Saint Thomas The Apostle
by Ian Hampson
Did He Go To India?
“Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples
when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the
nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
[How Thomas became known as „Doubting Thomas. – John Ch 20 vv 24, 25]
According to the lot, therefore, India fell unto Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he
would not go, saying that by reason of the weakness of the flesh he could not travel, and “I
am an Hebrew man; how can I go amongst the Indians and preach the truth?”
[Thomas is sent to India – Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas]
Saint Thomas was an Apostle of Jesus: one of the Twelve Disciples. He was a Jew from
Galilee, followed Jesus for three years, and was there at the Last Supper. He met the risen
Jesus both in the upper room in Jerusalem, and „back home. in Galilee. But after the early
chapters of the book of Acts, the bible does not again mention him by name. Having
witnessed not only the preaching and miracles of Jesus, but then his death and
resurrection, Thomas and the other disciples travelled far and wide to take the message of
salvation to a needy world. But where did they go?
The book of Acts tells us some of Saint Peter.s travels, but says very little about the other
disciples. However, outside the bible, there are many legends and rumours about them, so
I’ve tried to investigate what happened to Thomas, to look at the sources of information
and the ancient texts, and to see if I can come up with any conclusions. Along the way I’ve
also learnt much about the ancient world, the little known churches of the east, and the
curious obsession that some churches have with bones!
As a starting point, I picked three major sources of our current knowledge:
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
The Golden Legend
Each of these works gives biographies of saints, but they are very different in emphasis
and outlook. They represent, very approximately, Catholic orthodoxy, Protestant revision,
and fanciful expansion! Each uses older written sources as well as the ever popular
“tradition” to give us their versions. I shall use these to try and identify the most interesting,
and, hopefully, accurate life story available for Saint Thomas.
Butler’s Lives: The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints AKA Butler.s
Lives is effectively The Roman Martyrology published in book form. My personal copy
consists of the five volume edition edited by Bernard Kelly and published by Virtue in 1949.
Each volume contains a little over 400 pages and consists of a long biography of a single
saint (or occasionally two or more closely linked saints, or another festival such as “the
discovery of the holy cross” (May 3rd 326 AD, apparently!)) for each day of the year. The
other „saints of the day. get just a name check and a few words of description.
In Butler.s Lives, in contrast to, for example, the apostle Simon the Zealot who only gets a
single page, Thomas warrants four and a half pages, although there is much material of
little interest to this project, covering as it does, the material in the gospels.
The Golden Legend: Individual hagiographies (from the Greek: hagios = holy, graphia =
writing; a study of saints or a biography of a saint) had been written from as early as the
2nd century, and collections began in the 4th century with, for example, the works of
Eusebius of Caesarea. The collection widely regarded as the most important is the
Legenda Aurea -the Golden Legend. It was compiled around the year 1260 by the
Archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine (1230 to 1298), and it proved so popular that
over 800 manuscripts survive. De Voragine was a Dominican prior, and built upon two
independent works written early in the 13th century. He took the standard readings used
during services, which appeared in existing martyrologies and collections of legends, and
added additional information from many different sources, and ordered the extensive
biographies by the feast day of the saint to create an annual cycle.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: The book is more fully called The Acts and Monuments of the
Christian Church, although the complete title runs to a full paragraph! It was first published
in draft form in 1554 whilst the author John Foxe was living in exile from Queen Mary.s
violently Catholic England. His main work, published during the Protestant rule of
Elizabeth I, was more than just an account of Christian martyrs throughout history -it laid
particular emphasis on the sufferings of English Protestants and their theological forebears
from the fourteenth century through to the reign of Mary. Foxe had very reliable
contemporary sources for his accounts of the recent English martyrs. For the earlier
saints, although he attempts to be honest, he relies heavily on his sources, largely
Eusebius, Bede and Matthew Paris, and shares their willingness to accept those events
which seem improbable to 21st Century readers.
Thomas the Apostle
I knew of course that there is more of Thomas in the Bible than some of the other apostles:
the passage at the top is well known, although verse 28, where Thomas, on being given
the proof he asks for, declares “My Lord and my God”, is almost as well known, and
quoted by minsters of many St. Thomas.s! What surprised me was that, apart from his
name in the lists of Apostles, he is not mentioned at all in the Synoptic Gospels or Acts. All
his other mentions, albeit only three plus the „doubting. verses, are in John. Perhaps his
most important role in the bible, after his profession of faith mentioned above, is his giving
Jesus the opportunity for one of his greatest statements:
Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
Jesus: “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life”. [John 14: 5,6]
He is listed eighth in the Luke and Mark lists, seventh in Matthew, being promoted a place
by swapping with Matthew himself, and sixth in Acts, being promoted ahead of both
Bartholomew and Matthew. Interestingly, he appears second, after only Simon Peter, in
the list of seven disciple noted at Jesus. post-resurrection appearance at the Sea of
Galilee (John 21).
A closer look at tradition holds that
Thomas was sent to India to preach, where he was killed by being stabbed with a
spear or lance,
his original tomb may be seen within the 16th Century St Thomas Basilica in
Mylapore (now part of greater Chennai (Madras))
he was re-buried at Edessa (now Urfa in south-east Turkey) a couple of centuries
later before being moved again, eventually ending up at Ortona in Italy.
This account is widely believed, and voiced loudly by many of the Christians of India,
calling for evidence on an apocryphal gospel called The Acts of the Apostle Thomas
(hereafter called The Acts). Eusebius and virtually all church historians dismissed The Acts
as „spurious and heretical.. The New Advent (Catholic) Encyclopaedia reports that little is
recorded of Thomas’ life, and adds that „it is difficult to discover any adequate support. for
the tradition of his death in India. It also notes that The Acts presents Thomas as the twin
brother of Jesus, which is not accepted by Christians either today or in the past, and
suggests it is a „Gnostic variation of a pagan salvation cult.! However, both Thomas and
Didymus mean „twin., so the use of „Judas Thomas. throughout The Acts may indicate that
Thomas. given name was actually Judas – a very common name at the time. The
presence of a tomb at Edessa is attested to by many early witnesses, and is generally
thought to be far more likely than trips to the south of India.
Historic Christian Communities in India
A number of ancient sources hinted at a Christian community in India. An example is
Eusebius, writing in the 325 AD Ecclesiastical Historia, telling of Pantænus of Alexandria.s
arrival in India in 190 AD to work as a missionary:
Pantænus there found his own arrival anticipated by some who were familiar with the
Gospel of Matthew, to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached, and had
left them the Gospel of Matthew in the Hebrew, which was also preserved until this time.
This quotation talks of Hebrew which was the formal religious language of Israel rather
than the common spoken language of the people, Aramaic. However, it was one of several
similar quotes which gave rise to the suggestion that Matthew.s gospel was originally
written in Aramaic.
