably. While Paul, as a learned Roman citizen and as a disciple of Gamaliel, amassed considerable attention from several quarters of the incipient church, Thomas’ less regarded status as a fisherman-carpenter would have remained as a barrier for him to convince the Jerusalem Christianity. While an Apostolic Council was convened (Acts of the Apostles 15) to make the mission concerns of Paul flexible, we do not see any such attempts toward the Indian or Parthian mission concerns. All these historical and contextual proofs support the view that Thomas was left all alone as a suffering servant in the eastern context. The attribution of the title ‘doubting Thomas’ would have added more support toward this categorical neglect.

The portrayal of Thomas in the ATh reveals some of the significant factors with regard to his identity as a missionary preacher. In ATh, he is often addressed by his interlocutors as a stranger (c. 4) and his God (Jesus) as a New God (c. 42). It records about his abstinence of food and drinks, his usual practice of wearing only one garment, his habit of not taking pay from anyone (c. 96), and his lifestyle as a recluse, an ascetic, a pauper, and a wandering mendicant. In the missionary endeavours, Thomas emphasized three doctrines, i.e., purity, humility, and temperance, as the kernel aspects of Christian living. As in the case of the commandment in Mark 16:15, he gave prominence for the duty of preaching. The Apostle is constantly portrayed as a praying Christian (c. 104) and as a person who didn’t go near to women (c. 144). All through the book Thomas is portrayed as the sharer in the hidden word of the life-giver and receiver of the secret mysteries of the Son of God (c. 97). This is reminiscent to the portrayal of Thomas in the Gospel of John (see here) and the Gospel of Thomas (see here). Moreover, Thomas is portrayed in ATh as an itinerant missionary and one who never ceased to preach/speak to the multitudes. All these evidences show that Thomas was a missionary par excellence.

The Early Church’s non-interest in the activities of Thomas (i.e., one who went beyond the Jewish-Gentile thought world) would have resulted into the delayed composition of the traditions related to him. James F. McGrath (2008: 297-311) states that, “…while the Acts of Thomas is almost certainly a work of a novelistic fiction, this should not lead us to ignore the instances of confirmable historical information embedded therein, as in many other works of historical fiction”. Similarly, Firth (2001: 9) says about the ATh as follows: “Much, indeed most, of the material they contain is legendary, though here and there they may be founded on fact”. Though McGrath and Firth see the fictitious and legendary natures of the ATh, they didn’t fail to acknowledge the incorporation of historical facts within it. The delayed composition of the ATh from the flexible/oral language would have resulted into its fictitious/legendary character. From the above evidences it is important to note that Apostle Thomas, though a significant missionary theologian of the First Century, was not considered with significance in the First Century Jerusalem Christianity due to his eastward movements. Therefore, it is important to re-read the available literary works concerning him, like the ATh along with the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, in order to discover this forgotten figure of early Christianity.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 531-534.

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

McGrath, J. F., 2008. “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas: The State of the Question”. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 17.4. Sage Publications Ltd: 297-311.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Placid, R. P., 1956. Les Syriens du Malabar. L’Orient Syr: 375-424.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part II): The First Missionary Theologian to the East”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India



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The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part II): The First Missionary Theologian to the East

Posted: January 6, 2013 in General

st_thomas_apostle.teaser-large_featureIn the Acts of Thomas, the Apostle Thomas is described as the Apostle to the East (specifically as the Apostle of India; cc. 1, 2, 16, 17, 39, 42, 62, 98, 101, 108, 116, 117, 123, 170; cf. Klijn, 1962: 27-29), with all the characteristics of an early apostle of Jesus Christ. The fourteen Acts of the book (including the Martyrdom section [cc. 159-170]) are filled with dialogic interactions and dramatic movements (cc. 2, 3, 17, 18). The plot development of the story is progressive (except the narratorial breaks at several intervals [cf. cc. 1-16; 17-29; 30-61; 62-158; 159-170]) as it persuades the reader to move forward with greater anticipation. The ATh uses several micro literary-genres, like narratives, dialogues (cc. 2, 3, 17, 18), homilies (c. 28), prayers (cc. 10, 34), Christological utterances (cc. 10, 25, 34, 39, 47, 48, 53), hymns (cc. 6-7, 26, 108-113; cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68), apocalyptic formats (cc. 22-24) and others, just as it is a literary composition emerged out of the Judaeo-Christian thought-world. In the process of reading the ATh, a reader may find numerous allusions to utterances and passages of the New Testament. We may even suppose that the author knew all the books of the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas. What Charlesworth says is important to quote here. He (1995: 378) states that, “The Acts of Thomas is so late that we should expect that it reflects knowledge of all the intracanonical gospels; perhaps a Diatessaron was quoted”. I may go little further to what Charlesworth says here to point out that the author of the ATh would have used or was aware of majority of the works of the New Testament. The explicit and implicit narrative echo effects of the canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline corpus, the Book of Revelation, and even the Old Testament (esp. in Act VII) prompt the reader think that the ATh was emerged out of the biblical story-world. In addition to its allegiance to the Judeo-Christian thought-world, it compliments even themes and ideologies from an extended world (i.e., the Indian/Eastern world).

The beautiful song in Act I (cc. 6-7) that delineates the relationship between the bridal Church and the bridegroom King is one that keeps all the ingredients of the Jesus-bridegroom and church-bride passages of the New Testament (cf. cc. 14, 124, 135). The hymn ends in a stylistically flavoured Trinitarian formula (see lines 50-54; cf. 2 Cor. 13:14) that leads us back to the NT texts. The appearance of speaking animals/creatures/beings, like a black snake (Act III; cf. Gen. 3:1-6), a colt (Act IV), a devil-like figure (Act V; cf. Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13), and assess (Act VIII; cf. Num. 22:30), is not a strange phenomenon for the readers of the Bible. Thomas’ involvement as an exorcist and the adhered demonic confessions (cc. 75, 77) is reminiscent to what Jesus had done in the annals of the canonical Gospels (cf. Mk. 1: 21-26; 3:10-11; 5:5-7). The ATh has developed Christological utterances/titles and praises (cf. cc. 10, 25, 34, 39, 47-48, 53), several Christophanies (cf. cc. 3, 11, 30) Trinitarian formulas (cc. 7, 27), developed sacramentalism (cc. 25-27, 29, 49, 50-51, 121, 132-133, 157-158, 169; cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61) and Messianic inferences (cc. 27, 37, 59, 65). A noticeable difference for ATh from that of the GTh is its continued emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus (cf. c. 80). In ATh, God/Jesus is behind all the scenes and is self-evidently part of the worldview of the book.

The ATh emphasizes an ethically oriented Christian way of lifestyle, charity (c. 19), and the mission of liberation (c. 19). These concerns are not at all alien to the biblical world-view. It forbids fornication and adultery (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-6:20). As in the case of the Pauline Epistles, ATh gives high regard for the concept of leaving the ‘old life’ in order to enter the mystical experience of the ‘new life’ (cf. Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor. 3:6; 5:17; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). The book gives the reader an impression that the Thomas Community was emphasizing the aspect of ascetic lifestyle seriously (cf. c. 144). Firth (2001: 9) states that, “…a large part of St. Thomas’ teaching and effort is designed to establish the doctrine that marriage is sinful and that Christians ought to abstain from it”. In this case, the book informs us that Thomas was stricter in his emphasis than Paul with regard to marriage and celibacy. While Paul gave enough choice for his believers to choose between ‘marriage’ and ‘celibacy’ (1 Cor. 7:1-40), Thomas is taking an extreme step to profess a kind of radical asceticism (cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72). Lalleman (2000: 68) states that, “It (i.e., ATh) has Thomas travel to India and preach the cessation of marriage and procreation”. Even when there are considerable differences in their range of emphases, it is interesting to note that (as their Master Jesus) both Paul and Thomas followed a celibate lifestyle.

In ATh, Apostle Thomas’ identity is magnified through some of the utterances of his interlocutors. In a few occasions Jesus introduces himself that he is “the brother of Judas” (cc. 11, 12). While the flute-player girl witnesses Judas with the words “This man is either God or the Apostle of God” (c. 9), a large serpent (c. 31) and later a colt (c. 39) herald him as “the Twin of Jesus” (cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 380). Judas proclaims (to Karish) about the greatness of his God in the following way: “My Lord Jesus the Messiah, with whom I take refuge is greater than you and your king and all your forces” (c. 106). Thomas continues saying that, “Our Lord Jesus the Messiah is stronger than all powers and kings and rulers” (c. 119). Thomas’ complete dependency on God the Messiah reminds the reader that he was strictly following the doctrinal basis that was laid down by Jesus, Peter, Paul and other biblical characters. Karish says about Thomas’ miraculous activities in the following way: “from the day that the world came into being, it had never been heard that a man brought the dead to life; but this man, as I hear, makes as if he brought the dead to life”. Karish’s testimonial informs us that the mission of Judas included the aspects of miracles and the resurrection of the dead (cf. Jn. 11:1-53). Thomas’ exercise of divine power, i.e., even to raise the dead, elevates him above all other apostles of early Christianity. As a continuation to the Gospel of John (20:28), the utterance “My Lord and My God” is repeatedly used in the ATh (cc. 81, 97, 167; cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 379-80). While Thomas always attempts to exalt the name of Jesus, his interlocutors see him as a “slave of Jesus” (c. 1), an “Apostle of God”, the “Twin of Jesus”, and a “man brought the dead to life”. The East Syrian traditions strongly uphold the view that Judas Thomas was the “Twin Brother” of Jesus and canonize him as one of the greatest apostles of Jesus Christ (cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72; Klijn, 1962: 38-53). Thus, the identity of Thomas is brought to the notice of the reader through the words of Jesus, Thomas himself and also his interlocutors.

