ST THOMAS AND THE CHURCH OF INDIA
from the Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the lost religion
of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer
One of the
first Christians to visit Gandhara, according to Thomarist Christian
legend, was the Aposde Thomas, who preached to the first-century
Indian king of Gandhara, Gundephar. The Thomarist Christians
trace their Church from the Aposde and have existed in India
as a distinct community from at least the fourth century. They
bear witness to the belief that St. Thomas preached in India
and even, according to their tradition, in China.
On the west
coast of India, in the town of Cranganore, Thomas is supposed
to have founded his first church in 52 AD, making this one of
the oldest churches in the world, before going on to found another
six churches along that coast. In ancient times, the traveler
from the Roman Empire came to India not by land but by sea.
The trade winds and monsoon winds that make it possible to sail
from the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea had been known to the Greeks
since the fourth to third century B.C., and regular trade between
Alexandria and India helped to make the fortunes of that great
city. Thomarist Christian legend, possibly based on reality,
says thatt St. Thomas, the Doubter, came along these trade routes
to India in the early to middle decades of the first century:
Indeed, Cranganore was a Greek and Roman trading port, and considerable
archaeological evidence of this trade has been excavated there.
Roman coins from Alexandria are almost as common there as in
the great city itself.
first appears in the written records in the Gospel of John as
one of the most ardent of the twelve special disciples of Jesus.
He declared himself willing to die for Jesus, but, with the
other disciples, abandoned Jesus at his time of need and later
re- fused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead: "Unless
I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put
my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my
hand into his side, I refuse to believe" (John 20:25).
When Jesus appeared to him and invited him to touch his wounds,
Thomas was over-whelmed with emotion and declared his belief
that Jesus was God.
conversion, Doubting Thomas has stood for those Christians who
want to test faith for themselves. His later life as a missionary
has also been the subject of speculation. It is now accepted
by all but the most timid scholars that Thomas did indeed end
up preaching in India, where he was martyred. The evidence of
the extensive trade routes between the Roman Empire and India
plus the testimony of the Thomarist Christians who have existed
in India as a distinct community for seventeen centuries confirm
this. Western Church tradition says Thomas was appointed to
take the Gospel to the Persians, which he did and then moved
on to India. The third-century Acts of Thomas, which
is found in Greek, Latin, and Syriac versions and was known
and revered by Churches East and West, tells of his adventures:
his debates with Indian rulers, struggles with the Brahmins
who tried to silence him, and journeys beyond India. Even a
book published in 1713 on the lives of the Aposdes has Thomas
preaching in Persia, Ethiopia, India, the East Indies, and China.
mostly the stuff of legend, Acts of Thomas does reflect
actual historical events. One of the most delightful stories
concerns Thomas and King Gundephar (a historical king who did
live at the time of Thomas). It is said that the king asked
Thomas to build him a new palace and gave him immense wealth
with which to do it. After some time the king wanted to know
how the palace was progressing and was told that, instead of
building a palace, Thomas was distributing the funds to the
poor. The king asked Thomas whether he had built the palace.
Thomas replied that he had. But when the king asked to see it
Thomas answered, "Yes, but not now. You will see it when
King Gundephar, Thomas traveled farther south in India to the
Chola kingdom on the east coast in the religion of present-day
Madras. There he achieved remarkable success in converting the
people, but was martyred. Acts of Thomas elabo- rated
his martyrdom into a parallel with Jesus' death, involving a
plot by the Chola king and an execution by four soldiers, but
the truth is probably more prosaic. South Indian tradition has
it that his work aroused the enmity of local Brahmin priests.
In the course of a riot he was pierced with a lance and died.
It is said that he died with the same words on his lips as those
with which he greeted the Risen Christ when he appeared to him
in Jerusalem: "My Lord and my God."
Acts of Thomas is often dismissed as a Christian romantic
fiction, oral tradition in India holds to a story that should
not be lightly dismissed. Oral traditions in India have often
preserved the ideas of written materials that have disappeared
from history, but have been verified later by archaeological
discoveries, a good example of which is the life of Ashoka,
the great Indian emperor of the third century B.C. who converted
to Buddhism. Stories of his life have been recounted in India
since his time. Yet Westerners, encountering these stories in
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, dismissed them
as wishful thinking. However, when archaeological discoveries
of documents and edicts of his reign established the historical
existence of Emperor Ashoka, it became clear that his exploits
were even more significant and di- verse than the legends told.
So the oral tradition on which the de tails of the Acts of
Thomas were based could be historically true.
the persistence of oral tradition indicates some likelihood
of this, as do discoveries about kings such as Gunaphar and
the extent of trade from the West to India exactly in the places
that Thomas is supposed to have visited.
end of the second century A.D., a new mission was sent from
Alexandria to India to assist the churches in the Bombay area,
now called Mumbai, headed by a great scholar named Pantaenus.
From Pantaenus's report, we know that the Church in India used
Syriac for its services, as it still does today. After the Church
of the East arose, the Church in India looked for leadership
to replace the compromised Church of Alexandria and the Church
of the West. The Church of the East counted the Church of India
as one of its oldest associate Churches, and materials from
this Indian Church almost certainly influenced the writings
of the Jesus Sutras, as we found in our translations of The
Sutra of Jesus Christ.