THE GOSPELS TELL US LITTLE about Christ’s chosen disciples other than their names. A few of them – Peter, John, and Philip – feature in the early chapters of Acts but there is little said about the others.
Thomas is more prominent in John than in the other Gospels. The story of Thomas and the risen Christ in John 20 is one of the most compelling tales in the resurrection Gospels. In Byzantine Churches this passage is read in two sections, as it occurred. At vespers on Pascha we read the story of Thomas’ doubts when told that Christ had risen. On the following Sunday – “Thomas Sunday” – we read of his encounter with the risen Christ which evoked his act of faith in Christ as “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Non-scriptural tales and writings associated with one or another of the apostles were widely circulated in the first centuries; foremost among them were stories attributed to St. Thomas. The earliest and most widely held concerned Thomas as the Enlightener of India.
The Church beyond the Empire
While the Acts of the Apostles details the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, we know that at the same time Christ was being preached to Jews and Gentiles beyond the borders of the empire: specifically, to the East, in Osrhoene (Mesopotamia), Parthia and Persia and as far as India, especially where Jewish colonies could be found.
Traders traveling by caravan or ship were common in the Middle East in the time of Christ. The Greek historian Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) writes of as many as 120 ships sailing through the Red Sea to India every year. St Thomas reportedly sailed to India in ad 52 in one of these ships in the company of a merchant.
Jewish merchants had settled in towns along the Old Silk Road and in the coastal cities of India as far back as the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century bc. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 even more Jews fled Palestine and settled in the established Jewish colonies. It was among them that St Thomas would have a lasting success.
Jews had a thriving colony on the Malabar (west) coast of India. They settled in Muziris, the center of the Chera dynasty, near Cochin, where an ancient synagogue may still be seen. According to local tradition St Thomas and his companions organized a number of communities along this southwestern coast of India. There are still several churches in modern-day Kerala, home of the St. Thomas Christians, which claim to have been founded by St Thomas.
After several years the apostle undertook a missionary journey to the Coromandel (eastern) Coast where he converted, among others, the wife and son of the prefect of Mylapore, near Madras. The prefect charged Thomas with bewitching them and had Thomas imprisoned. He was tortured and then executed by being pierced with spears in AD 72. The place of his execution outside Mylapore is revered as St Thomas’ Mount to this day.
At first the body of St Thomas was enshrined in Mylapore, where miracles were associated with its presence. In ad 232 the bulk of the relics were brought from India to Edessa, the Syriac Christian center at the edge of the Roman Empire. A shrine was erected to house these relics which attracted the attention of the pilgrim-nun Egeria who visited it in the 380s. She described her visit in a letter she sent to her convent in Spain:
“We arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of Saint Thomas. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other things that were customary in the holy places were done; we read also some things concerning Saint Thomas himself. The church there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and as there was much that I desired to see, it was necessary for me to make a three days’ stay there.”
St Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote several poetic hymns in the apostle’s honor, has Satan bewail the powerful presence of Thomas’ relics in Edessa:
“I stirred up Death to slay the Apostles, that by their death I might escape their blows. But harder still am I now striken: the Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa. … I went there and he was there. I found him both here and there, to my grief.”
The shrine was destroyed by the Zengids, a Turkish tribe who conquered Edessa in 1144. The relics were taken to Patmos, Greece and Ortono, in the Abruzzo region near Rome, where they still remain.
St Thomas’ Writings?
Several early texts are connected with St Thomas:
The Acts of Thomas (c. 180-230)– an early third-century Syriac work that tells the story of his missions in India. It is generally accepted as in line with the proven history of the day.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – written about the same time, this work contains a fanciful rendering of Jesus’ early years focused on prodigies and magic tricks He performs on His teacher and other children.
The Gospel of Thomas – the time of its composition unknown, this work was discovered in Greek and Coptic translations in the modern era. It presents “sayings” of Jesus that reflect a kind of Gnostic philosophy which circulated in Egypt in the early Christian era.
While TV commentators speculate wonderingly about these “suppressed” sayings of the Lord, a more reliable evaluation of them comes from the fourth-century Father, St Cyril of Jerusalem: “Let none read The Gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but one of Mani’s three wicked disciples” (Catechesis 5).
St. Thomas’ missions, being outside the Roman Empire, formed part of the Church of the East. Over time they adopted the liturgy of Edessa, the Syriac Christian center. To this day St Thomas Christians consider their Churches “Syrian.”
From the fourth century until the sixteenth the St Thomas Christians received Persian and Assyrian bishops from the Church of the East as their spiritual fathers. An Indian archdeacon administered the day to day affairs of the community. Portuguese colonizers in the sixteenth century ousted the bishops and the archdeacon, replacing them with a Portuguese Latin bishop, beginning a long period of extreme latinization lasting to the time of Vatican II. Since then the Syro- Malabar Catholics have slowly begun recovering aspects of their West Syrian heritage.
About one third of the Thomas Christians refused to accept the Latin hierarchy and turned to the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch for bishops. Since then some Thomas Christians observe a form of their traditional East Syrian rite of Edessa (Church of the East, Syro-Malabar Catholics) while others follow the West Syrian rite of Antioch (Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Syro-Malankara Catholics and the Mar Thoma Church, a reformed Orthodox group which adopted some Anglican practices during the British rule of India).
Each of these Churches has at least one diocese in the United States today.