The aspect of teaching (along with healing) was highly regarded in the missionary activities of Thomas (c. 20). ATh includes synoptic type of banquet stories (Act I; cf. Matt. 5:3-11; Lk. 6:20-22) and discourses in the form of the Sermon on the Mount (Act II [cc. 28-29]; cf. Matt. Chaps. 5-7; Lk. 6:17-49). His eloquent homilies and persuasive teachings compliment him all the qualities of an ethical pedagogue. While Baptism and Eucharist are mostly implicit (except a few explicit references) in the canonical Gospels, in ATh they are mostly explicit (cc. 26-27, 29, 51, 132; Act V; Act X; cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61). The journey of Thomas on the colt (c. 40) is reminiscent to Jesus’ triumphal entry in the Gospel narratives (cf. Matt. 21:1-9; Mk. 11:1-11; Lk. 19:28-38; Jn. 12:12-18). In the book, Thomas is pictured as a persecuted and reviled missionary (c. 107) and an imprisoned preacher who sings melodious hymns in a prison cell and be rescued by God (cc. 108-113, 148). On several occasions, the characterization of Apostle Thomas is similar to that of the characterization of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 12:1-19; 16:25-28) and in other Apocryphal Acts. On a few occasions, Judas is imprisoned, beaten up, and dragged as in the case of Jesus in the Passion Narratives (Act XI; cf. Matt. 26-27; Mk. 14-14; Lk. 22-23; Jn. 18-19) and other apostles in the Acts of the Apostles (1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor. 11: 23-25). Thus, Thomas’ character in the ATh is synonymous to the characters of Jesus and other apostles in the canonical writings.

While in Act V Thomas the protagonist is accompanied by a large multitude of people, in Act XII Thomas is portrayed as a prison preacher and several captives hear him (c. 148). This picturization too is synonymous to the portrayal of Jesus, Peter, Paul and other early influential figures of Christianity. In one occasion, Thomas had to undergo severe persecution under King Mazdai. King Mazdai ordered to heat two plates of iron and to make Thomas standing upon that barefooted. The soldiers lay hold of him to make him step upon the plates (glowing) like fire. The narrator of ATh portrays how Thomas was rescued by God from that torment. Thomas’ miraculous escape from that punishment is reminiscent to that of the escape traditions of many early apostles (c. 140). Toward the end of the thirteenth Act, a long list of followers, like Sifur, his wife and daughter, Mygdonia, Tertia, Narkia the nurse, Vizan and his wife Manashar, are mentioned as steadfast believers and all of them share a Eucharistic meal sanctified by Thomas. It shows that many influential figures of the society were persuaded by Thomas’ life and ministry and a good number of them were converted to the newly introduced faith. The appointment of deacons like Xanthippus (cc. 65, 66) and Vizan (c. 169) and priests like Sifur (cc. 169-170) by Apostle Thomas and the existence of flocks under Xanthippus (c. 67) and Sifur (cc. 169-170) show the growth of Christian mission in the Eastern part of the globe at the incipient stages of the Church.

In sum, the ATh delineates a developed and sophisticated theology that was outlined according to the patterns of the biblical thought-world. The theological emphasis of the ATh, like sanctity, simplicity, kerygmatic concerns of the resurrected Jesus, cross and salvation, sacrificial lifestyle and suffering for Jesus, charity and concerns about the poor, transfer from ‘old life’ to ‘new life’, religious conversion, physical and psychological healing (cc. 10, 49, 95), and sacramentalism (cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61), is an important aspect to reckon with in order to know the doctrinal foundation of the Thomas community. A dualistic contrast is at the root of the theological framework of the ATh. Klijn (1962: 34) says that, “The doctrine of these Acts is dominated by the contrast between corruptible and incorruptible”. This contrast is forayed in the ATh in order to stabilize the mission-theological concerns of Apostle Thomas. According to Acts of Thomas, Apostle Thomas was not merely a theologian who propagated the dogmatic elements of early Christianity; but, rather a missionary who lived out the theology of the early Church in order to transform an alien socio-religious order in the Eastern hemisphere of the world. Thus Thomas, the first ‘missionary theologian to the East’ (according to the available evidences), accomplished a fulfilling mission and laid down a strong theological foundation during the early stages of Christianity.

For Further Reference:

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part III): The Indo-Parthian and the South Indian Theories”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India



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See what Prof. Charlesworth has to share with me. He says: “For me, Thomas could not be at the first meeting when Jesus appeared to the disciples, because he needed to purify himself after entering the tomb [recall that he hesitated to go in but Peter barged inside]. Thomas never denied Jesus. He simply could not believe men who were afraid yet made what appeared at first to be absurd claims. He said: gentlemen what you have experienced I must experience and then he supplied the requirement, revealing that he is the Beloved Disciple [the one who saw the spear enter the side of Jesus]. OK? We can believe in Jesus’ resurrection not because of an empty tomb or the experience of a woman in the dark who misidentifies Jesus, but because of Thomas who demanded an experience and criteria that this risen man was identical to the crucified man who had spoken to him and his mother from the cross. I hope this information helps you”. Thanks Professor for your valuable insight!



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The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part III): The Indo-Parthian and the South Indian Theories

Posted: January 17, 2013 in General

saint-thomas-the-apostle-00“You are writing the best study of Thomas in the East I have seen. You are clear and careful and your work shows careful study and reflection. I am certain you are serving not only India but the world” (James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Director and Editor, Princeton Dead Sea Scroll Project, Princeton, New Jersey, USA).

The Acts of Thomas is explicit in informing the reader that Apostle Thomas came to India. Jesus sells his slave Judas for twenty (pieces) of silver (as) his price to Habban, a merchant of King Gundaphoros, who was searching for a skilled carpenter (c. 2). Thomas, as a skilled artificer, follows Habban to the kingdom of Gundaphoros, who was one of the Indian kings. Charlesworth (1995: 380) recapitulates the East Syrian tradition with regard to Thomas aptly as follows: “The Acts of Thomas takes us into the East where the Apostle Thomas was considered Judas Thomas and Jesus’ twin brother”. Bauckham (1997: 72; cf. Helyer, 2012: 2: 689) is inviting our attention straight into the Indian scenario as he rightly puts in, “The Acts of Thomas recounts Thomas’ missionary activity in India”. But, in reality, the mission of Thomas in the Eastern part of the world was/is abnegated considerably both in the field of biblical studies and in the church historical documents. While it was given priority for the thoughts and activities of Peter, John, Paul, James, and others who were acting and framing their theologies within the Greco-Roman contextual framework, the thoughts and activities of Apostle Thomas, one who went beyond that geographical setting, were weighed down considerably. This categorical neglect creates lapses and gaps within the already available descriptions about Thomas.

The usages of the name ‘India’ (15 times; cc. 1 [2 times], 16, 17, 42 [2 times], 62 [2 times], 98, 101, 116 [2 times], 117 and 170) and ‘Indian(s) (5 times; cc. 1, 2, 39, 108, 123) indicate that the traditions narrated within ATh are well connected to the nation of India. A reader of the book may not get an impression that Thomas was destined as a missionary to Parthia and where he spent most of his time. The name Parthia appears only once in ATh (c. 110) and that also is in the Hymn of the Pearl (cc. 108-113). Even if we are confused between India and Parthia (as it was with Origen and Eusebius), the Indo-Parthian connection of the first century context has to be brought into the picture (cf. Firth, 2001: 5-9). While Eusebius and Origen connect St. Thomas with Parthia (and Hippolytus and others connect him with Calamina), a major number of church fathers connect him with India. As history informs us, the North-Western part of India (i.e., in the First Century AD) was well attached to the then Parthian kingdom. The expressions like “And while Judas was preaching throughout all India…” (c. 62; Act VII) inform the reader that Thomas would have visited several parts of the great nation. Sifur, one with whom Thomas had connections, himself claims that he is a great man throughout India (c. 62). Thomas would have even made use of his connections with Sifur as a means to travel widely in different parts of the Greater India.

