The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas

Posted: January 24, 2013 in General

Saint-Thomas-Apostle-eThank you so much for your excellent work. It definitely pushes our thinking well beyond the previous horizons” (Gerald L. Borchert, Senior Professor of New Testament, Cason-Newman University and Thesis Director of the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies).

The Greek version of the Acts of Thomas consists of thirteen acts and the concluding section (as the fourteenth act) that describes about the martyrdom of Apostle Thomas (cf. Attridge, 1992: 531). Enslin (1962: 632) has the opinion that, “the martyrdom account was circulated separately”. The fourteen acts of the book together discuss the arrival, the mission engagements and the martyrdom of Thomas. According to it, the martyrdom of Thomas takes place in the kingdom of Mazdai (cc. 159-170). At the point of his death Judas proclaims about Jesus as follows: “I rejoice that the time is fulfilled and the day come that I may go and receive my reward from my Lord” (c. 159). His words are courageous and are in greater conformity with the New Testament narrative world. The joy of his accomplished task is expressed in the following way: “And be not weary… in persecution… you see me treated ignominiously, and imprisoned too, and dying, because I am fulfilling the will of my Lord” (c. 160). Thomas considers death as a “release from the world” (c. 160). Just as Apostle Paul says in his epistle (II Tim. 4:7), here Judas says, “I have toiled in His service, and I have completed (my task) because of His grace” (c. 160). In all these details we see that Apostle Thomas was well-prepared to face his death.

Judas’ death is described as follows. King Mazdai ordered his soldiers to stab him and they struck him all together, and he fell down and died (c. 168). Firth (2001: 11; cf. cc. 167-169) states that, “He (Thomas) is taken outside the city by four soldiers, who kill him with their spears, but not before he has ordained a presbyter and a deacon from among his noble converts”. The brethren were weeping all together. And they brought goodly garments and many linen clothes, and buried Judas in the sepulchre in which the ancient kings were buried (c. 168). These are reminiscent to Jesus’ death and burial in the canonical Gospels (cf. John 19). Attridge (1992: 6: 533; c. 170) recapitulates the final chapter of the episode as follows: “…Mazdai searches for Thomas’ bones, with which to heal an ailing son. They have been taken West, but the king uses dust from the tomb area to good effect. After Thomas appears to him he is brought to Sifur, now a presbyter, and requests prayers”. King Mazdai becomes a believer and Sifur the priest and his brethren pray for him (c. 170). The author of the ATh wraps up the entire story as follows: “Here end the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Apostle of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who suffered martyrdom in the land of India by the hands of king Mazdai. Glory to the Father and the Son and to the Spirit of holiness, now and at all times and forever. Amen” (c. 170). Thus, the ATh affirms the point that Thomas became a martyr in the land of India.

The scholarly accounts about the martyrdom account are important to reckon with. Attridge (1992: 6: 531) says, “The work (ATh) is clearly associated with Syria, and particularly with the city of Edessa, where Thomas was traditionally venerated. The apostle’s martyrdom (chaps. 159-170) records the translation of his relics from India back to the West, presumably by Edessa”. Attridge’s documentation helps the reader to figure out about the significance of Thomas’ martyrdom tradition in the East Syrian context. In his accounts, Bornkamm weighs down the historical value of the ATh considerably and he recounts it as a legendary tradition. Bornkamm’s (1964: 427) attribution of Thomas’ connections with Parthia (i.e., detaching from India) is most probably a derivation from his unknowing of the First Century Indo-Parthian relations. He seemingly does not think about the possibilities of Thomas’ involvement as a missionary in the Indian provinces. But at the same time he (1964: 427) reports that, “The Catholic Abgar-legend (on its historical value see most recently W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei, 1934, pp. 6ff.) traces back to Thomas the evangelizing of Edessa, where his bones have been preserved since the 4th century”. Bornkamm (1964: 427) further says that, “The Acts are… the oldest witness for the legend of Thomas’ martyr death and the transference of his bones to Edessa”. Though there are unanimity of opinions among the scholarly realms, the majority view is in favour of Thomas’ martyrdom in the in the Indian context.

Bornkamm looks at the ATh from two standpoints: (1) by considering the ATh as a legendary/ahistorical document; and (2) by detaching Thomas from the Indian traditions. In that way, he shows unfair treatment of the Thomas traditions in general and the ATh in particular. Charlesworth (1995: 380), on the other hand, considers ATh as a book that adjusts well with the thought-world of John’s Gospel as well as the East Syrian Christianity. While he accepts the historical and theological value of the ATh, he does not mention about its direct connection with the Indian context. Definitely that is beyond the scope of his work. If Thomas tradition (and also the ATh) is merely considered as an age-old legend told by an aged lady to a little child, how it remained all through the last two thousand years with historical, traditional and documentary proofs and relics? This is an important question for us to tackle with when we analyze the Thomas traditions and the related literature.

