Thomas, the Apostle to the East

On October 30, 2016, in Apologetics, by july

The information provided from the New Testament with regards to Thomas is not many. Among them, one which is most famously recalled was the event in John 20:24-29 where the apostle was branded as the “Doubting Thomas”, a description which in a culture that celebrates excellence seem out of place. In his book, Fate of the Apostles, Sean McDowell observes that this episode in Thomas’s life bears a striking significance. Whereas being the spokesperson of the apostles is a role generally played by Peter, Thomas stood up in his stead in an attempt to clarify what could have been simply a delusion.[1] McDowell further highlights an important point in this episode. He wrote, “Thomas’s convictions were not developed secondhand but by coming face-to-face with the risen Jesus. Like the rest of the apostles, he was willing to suffer and face death for this belief.”[2]

The little amount of information we have of Thomas however, has been largely tipped over by the amount of influence Thomas has in the east. According to Alphonse Mingana, “It is the constant tradition of the Eastern Church that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India, and there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of any kind who, having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas, does not associate his name with India.”[3]

While this may be the case, McDowell highlights that one of the difficulties faced in attributing a higher amount of certainty in this area of study is the lack of documentary evidence of Indian history where Thomas was mentioned.[4] Travelling to India from Jerusalem is not an impossible feat in the first century. [5] Moreover, the traditions of the Thomas Christians, while muddied with myth, are nonetheless a cradle of information which may date back to the arrival of Thomas in India.

There is a unanimity regarding the church fathers that Thomas went to India and we do not have evidence to the contrary.[6] The second century apocrypha entitled Acts of Thomas contains information that are almost certainly fictional. Yet, it is the role of the historian to go deeper into the text to flesh out facts from fiction. In this document, an account of a reluctant Thomas travelling to India was recorded. He was sold as a slave and ministered to the poor and the wealthy through charity, exorcisms, and miracles. He would later be handed over to King Misdaeus, who threw him to prison. Thomas would later be speared to death by his executioners.

Scholars differ in their assessment of the Acts of Thomas. One is warranted to employ a healthy degree of skepticism from a document that is 100-150 years removed from the historical event. Yet one must also acknowledge that we do not have any other more compelling evidence on Thomas’ martyrdom to challenge the claims of this document. With the unanimity of church fathers of Thomas’s ministry in India, the oral traditions of the Thomas Christians, and the documents we have supporting such a feat, the evidence lays in favor of his Indian ministry which was concluded in his martyrdom.

[1] McDowell, Sean. The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. Chapter 9, The Martyrdom of Thomas. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015. 157.
[2] Ibid., 158.
[3] Mingana, Alphonse, The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Manchester University Press, 1926. 15-16.
[4] McDowell, 159.
[5] Ibid, 160.
[6] Ibid., 163.

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