As a student of New Testament studies, I was challenged to take up a study about St. Thomas and the Thomas Christians of Kerala, India, while I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ, USA. The course I had under Prof. James H. Charlesworth, i.e., The Life and Thought of Jesus of Nazareth, was one of the most persuasive ones in my life. But, I was unable to succeed with the challenge for a long time. In recent years, the same challenge is continued through Dutch Catholic scholars in the universities of Nijmegen (Holland) and Leuven (Belgium). The realization about the demand for this study is compelling. While the academicians and the theological bodies of India had ‘abandoned’ the rich traditions of St. Thomas for the sake of contextual theological enterprises, they were in reality moving away from the ‘here and now’ aspects of scholarship to the ‘imported’ provocations of the Latin American interpreters. It resulted into ascholarly initiatives and impoverished theological enterprises in India. The varied quests about St. Thomas and the Christian community of Kerala from different quarters of the world must receive proper attention. A combined effort of both the New Testament scholars as well as the Church Historians may bring forth new insights into this unexplored area of research. One of my recent visits to Cochin and Kodungallur inspired me to blog about a few of the pertinent aspects related to St. Thomas and the Thomas Christians of Kerala.
As a history graduate, I was prompted to get involve in this entire gamut of tradition-historical research. By placing Kodungallur and its surrounding areas as the starting point I initiated a study. Kodungallur is identified as one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world (ca. 100 BC to 1341 AD). Koder (p. 1) states that, “Cranganore (i.e., modern ‘Kodungallur’, situated 30 kilometres north of Cochin), known as Muzhiris to the Greeks and Shingly to the Jews was the only sea port in India known to the outside world. It was to this port therefore the Jews turned for a haven of refuge and a centre of trade. The destruction of Cranganore is often compared to the devastation of Palestine in miniature and the consequent dispersal of Jews from their Holy Land”. The Old Muzhiris was part of the First Chera Dynasty (i.e., 5th Century BC till 3rd Century AD). Later, Muzhiris became an integral part of Mahodayapuram, the capital city of the Second Chera Dynasty (i.e., from 9th Century AD). Both during the First and the Second Chera periods, Kurumba Bhagavati Temple (also known as Kodungallur Bhagavati Temple) was well-known for the people of the kingdom (cf. Menon, 1967). The temple is popularly known as a religious centre devoted to goddess Bhadrakali (also known as ‘Kodungallur Amma’). This informs us that the temple of Kodungallur was an established Hindu religious centre during the First Century AD.
The connection of St. Thomas with Kodungallur has to be understood over against the above stated context. It is believed that the Cochin Jew Colony in Malabar Coast (i.e., Anjuvanam, near Kodungallur) established before 6th Century BC would have attracted Thomas later on to land there. The St. Thomas Christians of Kerala believe that Apostle Thomas landed in Kodungallur in 52 AD and founded seven churches in different provinces. According to tradition, he founded the following ‘seven and half’ churches (in Malayalam language, Ezharapallikal): Maliankara (Kodungallur), Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Gokamangalam, Kottakkayal (Parur), Palayur (Chattukulangara) and Thiruvithancode Arappally (i.e., a ‘half church’; cf. Hasting, 2000: 149; Arampulickal, 1994: 40). Firth (2001: 3) records that “in four of which places Syrian churches still exist”. 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). The connections of Kodungallur with the ancient Jewish Kingdom and the existence of the St. Thomas Christians provide more possibilities for the coming of the apostle to this part of the world. Alongside of these proofs, the apocryphal Acts of Thomas records about the selection of St. Thomas to evangelize India, his preaching and conversions, and his eventual martyrdom and burial on a mountain, from which his bones were later removed and taken to the West (cf. Grant, 1968: 1062).