Just as Thomas’ involvement as a missionary cannot be abnegated in the light of the live and traditional Malabar Coast church, his death (as a martyr) in the Mylapore context cannot be weighed down as the Indian, Edessan, and the traditions arrayed in the ATh affirm it. Firth (2001: 3-4) says that after doing a fulfilling mission in Malabar Coast Thomas travelled to Malacca and China and from there to the Coromandel Coast (i.e., Mylapore). He (2001: 4) further says that, “Here his preaching aroused the hostility of the Brahmins, who raised a riot against him, during which he was speared to death. The year of his martyrdom is said to have been about 72 AD”. The Indian Christians still cherish these two great traditions (i.e., Malabar Tradition and the Mylapore Tradition) in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. Medlycott (1905: Ch. II) quotes the hymn written by Ephrem the Syrian (died 373) in which the Devil cries,

…Into what land shall I fly from the just?

I stirred up Death the apostles to slay, that by their death I might escape their blows.

But harder still am I now stricken: the Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa; here and there he is all himself.

There went I, and there was he: here and there to my grief I find him.

This hymn reflects the East Syrian beliefs about the connection between Edessa and India and the martyrdom of Thomas. The martyrology of St. Jerome had a mention of the Apostle on 3rd July (cf. Calendarium, 1969: 96). St. Ephraem, the great doctor of the Syrian Church, writes in the forty-second of his ‘Carmina Nisibina’ that the Apostle was put to death in India, and that his remains were subsequently buried in Edessa, brought there by an unnamed merchant (cf. Medlycott, 1905; Mayer, 2007: 779-80). A Syrian ecclesiastical calendar confirms it by mentioning even the name of the merchant, i.e., Khabin (cf. Madlycott, 1905). Mayer (2007: 779-80) says that, “…in her travel journal the Christian pilgrim Egeria recounts how she visited Edessa in 384 and viewed the bones of St. Thomas” (cf. Drijvers, 2: 322-39). In the writings of St. Ephraem and the writings of the Roman, Greek and Ethiopian churches, especially in several of the hymns, liturgies, calendars, sacramentaries and martyrologies, the mission and martyrdom of Thomas are noted (cf. Segal, 2005: 174-76, 250). While majority of the relics are taken to Edessa from the Coromandel Coast, a few remains are still kept in Mylapore (cf. Bussagli, 255). The traditions yielded in the Indian context are not merely conjectured in the recent past. But, they are claimed to be stretching from the First Century till the day.

Church father Clement of Alexandria reports an entirely different view. “In the first place”, as Klijn (1962: 27) says, “we may refer to Clement of Alexandria, Strom. IV 71 3, who writes that according to Heracleon, Thomas died a natural death”. The St. Thomas tradition of the Kerala church(es) and its continuing relationship with the Syrian and Persian ecclesiastical bodies, the historically proved Indo-Parthian relations of the North-Western India and its archaeological remains, the Coromandel traditions of Mylapore and the martyrdom of Thomas there, the traditional and historical remains and beliefs of the Syrian Church(es) of Edessa, and the local and universal beliefs and traditions go against the third-party reporting of Clement of Alexandria. The reporting of Clement of Alexandria has fewer chances over against the innumerable evidences about Thomas’ martyrdom in the Indian context.

Readings from the scholarly contributions make us feel that majority of the researches about Thomas are done outside of India and hence are ‘remote-control’ researches. Meyer (2007: 779) says, “In a variety of ways Thomas is linked to Edessa, and he becomes a patron saint of Syrian Christianity and an apostolic missionary to Parthia and, eventually, India, where, legend would have it, he was martyred”. Even in the Indian theological research schools the Western interpretations and mind-sets rule predominantly and the Indian researchers are comfortable with their ‘smooth and easy-going’ research topics/projects. C. B. Firth has won over the Indians as he has attuned the Indian minds to think in his own terms and to put an end to the discussions on Thomas as a whole. Irrespective of all the attempts of disregard from both the Western and the Indian contexts, the Christian legacy of Thomas as the apostle to India remains strong and Thomas Christians continue to be a significant part of the Indian religious landscape even to the present day (cf. Meyer, 2007: 783). In sum, the Thomas research has to be revived and has to be looked at from the biblical, historical, archaeological and all other supplementary grounds.

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.

Bornkamm, G., 1964. “The Acts of Thomas”. Tran. Wilson, R. M. NT Apocrypha. Vol. Two. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Bussagli, M. “L’Art du Gandhara”.

Calendarium Romanum, 1969. Libreria Editrice Vatricana.

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.

Drijvers, H. J. W. “The Acts of Thomas”. New Testament Apocrypha. Ed. Schneemelcher, W: 2: 322-39.

Enslin, M. S., 1962. “Thomas, Acts of”. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press: 632-634.

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.

Segal, J. B., 2005. Edessa ‘the Blessed City’. Gorgias Press LLC.

“St. Thomas (Christian Apostle)”. Britannica Online Encyclopedia (

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Book of Thomas the Contender’”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. […] The Thomas of “The Acts of Thomas” (Part IV): The Martyrdom of Thomas […]

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