Do we need to think that Thomas came to the North-Western part of India which was part of the Parthian province? Or do we need to think that Thomas’ apostolic ministry was not restricted within a particular region in the Eastern part of the world? There is no unanimity of opinion among scholars even with regard to Thomas’ coming to India. While E. M. Philip and K. N. Daniel are the strong advocates of his coming to South India (i.e., Malabar Coast), Medlycott and Farquhar argue for Thomas’ coming to both the Indo-Parthian provinces and to the South Indian regions. Farquhar even argue that his first and extended mission was in the North (Punjab area) but he had to leave because of the Kushan invasion, which eventually wiped out the Christians of that region so that no trace remained (cf. Farquhar, 1926/1927: X.1/XI.1; Firth, 2001: 17). While only scarce materials available to prove about Thomas’ extended mission in the Eastern part of the world, there are attempts to connect him with different geographical areas. It is argued about the possibilities of his mission involvements in Jerusalem, Edessa, Socotra, Indo-Parthia (may be both in Parthia and the North-Western parts), Kalyan, South India, Malacca, China, Burma, and other places.

According to traditions it is believed that St. Thomas came to India in 52 AD. It is also believed that the inhabitants of Socotra were converted to Christianity by Thomas in 52 AD, and that Thomas was once shipwrecked there during his frequent journeys to India, and the shipwreck was used to build a church (cf. Israel, 1982: 41). While the traditional churches of Kerala claim that St. Thomas was the founder of Christian church(es) in that part of the world, the regions of North-western part do not have such claims or any noticeable remnants or relics. As Klijn (1962: 27-28; cf. Mingana, 1926: 450) states, “The oldest tradition about Christianity in this part of India is a notice according to which David, bishop of Basra went to India in 295-300”. Next we know that on the list of bishops who were attending the Council of Nicaea was found John the Persian, bishop of Persia and Greater India (cf. Placid, 1956: 375-424, 383; Klijn, 1962: 28). But, only in the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes (535 AD) we find the oldest notice about Christianity in South India (cf. Crindle, 118-119). While the North-Western Indian traditions claim that the missions of that part had connections with the Parthian kingdom, the ecclesiastical bodies of the South Indian churches still maintain a close-knit relationship with the Persian church. From this overall thinking cycle we understand that ‘claims’ and ‘realities’ scarcely contribute to one another in this case. While there is no noticeable remnants/relics to prove Thomas’ involvement as a missionary in the North-Western part of India, we have historical proofs to understand the connections of that part of the nation with the Parthian kingdom. On the contrary, the ‘live’ church of Kerala keeps its Thomas tradition as well as its connections with the Persian ecclesiastical bodies. This proves that the claims of the Kerala churches are at least closer to reality.

Let me come up with some of the structural aspects of the Acts of Thomas. Klijn’s observation seems inaccurate when he says that “c. 4 which speaks about king Gundaphoros who reigned in North India” (cf. 1962: 28). But, the actual story of Gundaphoros and his kingdom begins in c. 17 (Act II). It is historically proved that Gundaphoros was a king of the North-Western part of India. Firth (2001: 11) states that, “Since 1834 numerous coins have been found in the Punjab and in Afghanistan bearing his name in Greek on one side and in Pali on the other; they are dated on palaeographical grounds in the first half of the first century A.D., and their number suggests that his reign was a fairly long one”. It is also reported that a stone inscription (the Takht-i-Bahi Stone) containing Gundaphoros’ name (dated 46 AD). In some of the coins the name of Gad, i.e., the brother of king Gundaphoros, is also found. That means, cc. 1-16 (Act I) discusses about Thomas’ journey with Habban from Jerusalem, their arrival in Sandaruk, the wedding banquet and the miracle, and the conversion of the daughter and the son-in-law of the king of Sandaruk. This introduction brings into our attention that the events in Sandaruk happen on their way to Gundaphoros’ kingdom. The identification of the unknown city Sandaruk is a difficult task. Sandaruk cannot be identified as Socotra (an island in the Arabian Sea off the north-east coast of Africa) as it was called ‘Dioskouridou’ in the First Century (in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an early shipping manual and also in the writings of Marco Polo, 1254-1324). If Sandaruk is a derivation (or Greek form ‘Andrapolis’; cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531) of the name ‘Andhra’, as Plinius (Nat. Hist. VI 19 22 67) and Cambridge History of India (I: 598-601) indicate, then we have evidences to prove the landing up of St. Thomas in South India. If the name ‘Sandaruk’ is a derivation from sandal-wood (i.e., where the sandal trees grow), then Kerala was known for that from ancient days.

If St. Thomas came to a coastal land that was connected to the Jewish kingdom, to a place where sandal trees grew, to a place where Jewish people lived (i.e., the flute girl; c. 5), toward a place to which the breeze was steady (c. 3; i.e., the Hippas Monsoon), and to a place where Christianity rapidly grew later on (i.e., St. Thomas Christians), then Sandaruk can be one of the places in the Malabar Coast in the Old Kerala (probably Maliankara). In BC 10th Century, annually about 120 ships of King Solomon reached the shore of Maliankara (Periyar) river. It stabilized the trade relationship between King Solomon’s kingdom (992-952 BC) and the Malabar Coast. In BC 47, the wind that facilitated the trade relationship between the Western world and South India was discovered. This wind was named as Hippas Monsoon. These contextual realities (along with the ‘claims’ and ‘long traditions’ of the church) prove the arrival of Thomas to Malabar Coast. Philip (1950: Chapter IV; cf. Firth, 2001: 16) was of the view that, “Andrapolis is really Cranganore and Gundaphoros is really Kandapparaja, a Tamil king in the region of Mylapore”. While we can accept the view that Sandaruk was Cranganore, as we analyzed, on historical grounds, we cannot accept the view that Gundaphoros was a South Indian king.

Again, I may have to disagree with Klijn (1962:28) for his structuring of the ATh that “the first part deals with some very loosely connected acts, the second part consists of one long story… The first part may go back to very old traditions according to which Thomas went to North India, in the traditions of the Ancient Church hinted at as Parthia. The second part may have been added to show Thomas’ work in South India”. In my observation, if Sandaruk is proved as one of the regions in Kerala, then the Acts of Thomas has a South Indian (cc. 1-16)-North Indian (cc. 17-61)-South Indian (cc. 62-170) sequence of events. In that case, he ministered at least in three kingdoms in the larger Indian region. If we consider what the writer of the ATh says in c. 62 (i.e., “And while Judas was preaching throughout all India…”) seriously, then we may have to think that Thomas preached in different regions of the Indian sub-continent, including at least Kerala and Tamil Nadu (i.e., the kingdom of Mazdai). Firth (2001: 9-10) also sees Andrapolis, the kingdom of Gundaphoros, and the kingdom of Mazdai as three entirely different political regions. If Andrapolis is proved as Cranganore (as E. M. Philip says), then we have enough support to prove that ATh is a brief compendium of Thomas’ mission initiatives in three different regions of the larger Indian nation of that time. If Thomas had a fulfilling mission initiative within a long span of about twenty years (52 AD till 72 AD), then we need to admit that ATh does not cover the period in its entirety. In that sense, the available details in the ATh cannot simply be treated as ‘entirely legendary’ (Bauckham), as ‘novelistic fiction’ (McGrath), and as ‘legendary’/‘fiction’ (Firth), but as the penultimate document to dig deeper into a ‘disregarded’ and ‘forgotten’ annals of a significant personality and his life-giving involvement as an influential missionary theologian.

The traditions of both the West and the East testify that Thomas’ sphere of work was India. Firth (2001: 2-3) says that, “It was one of the early eastward movements that first brought Christianity to India. According to tradition it was brought in the first century by one of the twelve apostles, St. Thomas. This has been the constant tradition of the Syrian Christians of Malabar, and it has been widely believed in the West also that this apostle’s sphere of work was India”. From Socotra he landed at Cranganore, preached to the Jewish colony, made converts, founded seven churches, and ordained presbyters for the churches. Then he travelled to Indo-Parthia, Malacca and even to China, and finally returned to Mylapore. During his mission period in the North-Western part of India, Thomas would have even travelled to Pakistan (then, it was part of India) and to Afghanistan. Traditionally it is believed that his preaching in Mylapore aroused hostility of the Brahmins and he was martyred there in 72 AD (see Firth, 2001: 3-4). The third century evidences like a fragment attributed to Hippolytus , Dorotheus, and Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles) support the view that St. Thomas’ sphere of work was India. The church Fathers writing toward the end of the Fourth Century, i.e., St. Ambrose, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Ephraem the Syrian and St. Jerome, also accepted the view that St. Thomas’ sphere of mission was India (cf. Firth, 2001: 5).

