As much as any of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus Christ — as much as Peter, as much as Paul — Thomas has captivated the imagination of modern western Christians. They tend to identify with a doubter. They want to know him better. In modern religious art he is often depicted moving his hand (sometimes tentatively, sometimes boldly) toward the wound in Christ’s side. In the far east, however, and especially in India, Thomas has always been revered as the great apostle, the man who did for the orient what Peter and Paul did for the occident.
Thomas was a devout Jew who grew up in a unique vassal kingdom within the Roman Empire. There, children and young men learned their trades from their fathers. They learned the law in the synagogue. The rest of the world judged Palestinian Jewish culture to be strange, idiosyncratic, and intractable. Thomas and his countrymen saw it a different way: God had chosen them and given them a way of life that set them apart from other nations.
Into Thomas’s ordinary life came a rabbi named Jesus, who changed him, changed his life, changed his plans. Thomas experienced many adventures in Jesus’ company before traveling — as a rabbi himself — to the distant and exotic land of India, a climate and a culture quite unlike his own. Legend has it that India fell to him by lot when the apostles were allowing God to determine their future. Thomas drew the straw tagged for the very ends of the earth.
According to ancient traditions, Thomas voyaged along the trade routes; and, like Paul, he went first to the Jews of his adopted country. Over the course of many years in India, he preached, worked miracles, and inspired conversions, until a fateful final confrontation with the local priests of the goddess Kali.
A vibrant, distinctive Christianity grew from his gospel seeds. And the word spread. There is ample testimony from the era of the Fathers confirming Thomas’s apostolate in India: the Syriac Acts of Thomas describe it in detail; Clement of Alexandria mentions is, as do The Didascalia Apostolorum, Origen, Eusebius, Arnobius, Ephrem, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyrillonas, Ambrose, Gaudentius, Jerome, Rufinus, Theodoret, Paulinus, Jacob of Sarug, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, and many others.
And Thomas’s deeds were never forgotten in India itself, where Christianity has endured in spite of tremendous difficulties. There are pilgrimage sites related to the apostle’s life and death — they were popular destinations even in the time of the Fathers — and several epic poems about Thomas have been passed down by Christians for generations. (There are even popular Hindu poems about him!) Curiously, these ancient songs preserve certain telltale archaic forms of expression that we find in the Acts of the Apostles — referring to Christianity as “The Way,” for example. These, too, could be evidence of great antiquity.
Marco Polo heard the oral traditions when he visited India. So did the Portuguese traders who colonized the lands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They made voluminous records of all they found. The traditions made their way, via missionaries, to the New World. There, the first generation of Aztec and Maya to convert to Christianity read Thomas back into their own history; and legends emerged of the apostle’s fabulous voyage to Central America. When those American tribes read the gospels and the histories of the church, they could imagine Thomas, alone of the apostles, coming to them with the good news.
Recent bestsellers often present Thomas in terms of so-called “gospels” that bore his name. Those texts are certainly ancient, and they are fascinating in an esoteric way. But they do not even pretend to be historical; nor do they present a character of any human warmth, a Thomas whom readers can come to know. Instead, “Doubting Thomas” appears as a useful peg on which to hang sectarian doctrine.
But Thomas was not the sort of seemingly disembodied spirit we encounter in the pseudonymous gospels that borrow his name. He was a particular man of flesh and blood who lived in a particular time and place. He took particular hardships upon his flesh (harsh travel, demanding asceticism, persecution and abuse) and he shed his blood at a particular moment, all for the sake of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pope Paul VI wrote a letter on the 1,900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas, in 1972 — an important papal acknowledgment of the Indian tradition. Pope John Paul II also made several references to Thomas’s life and death in India.
Some critical scholars (of course) dismiss the accounts of Thomas in India. But India’s historians have subjected the evidence to rigorous scrutiny in recent years, and even many Hindus have come to affirm its possibility and even probability. I’m definitely with them, and I hope to write a book on the subject in the not too distant future. I invite you to read a couple of books and study the matter for yourself. They’re not available in the United States, so you have to order them from India. (For such purchases I have received the best service from Merging Currents, a U.S.-based import company.) The books are A.M. Mundadan’s History of Christianity in India (Volume 1: From the Beginning up to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century) and George Menachery’s massive collection The Nazranies.
While you’re waiting for your books to arrive, please pray Thomas’s intercession for the Christians of India, some of whom have endured subtle (and not so subtle) persecution in recent years. The blood of the apostle is the seed of their Church. We can be certain it will flourish in peace in due season.
Oh, and one more thing: St. John’s gospel gives us no indication that “doubting” Thomas took Jesus up on the offer to explore the wound in His side. That’s an imaginative leap that many artists have been willing to make. But all we know from the New Testament is that Thomas made the leap of faith.