Monday 1 June 2015

Where did the Apostles go? - St Thomas

During the season of the Fast of the Apostles I want to produce some short posts about the traditions associated with the various Apostles. After the resurrection we know that they were dispersed to engage in ministry in different places, and to a great extent our keeping this fast is a means of our own preparation for service of the Gospel.

I want to begin this series by considering St Thomas. I have described in some detail the account we find of him in the Gospels. But on this occasion I want to simply consider some of the tradition of the Church concerning him. A tradition which seems to me to be rooted in a real history.

In the Acts of St Thomas, dating to the end of the second century, we find some useful information, even though the document is rather compromised by gnostic ideas. It says...

By lot, then, India fell to Judas Thomas, also called Didymus. And he did not wish to go, saying that he was not able on account of the weakness of his body, and said, “How can I, being a Hebrew, go among the Indians to proclaim the truth?” And while he was thus reasoning and speaking, the Saviour appeared to him during the night and said to him, “Fear not, Thomas, go away to India and preach the word there for my grace is with thee.” But he obeyed not, saying, “Wherever thou wishest to send me, send me, but elsewhere. For to India I am not going.”

In the Acts, St Thomas is sold as a slave by the Lord to a merchant from India, who had come from the King Gundafor, looking for a carpenter to work on his palace. Now this King Gundafor had been unknown to Western history, and as with many such references in ancient texts was assumed to be evidence that the Acts were not based on any historical facts. But in the 19th century examples of coins featuring this king were first discovered, and it became clear that he was the founder of a dynasty in North-West India, being succeeded by his brother, his nephew and then a more distant relation. The coins are dated to the first half of the first century. Gondophares, or Gundafor, describes himself as autokrator in Greek on his coins, and would appear to have been the ruler of an Indo-Parthian empire that stretched from modern Afghanistan into the Punjab.  An inscription has also been discovered which refers to this king, and which appears to date his reign from 21 A.D. to perhaps 50 or 60 A.D. certainly within the lifetime of St Thomas.

Now this evidence does suggest strongly that the Acts of Thomas must have some basis in fact. There is no reference to this king in any later works in the West, and therefore no likelihood that a later writer should accidentally choose the same name as an unknown king and place St Thomas in connection with him. It seems entirely reasonable that this tradition must have originated very close in time and place to St Thomas and King Gondophares.

This would appear to agree with the information which Origen had several decades later. He writes saying, ‘When the holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over the world, Thomas, so the tradition has it, obtained his portion in Parthia’.  The Doctrine of the Apostles from the 3rd century also locates St Thomas’ mission in India...

India and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farther sea, received the Apostle’s hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the Church which he built and ministered there”.

Ephrem, composing hymns in the 4th century, writes about the relics of St Thomas being brought from India to Edessa, where they were enshrined. He says,

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. The merchant brought the bones: nay, rather! They brought him. Lo, the mutual gain! ... But the casket of Thomas is slaying me, for a hidden power there residing, tortures me.

And in another hymn the same Ephrem writes...

A land of people dark fell to thy lot that these in white robes thou shouldest clothe and cleanse by baptism: a tainted land Thomas has purified. Blessed art thou, like unto the solar ray from the great orb; thy grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel. Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.

I will say no more in the brief post for the Apostles Fast. But it certainly seems that we can be sure that the Apostle Thomas did indeed set out for India, as the Lord commanded him and establish the church in that place. An ancient church which is preserved to this very day in the Orthodox community of India.

No comments:

Post a Comment