The Acts of Thomas which would have been written around the middle of the Third century conspicuously states that Thomas’ field of mission was India. ATh mentions that Thomas appointed deacons like Xanthippus (cc. 65-67) Vizan, and priests like Sifur. Thomas is further said to have ordained presbyters for the churches from four Brahmin families called Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli and Kaliankal (see Firth, 2001: 3). As Thomas was instrumental in founding churches where Xanthippus, Vizan, and Sifur ministered as per ATh, the tradition upholds that he founded churches in Kerala (i.e., Maliankara, Palayur, Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal, and Quilon; cf. Firth, 2001: 3). This proves that both in ATh as well as in popular tradition Thomas is/was understood as an apostle who was instrumental in founding churches and appointing ministers. This mission initiative of Thomas deserves galore attention as Paul went to the Gentiles and made himself worthy to be called “Apostle to the Gentiles”. Here, Thomas is equally worthy to be treated and to be called as an “Apostle to the East” (more particularly as “Apostle to India”).

The impact of Thomas’ mission involvement is conspicuously mentioned in ATh. In Sandaruk, the king’s daughter and her bridegroom became followers of Jesus (Act I). In Act II, the conversion of King Gundaphoros and his brother Gad is mentioned as significant events. In Mazdai’s kingdom the woman who was rescued from the black snake (Act III), the young man who was healed (Act IV), the woman who was brought back to life (Act IV), Sifur the general (Act VII), his wife and daughter (Act X), Mygdonia the wife of Karish (Act X), Tertia the wife of king Mazdai (Act XI), Vizan the son of king Mazdai (Act XII), Narkia the nurse, and Manashar the wife of Vizan became followers of the newly proclaimed faith (cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531-34). The following are the significant miracles recorded in ATh: miracle in Sandaruk (c. 8), rescuing the life of a youth from the smiting of a black snake (c. 37), rescuing a woman from the hand of the devil who took up his abode in her (Act V), healing of a young man’s withered hand (Act VI), resurrection of a murdered adulterous woman (Act VI), healing of Sifur’s wife and daughter (VIII), and Thomas’ own miraculous escape from the prison (Act X) (cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531-34). These conversions and healings prove his efficacy as a follower and minister of Jesus.

While Thomas was emphasizing radical asceticism as part of his mission, many in the West got confused and even attributed Gnostic elements as the root cause of that. They even Gnosticized Thomas. In my observation, Thomas was adopting asceticism as a strategic means of mission in order to contextualize the mission of Jesus right in the Indian context. Even before his arrival to India, the Buddhist, Jain, and some strata of Hindu religious movements were known for their ascetic lifestyle. Thomas would have adopted asceticism in order to cop up with the contextual realities of his time in India. Helyer (2012: 2: 689) states that, “The narrative emphasizes Thomas’ wondrous deeds, accounts of conversions, and his sufferings and ultimate martyrdom”. While the ATh has records of a long list of miracles, they are exclusive of the local Malabar traditions of the miracles connected to him. Similarly, while it has records of the founding of churches and appointment of deacons/priests, that excludes many of the local traditions that are pertaining to the Malabar Coast. For example, in my own personal visit to Maliankara and the surrounding regions, I found that the St. Thomas communities of that region keep even today several oral traditions regarding the mission involvements of the apostle. But, they are not included in the ATh. In that sense, the extended (i.e., available) ‘Thomas Literature’ is devoid of all those existent traditions among the St. Thomas communities of Kerala.

With the identification of Sandaruk as a reference to the Malabar Coast, we see the ATh as a mission mandatory document that details the works of Thomas in three Indian kingdoms, i.e., the Malabar kingdom, the North-western Indian kingdom, and the Mazdai kingdom (i.e., Tamil Nadu). If we consider that ATh maintains an accurate chronological sequence, then we have enough proofs to repudiate the arguments of Medlycott and Farquhar that Thomas firstly went to North-West India. The order of the book suggests that Thomas firstly went to Malabar Coast (i.e., Andrapolis), then to the North-Western India (i.e., Gundaphoros’ kingdom), and then to the Mylapore area (i.e., Mazdai’s kingdom). In that case, Thomas’ extended mission was in Mazdai’s kingdom (i.e., in the Mylapore area). This argument may go against Farquhar’s argument that Thomas’ extended mission was in the North-Western part of the country. The book also suggests that he founded churches, appointed deacons and priests in the Mylapore area. But, there is no mention about those activities in the North-western region and in the Malabar Coast.

This does not diminish the importance of Thomas’ mission in the Malabar Coast. There are possibilities of the continuation of Thomas’ ministry in the Malabar Coast by the Hebrew flute-player lady. She shows tenets of propagation in c. 9. In c. 9 she says that, “This man is either God or the Apostle of God”. And also there references about the belief/unbelief of her hearers (c. 9). Moreover, the king, his daughter, and his son-in-law are seemingly became propagators of Jesus in the absence of Apostle Thomas. In short, the descriptions that are arrayed in the fourteen chapters of the ATh are not at all comprehensive concerning the person and work of St. Thomas. The continuous traditions handed over from generation to generations in a living community cannot be considered as merely legendary. This is the fact with regard to the traditions of the Malabar Church. But, the discontinued traditions recorded in the ATh received wider attention among the scholars. It is the duty of a researcher to interlock the ‘unrecorded but continuing’ traditions of the St. Thomas Churches in Kerala and the ‘recorded but discontinued’ traditions of the North-Western and Mylapore provinces together by way of critical analysis. That means, we cannot conclude the Thomas tradition at a stretch without being adequately engaged in research works.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 531-534.

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Daniel, K. N., n.d. The South Indian Apostolate of St. Thomas. Serampore: Serampore College.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Helyer, L. R., 2012. “Thomas, Gospel of/Acts of”. The Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity. Vol. II. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 689.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

McGrath, J. F., 2008. “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas: The State of the Question”. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 17.4. Sage Publications Ltd: 297-311.

Medlycott, A. E., 1905. India and the Apostle Thomas. David Nutt.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Philip, E. M., 1950. The Indian Church of St. Thomas. Nagercoil: L. M. Press.

Placid, R. P., 1956. Les Syriens du Malabar. L’Orient Syr: 375-424.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

 

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part III): The Indo-Parthian and the South Indian Theories

Posted: January 17, 2013 in General

saint-thomas-the-apostle-00“You are writing the best study of Thomas in the East I have seen. You are clear and careful and your work shows careful study and reflection. I am certain you are serving not only India but the world” (James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Director and Editor, Princeton Dead Sea Scroll Project, Princeton, New Jersey, USA).

The Acts of Thomas is explicit in informing the reader that Apostle Thomas came to India. Jesus sells his slave Judas for twenty (pieces) of silver (as) his price to Habban, a merchant of King Gundaphoros, who was searching for a skilled carpenter (c. 2). Thomas, as a skilled artificer, follows Habban to the kingdom of Gundaphoros, who was one of the Indian kings. Charlesworth (1995: 380) recapitulates the East Syrian tradition with regard to Thomas aptly as follows: “The Acts of Thomas takes us into the East where the Apostle Thomas was considered Judas Thomas and Jesus’ twin brother”. Bauckham (1997: 72; cf. Helyer, 2012: 2: 689) is inviting our attention straight into the Indian scenario as he rightly puts in, “The Acts of Thomas recounts Thomas’ missionary activity in India”. But, in reality, the mission of Thomas in the Eastern part of the world was/is abnegated considerably both in the field of biblical studies and in the church historical documents. While it was given priority for the thoughts and activities of Peter, John, Paul, James, and others who were acting and framing their theologies within the Greco-Roman contextual framework, the thoughts and activities of Apostle Thomas, one who went beyond that geographical setting, were weighed down considerably. This categorical neglect creates lapses and gaps within the already available descriptions about Thomas.

The usages of the name ‘India’ (15 times; cc. 1 [2 times], 16, 17, 42 [2 times], 62 [2 times], 98, 101, 116 [2 times], 117 and 170) and ‘Indian(s) (5 times; cc. 1, 2, 39, 108, 123) indicate that the traditions narrated within ATh are well connected to the nation of India. A reader of the book may not get an impression that Thomas was destined as a missionary to Parthia and where he spent most of his time. The name Parthia appears only once in ATh (c. 110) and that also is in the Hymn of the Pearl (cc. 108-113). Even if we are confused between India and Parthia (as it was with Origen and Eusebius), the Indo-Parthian connection of the first century context has to be brought into the picture (cf. Firth, 2001: 5-9). While Eusebius and Origen connect St. Thomas with Parthia (and Hippolytus and others connect him with Calamina), a major number of church fathers connect him with India. As history informs us, the North-Western part of India (i.e., in the First Century AD) was well attached to the then Parthian kingdom. The expressions like “And while Judas was preaching throughout all India…” (c. 62; Act VII) inform the reader that Thomas would have visited several parts of the great nation. Sifur, one with whom Thomas had connections, himself claims that he is a great man throughout India (c. 62). Thomas would have even made use of his connections with Sifur as a means to travel widely in different parts of the Greater India.