Another example is found in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an ancient but little
known Syriac document:
India, and all the countries belonging to it and round about it, even to the farthest sea,
received the apostolic ordination… from Judas Thomas, who was the guide and ruler in
the church he had built there, in which he also ministered… [The Teaching of The Twelve
Apostles, as quoted in Roberts & Donaldson, The Writings of the Fathers Down to AD 325, vol. 8, 671-672]
A host of similar examples may be cited, from both western and eastern traditions.
Despite these early witnesses, it seems that no ancient Christian community has survived
in what is now Pakistan (the kingdom of Indo-Parthia at the time of Thomas). Any that did
survive the Buddhist domination of the early centuries AD would have been swept away by
the arrival of Islam in the early 8th Century. The current Pakistani Christians, both Roman
Catholic and Protestant, trace their roots to servants of the British military in the 19th
The Mar Thoma Christians of southern India are a different matter, however, having been
„discovered. by the Portuguese in 1498 living in an extensive area along the South-West
coast of southern India. They are quite clear and unambiguous – they very definitely trace
their origins directly back to St Thomas! Currently they number about 2½ million in 1500
parishes in the Kerala region, and they still use the ancient language Syriac as part of their
liturgy. Syriac is a very close relative of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the Disciples,
and is the liturgical language of the family of Syrian Orthodox churches. As mentioned
above, there is also the tomb of St Thomas in the suburbs of Madras which is on the east
coast of southern India some 700km to the north-east of Kerala.
Their own account of their origins is this:
The region was known to Roman and Greek traders, as shown by both Roman maps
(such as the Tabula Peutingeriana), descriptions of traded goods such as silk, pepper and
peacocks by writers such as, for example, Pliny and Ptolemy, and the discovery of Roman
coins in southern India.
The region was known to Jewish traders, and small Jewish communities were already
established by the time of Jesus; these were swelled considerably by refugees following
the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Saint Thomas travelled by sea and landed on the coast of Kerala (also known as the
Malabar coast) in 52 AD and preached to the Jewish community and locals of „high
standing.. He established seven churches, including Kodungallur.
He travelled overland around various kingdoms including those ruled by Gundoferus in
the north-west and Misdaeus centred on Mylapore.
He returned to Mylapore in 72 AD and was martyred that year, on the hill now known as
St Thomas. Mount. He was buried in a church he had built.
Between 220 and 232 AD most of the relics were taken to Edessa by a merchant called
Thomas of Cana, a Syriac speaking Christian merchant, also known as Bishop Thomas
Knanay, established a community of 72 families from Babylon in southern India in 345 AD.
In the 8th Century, Assyrian Christians arrived from Persia and established themselves
as the dominant merchant class, being accepted by all the ruling families. They were
followed by two Assyrian bishops in 794 AD, and thereafter monks, who established
monasteries, including one at Mylapore.
The use of the Syriac language and the strong links with the Assyrians led to the Mar
Thoma Christians being effectively part of the Nestorian tradition we now call the Assyrian
Church of the East or the East Syrian Orthodox Church. They were under the authority of
the Metropolitan of Mosul, in the north of modern Iraq.
The Portuguese, initially in the person of Vasco Da Gama, arrived in 1498, denounced
the Mar Thoma Christians as heretics, and attempted to convert them to Catholicism over
the next 150 years. They destroyed all the Syriac documents they could find, including
most of the historic documents and built a basilica over the tomb.
The 1604 arrival of the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company, weakened
the Portuguese influence. The Dutch were not only opposed to Catholicism, but also
sympathetic to both the existing Jewish community and the non-Catholic „heretics..
In 1653, a Syrian Orthodox priest arrived and the Mar Thoma Christians rallied to him,
asserting their freedom and autonomy by taking an oath at an ancient Assyrian cross
known as the Crooked Cross Oath.
Following the arrival of the Portuguese, the Mar Thoma Christians have split repeatedly
into a total of eight different denominations. These include two versions of Syriac speaking
Roman Catholics, two versions of (West) Syrian Orthodox (viewed as „sound. by the
Western churches), a group that returned to the Assyrian Orthodox (descendents of the
„heretical. Nestorians who evangelised much of Asia during the first millennium), and three
churches who describe themselves as reformed or independent. Furthermore, the Roman
Catholic and Syrian Orthodox churches are divided into „white. congregations, who claim
to be pure descendents of Assyrians, and „black. congregations, who claim descent from
native Indians converted by St Thomas personally.
[Compiled from Mar Thoma: The Apostolic Foundation of the Assyrian Church and The Christians of St.
Thomas in India by American minister and Aramaic scholar Stephen Andrew Missick, and elsewhere]
Nestorians taught that Jesus existed simultaneously as two distinct entities: the human,
mortal Jesus, and the divine Jesus, the “Word of God,” which had existed with God the
Father throughout all time. It was a widespread heresy that prompted the Council of
Chalcedon which was held in 451 and lead to the first great split in the church.
The Mar Thoma Christians are adamant then, that they can trace their roots directly to St
Thomas himself. Many of the above bullet points are widely accepted without debate or
dispute, but not all. For some, the evidence is at best shaky. Let.s dive into Butler and see
if we can dismiss the weakest legends, and trace those steps of Thomas that seem to be
probable and have the strongest evidence.
Source #1: Butler’s Lives
Butler said of Thomas:
St. Thomas by a special direction of the Holy Ghost, sent Thaddæus, one of the seventy-
two disciples, and, according to some, his own brother, to Edessa, who restored the king
to his health, baptised him and many others, and planted Christianity in that country. This
disciple Thaddæus is distinct from St. Judas the apostle . . . As for St. Thomas, Origen
informs us, that in the distribution made by the twelve, Parthia was particularly assigned to
him for his apostolic province, when this nation held the place of the Persian empire, and
disputed the sovereignty with the Romans. After preaching with good success in the
particular province of Parthia, he did the same in other nations subject to that empire, and
over all the East. Sophronius mentions, that by his apostolic labours he established the
faith among the Medes, Persians, Carmanians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and other nations
in those parts. [Taken from Vol. IV of “The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints” by the
Rev. Alban Butler.]
Immediately we can see several points of interest. The story of Abgarus the king of
Edessa is recounted in The Golden Legend, and the link between Thomas and Edessa,
the site of his tomb, is introduced at an early stage.
Thomas. first mission field is given as Parthia, a location attested to not only by Origen
(albeit existing only as a quote in Eusebius), but also Clement of Alexandria (died 235 AD)
and others, including of course The Acts.