In our recent visit to Kodungallur, we took special effort to visit the ‘Mar Thomas Church Historical Museum’ where we found the following chronological data inscribed on the wall in Malayalam language. It also includes details from the writings of Koder and Israel. The brochure in Malayalam language entitled AD 52-il Vishuddha Thomasleeha Sthapicha Malliankarappally was used as a third resource. Browse through the chronological details below:
- In 10th Century BC, 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 8th century BC, the Jews who were absconded from the Assyrian dispersion reached Maliankara Coast;
- In 6th century BC, the Jews who were escaped from the Babylonian dispersion reached Maliankara;
- In 6th century BC, a group of Jews who were escaped from the hands of Roman looters came to Maliankara;
- 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;
- In BC 30, the Roman trade fleet reached Maliankara;
- In AD 52 November 21, St. Thomas reached Maliankara via Socotra Island. Upon his arrival St. Thomas established the first cross and started the first church in India. Socotra was called ‘Dioskouridou’ in the first century AD, in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an early shipping manual (also in the writings of Marco Polo, 1254-1324). Today it is part of the Republic of Yemen (cf. Israel, 1982: 41). It is believed that the inhabitants of Socotra were converted to Christianity by Apostle Thomas in AD 52, and that Thomas was once shipwrecked there during his frequent journeys to India, and the shipwreck was used to build a church;
- In AD 70, the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the consequent dispersal of the Jews to the four corners of the earth from Palestine. That resulted into the landing of the Jews in Shingly in AD 72. This event of the Jewish arrival is considered as the ‘colonization’ of Cranganore (cf. Koder, 1965: 15);
- After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt many Jews were carried away captive to the small island of Majorca. From there many captive Jews reached their haven in Cranganore (cf. Israel, 1982: 41);
- In AD 345, Jewish tradesman Knai Thoma, a priest who received a vision, along with other priests and deacons, men and women, and youths started their journey from Nineveh in Baghdad and reached Maliankara. It happened just twenty years after the historical Nicene Creed (AD 325);
- During AD 490-518, more Jews arrived in Maliankara from Babylon and Persia (cf. Koder, 1965: 15);
- 9th Century AD, Mar Proth, Mar Sapol and others reached Maliankara for the sake of pastoral ministry;
- In AD 1524, Moorish attack on Jews in Cranganore (cf. Koder, 1965: 15);
- In AD 1564, the old generation Nazrani Christians started their pilgrimage to Maliankara;
- On 14th November 1953, Cardinal Eugene Tissarant (who was the head of Eastern Church Order and Dean of the Cardinals) blessed the image of St. Thomas in Maliankara;
- On 3rd July 2011, re-started the Maliankara pilgrimage. Right Reverend Dr. Joseph Karikkassery (Bishop of Kottapuram Diocese) blessed the cross that was built on stone and the historical footmark of St. Thomas;
- On 31st August 2012, Mar Thomas Church Historical Museum inauguration in Maliankara.
The above chronological listing proves Maliankara’s role as a great centre of trade and religious traditions. In the annals of Kerala History there are records stating about the existence of a Jewish Kingdom in the province of Kodungallur. The role of the kingdom as an asylum for the persecuted Jewish and Christian communities was/is known widely among the national and the international communities. The persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire (including Palestine and the surrounding regions) would have prompted St. Thomas to consider Cranganore as a centre of refuge and missio Dei. To add further, the well-established Syrian Christian community of Kerala and its age-old traditions provide more possibilities (over against the ‘less probability arguments’) for the landing of St. Thomas in Maliankara. Later, the establishment of the Islamic Masjid in Kodungallur added more complexity to the historical/traditional situation of the city. The Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur, built in AD 629, is the oldest mosque in India and the second oldest mosque in the world (cf. Landis and Albert, 2012: 141). This further proves the ‘open minded’ and ‘receptive’ mentality of the people of Kodungallur toward diverse people groups and their ideologies. This favourable situation would have been popularized among the first century Christians in different parts of the Roman Empire. In recapitulation, this receptive mentality of the people would have prompted many, including St. Thomas who was one of the prominent leaders of the persecuted Christianity, to choose India as an asylum and to get involve in the missionary activities.
For Further Reference:
Arampulickal, J., 1994. The Pastoral Care of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Migrants. Oriental Institute of Religious Studies. India Publications.
Brochure, 2012. AD 52-il Vishuddha Thomasleeha Sthapicha Malliankarappally. Maliankara: Mar Thomas Church Historical Museum.
Firth, C. B., 2001. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Indian Theological Library. Delhi: ISPCK.
Grant, R. M., 1968. “Thomas, Saint”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol. 21. Chicago/London: William Benton, Publisher: 1062-63.
Hastings, A., 15 August 2000. A World History of Christianity. Eerdmans.
Israel, Benjamin J. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books, 1982.
Koder, S. S. Kerala and Her Jews. Cochin: Cochin Synagogue.
Landis, D., Albert, R. D., 14th February 2012. Handbook of Ethnic Conflict: International Perspectives. Springer.
Menon, A. S., 1967. A Survey of Kerala History. India.
Compiled by Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India