Do we need to think that Thomas came to the North-Western part of India which was part of the Parthian province? Or do we need to think that Thomas’ apostolic ministry was not restricted within a particular region in the Eastern part of the world? There is no unanimity of opinion among scholars even with regard to Thomas’ coming to India. While E. M. Philip and K. N. Daniel are the strong advocates of his coming to South India (i.e., Malabar Coast), Medlycott and Farquhar argue for Thomas’ coming to both the Indo-Parthian provinces and to the South Indian regions. Farquhar even argue that his first and extended mission was in the North (Punjab area) but he had to leave because of the Kushan invasion, which eventually wiped out the Christians of that region so that no trace remained (cf. Farquhar, 1926/1927: X.1/XI.1; Firth, 2001: 17). While only scarce materials available to prove about Thomas’ extended mission in the Eastern part of the world, there are attempts to connect him with different geographical areas. It is argued about the possibilities of his mission involvements in Jerusalem, Edessa, Socotra, Indo-Parthia (may be both in Parthia and the North-Western parts), Kalyan, South India, Malacca, China, Burma, and other places.

According to traditions it is believed that St. Thomas came to India in 52 AD. It is also believed that the inhabitants of Socotra were converted to Christianity by Thomas in 52 AD, and that Thomas was once shipwrecked there during his frequent journeys to India, and the shipwreck was used to build a church (cf. Israel, 1982: 41). While the traditional churches of Kerala claim that St. Thomas was the founder of Christian church(es) in that part of the world, the regions of North-western part do not have such claims or any noticeable remnants or relics. As Klijn (1962: 27-28; cf. Mingana, 1926: 450) states, “The oldest tradition about Christianity in this part of India is a notice according to which David, bishop of Basra went to India in 295-300”. Next we know that on the list of bishops who were attending the Council of Nicaea was found John the Persian, bishop of Persia and Greater India (cf. Placid, 1956: 375-424, 383; Klijn, 1962: 28). But, only in the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes (535 AD) we find the oldest notice about Christianity in South India (cf. Crindle, 118-119). While the North-Western Indian traditions claim that the missions of that part had connections with the Parthian kingdom, the ecclesiastical bodies of the South Indian churches still maintain a close-knit relationship with the Persian church. From this overall thinking cycle we understand that ‘claims’ and ‘realities’ scarcely contribute to one another in this case. While there is no noticeable remnants/relics to prove Thomas’ involvement as a missionary in the North-Western part of India, we have historical proofs to understand the connections of that part of the nation with the Parthian kingdom. On the contrary, the ‘live’ church of Kerala keeps its Thomas tradition as well as its connections with the Persian ecclesiastical bodies. This proves that the claims of the Kerala churches are at least closer to reality.

Let me come up with some of the structural aspects of the Acts of Thomas. Klijn’s observation seems inaccurate when he says that “c. 4 which speaks about king Gundaphoros who reigned in North India” (cf. 1962: 28). But, the actual story of Gundaphoros and his kingdom begins in c. 17 (Act II). It is historically proved that Gundaphoros was a king of the North-Western part of India. Firth (2001: 11) states that, “Since 1834 numerous coins have been found in the Punjab and in Afghanistan bearing his name in Greek on one side and in Pali on the other; they are dated on palaeographical grounds in the first half of the first century A.D., and their number suggests that his reign was a fairly long one”. It is also reported that a stone inscription (the Takht-i-Bahi Stone) containing Gundaphoros’ name (dated 46 AD). In some of the coins the name of Gad, i.e., the brother of king Gundaphoros, is also found. That means, cc. 1-16 (Act I) discusses about Thomas’ journey with Habban from Jerusalem, their arrival in Sandaruk, the wedding banquet and the miracle, and the conversion of the daughter and the son-in-law of the king of Sandaruk. This introduction brings into our attention that the events in Sandaruk happen on their way to Gundaphoros’ kingdom. The identification of the unknown city Sandaruk is a difficult task. Sandaruk cannot be identified as Socotra (an island in the Arabian Sea off the north-east coast of Africa) as it was called ‘Dioskouridou’ in the First Century (in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an early shipping manual and also in the writings of Marco Polo, 1254-1324). If Sandaruk is a derivation (or Greek form ‘Andrapolis’; cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531) of the name ‘Andhra’, as Plinius (Nat. Hist. VI 19 22 67) and Cambridge History of India (I: 598-601) indicate, then we have evidences to prove the landing up of St. Thomas in South India. If the name ‘Sandaruk’ is a derivation from sandal-wood (i.e., where the sandal trees grow), then Kerala was known for that from ancient days.

If St. Thomas came to a coastal land that was connected to the Jewish kingdom, to a place where sandal trees grew, to a place where Jewish people lived (i.e., the flute girl; c. 5), toward a place to which the breeze was steady (c. 3; i.e., the Hippas Monsoon), and to a place where Christianity rapidly grew later on (i.e., St. Thomas Christians), then Sandaruk can be one of the places in the Malabar Coast in the Old Kerala (probably Maliankara). In BC 10th Century, annually about 120 ships of King Solomon reached the shore of Maliankara (Periyar) river. It stabilized the trade relationship between King Solomon’s kingdom (992-952 BC) and the Malabar Coast. In BC 47, the wind that facilitated the trade relationship between the Western world and South India was discovered. This wind was named as Hippas Monsoon. These contextual realities (along with the ‘claims’ and ‘long traditions’ of the church) prove the arrival of Thomas to Malabar Coast. Philip (1950: Chapter IV; cf. Firth, 2001: 16) was of the view that, “Andrapolis is really Cranganore and Gundaphoros is really Kandapparaja, a Tamil king in the region of Mylapore”. While we can accept the view that Sandaruk was Cranganore, as we analyzed, on historical grounds, we cannot accept the view that Gundaphoros was a South Indian king.

Again, I may have to disagree with Klijn (1962:28) for his structuring of the ATh that “the first part deals with some very loosely connected acts, the second part consists of one long story… The first part may go back to very old traditions according to which Thomas went to North India, in the traditions of the Ancient Church hinted at as Parthia. The second part may have been added to show Thomas’ work in South India”. In my observation, if Sandaruk is proved as one of the regions in Kerala, then the Acts of Thomas has a South Indian (cc. 1-16)-North Indian (cc. 17-61)-South Indian (cc. 62-170) sequence of events. In that case, he ministered at least in three kingdoms in the larger Indian region. If we consider what the writer of the ATh says in c. 62 (i.e., “And while Judas was preaching throughout all India…”) seriously, then we may have to think that Thomas preached in different regions of the Indian sub-continent, including at least Kerala and Tamil Nadu (i.e., the kingdom of Mazdai). Firth (2001: 9-10) also sees Andrapolis, the kingdom of Gundaphoros, and the kingdom of Mazdai as three entirely different political regions. If Andrapolis is proved as Cranganore (as E. M. Philip says), then we have enough support to prove that ATh is a brief compendium of Thomas’ mission initiatives in three different regions of the larger Indian nation of that time. If Thomas had a fulfilling mission initiative within a long span of about twenty years (52 AD till 72 AD), then we need to admit that ATh does not cover the period in its entirety. In that sense, the available details in the ATh cannot simply be treated as ‘entirely legendary’ (Bauckham), as ‘novelistic fiction’ (McGrath), and as ‘legendary’/‘fiction’ (Firth), but as the penultimate document to dig deeper into a ‘disregarded’ and ‘forgotten’ annals of a significant personality and his life-giving involvement as an influential missionary theologian.

The traditions of both the West and the East testify that Thomas’ sphere of work was India. Firth (2001: 2-3) says that, “It was one of the early eastward movements that first brought Christianity to India. According to tradition it was brought in the first century by one of the twelve apostles, St. Thomas. This has been the constant tradition of the Syrian Christians of Malabar, and it has been widely believed in the West also that this apostle’s sphere of work was India”. From Socotra he landed at Cranganore, preached to the Jewish colony, made converts, founded seven churches, and ordained presbyters for the churches. Then he travelled to Indo-Parthia, Malacca and even to China, and finally returned to Mylapore. During his mission period in the North-Western part of India, Thomas would have even travelled to Pakistan (then, it was part of India) and to Afghanistan. Traditionally it is believed that his preaching in Mylapore aroused hostility of the Brahmins and he was martyred there in 72 AD (see Firth, 2001: 3-4). The third century evidences like a fragment attributed to Hippolytus , Dorotheus, and Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles) support the view that St. Thomas’ sphere of work was India. The church Fathers writing toward the end of the Fourth Century, i.e., St. Ambrose, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Ephraem the Syrian and St. Jerome, also accepted the view that St. Thomas’ sphere of mission was India (cf. Firth, 2001: 5).

