The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part II): The First Missionary Theologian to the East

Posted: January 6, 2013 in General

st_thomas_apostle.teaser-large_featureIn the Acts of Thomas, the Apostle Thomas is described as the Apostle to the East (specifically as the Apostle of India; cc. 1, 2, 16, 17, 39, 42, 62, 98, 101, 108, 116, 117, 123, 170; cf. Klijn, 1962: 27-29), with all the characteristics of an early apostle of Jesus Christ. The fourteen Acts of the book (including the Martyrdom section [cc. 159-170]) are filled with dialogic interactions and dramatic movements (cc. 2, 3, 17, 18). The plot development of the story is progressive (except the narratorial breaks at several intervals [cf. cc. 1-16; 17-29; 30-61; 62-158; 159-170]) as it persuades the reader to move forward with greater anticipation. The ATh uses several micro literary-genres, like narratives, dialogues (cc. 2, 3, 17, 18), homilies (c. 28), prayers (cc. 10, 34), Christological utterances (cc. 10, 25, 34, 39, 47, 48, 53), hymns (cc. 6-7, 26, 108-113; cf. Lalleman, 2000: 68), apocalyptic formats (cc. 22-24) and others, just as it is a literary composition emerged out of the Judaeo-Christian thought-world. In the process of reading the ATh, a reader may find numerous allusions to utterances and passages of the New Testament. We may even suppose that the author knew all the books of the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas. What Charlesworth says is important to quote here. He (1995: 378) states that, “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”. I may go little further to what Charlesworth says here to point out that the author of the ATh would have used or was aware of majority of the works of the New Testament. The explicit and implicit narrative echo effects of the canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline corpus, the Book of Revelation, and even the Old Testament (esp. in Act VII) prompt the reader think that the ATh was emerged out of the biblical story-world. In addition to its allegiance to the Judeo-Christian thought-world, it compliments even themes and ideologies from an extended world (i.e., the Indian/Eastern world).

The beautiful song in Act I (cc. 6-7) that delineates the relationship between the bridal Church and the bridegroom King is one that keeps all the ingredients of the Jesus-bridegroom and church-bride passages of the New Testament (cf. cc. 14, 124, 135). The hymn ends in a stylistically flavoured Trinitarian formula (see lines 50-54; cf. 2 Cor. 13:14) that leads us back to the NT texts. The appearance of speaking animals/creatures/beings, like a black snake (Act III; cf. Gen. 3:1-6), a colt (Act IV), a devil-like figure (Act V; cf. Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13), and assess (Act VIII; cf. Num. 22:30), is not a strange phenomenon for the readers of the Bible. Thomas’ involvement as an exorcist and the adhered demonic confessions (cc. 75, 77) is reminiscent to what Jesus had done in the annals of the canonical Gospels (cf. Mk. 1: 21-26; 3:10-11; 5:5-7). The ATh has developed Christological utterances/titles and praises (cf. cc. 10, 25, 34, 39, 47-48, 53), several Christophanies (cf. cc. 3, 11, 30) Trinitarian formulas (cc. 7, 27), developed sacramentalism (cc. 25-27, 29, 49, 50-51, 121, 132-133, 157-158, 169; cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61) and Messianic inferences (cc. 27, 37, 59, 65). A noticeable difference for ATh from that of the GTh is its continued emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus (cf. c. 80). In ATh, God/Jesus is behind all the scenes and is self-evidently part of the worldview of the book.

The ATh emphasizes an ethically oriented Christian way of lifestyle, charity (c. 19), and the mission of liberation (c. 19). These concerns are not at all alien to the biblical world-view. It forbids fornication and adultery (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-6:20). As in the case of the Pauline Epistles, ATh gives high regard for the concept of leaving the ‘old life’ in order to enter the mystical experience of the ‘new life’ (cf. Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor. 3:6; 5:17; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). The book gives the reader an impression that the Thomas Community was emphasizing the aspect of ascetic lifestyle seriously (cf. c. 144). Firth (2001: 9) states that, “…a large part of St. Thomas’ teaching and effort is designed to establish the doctrine that marriage is sinful and that Christians ought to abstain from it”. In this case, the book informs us that Thomas was stricter in his emphasis than Paul with regard to marriage and celibacy. While Paul gave enough choice for his believers to choose between ‘marriage’ and ‘celibacy’ (1 Cor. 7:1-40), Thomas is taking an extreme step to profess a kind of radical asceticism (cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72). Lalleman (2000: 68) states that, “It (i.e., ATh) has Thomas travel to India and preach the cessation of marriage and procreation”. Even when there are considerable differences in their range of emphases, it is interesting to note that (as their Master Jesus) both Paul and Thomas followed a celibate lifestyle.

In ATh, Apostle Thomas’ identity is magnified through some of the utterances of his interlocutors. In a few occasions Jesus introduces himself that he is “the brother of Judas” (cc. 11, 12). While the flute-player girl witnesses Judas with the words “This man is either God or the Apostle of God” (c. 9), a large serpent (c. 31) and later a colt (c. 39) herald him as “the Twin of Jesus” (cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 380). Judas proclaims (to Karish) about the greatness of his God in the following way: “My Lord Jesus the Messiah, with whom I take refuge is greater than you and your king and all your forces” (c. 106). Thomas continues saying that, “Our Lord Jesus the Messiah is stronger than all powers and kings and rulers” (c. 119). Thomas’ complete dependency on God the Messiah reminds the reader that he was strictly following the doctrinal basis that was laid down by Jesus, Peter, Paul and other biblical characters. Karish says about Thomas’ miraculous activities in the following way: “from the day that the world came into being, it had never been heard that a man brought the dead to life; but this man, as I hear, makes as if he brought the dead to life”. Karish’s testimonial informs us that the mission of Judas included the aspects of miracles and the resurrection of the dead (cf. Jn. 11:1-53). Thomas’ exercise of divine power, i.e., even to raise the dead, elevates him above all other apostles of early Christianity. As a continuation to the Gospel of John (20:28), the utterance “My Lord and My God” is repeatedly used in the ATh (cc. 81, 97, 167; cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 379-80). While Thomas always attempts to exalt the name of Jesus, his interlocutors see him as a “slave of Jesus” (c. 1), an “Apostle of God”, the “Twin of Jesus”, and a “man brought the dead to life”. The East Syrian traditions strongly uphold the view that Judas Thomas was the “Twin Brother” of Jesus and canonize him as one of the greatest apostles of Jesus Christ (cf. Bauckham, 1997: 72; Klijn, 1962: 38-53). Thus, the identity of Thomas is brought to the notice of the reader through the words of Jesus, Thomas himself and also his interlocutors.

The aspect of teaching (along with healing) was highly regarded in the missionary activities of Thomas (c. 20). ATh includes synoptic type of banquet stories (Act I; cf. Matt. 5:3-11; Lk. 6:20-22) and discourses in the form of the Sermon on the Mount (Act II [cc. 28-29]; cf. Matt. Chaps. 5-7; Lk. 6:17-49). His eloquent homilies and persuasive teachings compliment him all the qualities of an ethical pedagogue. While Baptism and Eucharist are mostly implicit (except a few explicit references) in the canonical Gospels, in ATh they are mostly explicit (cc. 26-27, 29, 51, 132; Act V; Act X; cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61). The journey of Thomas on the colt (c. 40) is reminiscent to Jesus’ triumphal entry in the Gospel narratives (cf. Matt. 21:1-9; Mk. 11:1-11; Lk. 19:28-38; Jn. 12:12-18). In the book, Thomas is pictured as a persecuted and reviled missionary (c. 107) and an imprisoned preacher who sings melodious hymns in a prison cell and be rescued by God (cc. 108-113, 148). On several occasions, the characterization of Apostle Thomas is similar to that of the characterization of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 12:1-19; 16:25-28) and in other Apocryphal Acts. On a few occasions, Judas is imprisoned, beaten up, and dragged as in the case of Jesus in the Passion Narratives (Act XI; cf. Matt. 26-27; Mk. 14-14; Lk. 22-23; Jn. 18-19) and other apostles in the Acts of the Apostles (1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor. 11: 23-25). Thus, Thomas’ character in the ATh is synonymous to the characters of Jesus and other apostles in the canonical writings.

While in Act V Thomas the protagonist is accompanied by a large multitude of people, in Act XII Thomas is portrayed as a prison preacher and several captives hear him (c. 148). This picturization too is synonymous to the portrayal of Jesus, Peter, Paul and other early influential figures of Christianity. In one occasion, Thomas had to undergo severe persecution under King Mazdai. King Mazdai ordered to heat two plates of iron and to make Thomas standing upon that barefooted. The soldiers lay hold of him to make him step upon the plates (glowing) like fire. The narrator of ATh portrays how Thomas was rescued by God from that torment. Thomas’ miraculous escape from that punishment is reminiscent to that of the escape traditions of many early apostles (c. 140). Toward the end of the thirteenth Act, a long list of followers, like Sifur, his wife and daughter, Mygdonia, Tertia, Narkia the nurse, Vizan and his wife Manashar, are mentioned as steadfast believers and all of them share a Eucharistic meal sanctified by Thomas. It shows that many influential figures of the society were persuaded by Thomas’ life and ministry and a good number of them were converted to the newly introduced faith. The appointment of deacons like Xanthippus (cc. 65, 66) and Vizan (c. 169) and priests like Sifur (cc. 169-170) by Apostle Thomas and the existence of flocks under Xanthippus (c. 67) and Sifur (cc. 169-170) show the growth of Christian mission in the Eastern part of the globe at the incipient stages of the Church.

In sum, the ATh delineates a developed and sophisticated theology that was outlined according to the patterns of the biblical thought-world. The theological emphasis of the ATh, like sanctity, simplicity, kerygmatic concerns of the resurrected Jesus, cross and salvation, sacrificial lifestyle and suffering for Jesus, charity and concerns about the poor, transfer from ‘old life’ to ‘new life’, religious conversion, physical and psychological healing (cc. 10, 49, 95), and sacramentalism (cf. Klijn, 1962: 54-61), is an important aspect to reckon with in order to know the doctrinal foundation of the Thomas community. A dualistic contrast is at the root of the theological framework of the ATh. Klijn (1962: 34) says that, “The doctrine of these Acts is dominated by the contrast between corruptible and incorruptible”. This contrast is forayed in the ATh in order to stabilize the mission-theological concerns of Apostle Thomas. According to Acts of Thomas, Apostle Thomas was not merely a theologian who propagated the dogmatic elements of early Christianity; but, rather a missionary who lived out the theology of the early Church in order to transform an alien socio-religious order in the Eastern hemisphere of the world. Thus Thomas, the first ‘missionary theologian to the East’ (according to the available evidences), accomplished a fulfilling mission and laid down a strong theological foundation during the early stages of Christianity.

For Further Reference:

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.

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.

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

Quispel, G., 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill.

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part III): The Indo-Parthian and the South Indian Theories”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. […] (6) The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part II): The First Missionary Theologian to the East […]

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