Origen was one of the Church Fathers, being a scholar and theologian. He lived from
about 184 to about 253 and spent most of his life in Alexandria. He produced several
thousand works including many biblical commentaries, theological works, and letters. Most
of these are lost, but many survive in part, as quotations by Eusebius, both in his great
Ecclesiastical History and in his other works. Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea and a
student of Origen.s work. He had been born in Caesarea just a decade after Origen died
there, having bequeathed his entire library to the city.
The Parthian empire is the first of the homelands mentioned by the Jewish pilgrims to
Jerusalem in the Pentecost account of Acts 2:
“And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and
Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia . . .”
The Mede and Elamite empires had been by this time replaced or subsumed by the
Parthian empire. Mesopotamia is the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in
southern Turkey and Iraq, with the heartland of Media to the east, and that of Elam lying
on the Persian Gulf south of Media. The Parthian Empire lasted from 247 BC to 224 AD
and geographically included the modern states of Iran, Iraq, and much of Syria,
Afghanistan and even Pakistan. In 53 BC, they defeated the Roman army led by Crassus,
the general and politician, who was the richest man in Roman history, and who put down
Spartacus. revolt. Between 40 and 37 BC, they even occupied Jerusalem, in the form of
their Jewish puppet king Antigonus. This will have left a lasting impact on the Jews of
Jesus. time, because Antigonus fought against the Greeks and Romans and their
influence. He was deposed by Herod the Great backed by Mark Antony, and handed over
to Mark Antony for execution [Josephus, Antiquities, XV 1:2 (8-9)]. The Parthians had frequent
conflicts with the Romans, particularly over the control of greater Armenia. There was a
civil war between rival claimants to the Armenian throne from about 38 to 49 AD. A ruling
Parthian dynasty was established in Armenia in 54 AD, which survived until 428 AD.
Parthia then, is synonymous with Persia, Mesopotamia and the former Mede and Elamite
empires of Old Testament days.
According to Sophronius, Thomas not only preached but had success in „establishing the
faith. amongst the „Medes, Persians, Carmanians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and other
nations in those parts.. The Medes and Persians lived in what was at that time the Parthian
empire, as we have seen. The others, however, were new to me, and who was
Sophronius, whom Butler quotes? Sophronius was born in Damascus in 560 AD was the
Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 until his death in 638, and is considered a saint by both
the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. He was a theologian who argued forcefully for the
orthodox view on the essential nature of Jesus. Being an Arab may have helped him in his
negotiations with Omar ibn Khattab, the Islamic Caliph of Jerusalem. The resulting
Covenant of Omar (637) outlines the rights of Christians under Muslim rule, so long as
they pay the Islamic poll tax. Many Arabs in today.s Jerusalem, of both faiths, still respect
the agreement, after more than thirteen centuries. Sophronius penned short accounts of
the lives of the Apostles, which became appended to Jerome.s Of Illustrious Men.
Hyrcania was part of the Parthian Empire, comprising the northern area of modern Iran,
including the capital Tehran, plus the most south-westerly part of Turkmenistan, being
immediately south and east of the southern end of the Caspian Sea. It was known for
tigers, the Hyrcan Tiger being mentioned in both Macbeth and Hamlet. Red Sonja, of the eponymous fantasy film starring Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger, was from
Hyrkania, apparently! To the Greeks, the Caspian Sea was the “Hyrcanian Sea”. The Silk
Road, the major trade route connecting the Mediterranean to China, passed through
Hyrcania before leaving the Parthian Empire and entering Bactria.
The Bactrians lived to the north-east of the Parthian Empire, north of the Hindu Kush
mountains. Bactria extended across part of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and
Tajikistan. According to Pliny, after the Parthians. defeat of Crassus and his Roman army
in 53 BC, 10,000 Roman prisoners were sent by the Parthians to Bactria to act as
mercenaries and guard the eastern frontier of their empire. Despite this, and having
previously been part of the heavily Greek influenced Indo-Parthian empire, the Kushans
invaded from the east. By the time of Thomas. ministry, Bactria was therefore subject to
influence from the Greeks and Romans from recent history and the Silk Road merchants,
from the powerful Parthians to the immediate west, and the ruling Kushans, the most
westerly extreme of the Chinese Han Empire, to the east. By 30 AD, Kushan control had
extended south across the Hindu Kush mountains well into India! On checking the old
maps, I found the legendary Gandhara to be a real area of northern Pakistan and southern
Afghanistan. As a fan of the mad-cap 1970s Japanese TV adventure story Monkey, I knew
Gandhara as the end of the heroes. journey: the location of the Buddhist scriptures they
sought. I had naively assumed that a trip from China to India would head south-west and
go east and south of the Himalayas, i.e. through what is now Burma and Bangladesh, so
locating Gandhara in north-east India, or Bhutan or Nepal. The real Gandhara is to the
north-west of India: the original 16th Century book which inspired the TV series, Journey to
the East by Wu Cheng’en, is itself based on the real 7th Century journey of Xuanzang
along the Silk Road, firstly from China to Afghanistan, then south to Pakistan and India.
The Carmanians lived in what is now the Kerman province in south-east Iran. It was
certainly part of the Parthian Empire in the first century, although it was bordered on the
east by the former Indo-Parthian Empire which fell to the Kushans. The actual extent of the
province of Carmania is not known, but near its heart was the citadel of Arg-é Bam, the
largest adobe building in the world. The citadel was built before 500 BC and survived until
an earthquake in December 2003. It lay on a major side-branch of the Silk Road, being
about mid-way on the 2,555km route from Tehran to Karachi, the capital cities of modern
Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would almost certainly have been visited by any travellers
through the region.
In 232 the relics of the apostle Thomas were brought [to Edessa] from Mylapore, India, on
which occasion his Syriac Acts were written . . . St. Gaudentius . . and Sophronius testify
that he died at Calamina, in India. This city the modern Indians suppose to be Meliapor;
but many . . think it was not far from Edessa, and that . . he never preached far beyond
Parthia and Persia.
St. Gaudentius of Brescia was Bishop of Brescia in northern Italy from 387 until his death
in 410 AD. Meliapor (or Mylapore) became Madras which is now called Chennai, but
whether it was ever Calamina is very unlikely. Medlycott suggests the name Calamina may
be partially derived from elmina, the Syriac for port or harbour [India and the Apostle Thomas,
A.E.Medlycott, 1905] whilst Philipps suggests a corruption of Carmania [The Connection of St.
Thomas with India; W.R. Philipps; 1903]. It does not appear in literature until the late 7th or mid 8th
century, after which its use becomes widespread.