The Acts of Thomas which would have been written around the middle of the Third century conspicuously states that Thomas’ field of mission was India. ATh mentions that Thomas appointed deacons like Xanthippus (cc. 65-67) Vizan, and priests like Sifur. Thomas is further said to have ordained presbyters for the churches from four Brahmin families called Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli and Kaliankal (see Firth, 2001: 3). As Thomas was instrumental in founding churches where Xanthippus, Vizan, and Sifur ministered as per ATh, the tradition upholds that he founded churches in Kerala (i.e., Maliankara, Palayur, Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal, and Quilon; cf. Firth, 2001: 3). This proves that both in ATh as well as in popular tradition Thomas is/was understood as an apostle who was instrumental in founding churches and appointing ministers. This mission initiative of Thomas deserves galore attention as Paul went to the Gentiles and made himself worthy to be called “Apostle to the Gentiles”. Here, Thomas is equally worthy to be treated and to be called as an “Apostle to the East” (more particularly as “Apostle to India”).

The impact of Thomas’ mission involvement is conspicuously mentioned in ATh. In Sandaruk, the king’s daughter and her bridegroom became followers of Jesus (Act I). In Act II, the conversion of King Gundaphoros and his brother Gad is mentioned as significant events. In Mazdai’s kingdom the woman who was rescued from the black snake (Act III), the young man who was healed (Act IV), the woman who was brought back to life (Act IV), Sifur the general (Act VII), his wife and daughter (Act X), Mygdonia the wife of Karish (Act X), Tertia the wife of king Mazdai (Act XI), Vizan the son of king Mazdai (Act XII), Narkia the nurse, and Manashar the wife of Vizan became followers of the newly proclaimed faith (cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531-34). The following are the significant miracles recorded in ATh: miracle in Sandaruk (c. 8), rescuing the life of a youth from the smiting of a black snake (c. 37), rescuing a woman from the hand of the devil who took up his abode in her (Act V), healing of a young man’s withered hand (Act VI), resurrection of a murdered adulterous woman (Act VI), healing of Sifur’s wife and daughter (VIII), and Thomas’ own miraculous escape from the prison (Act X) (cf. Attridge, 1992: 6: 531-34). These conversions and healings prove his efficacy as a follower and minister of Jesus.

While Thomas was emphasizing radical asceticism as part of his mission, many in the West got confused and even attributed Gnostic elements as the root cause of that. They even Gnosticized Thomas. In my observation, Thomas was adopting asceticism as a strategic means of mission in order to contextualize the mission of Jesus right in the Indian context. Even before his arrival to India, the Buddhist, Jain, and some strata of Hindu religious movements were known for their ascetic lifestyle. Thomas would have adopted asceticism in order to cop up with the contextual realities of his time in India. Helyer (2012: 2: 689) states that, “The narrative emphasizes Thomas’ wondrous deeds, accounts of conversions, and his sufferings and ultimate martyrdom”. While the ATh has records of a long list of miracles, they are exclusive of the local Malabar traditions of the miracles connected to him. Similarly, while it has records of the founding of churches and appointment of deacons/priests, that excludes many of the local traditions that are pertaining to the Malabar Coast. For example, in my own personal visit to Maliankara and the surrounding regions, I found that the St. Thomas communities of that region keep even today several oral traditions regarding the mission involvements of the apostle. But, they are not included in the ATh. In that sense, the extended (i.e., available) ‘Thomas Literature’ is devoid of all those existent traditions among the St. Thomas communities of Kerala.

With the identification of Sandaruk as a reference to the Malabar Coast, we see the ATh as a mission mandatory document that details the works of Thomas in three Indian kingdoms, i.e., the Malabar kingdom, the North-western Indian kingdom, and the Mazdai kingdom (i.e., Tamil Nadu). If we consider that ATh maintains an accurate chronological sequence, then we have enough proofs to repudiate the arguments of Medlycott and Farquhar that Thomas firstly went to North-West India. The order of the book suggests that Thomas firstly went to Malabar Coast (i.e., Andrapolis), then to the North-Western India (i.e., Gundaphoros’ kingdom), and then to the Mylapore area (i.e., Mazdai’s kingdom). In that case, Thomas’ extended mission was in Mazdai’s kingdom (i.e., in the Mylapore area). This argument may go against Farquhar’s argument that Thomas’ extended mission was in the North-Western part of the country. The book also suggests that he founded churches, appointed deacons and priests in the Mylapore area. But, there is no mention about those activities in the North-western region and in the Malabar Coast.

This does not diminish the importance of Thomas’ mission in the Malabar Coast. There are possibilities of the continuation of Thomas’ ministry in the Malabar Coast by the Hebrew flute-player lady. She shows tenets of propagation in c. 9. In c. 9 she says that, “This man is either God or the Apostle of God”. And also there references about the belief/unbelief of her hearers (c. 9). Moreover, the king, his daughter, and his son-in-law are seemingly became propagators of Jesus in the absence of Apostle Thomas. In short, the descriptions that are arrayed in the fourteen chapters of the ATh are not at all comprehensive concerning the person and work of St. Thomas. The continuous traditions handed over from generation to generations in a living community cannot be considered as merely legendary. This is the fact with regard to the traditions of the Malabar Church. But, the discontinued traditions recorded in the ATh received wider attention among the scholars. It is the duty of a researcher to interlock the ‘unrecorded but continuing’ traditions of the St. Thomas Churches in Kerala and the ‘recorded but discontinued’ traditions of the North-Western and Mylapore provinces together by way of critical analysis. That means, we cannot conclude the Thomas tradition at a stretch without being adequately engaged in research works.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 531-534.

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Daniel, K. N., n.d. The South Indian Apostolate of St. Thomas. Serampore: Serampore College.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Helyer, L. R., 2012. “Thomas, Gospel of/Acts of”. The Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity. Vol. II. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 689.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

McGrath, J. F., 2008. “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas: The State of the Question”. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 17.4. Sage Publications Ltd: 297-311.

Medlycott, A. E., 1905. India and the Apostle Thomas. David Nutt.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Philip, E. M., 1950. The Indian Church of St. Thomas. Nagercoil: L. M. Press.

Placid, R. P., 1956. Les Syriens du Malabar. L’Orient Syr: 375-424.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

 

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India



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The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas

Posted: January 24, 2013 in General

Saint-Thomas-Apostle-eThank you so much for your excellent work. It definitely pushes our thinking well beyond the previous horizons” (Gerald L. Borchert, Senior Professor of New Testament, Cason-Newman University and Thesis Director of the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies).

The Greek version of the Acts of Thomas consists of thirteen acts and the concluding section (as the fourteenth act) that describes about the martyrdom of Apostle Thomas (cf. Attridge, 1992: 531). Enslin (1962: 632) has the opinion that, “the martyrdom account was circulated separately”. The fourteen acts of the book together discuss the arrival, the mission engagements and the martyrdom of Thomas. According to it, the martyrdom of Thomas takes place in the kingdom of Mazdai (cc. 159-170). At the point of his death Judas proclaims about Jesus as follows: “I rejoice that the time is fulfilled and the day come that I may go and receive my reward from my Lord” (c. 159). His words are courageous and are in greater conformity with the New Testament narrative world. The joy of his accomplished task is expressed in the following way: “And be not weary… in persecution… you see me treated ignominiously, and imprisoned too, and dying, because I am fulfilling the will of my Lord” (c. 160). Thomas considers death as a “release from the world” (c. 160). Just as Apostle Paul says in his epistle (II Tim. 4:7), here Judas says, “I have toiled in His service, and I have completed (my task) because of His grace” (c. 160). In all these details we see that Apostle Thomas was well-prepared to face his death.

Judas’ death is described as follows. King Mazdai ordered his soldiers to stab him and they struck him all together, and he fell down and died (c. 168). Firth (2001: 11; cf. cc. 167-169) states that, “He (Thomas) is taken outside the city by four soldiers, who kill him with their spears, but not before he has ordained a presbyter and a deacon from among his noble converts”. The brethren were weeping all together. And they brought goodly garments and many linen clothes, and buried Judas in the sepulchre in which the ancient kings were buried (c. 168). These are reminiscent to Jesus’ death and burial in the canonical Gospels (cf. John 19). Attridge (1992: 6: 533; c. 170) recapitulates the final chapter of the episode as follows: “…Mazdai searches for Thomas’ bones, with which to heal an ailing son. They have been taken West, but the king uses dust from the tomb area to good effect. After Thomas appears to him he is brought to Sifur, now a presbyter, and requests prayers”. King Mazdai becomes a believer and Sifur the priest and his brethren pray for him (c. 170). The author of the ATh wraps up the entire story as follows: “Here end the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Apostle of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who suffered martyrdom in the land of India by the hands of king Mazdai. Glory to the Father and the Son and to the Spirit of holiness, now and at all times and forever. Amen” (c. 170). Thus, the ATh affirms the point that Thomas became a martyr in the land of India.

