The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Thomas the Apostle, also called Judas Thomas, Doubting Thomas, or Didymus, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. He is perhaps best known for disbelieving Jesus’ Resurrection when first told of it, then proclaiming “My Lord and my God” on seeing Jesus. By tradition it is held that he went to India to preach the gospel there. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates his feast on 3 July. In the traditional Catholic calendar, his feast day was December 21 (the day with the shortest daylight hours). It was moved in order to accommodate the commemoration of St. Peter Canisius, who died on December 21.

Thomas in the Gospel of John

Thomas appears in a few passages in the Gospel of John. In John 11:16, when Lazarus has just died, the disciples are resisting Jesus’ decision to return to Judea, where the Jews had previously tried to stone Jesus. Jesus is determined, and Thomas says bravely: “Let us also go, that we might die with him”.

He also speaks at The Last Supper in John 14:5. Jesus assures his disciples that they know where he is going, but Thomas protests that they don’t know at all. Jesus replies to this and to Philip’s requests with a detailed exposition of his relationship to God the Father.

In Thomas’ best known appearance in the New Testament, John 20:24-29, he doubts the resurrection of Jesus and demands to touch Jesus’ wounds before being convinced. Caravaggio’s painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (illustration above), depicts this scene. This story is the origin of the term Doubting Thomas. After seeing Jesus alive (the Bible never states whether Thomas actually touched Christ’s wounds), Thomas professed his faith in Jesus, exclaiming “My Lord and my God!”; on this account he is also called Thomas the Believer.

Thomas and the Assumption of Mary

According to The Passing of Mary, a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea, Thomas was the only witness of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The other apostles were miraculously transported to Jerusalem to witness her death. Thomas was left in India, but after her burial he was transported to her tomb, where he witnessed her bodily assumption into heaven, from which she dropped her girdle. In an inversion of the story of Thomas’ doubts, the other apostles are skeptical of Thomas’ story until they see the empty tomb and the girdle.Thomas’ receipt of the girdle is commonly depicted in medieval and pre-Tridentine Renaissance art.

St.Thomas and India

“What India gives us about Christianity in its midst is indeed nothing but pure fables.” -Dr. A. Mingana in The Early Spread of Christianity in India.

Ancient writers used the designation “India” for all countries south and east of the Roman Empire’s frontiers. India included Ethiopia, Arabia Felix, Edessa in Syria (in the Latin version of the Syriac Diatessaron), Arachosia and Gandhara (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and many countries up to the China Sea. In the Acts of Thomas, the original key text to identify St. Thomas with India (which all other India references follow), historians agree that the term India refers to Parthia (Persia) and Gandhara.  The city of Andrapolis named in the Acts, where Judas Thomas and Abbanes landed in India, has been identified as Sandaruk (one of the ancient Alexandrias) in Baluchistan.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Historia Ecclesiastica, III.1) quotes Origen (died mid-3rd century) as having stated that Thomas was the apostle to the Parthians, but Thomas is better known as the missionary to India through the Acts of Thomas, written ca 200. In Edessa, where his remains were venerated, the poet Ephrem the Syrian (died 373) wrote a hymn 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.

-quoted in Medlycott 1905.

A long public tradition in the church at Edessa honoring Thomas as the Apostle of India resulted in several surviving hymns that are attributed to Ephrem, copied in codices of the 8th and 9th centuries. References in the hymns preserve the tradition that Thomas’ bones were brought from India to Edessa by a merchant, and that the relics worked miracles both in India and at Edessa. A pontiff assigned his feast day and a king and a queen erected his shrine. The Thomas traditions became embodied in Syriac liturgy, thus they were universally credited by the Christian community there. There is also a legend that Thomas had met the Biblical Magi on his way to India.

The indigenous church of Kerala State, India has a tradition that St. Thomas sailed there to spread the Christian faith. He is said to have landed at a small village, at that time a port, named Palayoor, near Guruvayoor, which was a priestly community at that time. He left Palayoor in AD 52 for southern Kerala State, where he established the Ezharappallikal, or “Seven and Half Churches”. These churches are at Kodungallur, Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kokkamangalam, Kottakkayal (Paravoor), Palayoor (Chattukulangara) and Thiruvithamkode (Travancore) – the half church. (See also Saint Thomas of Mylapur).[citation needed]

It has been argued that as an Apostle of the ‘Circumcision’ his first converts would have been Jews who were settled there, and that the possibility of him converting Hindus into Christianity is unlikely, though phenotypes and overall Dravidian culture among the community suggest otherwise. Some Saint Thomas Christians believe that orthodox Brahmins like Namboodiris were converted by Saint Thomas into Christianity based upon attempts by the St Thomas Christians to enter the caste system of India, though Brahmin conversion is disputed by historians who suggest that this was claimed later by Christian communities to obtain special caste status among the Hindu community, as St Thomas was believed to have arrived in Kerala at 52 AD, whereas Nambudiris arrived in Kerala in the 7th century. These Saint Thomas Christians also grew through integration of Jewish Christian immigrants of the 4th century AD led by Thomas of Cana and later by Mar Sapro in the 8th century AD. As Judeo-Christian communities are said not to have integrated with other faith communities, especially those of the hyper orthodox Namboodhiri Brahmins of Malabar, it has been argued that this tradition is unlikely.

Santhome Basilica Cathedral - Chennai, India, is one of three Basilicas built over the tombs of apostles of Jesus Christ. It is built over the tomb of St.Thomas. The other two are the Basilica of St. Peter, built over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome (St.Peter’s Basilica) and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain.


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