The arrival of all or part of Thomas. body at Edessa in 232 AD is reported by many early
church historians. Edessa is now the city of Sanliurfa (Urfa for short) in the south east of
Turkey, 50km from the Syrian border, but it was formerly a principal city of greater
Armenia. Edessa became a vassal state of Rome in 216 AD, having formerly been the
capital of a nominally independent Syriac speaking kingdom known as Osroene, which
survived by keeping good relations with both Rome and the Parthians. By the start of the
century, Christianity was well established in the region, with the Syriac family of
churches (the Syrian Orthodox, the Maronites, the Assyrian Church of the East and others)
tracing their origins back to there. The notable School of Edessa may have produced the
Pershitta, a translation of the Old Testament into the Syriac language, which is closely
linked to the Aramaic which Jesus and the apostles probably spoke. The ruling family
accepted Christianity as the official state religion in about 203.
Butler has views on the Christian community in Southern India:
The Portuguese, when they came into the East-Indies, found there the St. Thomas-
Christians, it is said, to the number of fifteen thousand families, on the coast of Malabar…..
these Christians were drawn into Nestorianism only in the ninth century, by means of
certain Nestorian priests who came thither from Armenia and Persia. John III, king of
Portugal, ordered the body of St. Thomas to be sought for in an old ruinous chapel which
stood over his tomb without the walls of Meliapor. By digging there, in 1523, a very deep
vault in form of a chapel was discovered, in which were found the bones of the saint, with
a part of the lance with which he was slain, and a vial tinged with his blood. The body of
the apostle was put in a chest of porcelain, varnished and adorned with silver.
So Butler reports that the body of Thomas, or at least a collection of bones, was found
near to Mylapore. The present basilica was built over the „old ruinous chapel., with the foundation stone laid in July 1523. Even the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madras-
Mylapore, the present „guardians. of the basilica, accept that most of the bones of Thomas
ended up in Ortona. Their only claim is that “a piece of bone and the lancehead used to kill
the saint, excavated from the tomb, is kept in the museum”.
As Butler tells us, the Acts of Thomas was written about the same time as the translation
of the relics. More about the Acts of Thomas later, but first, what did John Foxe add to the
Source #2: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Foxe says of Thomas:
Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, and Persians: Also to the Germains,
Hiraconis, Bactris, & Magis. He suffred in Calamina a Citie of Iudea, being slaine with a
dart. [The Acts and Monuments of The Christian Church, Book 1, page 32, John Foxe, 1576]
Foxe.s account is typically brief, limiting himself to the meagre facts, as he sees them. The
„Germains. are the Kermanians or Carmanians from south east of Iran, as mentioned
earlier. Foxe calls Calamina a city of Judea, perhaps because he supposed that travel to
the south of India was unlikely. The Portuguese „discovered. the so-called St Thomas
Christians when they arrived in southern India in 1498, so writing in the mid-16th century,
Foxe may have accepted Thomas travelling to Parthia and beyond, but decided that it was
very unlikely that Thomas reached Madras! (Jerusalem to Kerman in Iran is1300 miles.
From there to Madras is a further 1830!). His response to the news from Catholic Portugal
was to simply deny that Thomas was ever in India! All this is pure guess-work of course,
but everyone else simply repeated the „Calamina in India. line, without evidence that such
a city exists. However, there is no more a Calamina in Judea than there is in India, and I
cannot find another reference to such a place. Foxe may have had some long lost theory
or source of information, or he may simply have made it up!
Of more interest is Foxe.s reference to the Magi. The visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is
recorded only in Matthew.s gospel, with „Magi. often translated as „wise men.. The Greek
word magus, the singular, or magi, the plural, is borrowed from Old Persian, meaning a
priest of the Zoroastrian religion, and is the source of our word „magic.. The idea of three
wise men is a western one based on the three gifts: the eastern churches originally
suggested twelve of them! They were not kings of course: the expression „three kings. is a
later embellishment. Matthew.s only clue about the origin of the wise men is that they
came from the east. The home of the Magi is therefore taken as being Babylon or
elsewhere in modern Iraq or Iran, although Jews from Yemen was another early
suggestion. Although magi were pagan priests and the word is usually applied to anti-
Christian sorcerers (e.g. Simon Magus in Acts 12), it.s worth remembering that Daniel of
the Old Testament not only out-witted the magi (“magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and
astrologers”) of the court, but later became their chief! It.s possible then that Jewish beliefs
survived as part of the cultic practices in Babylon. For Thomas to preach to magi then, was
not only perfectly possible if he travelled east along the Silk Road which passed through
what had been the Babylonian empire, but actually quite likely. Any success he had with
spreading the message of Jesus was certainly going to upset the incumbent Zoroastrian
priests! What is far less likely, „though, is the legend found in Opus Imperfectum in
Matthaeum. This 5th century commentary on Matthew relates that Thomas didn.t not just
preach to pagan priests he happened to come across, but that he actually met and
baptised The Magi – the actual Three Wise Men who.d visited Jesus several decades
earlier! What is even more unlikely than this is that the bodies of the actual Three Wise
Men ended up in Cologne Cathedral, as is claimed!
Source #3: The Golden Legend
The Golden Legend piece on Thomas opens with the usual fanciful explanation of his
name, running in this case to a full 234 words. The reason for the name Thomas, which
they interpret as „double. or „division. rather than twin, is that he knew the risen Christ both
by seeing but also by touching, apparently!
Here I paraphrase the remainder of the Golden Legend, which relies very heavily on The
The apostles meet in Caesarea to decide who goes where, and Thomas is given India.
He declines but is persuaded by an appearance of Jesus. He is then taken by a Jewish
trader named Abbanes to be a craftsman for Gundoferus, a king of India. They set sail,
stopping en route at Andrapolis, where they attend a royal wedding, and Thomas
persuades the happy couple to forego marriage and live in celibacy. Once in India,
Thomas agrees to build a palace for King Gundoferus, but instead of building the
palace, he gives the funds to the poor. He tells the king that he will not be able to see
the palace until he has died. Thomas and Abbanes are sent to prison. The king.s
brother dies, and in heaven he sees the palace built for the king. He returns to life.
Thomas is released from prison and the king and his brother are baptised. Thomas
makes many converts by his preaching.
The remainder of the Golden Legend varies from The Acts of Thomas account in the
detail, although this may be explained by the routes by which The Acts has come down to
us. The Acts was written in Syriac or possibly Greek, translated into or from Syriac or
Greek and possibly back again, has been edited, summarised and paraphrased, and
various fragments have been found in different languages and of different ages. The
version used by de Voragine and his sources when compiling the Legend was probably very different from the most „reliable. version accepted today! My paraphrasing of the
Then Thomas goes to another part of India, persuades the wife of the king of that region
to choose Christianity and celibacy, survives attempts to burn him alive, drives a demon
from an idol which melts like wax as a result, and is then killed by the local high priest
with a glaive (either a spear or a blade mounted on a pole). He is buried by Christian
men, and about 230 AD the body is moved to Edessa by Alexander the Emperor at the
request of the Syrians.
In The Acts, Thomas was invited by the second king, named as Misdaeus (Greek
versions) or Mazdai (Syriac versions), to heal his demon-possessed wife and daughter.
The women, once healed, then chose Christianity and celibacy. The king was angry and
put Thomas to death. Later the king became a Christian, following miracles at Thomas.s
So, can we learn any more about the real Thomas from these somewhat unlikely and
fanciful accounts? The location of Andrapolis is unknown, although it could be a Latinised
version of „city of man.. The Pakistani city of Peshawar in the upper Indus valley may
derive its name from the Sanskrit expression for „city of men.. Peshawar is very close to a
junction of trade routes which form the southerly branch of the Silk Road. One route heads
north-west to the main route via the Khyber Pass and the Kushan.s summer capital
Bagram, one south-west to the important trading port of Debal at the mouth of the Indus,
and one east to Taxila and eventually Mathura, 1100km to the south-east in central
northern India, the birthplace of Krishna! It would be perfectly possible to sail to Peshawar
from Debal on the coast via the Indus and Kabul rivers. Furthermore, at Thomas. time,
Peshawar was nominally the Kushan.s summer capital but effectively under the control of Gundoferus (Gondophares), whose capital was Taxila, 140km east, across the Indus near
modern Islamabad. More of Gundoferus later, when we take a closer look at The Acts.
The Indus River runs from just inside China, on the Tibetan plateau, south through
Pakistan to the Arabian Sea 100km south-east of Karachi. The river marks the separation
between the Persian Plateau and the Indian subcontinent. The name Indus is of Greek
origin, dating from the time of Alexander the Great, whose armies crossed the river in
about 326 BC. As early as 300 BC, the term „India. was applied to all lands east of the
Indus [Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, 1903]. The Parthians
and even the Romans traded with India by sea, travelling from the head of the Persian
Gulf down the coast to the mouth of the Indus, and then beyond to the south of the subcontinent.
Roman coins have been found at various places in India, which in turn were the
sources of the pepper and silk which passed in the other direction.
The Legend tells us that the translation of the relics in about 230 AD was carried out by
„Alexander the Emperor at the request of the Syrians.. Alexander Severus was Roman
Emperor between 222 and 235. He inherited the empire at the age of 14 from his 18 year-
old maternal cousin. Both his parents were Syrians and he was himself born in what is
now northern Lebanon. He was not a Christian: the conversion of Constantine, and with
him the Roman Empire, was still a century away. However, he allowed the building of a
synagogue in Rome and suggested a „temple. to Jesus before pagan priests dissuaded
him. Despite this, and the fact that Edessa was close to his homeland, how and why he
should be involved in the moving of Thomas. bones is a puzzle. Edessa had a large
Christian population by 230, and would no doubt have welcomed the prospect of
possessing the bones of an apostle, but there is no evidence that Severus had enough
influence in India to acquire the relics, even if he had wanted to. Neither Severus nor
Edessa got a mention in The Acts.
After the summarising of The Acts’
version of Thomas. life, the Legend tells us that
Thomas, „according to Isidore., preached the Gospel to the people of Persia and Media,
and to the Hircanians and Bactrians, and there he was “pierced with a glaive and so died”.
The final sentence reads thus:
“Chrysostom saith that when Thomas came in to the parts of the three kings which came
to worship our Lord he baptised them, and they were made helpers and aiders of our Lord
and of Christian faith.”
Isidore, the “last scholar of the ancient world” [Montalembert, The Monks of the W est from Saint
Benoit to Saint Bernard, 1860], was for 30 years the Archbishop of Seville. Between 615 and
618, he wrote his own De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), but this appears to be little
more than a continuation of Jerome.s work, which curiously only included three of the
Apostles amongst its 135 subjects. The references to the peoples in and around Persia we
have seen in works of later centuries, and have discussed already. The fact that the same
material is in both Butler and Foxe, and is found in The Legend (13th Century, quoting
Isidore.s 7th Century work) shows that the geographical area of Thomas. (initial, at least)
ministry was well established. What is potentially more significant is the assertion that
Thomas was martyred “there”, i.e. in Persia, Media, Hircania or Bactria – not in India at all!
John Chrysostom is regarded by the Orthodox and Eastern churches as one of the three
greatest theologians of the early church, and his position as Archbishop of Constantinople
so soon after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity was immensely important both
spiritually and politically. Although many works of his survive, I cannot trace the direct
reference to St. Thomas and the „three kings.. In his Homily on Matthew Ch1 vv 22 & 23,
he says that he believed that, following their experiences, the Wise Men would have
become „teachers of their country-men.. The Legend may refer to the passage in Opus
Imperfectum in Matthaeum mentioned above, which says that Thomas baptised the Magi
who had visited the infant Jesus, and that they went on to evangelise others. This work
was wrongly attributed to John Chrysostom for centuries, certainly at the time of de
Voragine and The Legend. Although the dating to the 5th Century is accurate, scholars
from Erasmus onwards (i.e. after about 1600) poured such doubt on Chrysostom.s
authorship that the work as a whole fell out of favour. We have no reason to believe that
the three (or more) kings (or wise men or magi) were baptised by Thomas!
In The Legend, we also get the interesting expression
Edessa, the city which sometime was said Rages, city of Media.
which I take to mean “Edessa, which is sometimes called Rages . . ”. The ancient city of
Rages, or Rhages, is now part of Greater Tehran, some 1500km east of Edessa. So why
did de Voragine suggest some confusion between the two cities? The only similar
reference I could find initially was:
“The Crusaders had identified Edessa with Rages in Media”
which was a footnote to the history of Lincoln Cathedral in Handbook to the Cathedrals of
England [Richard John King, 1862]. A little more digging brought a quote from William of Tyre
(died 1186) in his work History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, which was effectively a
history of the Crusader kingdoms and written a century before The Legend. William was
brought up in Jerusalem and became Archbishop of Tyre in what is now southern
Lebanon. His comment, which I could only find in Latin, was kindly translated by my father
“Edessa is the celebrated Mesopotamian town, whose other name is Rhages, to which
Tobias senior sent his son Tobias junior . . .”
William equates Edessa with the city of Rhages, also referring to a passage in the book of
Tobit. The book of Tobit, or Tobias, is part of the Apocrypha -those books which did not quite make it into the Hebrew scriptures but are highly regarded by the Roman Catholic
and Orthodox churches. With William being based relatively close to Edessa, he may have
had local knowledge. However, his thoughts do not seem to have gained acceptance
elsewhere, except as a brief comment in the hugely popular Legend a century later.
Almost everyone assumes that Tobias junior was sent to „real. Rhages. It is perfectly
possible that the crusaders or others may have confused the two cities, but their confusion
has little impact on our study!