The scholarly accounts about the martyrdom account are important to reckon with. Attridge (1992: 6: 531) says, “The work (ATh) is clearly associated with Syria, and particularly with the city of Edessa, where Thomas was traditionally venerated. The apostle’s martyrdom (chaps. 159-170) records the translation of his relics from India back to the West, presumably by Edessa”. Attridge’s documentation helps the reader to figure out about the significance of Thomas’ martyrdom tradition in the East Syrian context. In his accounts, Bornkamm weighs down the historical value of the ATh considerably and he recounts it as a legendary tradition. Bornkamm’s (1964: 427) attribution of Thomas’ connections with Parthia (i.e., detaching from India) is most probably a derivation from his unknowing of the First Century Indo-Parthian relations. He seemingly does not think about the possibilities of Thomas’ involvement as a missionary in the Indian provinces. But at the same time he (1964: 427) reports that, “The Catholic Abgar-legend (on its historical value see most recently W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei, 1934, pp. 6ff.) traces back to Thomas the evangelizing of Edessa, where his bones have been preserved since the 4th century”. Bornkamm (1964: 427) further says that, “The Acts are… the oldest witness for the legend of Thomas’ martyr death and the transference of his bones to Edessa”. Though there are unanimity of opinions among the scholarly realms, the majority view is in favour of Thomas’ martyrdom in the in the Indian context.

Bornkamm looks at the ATh from two standpoints: (1) by considering the ATh as a legendary/ahistorical document; and (2) by detaching Thomas from the Indian traditions. In that way, he shows unfair treatment of the Thomas traditions in general and the ATh in particular. Charlesworth (1995: 380), on the other hand, considers ATh as a book that adjusts well with the thought-world of John’s Gospel as well as the East Syrian Christianity. While he accepts the historical and theological value of the ATh, he does not mention about its direct connection with the Indian context. Definitely that is beyond the scope of his work. If Thomas tradition (and also the ATh) is merely considered as an age-old legend told by an aged lady to a little child, how it remained all through the last two thousand years with historical, traditional and documentary proofs and relics? This is an important question for us to tackle with when we analyze the Thomas traditions and the related literature.

Just as Thomas’ involvement as a missionary cannot be abnegated in the light of the live and traditional Malabar Coast church, his death (as a martyr) in the Mylapore context cannot be weighed down as the Indian, Edessan, and the traditions arrayed in the ATh affirm it. Firth (2001: 3-4) says that after doing a fulfilling mission in Malabar Coast Thomas travelled to Malacca and China and from there to the Coromandel Coast (i.e., Mylapore). He (2001: 4) further says that, “Here his preaching aroused the hostility of the Brahmins, who raised a riot against him, during which he was speared to death. The year of his martyrdom is said to have been about 72 AD”. The Indian Christians still cherish these two great traditions (i.e., Malabar Tradition and the Mylapore Tradition) in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. Medlycott (1905: Ch. II) quotes the hymn written by Ephrem the Syrian (died 373) in which the Devil cries,

…Into what land shall I fly from the just?

I stirred up Death the apostles to slay, that by their death I might escape their blows.

But harder still am I now stricken: the Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa; here and there he is all himself.

There went I, and there was he: here and there to my grief I find him.

This hymn reflects the East Syrian beliefs about the connection between Edessa and India and the martyrdom of Thomas. The martyrology of St. Jerome had a mention of the Apostle on 3rd July (cf. Calendarium, 1969: 96). St. Ephraem, the great doctor of the Syrian Church, writes in the forty-second of his ‘Carmina Nisibina’ that the Apostle was put to death in India, and that his remains were subsequently buried in Edessa, brought there by an unnamed merchant (cf. Medlycott, 1905; Mayer, 2007: 779-80). A Syrian ecclesiastical calendar confirms it by mentioning even the name of the merchant, i.e., Khabin (cf. Madlycott, 1905). Mayer (2007: 779-80) says that, “…in her travel journal the Christian pilgrim Egeria recounts how she visited Edessa in 384 and viewed the bones of St. Thomas” (cf. Drijvers, 2: 322-39). In the writings of St. Ephraem and the writings of the Roman, Greek and Ethiopian churches, especially in several of the hymns, liturgies, calendars, sacramentaries and martyrologies, the mission and martyrdom of Thomas are noted (cf. Segal, 2005: 174-76, 250). While majority of the relics are taken to Edessa from the Coromandel Coast, a few remains are still kept in Mylapore (cf. Bussagli, 255). The traditions yielded in the Indian context are not merely conjectured in the recent past. But, they are claimed to be stretching from the First Century till the day.

Church father Clement of Alexandria reports an entirely different view. “In the first place”, as Klijn (1962: 27) says, “we may refer to Clement of Alexandria, Strom. IV 71 3, who writes that according to Heracleon, Thomas died a natural death”. The St. Thomas tradition of the Kerala church(es) and its continuing relationship with the Syrian and Persian ecclesiastical bodies, the historically proved Indo-Parthian relations of the North-Western India and its archaeological remains, the Coromandel traditions of Mylapore and the martyrdom of Thomas there, the traditional and historical remains and beliefs of the Syrian Church(es) of Edessa, and the local and universal beliefs and traditions go against the third-party reporting of Clement of Alexandria. The reporting of Clement of Alexandria has fewer chances over against the innumerable evidences about Thomas’ martyrdom in the Indian context.

Readings from the scholarly contributions make us feel that majority of the researches about Thomas are done outside of India and hence are ‘remote-control’ researches. Meyer (2007: 779) says, “In a variety of ways Thomas is linked to Edessa, and he becomes a patron saint of Syrian Christianity and an apostolic missionary to Parthia and, eventually, India, where, legend would have it, he was martyred”. Even in the Indian theological research schools the Western interpretations and mind-sets rule predominantly and the Indian researchers are comfortable with their ‘smooth and easy-going’ research topics/projects. C. B. Firth has won over the Indians as he has attuned the Indian minds to think in his own terms and to put an end to the discussions on Thomas as a whole. Irrespective of all the attempts of disregard from both the Western and the Indian contexts, the Christian legacy of Thomas as the apostle to India remains strong and Thomas Christians continue to be a significant part of the Indian religious landscape even to the present day (cf. Meyer, 2007: 783). In sum, the Thomas research has to be revived and has to be looked at from the biblical, historical, archaeological and all other supplementary grounds.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 531-534.

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Bornkamm, G., 1964. “The Acts of Thomas”. Tran. Wilson, R. M. NT Apocrypha. Vol. Two. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Bussagli, M. “L’Art du Gandhara”.

Calendarium Romanum, 1969. Libreria Editrice Vatricana.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Drijvers, H. J. W. “The Acts of Thomas”. New Testament Apocrypha. Ed. Schneemelcher, W: 2: 322-39.

Enslin, M. S., 1962. “Thomas, Acts of”. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press: 632-634.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

McGrath, J. F., 2008. “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas: The State of the Question”. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 17.4. Sage Publications Ltd: 297-311.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Placid, R. P., 1956. Les Syriens du Malabar. L’Orient Syr: 375-424.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

Segal, J. B., 2005. Edessa ‘the Blessed City’. Gorgias Press LLC.

“St. Thomas (Christian Apostle)”. Britannica Online Encyclopedia(http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/592851/Saint-Thomas).

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Book of Thomas the Contender’”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas

Posted: January 24, 2013 in General

Saint-Thomas-Apostle-eThank you so much for your excellent work. It definitely pushes our thinking well beyond the previous horizons” (Gerald L. Borchert, Senior Professor of New Testament, Cason-Newman University and Thesis Director of the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies).

The Greek version of the Acts of Thomas consists of thirteen acts and the concluding section (as the fourteenth act) that describes about the martyrdom of Apostle Thomas (cf. Attridge, 1992: 531). Enslin (1962: 632) has the opinion that, “the martyrdom account was circulated separately”. The fourteen acts of the book together discuss the arrival, the mission engagements and the martyrdom of Thomas. According to it, the martyrdom of Thomas takes place in the kingdom of Mazdai (cc. 159-170). At the point of his death Judas proclaims about Jesus as follows: “I rejoice that the time is fulfilled and the day come that I may go and receive my reward from my Lord” (c. 159). His words are courageous and are in greater conformity with the New Testament narrative world. The joy of his accomplished task is expressed in the following way: “And be not weary… in persecution… you see me treated ignominiously, and imprisoned too, and dying, because I am fulfilling the will of my Lord” (c. 160). Thomas considers death as a “release from the world” (c. 160). Just as Apostle Paul says in his epistle (II Tim. 4:7), here Judas says, “I have toiled in His service, and I have completed (my task) because of His grace” (c. 160). In all these details we see that Apostle Thomas was well-prepared to face his death.

