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The Apostle Thomas in India

The Bible is silent on what happened to most of the original Apostles of Jesus later in their lives; the New Testament only gives details about Peter, Paul, and Judas. So let’s play a game: of the remaining nine Apostles, if an "Apostle most likely to succeed" contest were held, who would you vote for? But before you guess, let’s look at an Apostle probably no one would vote for: Thomas (after all, he is the "Doubting Thomas"). And consider this, some evidence suggests that Thomas traveled to, evangelized, started churches in, and died in, of all places, India. So, a deeper look at Thomas’ life might gain him some votes.

First we’ll examine the early history of Christianity in India, and then see how Thomas fit in. We know that Christianity existed in India before the Middle Ages. In the AD 300s Theophilus the Indian recorded the presence of Christians in India. Another reference to this century is from the Council of Nicea in 325, where all the important Christian leaders gathered. One "John of Persia," when signing his name, wrote that he presided over all the churches in Persia and India.

A third early reference to Christians in India comes from Cosmas the Indian Voyager in a book he wrote about 547 called Christian Topography: "In the country called Male, where the pepper grows, there is also a church, and at another place called Calliana, there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia." Both "Male" and "Calliana" are on the western coast of India.

So, Christians had lived in India since the early 300s and had prospered so much that they required a bishop by 547. (Bishops were only assigned over large numbers of Christians in those days.)

Now we turn to some references to Thomas’ life and death. Gregory of Tours (540-594) was a bishop in Gaul, or present-day France. He reported that a traveler named Theodore claimed that the bones of Thomas had been in a monastery and church in India and then moved to Edessa (in Greece or Turkey). A Syrian calendar of unknown early date reads thus on July 3: "St. Thomas who was pierced with a lance in India [and died]. His body is at Urhai [the ancient name of Edessa] having been brought there by the merchant Khabin." Ephraem (306-373), a bible scholar who lived in Edessa wrote this: "It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. . . . It was his mission to expose India to the One-Begotten. . . . Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield." And none other than Marco Polo himself visited the tomb of Thomas in India, stating that "Christians . . . greatly frequented it in pilgrimage."

Therefore we know that Christianity was not only present in India early on, but was probably introduced by Thomas. Today the descendents of this early Christianity are neither part of the Catholic Church or Orthodox Church. Many of these Christians even refer to themselves as St Thomas Christians to reflect this heritage. And the tradition among them is that Thomas came to India in AD 52 and established seven Christian communities: the beginnings of Christianity in India. So perhaps that will win Thomas some votes as "Apostle most likely to succeed." After all, after Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas was the first to address Him as "My Lord and my God." (John 20:28)

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved