The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part I): The Forgotten Thomas

Posted: January 2, 2013 in General

egallery4-5Apocryphal book that delineates the twelve great acts of Apostle Thomas (cc. 1-107, 114-158), his martyrdom (cc. 159-170) and the Hymn of the Pearl (cc. 108-113) is commonly entitled as “The Acts of Thomas” (ATh, i.e., Periodei Thoma). This non-canonical work is usually considered as an early third century (i.e., AD 200-250) literary composition. Reference to the ATh by Epiphanius Salamis shows that it was in circulation in the fourth century. According to Charlesworth (1995: 378-79; cf. Quispel, 1975), “The Acts of Thomas is so late that we should expect that it reflects knowledge of all the intracanonical gospels; perhaps a Diatessaron was quoted… The Acts of Thomas must antedate Epiphanius (315-403) who refers to it”. It is important to note that the complete version of the text in Syriac and in Greek is available (cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68; cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72). Attridge (1992: 6: 531; cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68) comments that, “Like other apocryphal acts combining popular legend and religious propaganda, the work (i.e., Acts of Thomas) attempts to entertain and instruct. In addition to narratives of Thomas’ adventures, its poetic and liturgical elements provide important evidence for early Syrian Christian traditions”. From the above quotes of Charlesworth and Attridge we can infer/conjecture that the author(s) of ATh would have incorporated the readily available Gospel traditions as well as the ‘popular legends and religious propaganda’ circumscribed around the historical personality of Apostle Thomas.

There are divergent patristic recordings with regard to the destination of Thomas’ missionary activities in the Eastern hemisphere. While Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Rufinus, and Socrates connect Thomas with Parthia, in Ephrem’s works, i.e., Hymni disperse V-VII and Carmina Nisibena XLII, we find references about his first travel to India (cf. Klijn, 1962: 27). Majority of the church fathers are unanimous in their opinion about his travel to the Eastern hemisphere. Their disagreements are usually with regard to Thomas’ mission destination within the Eastern hemisphere. Klijn (1962: 20-21) says that, “For the Acts of Thomas we may refer to Ephrem Syrus. From his writings it appears that he knew about Thomas having gone to India. This is also found in the Manichaean Psalms. Whether we are justified in saying that Ephrem knew the Acts of Thomas cannot be determined”. Connecting Thomas with the Parthian kingdom would not dissolve the possibility of his coming to India. The Acts of Thomas, along with Ephrem and the Manichaean Psalms, records that India was the mission platform of Apostle Thomas. This global tradition is supported by the local Malabar tradition of his arrival at Maliankara (see here), his foundation of churches at certain places, his ordination from certain families, his further travels and his death at Mylapore (cf. Firth, 2001: 14). Moreover, the historical evidences from the First Century like the Indo-Parthian connections and the relics of a native Indian king called Gundaphoros and his brother Gad support the view that Apostle Thomas had long term connections with several native kingdoms (at least three native kingdoms) of the First Century India.

As in the case of the other apocryphal Acts, the ATh shares the following three characteristics: firstly, the propagation of the Gospel; secondly, the deeds and words of the Apostle; and thirdly, the martyrdom of the Apostle. While the Acts of the Apostles received its written format in the First Century itself, the traditions related to Thomas were circulated in their oral format at least until the beginning of the Third Century. While the early church was too much obsessed with Peter, John and James and more extensively with Paul and the traditions related to all of them, we lost Thomas who was one of the inquisitive personalities of the first century Christendom. While Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul, and Acts of John were emerged as works concerning the ‘key figures’ of the Early Christian church, ATh didn’t emerge as a work around such a figure who was admired by the mother church at Jerusalem. The ATh shows considerable parallelism with the APet and the APaul; but it shows very less parallelism with the AJn (cf. Klijn, 1962: 23-26; Bauckham, 1997: 70-72). While APet, APaul, and AJn were composed as complimentary works after the well acclaimed Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine corpuses of early Christianity, there is no evidence to prove about the existence of an acknowledged ‘Thomas corpus’ after which the ATh would have been written down (except the possible existence of the unacknowledged Gospel of Thomas) (see here). In that sense, the endeavour to write down the traditions related to Thomas, who was one of the most misunderstood and even forgotten personalities in the First Century, deserves special mention.

While Peter and Paul were magnified as the leading figures in the annals of Christian history, the whole world had to embrace a western type of Christianity. In that process, the activities of apostles like Thomas were not regarded and acknowledged by the early church. This further leads us to state that the neglect of Thomas and his involvement as a missionary preacher ultimately resulted into the marginalization of one of the significant episodes in the eastern annals of Christianity. Paul, though was neither an eye-witness nor an apostle, came to the limelight through his rhetorical skills, his socio-religious influences, his Western-focused missionary activities, his arguments concerning his ‘apostleship’, his constant visit to/touch with the Jerusalem Church, and the moral support he received from the mother church. But, the mission of Thomas, though he was an apostle, an eye-witness to the resurrection, and a strong proclaimer of the divinity of Jesus, didn’t receive any attention due to his eastward movements. This factor can be proved in the following ways: firstly, there is no indication that Thomas received any support from the Jerusalem church toward his missionary endeavours; and secondly, there is no evidence that somebody was sent to assist him from the mother church. While the Petrine-centric Palestinian church and Pauline-centric Gentile church were the attractions of the early Christendom, Thomas’ mission in the Eastern context and the socio-religious challenges he confronted there were abnegated considerably. While Paul, as a learned Roman citizen and as a disciple of Gamaliel, amassed considerable attention from several quarters of the incipient church, Thomas’ less regarded status as a fisherman-carpenter would have remained as a barrier for him to convince the Jerusalem Christianity. While an Apostolic Council was convened (Acts of the Apostles 15) to make the mission concerns of Paul flexible, we do not see any such attempts toward the Indian or Parthian mission concerns. All these historical and contextual proofs support the view that Thomas was left all alone as a suffering servant in the eastern context. The attribution of the title ‘doubting Thomas’ would have added more support toward this categorical neglect.

The portrayal of Thomas in the ATh reveals some of the significant factors with regard to his identity as a missionary preacher. In ATh, he is often addressed by his interlocutors as a stranger (c. 4) and his God (Jesus) as a New God (c. 42). It records about his abstinence of food and drinks, his usual practice of wearing only one garment, his habit of not taking pay from anyone (c. 96), and his lifestyle as a recluse, an ascetic, a pauper, and a wandering mendicant. In the missionary endeavours, Thomas emphasized three doctrines, i.e., purity, humility, and temperance, as the kernel aspects of Christian living. As in the case of the commandment in Mark 16:15, he gave prominence for the duty of preaching. The Apostle is constantly portrayed as a praying Christian (c. 104) and as a person who didn’t go near to women (c. 144). All through the book Thomas is portrayed as the sharer in the hidden word of the life-giver and receiver of the secret mysteries of the Son of God (c. 97). This is reminiscent to the portrayal of Thomas in the Gospel of John (see here) and the Gospel of Thomas (see here). Moreover, Thomas is portrayed in ATh as an itinerant missionary and one who never ceased to preach/speak to the multitudes. All these evidences show that Thomas was a missionary par excellence.

The Early Church’s non-interest in the activities of Thomas (i.e., one who went beyond the Jewish-Gentile thought world) would have resulted into the delayed composition of the traditions related to him. James F. McGrath (2008: 297-311) states that, “…while the Acts of Thomas is almost certainly a work of a novelistic fiction, this should not lead us to ignore the instances of confirmable historical information embedded therein, as in many other works of historical fiction”. Similarly, Firth (2001: 9) says about the ATh as follows: “Much, indeed most, of the material they contain is legendary, though here and there they may be founded on fact”. Though McGrath and Firth see the fictitious and legendary natures of the ATh, they didn’t fail to acknowledge the incorporation of historical facts within it. The delayed composition of the ATh from the flexible/oral language would have resulted into its fictitious/legendary character. From the above evidences it is important to note that Apostle Thomas, though a significant missionary theologian of the First Century, was not considered with significance in the First Century Jerusalem Christianity due to his eastward movements. Therefore, it is important to re-read the available literary works concerning him, like the ATh along with the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, in order to discover this forgotten figure of early Christianity.

For Further Reference:

Attridge, H. W., 1992. “Thomas, Acts of”. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 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.

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.

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.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

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 II): The First Missionary Theologian to the East”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. See what Prof. Charlesworth has to share with me. He says: “For me, Thomas could not be at the first meeting when Jesus appeared to the disciples, because he needed to purify himself after entering the tomb [recall that he hesitated to go in but Peter barged inside]. Thomas never denied Jesus. He simply could not believe men who were afraid yet made what appeared at first to be absurd claims. He said: gentlemen what you have experienced I must experience and then he supplied the requirement, revealing that he is the Beloved Disciple [the one who saw the spear enter the side of Jesus]. OK? We can believe in Jesus’ resurrection not because of an empty tomb or the experience of a woman in the dark who misidentifies Jesus, but because of Thomas who demanded an experience and criteria that this risen man was identical to the crucified man who had spoken to him and his mother from the cross. I hope this information helps you”. Thanks Professor for your valuable insight!

  2. […] (5) The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part I): The Forgotten Thomas […]

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