Judas’ death is described as follows. King Mazdai ordered his soldiers to stab him and they struck him all together, and he fell down and died (c. 168). Firth (2001: 11; cf. cc. 167-169) states that, “He (Thomas) is taken outside the city by four soldiers, who kill him with their spears, but not before he has ordained a presbyter and a deacon from among his noble converts”. The brethren were weeping all together. And they brought goodly garments and many linen clothes, and buried Judas in the sepulchre in which the ancient kings were buried (c. 168). These are reminiscent to Jesus’ death and burial in the canonical Gospels (cf. John 19). Attridge (1992: 6: 533; c. 170) recapitulates the final chapter of the episode as follows: “…Mazdai searches for Thomas’ bones, with which to heal an ailing son. They have been taken West, but the king uses dust from the tomb area to good effect. After Thomas appears to him he is brought to Sifur, now a presbyter, and requests prayers”. King Mazdai becomes a believer and Sifur the priest and his brethren pray for him (c. 170). The author of the ATh wraps up the entire story as follows: “Here end the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Apostle of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who suffered martyrdom in the land of India by the hands of king Mazdai. Glory to the Father and the Son and to the Spirit of holiness, now and at all times and forever. Amen” (c. 170). Thus, the ATh affirms the point that Thomas became a martyr in the land of India.

The scholarly accounts about the martyrdom account are important to reckon with. Attridge (1992: 6: 531) says, “The work (ATh) is clearly associated with Syria, and particularly with the city of Edessa, where Thomas was traditionally venerated. The apostle’s martyrdom (chaps. 159-170) records the translation of his relics from India back to the West, presumably by Edessa”. Attridge’s documentation helps the reader to figure out about the significance of Thomas’ martyrdom tradition in the East Syrian context. In his accounts, Bornkamm weighs down the historical value of the ATh considerably and he recounts it as a legendary tradition. Bornkamm’s (1964: 427) attribution of Thomas’ connections with Parthia (i.e., detaching from India) is most probably a derivation from his unknowing of the First Century Indo-Parthian relations. He seemingly does not think about the possibilities of Thomas’ involvement as a missionary in the Indian provinces. But at the same time he (1964: 427) reports that, “The Catholic Abgar-legend (on its historical value see most recently W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei, 1934, pp. 6ff.) traces back to Thomas the evangelizing of Edessa, where his bones have been preserved since the 4th century”. Bornkamm (1964: 427) further says that, “The Acts are… the oldest witness for the legend of Thomas’ martyr death and the transference of his bones to Edessa”. Though there are unanimity of opinions among the scholarly realms, the majority view is in favour of Thomas’ martyrdom in the in the Indian context.

Bornkamm looks at the ATh from two standpoints: (1) by considering the ATh as a legendary/ahistorical document; and (2) by detaching Thomas from the Indian traditions. In that way, he shows unfair treatment of the Thomas traditions in general and the ATh in particular. Charlesworth (1995: 380), on the other hand, considers ATh as a book that adjusts well with the thought-world of John’s Gospel as well as the East Syrian Christianity. While he accepts the historical and theological value of the ATh, he does not mention about its direct connection with the Indian context. Definitely that is beyond the scope of his work. If Thomas tradition (and also the ATh) is merely considered as an age-old legend told by an aged lady to a little child, how it remained all through the last two thousand years with historical, traditional and documentary proofs and relics? This is an important question for us to tackle with when we analyze the Thomas traditions and the related literature.

Just as Thomas’ involvement as a missionary cannot be abnegated in the light of the live and traditional Malabar Coast church, his death (as a martyr) in the Mylapore context cannot be weighed down as the Indian, Edessan, and the traditions arrayed in the ATh affirm it. Firth (2001: 3-4) says that after doing a fulfilling mission in Malabar Coast Thomas travelled to Malacca and China and from there to the Coromandel Coast (i.e., Mylapore). He (2001: 4) further says that, “Here his preaching aroused the hostility of the Brahmins, who raised a riot against him, during which he was speared to death. The year of his martyrdom is said to have been about 72 AD”. The Indian Christians still cherish these two great traditions (i.e., Malabar Tradition and the Mylapore Tradition) in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. Medlycott (1905: Ch. II) quotes the hymn written by Ephrem the Syrian (died 373) in which the Devil cries,

…Into what land shall I fly from the just?

I stirred up Death the apostles to slay, that by their death I might escape their blows.

But harder still am I now stricken: the Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa; here and there he is all himself.

There went I, and there was he: here and there to my grief I find him.

This hymn reflects the East Syrian beliefs about the connection between Edessa and India and the martyrdom of Thomas. The martyrology of St. Jerome had a mention of the Apostle on 3rd July (cf. Calendarium, 1969: 96). St. Ephraem, the great doctor of the Syrian Church, writes in the forty-second of his ‘Carmina Nisibina’ that the Apostle was put to death in India, and that his remains were subsequently buried in Edessa, brought there by an unnamed merchant (cf. Medlycott, 1905; Mayer, 2007: 779-80). A Syrian ecclesiastical calendar confirms it by mentioning even the name of the merchant, i.e., Khabin (cf. Madlycott, 1905). Mayer (2007: 779-80) says that, “…in her travel journal the Christian pilgrim Egeria recounts how she visited Edessa in 384 and viewed the bones of St. Thomas” (cf. Drijvers, 2: 322-39). In the writings of St. Ephraem and the writings of the Roman, Greek and Ethiopian churches, especially in several of the hymns, liturgies, calendars, sacramentaries and martyrologies, the mission and martyrdom of Thomas are noted (cf. Segal, 2005: 174-76, 250). While majority of the relics are taken to Edessa from the Coromandel Coast, a few remains are still kept in Mylapore (cf. Bussagli, 255). The traditions yielded in the Indian context are not merely conjectured in the recent past. But, they are claimed to be stretching from the First Century till the day.

Church father Clement of Alexandria reports an entirely different view. “In the first place”, as Klijn (1962: 27) says, “we may refer to Clement of Alexandria, Strom. IV 71 3, who writes that according to Heracleon, Thomas died a natural death”. The St. Thomas tradition of the Kerala church(es) and its continuing relationship with the Syrian and Persian ecclesiastical bodies, the historically proved Indo-Parthian relations of the North-Western India and its archaeological remains, the Coromandel traditions of Mylapore and the martyrdom of Thomas there, the traditional and historical remains and beliefs of the Syrian Church(es) of Edessa, and the local and universal beliefs and traditions go against the third-party reporting of Clement of Alexandria. The reporting of Clement of Alexandria has fewer chances over against the innumerable evidences about Thomas’ martyrdom in the Indian context.

Readings from the scholarly contributions make us feel that majority of the researches about Thomas are done outside of India and hence are ‘remote-control’ researches. Meyer (2007: 779) says, “In a variety of ways Thomas is linked to Edessa, and he becomes a patron saint of Syrian Christianity and an apostolic missionary to Parthia and, eventually, India, where, legend would have it, he was martyred”. Even in the Indian theological research schools the Western interpretations and mind-sets rule predominantly and the Indian researchers are comfortable with their ‘smooth and easy-going’ research topics/projects. C. B. Firth has won over the Indians as he has attuned the Indian minds to think in his own terms and to put an end to the discussions on Thomas as a whole. Irrespective of all the attempts of disregard from both the Western and the Indian contexts, the Christian legacy of Thomas as the apostle to India remains strong and Thomas Christians continue to be a significant part of the Indian religious landscape even to the present day (cf. Meyer, 2007: 783). In sum, the Thomas research has to be revived and has to be looked at from the biblical, historical, archaeological and all other supplementary grounds.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 531-534.

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Bornkamm, G., 1964. “The Acts of Thomas”. Tran. Wilson, R. M. NT Apocrypha. Vol. Two. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Bussagli, M. “L’Art du Gandhara”.

Calendarium Romanum, 1969. Libreria Editrice Vatricana.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Drijvers, H. J. W. “The Acts of Thomas”. New Testament Apocrypha. Ed. Schneemelcher, W: 2: 322-39.

Enslin, M. S., 1962. “Thomas, Acts of”. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press: 632-634.

Farquhar, J. N., 1926/1927. The Apostle Thomas in North India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 80-111//The Apostle Thomas in South India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. XI: 20-50.

Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Klijn, A. F. J., 1962. The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Ed. Van Unnik, W. C. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

McGrath, J. F., 2008. “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas: The State of the Question”. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 17.4. Sage Publications Ltd: 297-311.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Placid, R. P., 1956. Les Syriens du Malabar. L’Orient Syr: 375-424.

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

Segal, J. B., 2005. Edessa ‘the Blessed City’. Gorgias Press LLC.

“St. Thomas (Christian Apostle)”. Britannica Online Encyclopedia(http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/592851/Saint-Thomas).

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Book of Thomas the Contender’”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India



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