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St Thomas the Apostle |
The amazing faith of

St Thomas the Apostle is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 63, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit Books.TheChristians.com.

India’s Christians are sure the ‘downer’ disciple exceeded them all

St Thomas the Apostle - The amazing faith of ‘Doubting Thomas’

St Thomas the Apostle – The amazing faith of ‘Doubting Thomas’
The various churches in India have consistently claimed that the tomb of St. Thomas is to be found in Mylapore, a suburb of Madras on the east coast of India. The vast Gothic church built over the crypt dates from 1893 and replaces a series of earlier structures.

Modern-day Christian churches on the Malabar Coast in India trace their origin to the evangelistic mission of Thomas, an apostle best known not for his faith but for his doubt. Curiously, however, if the traditions of the most ancient Christian churches of India are true, “Doubting Thomas” may have traveled farther with the gospel than any of the other apostles.

The character of Thomas portrayed in the New Testament, chiefly in the Gospel of John, is absolutely consistent. He is by nature the quintessential pessimist and skeptic.

Unless he sees the print of the nails in Jesus’ hands, he says, he will not believe that he is alive. Jesus thereupon shows him the nail marks, and chides him for lack of faith. Similarly, when Jesus announces he’s heading for Jerusalem and the other apostles urge caution, Thomas responds in character. “Let us go and die with him,” he says, cheerlessly. When Jesus tells the disciples they know where he is going and the way he is going to take, Thomas protests: “We don’t know where you’re going and we don’t know the way either.” (John 14:5) “I am the Way,” replies Jesus.

That such a crepehanger should take the gospel as far away as India seems, therefore, absurd. Yet the Gospel accounts subtly disclose another side to his nature. Thomas, after all, is prepared to go to Jerusalem, however gloomy the prospects. And once shown the print of the nails, Thomas responds: “My Lord and my God!” It’s the only place in the Gospels where the term “God” is applied to Jesus without qualification.

In any event, the Indian church reveres the accounts of Thomas’s exploits, uninhibited by historical qualms, though the only detailed account of it is a Gnostic miracle story written some time after a.d. 200. It also preserves a vital shred of Thomas’s character as portrayed in John’s Gospel. He was convinced, says the Gnostic story, that his mission to India would fail, but went anyway because Jesus in a vision insisted.

We are then told that Thomas Didymus (the second name means “twin,” though no mention is made in the Gospel accounts of his sibling) went first to North India, to the kingdom of Gondophernes, who reigned from a.d. 19 to 45. It was a good choice, because Gondophernes was the most important king in northwestern India, and his capital, Taxila, was a bustling cosmopolitan center. According to one story, Thomas, a builder, was asked to construct a palace for the king, but gave the money to the city’s poor instead. When asked to account for the missing funds, Thomas explained that he was building the palace not on Earth but in heaven. Although Gondophernes reacted by throwing the evangelist into prison, we are told that the king later embraced Christianity and released him.

Thomas next turned his attention to southern India, where he labored in Chera on the Malabar Coast for many years and established a viable church, even converting a number of Brahmans (members of India’s priestly caste).

While the Malabar tradition of his ministry insists that he was a good debater, he is supposed to have won converts more by his example than by his arguments.

There is a persistent tradition that Thomas also visited China. He could certainly have found his way there because south Indian traders regularly sailed east, but there are only scattered hints of any such mission by Thomas. We are told that he set his sights on eastern India upon his return, and it proved to be the scene of his martyrdom.

The tradition says Thomas was martyred in July of a.d. 72 in Mylapore, the “city of peacocks” on the Coromandel coast in eastern India. He was passing a small hill that housed a temple of the destructive goddess Kali. The priests demanded that he worship her, but when they compelled him to enter the temple, the presence of the goddess seemed to vanish. The priests, outraged, killed him with a spear. One account says that the killing was actually carried out by four soldiers.

Thomas is said to be buried on a small hill at Mylapore. The tomb of the sadhu (holy man) from the West, as he came to be called, was revered not only among Eastern Christians but by Muslims and Hindus as well. It is also reported that some of his remains, regarded as holy relics, were moved to Edessa in Syria, where he had a following because he had sent disciples there.

