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in the Eastern part of the world was/is abnegated considerably both in the field of biblical studies and in the church historical documents.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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  1. Gerald L. Borchert says:

    Thank you so much for your excellent work. It definitely pushes our thinking well beyond the previous horizons. Cordially yours. Gerald L. Borchert, SEnior Professor, Cason-Newman University and Thesis Director of the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies.

  2. Dear Prof. Gerald L. Borchert, thanks a lot for your comment here. I really enjoyed reading your commentary on John’s Gospel (John 1-11, in New American Commentary. Vol. 25A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996) and even quoted from that toward my Doctoral Dissertation. We are grateful to you for your excellent scholarship. Please continue contributing more in the years to come.

  3. [...] The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part III): The Indo-Parthian and the South Indian Theor… [...]

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