Saint of the Week: St. Thomas the Apostle

Continuing in last week’s apostolic theme, let’s discuss St. Thomas now.  The Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Thomas turns up as more than a name in a list.  The first occasion is John 11:16.  Jesus is going to go to Judaea, where it is likely that the leaders will kill him.  Thomas (called Didymus — which means “Twin”) demonstrates his zeal for the Lord, saying:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

These words demonstrate that, regardless of how much Thomas understood at this stage of the game, he was committed to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission.  He was willing to join Jesus on a life-threatening undertaking, willing to die with him.  Such faith is impressive.

In John 20, Thomas turns up again in the famous “Doubting” Thomas story.  When Jesus first appears to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas isn’t there.  In the film The Gospel of John, we see Thomas at the market buying some food for the others.  He says that he won’t believe it and that he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ wrists and side before he would believe.

This unbelief is no more remarkable than that of the other disciples when Mary Magdalene and the women tell them the same Resurrection story, so we ought to be more gentle on poor St. Thomas and his reputation.

Jesus appears again to them, and when Thomas sees Him, rather than touching the wounds (as I saw him do in the Chester Mystery Plays), immediately falls to Jesus’ feet and worships Him, saying, “My Lord and my God!”

This is an appropriate reaction.

Thomas was also present for Jesus’ appearance on the shore when he and several other disciples were fishing together as recounted on John 21.  Given this tidbit of evidence, St. Thomas was likely a Galilean, and like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, was a fisherman.

And like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Christ made Thomas a fisher of men.

With our Eurocentric view of Christianity, we tend to view the great spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as being facilitated entirely by Roman sea-routes and roads and the widespread use of Greek as the common language of the Hellenistic world.

However, when we observe the pattern of movement in Acts, we see that the Apostles are not simply travelling throughout the Roman Empire, but are travelling throughout the Jewish Diaspora.  The first place they would go in each city was the synagogue, and if there was no synagogue, they would find whatever Jews and God-fearers there were and preach to them the Good News of Jesus.  Thus the Church spread beyond the borders of Rome to the diaspora in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.

Did you know that there is a Jewish diaspora in India?

According to Wikipedia, they arrived in Cochin, Kerala, about 2500 years ago and in Maharashtra 2100 years ago; others have arrived elsewhere more recently.  According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India about 2000 years ago.  Given the trade routes between the Eastern Mediterranean and India, such as from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean or the Silk Road, it is entirely plausible for a Jewish person to have made his way there, probably enjoying the hospitality of his fellow Jews of the diaspora along the way.

According to the Acts of Thomas, once he was in India, St. Thomas went about preaching celibacy.

I know, right?  You were probably thinking, “Jesus.”  Or “Eternal life.”  No.  Celibacy.  He shows up in the bedchamber of a royal wedding and convinces them to live together “chastely” rather than have sex.  And somehow, this manages to convert the king and various other persons in India.

St. Thomas continued preaching in India and the Church was founded there.  He ended up being martyred, no surprise if the Acts have anything to say about his method of evangelisation.  This martyrdom was after he converted a king’s wife, and he was pierced with spears by four soldiers.  Thus, the spear is part of his iconography.

In 1498 when the Portuguese showed up in India, they met Mar Thoma Christians who worshipped in Syriac and claimed descent from St. Thomas.  Because of the various activities of Roman Catholic and Protestant (esp. Anglican) missions in India, the Mar Thoma Christians have become divided amongst themselves (yay western Christianity!).  They are mainly in Kerala (notably where one of the Jewish diasporae is found in India).

His feast used to be December 21 (BCP), but is now on July 3 (BAS).  Celebrate accordingly.

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4 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: St. Thomas the Apostle

  1. I enjoyed very much reading your blog for today. I too have a soft spot in my heart for Thomas, who brought Christianity first to Eastern Syria, then Mesopotamia, Persia, and finally India. In all these places there still exist the churches he founded. I have been studying the historical Jesus since I was 9 (I am now 54) and so I wrote my own book on the matter. It is called Tales of the Master and purports to be the memoir of Thomas of all that he recalls Jesus saying and doing the three years together. In the book I have included the strict teachings of Jesus, nothing from Paul because my Thomas doesn’t like how Paul has changed the teachings. It is available on Amazon.com if any of your readers want to check it out. The book is comprised of 144 vignettes that come to 380 pages. Peace in Christ, Karl Bruno Gatti

    • Karl,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post! My father is the rector at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Thunder Bay, so I have had an interest in St. Thomas for a few years now. I like the stories of the Apostles in the years following the Biblical record and the spread of the Gospel throughout the known world.