To complete this diversion from our task, I have noticed another Rages, on the Roman
map the Tabula Peutingeriana. This was possibly only a village or small town, relatively
close to Tahona (possibly Taxila) and Alexandria Bucephalous, the modern city of Jhelun
120km to the south east, which was about the limit of Alexandria the Great.s India
campaign. This Rages, then, was in the heart of what is now Pakistan, well beyond the
The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas
We.ve already talked about this extensive work. It.s not very early: it seems to date from
about 230 AD, to coincide with the arrival of Thomas. relics at Edessa. It forms just one
part of a large cycle of romances named after apostles, many of which have been lost. It is
no surprise then that all the early church historians regard the work as having little
historical value. As mentioned above, „Judas Thomas. is used extensively throughout,
possibly indicating Thomas. given name was the common Judas or Jude.
It certainly has much content that is overtly Gnostic , and was eventually condemned as
heretical by the Roman Catholic church at the Council of Trent in the 16th Century. An
example of Gnosticism is this excerpt, spoken by an ass or donkey(!):
“Thou twin of Christ, apostle of the Most High and initiate in the hidden word of Christ who
receivest his secret oracles.”
Gnosticism, very briefly, was an early heresy which said that matter was evil and spirit was
good, and salvation was an escape from the body by means of gaining „special
knowledge.. The Acts asserts that Thomas was the twin of Jesus, possibly representing
his physical side as opposed to a wholly spiritual Jesus. It survives in several different
forms, of different lengths and with a great variation in the text. Although old manuscripts
exist in both Greek and Syriac, examination of those in Greek tells the experts that they
are translations from Syriac. The earliest surviving Syriac manuscripts however, are edited
versions, with the more overt of the Gnostic passages removed. The oldest Greek
translations may therefore be closer to the original text.
It is a long work: English translations run to well over 30,000 words, compared to, for
example, under 20,000 words in Luke, the longest of the gospels. There are 14 „chapters.,
beginning with the division of the „regions of the world. amongst the apostles. Interestingly,
the list includes James, the first of the apostles to be martyred, in about 44 AD, but not
Matthias, despite his having been „appointed. to fill Judas Iscariot.s position about a
decade earlier. Another interesting point is that the first few lines are clearly in the first
“At that season all we the apostles were at Jerusalem.”
However, the references to Thomas are in the „third person.:
“According to the lot, therefore, India fell unto Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he
would not go . . . ”
The author is speaking as if he were another of the apostles. This is reminiscent of the
biblical Acts of the Apostles, in which Luke uses the first person in passages where he
accompanied Paul, but the third person for passages where he was not present.
The book is divided into these „Acts.:
The First Act, when he went into India with Abbanes the merchant
The Second Act: concerning his coming unto the king Gundaphorus
The Third Act: concerning the servant
The Fourth Act: concerning the colt
The Fifth Act: concerning the devil that took up his abode in the woman
The Sixth Act: of the youth that murdered the woman
The Seventh Act: of the captain
The Eighth Act: of the wild asses
The Ninth Act: of the wife of Charisius
The Tenth Act: wherein Mygdonia receiveth baptism
The Eleventh Act: concerning the wife of Misdaeus
The Twelfth Act: concerning Ouazanes (Iuzanes) the son of Misdaeus
The Thirteenth Act: wherein Iuzanes receiveth baptism with the rest
The rambling work contains much that seems very likely to be at best, legend, and at
worst, simply made up. However, within the fanciful legends and tales of derring-do, there
is probably a kernel of truth. Our question is: how much truth? The answer, of course, is
we don.t know: we just have to weigh up the evidence and see what we get. One of the
key pieces of evidence is the large part played by King Gundoferus (Gundaphorus, or any
number of alternate spellings). Gundoferus was a little known figure, but having been the
first king of Indo-Parthia, lived many decades before the time of Thomas. ministry. The use
of his name was assumed to be either a reference to generic „Indian. royalty, or just a total
fabrication. However, more recently, evidence has been discovered in the form of coins
and inscriptions of a number of subsequent rulers who also adopted the title Gundoferus.
The existence of a dynasty has given the account a solid base of fact, even if it is not
actually true! It is likely that the Gundoferus dynasty gave their name to the Afghan city of
Kandahar. It has even been suggested that he was Caspar / Gaspar, one of the actual
Three Wise Men who.d visited Jesus several decades earlier! This was not mentioned in
The Acts, and of course the Magi are neither named nor even numbered in the Gospel
Many sources claim that the „other. king mentioned, Misdaeus in the Greek versions or
Mazdai in the Syriac, was a king in Southern India. However, the actual text of The Acts
does not mention the name or the location of Misdaeus. kingdom. Unlike Gundoferus,
there is no Misdaeus or Mazdai known amongst Indian rulers of the first century. All
references to him in later literature can be traced back to The Acts. The descriptions of the
city, land and general environs of his kingdom certainly do not seem to match Mylapore
(now part of Greater Chennai (Madras)), the site of the St Thomas Basilica and tomb:
Mylapore, for example, has never been a desert country. The Canadian Hindu convert and
writer, and anti-Christian polemic, Ishwar Sharan writes:
“There is simply nothing Indian, much less South Indian, in the setting and ambiance of the
Acts of Thomas. All internal evidence suggests Syria, Iraq and Persia . . . or a kingdom on
the edge of the Roman Empire -like Edessa itself.”
[The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore
Shiva Temple, Ishwar Sharan, 2010]
I automatically shrink from the opinions of people like Sharan: it.s, not even his real name
but a pseudonym because he is so scared of Christian revenge attacks apparently! His
web-sites are full of bigoted anti-Christian propaganda with little basis in biblical fact or
reasoned argument (e.g. “St Peter never visited Rome . . ” etc). However, on this particular
point, I reluctantly have to agree with him! I think that even if The Acts was true, there is
nothing in there placing Thomas further from Parthia than the Indus valley or close to it.
Unlike the Golden Legend, The Acts does not mention Severus or a tomb in Edessa.
However, ending shortly after the account of Thomas. martyrdom, it does include the
“. . he [Misdaeus] went and opened the sepulchre, but found not the apostle there, for one
of the brethren had stolen him away and taken him unto Mesopotamia.”
This then is a translation to somewhere in Mesopotamia in the 60s, rather than 230 AD.
The coming of the bones to Edessa in about 230 could therefore have been from another
location nearby, rather than from somewhere in India. According to information supplied by
the Roman Catholic Church in Pakistan “Christians unofficially visit the shrine of St.
Thomas in the ruins of Taxila.” I can find no other source of this bit of information, and
given that there are no longer any Christian communities dating back to Apostolic times, I
find this somewhat unlikely.