Both Eusebius (c. a.d. 260—340) and Jerome (a.d. 342—420) mention Thomas’s apostolic work in India. There is no direct evidence, but that is not in itself surprising. Even Gondophernes’s history was obliterated when his successors were overwhelmed by the Kushana dynasty, about a.d. 78. For many centuries afterward, Gondophernes was considered legendary, because he was known only through Christian works relating Thomas’s missionary journey. However, coins found during nineteenth-century excavation in the area have helped to reconstruct the history of Gondophernes’s kingdom.

Thomas’s visit to India, if it occurred, was timely. Navigators had recently discovered that ships that cooperated with the seasonal monsoon winds could cross the Arabian Sea and head directly for west Indian ports. The more ancient practice had required ships from the West to hug the coasts of Arabia, Persia, and Baluchistan, then the whole length of the Indian coast, returning laboriously by the same route. By Thomas’s day, the voyage to India and back had been reduced from several years to only one.

Greeks and Romans, anxious to trade gold for pepper, spices, gems, and silk, swarmed into Indian ports. Indian kings assisted them by stationing trade agents in Rome and Alexandria. There was also a Roman garrison and temple at Musiris, where Thomas is said to have landed in a.d. 52. As a Christian missionary who needed contacts, he would easily have found people there who knew the languages, customs, and culture of the Middle East and the Roman Empire. The practice of the apostles was to evangelize Jewish communities first, and Thomas is said to have converted most of the resident Jews before starting on the Brahmans.

The apostle Bartholomew, whom many sources equate with Nathaniel, is also said to have preached in India some time after a.d. 35, in the coastal region of Western India and the Konkan coast (called “Citerior”–meaning “nearer”–India by the Romans). Both Jerome and Eusebius mention Bartholomew’s evangelism in India, as does Rufinus, a contemporary of Jerome. His mission field included Bombay, the commercial capital of India and the only gateway to the rich Deccan hinterland. The town of Kalyan, today a suburb of Bombay, had an established Jewish colony known as the Bene-Israel, to which he probably went first. After the Persian church established control over the Indian church, the history of the Bartholomew Christians became mingled with that of the Thomas Christians. Bartholomew himself is believed to have been martyred in Armenia.

Christians received a ready welcome on the Malabar Coast. The Chera king appointed Christian leaders to oversee trade and, when necessary, to provide security. Theologically, the Indian Christian communities came under control of the Persian church, primarily because their bishops were usually trained in Persia.

In a.d. 1290, Marco Polo saw Thomas’s shrine at Mylapore and picked up a local story that Thomas had been killed accidentally by an archer shooting peacocks. Later repeating of this story may have been an attempt, in a pluralistic religious setting, to focus attention away from Thomas’s martyrdom.

Significant European contact with the Thomas church began only when the Portuguese began to visit India in the sixteenth century. Expecting to find an untouched mission field, they found, to their surprise, an active church. In 1517, two Portuguese visited Thomas’s shrine in Mylapore where, according to one report, his tomb was still venerated by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In the twenty-first century, the church remains strong in the southwestern state of Kerala, where Christians have long described themselves as
“Christians of St. Thomas.” A living tradition of folklore, songs, and dances among the Malabar Christians describes the apostle’s work in south India. His feast day is celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter, the day Jesus asked the famously doubting apostle to believe in his eventual triumph.

Whatever the veracity of the Thomas stories, they at least demonstrate that there is room in Christianity for the natural pessimist, that all Christians are not expected to be instant enthusiasts and boosters. That no doubt is why C. S. Lewis delighted whole generations of children with the character Puddleglum in the Narnia stories.

Perhaps, indeed, some Thomas-type was the model for the doleful Puddleglum, the preeminent downer, for whom every sky looks like rain, every foreseeable problem looks inevitable, every prospect looks grim, and all futures look bleak. Yet when it actually does rain, when the problems do arise, when the future does turn out grim, and when everybody is ready to quit, it is Puddleglum, pessimistic as always, who nevertheless keeps right on going. No calamity can faze him because he expected nothing but calamity anyway.

This is the end of the St Thomas the Apostle category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 63, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Thomas the Apostle from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at Books.TheChristians.com