  2. DNA SAMPLE OF JEWS.
    It has been a general misconception that Thomas of Cana brought with him 400 Jews or 72 families. In those days only men could travel by ships, especially in long voyages to unknown lands. Long before the arrival of Thoma there were Jewish colonies in Kerala. If Thomas of Cana were a Jew, he would have reported at the Jewish settlements. Jewish records do not mention anywhere that this Thomas of cana came to Kerala.
    Another misconception is that immigrants from Syria were Jews. The Bible says in Mark 7 about a woman from Syria whose daughter had an evil spirit in her . “The woman was a Gentile, born in the region of Phoenicia in Syria.” Mark 7:26. As such, if at all Thomas of Cana had come, he could not be regarded as a Jew but only as a Gentile. Portuguese and Armenian records say that Thoma was an Armenian, a Gentile.
    According to tradition, the first group of immigrants of 400 laymen led byThomas of Cana arrived at Cranganore in 345 A.D. Alexis de Menzes, Roman Catholic Archbishop, arrived at Kochi early in 1599 which subsequently led to the Synod of Diamper and the oath of Coonen Cross. The Portuguese estimates placed the number of Syrian Christians as high as 200,000 when Alexis de Menzes wanted to reform the Syrian church. How did the Syrian Christian population increase betrween 345 A.D. to 1599 A.D.? In a caste-ridden and conservative society, no Nair or Brahmin woman would have ventured to mar.ry the foreigners. In the first instance, some immigrants would have married lower caste women when they decided to settle in Kerala. Like the Arabs who married lower caste women in Malabar, Christian immigrnats and their untouchable caste wives and their offspring would have lived in the areas allotted to them by the rulers. Later they would have converted lower caste people such as fisher men (mukkuvas), slaves, barbers, washermen and other labourers (Ezhavas) with whom they had daily contacts in managing the routine affairs of their settlements. These converted untouchables and offspring of immigrants would have married among themselves to increase the Syrian Christian population. So when the Portuguese met the Syrian Christians for the first time there were more than 200,000 members.
    There was population explosion of Syrian Christans from the time CMS missionaries launched a spirited campaign to convert as many untouchables as possible. Bailey, Fenn and Baker openly accommodated the Ezhavas and outcastes in the Syrian church. In Alappuzha Norton converted a wide range of untouchables, especially Ezhavas. Hawksworth baptized Ezhavas and other outcastes in Mavelikara, Poovathoor and Kodukulanji and constructed churches for them. Hawksworth is remebered for the large sccale conversion of slaves in Mallappally. The first slave was baptized in 1851 with the name of Abel. Although Ezhava converts who had become Christians earler opposed the conversion of slaves, as years rolled by ( a period of 200 years ) slaves also became part of mainstream Syrian Christian population.
    Scholarly analyses and painstaking research make illogical the claim of Namboodirii descent when there were no Namboodiris in Ist century A.D. when St. Thomas visited Kerala and the further claim of Jewish descent ,ignoring the fact that Thomas of Cana was a Gentile, and not a Jew according to Armenian and Portuguese archives. In this context DNA sample taken by some persons to establish Jewish descent should be subject to scientific scrutiny. Conversely, DNA sample of Syrian Christians of Mallappally will show descent from slaves and Mavelikara descent from untouchables (Ezhavas).

    • Thank you for your long and informative comment. The question thus arises: Is St. Thomas the Apostle the same person as Thomas of Cana? It sounds to me like he is not, since the Acts of Thomas pre-date Thomas of Cana and his Syrian Gentiles of 345. Thus, although the Church of the East is not necessarily descended from St. Thomas the Apostle but, rather, a later Thomas, the tradition still maintains that the Apostle preached in India. It seems, then, that his preaching did not have a lasting effect, and that we in the West have confused the two Thomases.

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