How Did Thomas End Up In Ortona?
Ortona is 200km directly across Italy from Rome, and a similar distance from Split in
Croatia across the Adriatic. The current population is 23,000. The town is most famous
nowadays as the site of an intense battle between German paratroops and Canadian
forces over a week in December 1943. Ortona has the Basilica Concattedrale di S.
Tommaso Apostolo which contains the recognized relics of Thomas. The path by which
they arrived in Italy from Edessa is known with greater confidence than how they got to
Edessa, and the following information is drawn from both the Ortona Basilica guidebook,
and the detailed and often quoted historical study India and the Apostle Thomas by A. E.
Medlycott, published in 1905.
Edessa fell to the Muslims in 638 and was subsequently a centre of conflict over several
centuries. It was occupied successively by Byzantines (Greeks from Constantinople),
Armenians, Turks, and then the Crusaders in 1099. In 1144, the city was sacked by the
Turks who slaughtered most of the population and destroyed all the churches, including
that “in which the body of Thomas the Apostle lies” [Annales of Signantius, Abbot of Edessa]. The relics then appeared on the island of Chios, presumably spirited out of Edessa and Asia
Minor as Muslim power spread. Chios, home of both Homer (of Iliad fame, 8th Century BC)
and Aristotle Onassis (1906 to 1975), is only 7km from the Turkish coast despite being
part of Greece. Although there is no evidence of how the relics arrived, there is no doubt
that they were thought to be genuine -a tomb was built and an engraved bust made to
hold the skull.
Around a century later, the relics were snatched by a fleet under Philip Leonard, an
admiral of the Prince of Taranto in southern Italy. The relics, together with the covering
stone, were removed to one of the ships. Ortona was reached on the sixth of September
1258 and the relics moved to the cathedral.
The skull was in a silver bust with the rest of the bones in a bronze urn at the time of the
scientific study of 1984. The bones were extracted, identified and measured. Most of the
arm bones were missing, along with most of the ribs. The skull, spine, and legs were
largely intact, allowing estimates of the height. The skeleton belonged to a man of light
build, about 160cm or 5 ft 3” tall, aged between 50 and 70, with arthritis in the spine and
fingers, a benign tumour on the front of the skull, and a fracture of the cheekbone which
occurred either just before or just after death. After the study, the bones were interred in a
new casket and placed under the altar in a modern style chapel in the crypt of the basilica.
The same team studied a supposed arm bone of Thomas that had been in the possession
of the cathedral at Bari in southern Italy since 1102. This was identified as a bone of the
upper arm, and of such a size as to be from an individual about the same height as the
Ortona skeleton. How this bone came into the possession of the Bari cathedral is a
mystery: the relics of Thomas were supposed to be still in Edessa in 1102, although it is
possible that an arm was removed by the crusaders when they took the city in 1099.
The treasury of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Maastricht in the Netherlands has had,
also since the 11th century, a relic claimed to be Thomas. right upper arm.
According to Serbian Orthodox tradition, his right hand was translated from Edessa to
Constantinople in 920. After the crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, it was seized
by King Andrew II and taken to Hungary in 1218. According to all accounts, it has since
disappeared. However, I noted this from Pula Cathedral, Croatia:
“In 1860 a grave containing a stone sarcophagus was discovered in the church. The
sarcophagus contained a silver box adorned with depictions of St. Hermagoras and St.
Fortunatus, bishops of Aquileia. The box contained a smaller golden reliquary which is
believed to have held the relics of Thomas the Apostle . . . ”.
It.s worth noting that King Andrew had been Duke of Croatia whilst his elder brother was
king of Hungary, so it.s just possible that these relics comprise the missing hand, moved
by Andrew or transferred from brother to brother! They are now in the Museum of Art
History in Vienna.
The Syrian Orthodox church of Mar Toma in Mosul display „relics. of Thomas in a small
glass fronted „pigeon hole.. Mosul is in the north of modern Iraq, across the river Tigris
from the lost ruins of Ninevah, the city of much evil fled from and then later preached to by
Old Testament prophet Jonah. The Assyrians had been one of the biggest enemies of
biblical Israel and Judah, but they embraced Christianity, or at least a version of it, strongly
in the early centuries of the church!
The Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos also claims to have a
piece of the Thomas. relics, but it.s unclear exactly which bit of him!
The church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which is actually in Rome but built on soil
from Jerusalem, has the bone of an index finger, said to be the finger that Thomas placed
in Jesus. wounds.
A piece of bone from the elbow of the Ortona skeleton was „returned. to Kerala in 1953,
and shortly thereafter a piece of the hand was given to the cathedral at Mylapore.
Are There Traditions Linking Thomas With Other Places?
We have looked at the western tradition recorded in Butler, Foxe and The Legend, but are
there any accounts placing Thomas. martyrdom anywhere else? Let.s check out the usual
From the Coptic Synaxarium: “. . . the apostles dispersed everywhere to preach the
Gospel, Thomas went to India.”
From the American Orthodox Church: “Thomas founded churches in Mesopotamia,
Parthia and India.”
From the Greek Orthodox Church: “Thomas preached to the Parthians, Persians, Medes,
Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and neighbouring nations . . . his tomb was at Edessa in Syria, to
which city his holy relics may have been translated from India . .”
From the Antiochian Orthodox Church (part of the Greek Orthodox): “After the descent of
the Holy Spirit, when the apostles cast lots to see where they would each go to preach, the
lot fell to Thomas to go to India.”
From the Prologue of Ohrid (Serbian Orthodox): “India became Thomas’s vineyard, and he
cultivated that land with the Cross: preaching Christ to the mighty and the lowly, preaching
His wisdom and His works. O wise sons of India!”
These are a few examples, but all the others agree: no other place has a major claim on
Thomas! The only place which is occasionally mentioned is Ethiopia. However, there are
two strong arguments against Thomas visiting the modern country of Ethiopia, south of the
Sudan. Firstly the word „Ethiopia. is actually derived from Greek words meaning „people of
burned faces. and, like India, referred generally to far off places. Secondly, the Ethiopians
themselves lay no claim to Thomas:
“Thomas the Apostle began to work like an artisan, and to preach in the country of India.
Thomas became a martyr after he had preached in the country of India and Kantara.” [The
Ethiopian Orthodox Synaxarium]
Kantara may mean the town in northern Egypt, the site of a World War I British war
cemetery, but is far more likely to be a transliteration of Gandhara, as discussed earlier.
Either way, the Ethiopians accept that Thomas did not evangelise them.
Other Books Attributed to Thomas
As well as The Acts, other ancient books claim authorship of Thomas, or purport to be
about him. Those noted below are the most important and were part of the Thomas cycle
of literature known in Syriac and Gnostic circles in the middle centuries of the first
millennium. Some were well known and exist in many old manuscripts; others, although
ancient, were unknown until relatively recently.
The Gospel Of Thomas: not a gospel as we understand them, but a well-publicised work
comprising a set of 114 supposed quotations of Jesus. About half of these are similar to those in the gospels, the others being unknown before the discovery of the work in 1945. The only complete manuscript was found amongst the Nag Hammadi library, a collection
of 4th Century papyrus books found buried near Luxor in Egypt. The books were all written
in Coptic, the liturgical language of the orthodox church in Egypt, but many are openly
Gnostic in outlook. The Gospel of Thomas begins
“These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas
wrote them down.”
It dates either to the mid-first century, or to some time in the second, so it is possibly as old
as the canonical gospels. Other fragments, in Greek, have since been discovered or
recognised, often with variations in the text. It is possible therefore that much of it is very
early, but that later additions were made. Some scholars suggest that the original was
written in Syriac, possibly placing the author in the same vicinity as Thomas, at about the
same time. Whilst it is viewed as a valuable insight into the very early church, and
evidence of a possible source document for the synoptic gospels, it is very unlikely to have
been written by „our. Thomas Didymus.
The Book of Thomas the Contender: another of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, otherwise
unknown. The work is a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas, although Jesus. final piece
becomes a monologue comprising over one third of the whole. The work begins:
“The secret words that the saviour spoke to Judas Thomas which I, even I, Matthias, wrote
down, while I was walking, listening to them speak with one another.”
The book is overtly Gnostic in nature. It has even been suggested that it was written
originally by a Jew steeped in Greek literature, being „Christianised. only later.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas: another early work, which presents fanciful stories of the
childhood of Jesus. It was quoted by Irenaeus in about 185 AD, and clearly takes ideas
from the Gospel of Luke, so it may be dated to between about 85 and 185. Many old
manuscripts exist in both Greek and Syriac. So many ancient versions exist, with many
variations in reading, that the original language cannot be determined. The author is
referred to as „Thomas the Israelite. but the text strongly suggests that he is a gentile.
The work contains two tales worthy of telling:
Jesus is asked by his kindergarten teacher to pronounce the Greek letter „beta., so
“First tell me what is meant by Alpha . . .”
Jesus makes some birds from clay, then brings them to life. Interestingly, this tale is
repeated, albeit with an adult Jesus, in the Qu.uran!
The Psalms of Thomas: twelve psalms discovered at the back of a Coptic book of psalms
found buried in Egypt in 1928. They are very similar to the Hymn of the Pearl, a passage
from The Acts.
The Apocalypse of Thomas: a vision of the end of the world written originally in Latin at the
very end of the 3rd Century or very early in the 4th. It seems to be a simplified version of
Revelation, the last book of the bible which is also known as the Apocalypse of John.
“Here beginneth the epistle of the Lord unto Thomas. Hear thou, Thomas, the things which
must come to pass in the last times: there shall be famine and war and earthquakes in
divers places . . .”
I.ve often wondered why manuscripts written in Greek or Latin or Coptic etc are translated
into Olde English! Why produce a King James version rather than a Good News version?
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (by Bartholomew): is a work which exists only in Coptic
manuscripts. The text contains visions by Bartholomew, and includes a brief passage
where Thomas raises his son Siophanes from the dead. However, it is a relatively late
work predominantly about the Passion, and the Eucharist, and adds nothing to our study.
We.ve looked at the major legends and examined much of the evidence concerning
Thomas, but there is one more tid-bit I shall add. I spoke to a friend who is a Christian
brought up in Pakistan. He gave me three interesting points, which he and Pakistani
Christians accept as facts.
1) The building built by Thomas in Taxila is well known, although it nowadays only
consists of walls a foot or so high (no tomb or shrine though)
2) He believes that Thomas did personally visit southern India and „founded. the Mar
Thoma Christian community
3) Contrary to what most present-day Pakistani churches suggest, there was an
existing Christian community in Pakistan long before the arrival of the British.
So, what can we conclude? A lack of any legends in Europe or Africa suggests that travel
to the east and south-east is the most likely. Use of the Silk Road and other well-
established trading routes made travelling long distances relatively easy. The existing Mar
Thoma communities of Kerala and Madras insist they were founded by Thomas. However,
would an apostle with a new message of salvation travel the vast distance from Taxila to
Madras, and how long would that take? Of course, it.s possible, but it seems unlikely, and
does not mirror the method of St Paul in Acts. Paul visited and revisited a number of towns
all of which had Jewish, and often existing Christian, communities, and all of which spoke
Latin or Greek. Would Thomas, albeit over possibly three decades or more, by-pass huge numbers of Greek speaking potential converts, or visit them and leave no detectable trace
of his passing, to travel 1800 miles from his linguistic and cultural comfort zone all the way
to Kerala and ultimately Madras? And if so, how did his bones end up in Edessa in
My own theory is this: Thomas left Jerusalem after the persecution of Acts Chapter 8, and
travelled east along the Silk Road trade route to preach in the kingdom of Parthia, where
there were established Jewish communities, including some who had witnessed the
events of Pentecost recounted in Acts 2. The Parthian empire and Mesopotamia became
centres of the early church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, so it may be that Thomas had
success in establishing churches. At some point he moved on, probably overland,
following the southern branch of the Silk Road to end up at Taxila, staying there and in
surrounding kingdoms for some time. He was eventually martyred under Gundoferus (or
another nearby king later called Misdaeus / Mazdai) and buried. His body may well have
been taken almost immediately back to an unknown location in Mesopotamia by disciples
of his who had travelled with him, before they were later translated to Edessa, and thence
to Ortona with bits of him spread elsewhere across Europe.
This, I think, matches both the available „facts., and also the most likely chain of events. Of
course it is possible he could get as far as Madras, but more likely that he would establish
congregations in a smaller, Greek speaking area for ease of regular visits, like St Paul and
his missionary journeys in Acts. I suspect the Mar Thoma Christians of southern India
were established by Assyrian speaking merchants and missionaries in or after the 3rd
Century. I also think the Ortona bones may be genuine, or at least, genuinely in Edessa
from about 230AD. Whether they are really the bones of the saint is largely unimportant to
me as a 21st Century protestant, although their story is fascinating and intriguing.
St. Thomas was truly the apostle to the Indians, but probably only those living not far
across the ancient dividing line, the River Indus. He probably got about as far as
Alexander the Great, albeit far more peacefully!
The relics of Thomas, contained in the box beneath the altar in the crypt at Ortona
Statue of St. Thomas at Palayoor in Kerala, India
The Ortona skeleton
Cave, Little Mount, Chennai/Madras
Copyright Ian Hampson 2013