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Thomas (Apostle)

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Thomas also called Judas Thomas Didymus or Jude Thomas Didymus, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. In the synoptic gospels and Acts this unnamed "Twin" ("Thomas" simply means "twin" in Aramaic) is listed among the other apostles, but nothing else is written about him in the synoptic gospels.

However, we are provided with more information in the Gospel of John, where Thomas appears in several scenes, the best known being where he doubts the resurrection of Jesus and demands to feel Jesus' wounds before being convinced (20:24-9), the scene depicted by Caravaggio (illustration above) from which comes the term Doubting Thomas. After seeing Jesus alive and receiving the opportunity to touch his wounds — according to the author of John— Thomas professed his faith in Jesus; on this account he is also called Thomas the Believer.


Twin and its renditions

  • The Greek Didymus: in three of these passages (John 11:16; 20:24; and 21:2), Thomas is more specifically identified as "Thomas, also called the Twin (Didymus)".
  • The Aramaic Tau'ma: the name "Thomas" itself comes from the Aramaic word for twin: Tau'ma. Thus the name convention Didymus Thomas thrice repeated in the Gospel of John is in fact a tautology that omits the Twin's actual name.

Other Names

The Nag Hammadi "sayings" Gospel of Thomas begins: "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded." Syrian tradition also states that the apostle's full name was Judas Thomas, or Jude Thomas, and as early as the Acts of Thomas (written in east Syria in the early 3rd century) he was identified with the apostle Jude, one of the brothers of Jesus Christ.(see Desposyni). Gospel of Mark 6:3 quotes the many who knew Jesus and heard him with surprise in the synagogue of his home country:

"Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?""New International Version.

Thus, though the texts do not anywhere identify Judas Thomas' other twin, Jude Thomas is said by some readers of the text to be the twin brother of Jesus, a reading that goes counter to the traditions of those Christian churches where tradition counts as heavily as Scripture.

Split Identity

Essentially, the logical inference is that the mainstream Christian tradition, as early as the beginning of the second century, has divided the person of Jude the Twin and rendered the one man as two, both Saint Jude and Saint Thomas. This is not the teaching of mainstream Christian churches, however, who insist on their separateness. Questions of the multiplied identities of Jude Thomas Didymus are particularly discussed at the entry Jude Thomas. See also Saint Jude.

Thomas is revered as a saint in both the Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is remembered each year on St Thomas Sunday, which is always one week after Easter.

Thomas and John

The theology of Thomas and of John are unalterably opposed: in the event the Gospel of John was accepted in the canon, though not without reserve on the part of some Christian communities, and the roughly contemporary Gospel of Thomas was preserved only by being hidden in the sands at Nag Hammadi. Elaine Pagels' widely-read Beyond Belief (2003) devotes a chapter to these "Gospels in Conflict:" "Thomas' gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God, through one's own, divinely given capacity" (Pagels 2003 p 34). Thomas is like the synoptic gospels in speaking of Jesus as human, as Origen noticed: "none of them clearly spoke of his divinity, as John does" (Commentary on John 1.6). Thomas and John give similar accounts of what Jesus taught privately, but Thomas is not embedded in a narrative: John interrupts the narrative to give five chapters of Jesus' private discourse in John 13 – 18. Both gospels characterize Jesus as God's own light in human shape.

The conclusions drawn in the two gospels are diametrically opposed: John claims that the divine light is embodied only in Jesus, while Thomas' Jesus urges the apostles to find it within each of them.

Thomas and Syria

Thomas has a role in the legend of king Abgar of Edessa (Urfa), for having sent Thaddaeus to preach in Edessa after the Ascension (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiae 1.13; III.1; Ephrem the Syrian also recounts this legend.) In the 4th century the martyrium erected over his burial place brought pilgrims to Edessa. In the 380s, Egeria described her visit in a letter she sent to her community of nuns at home (Itineraria Egeriae):

"we arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of saint Thomas. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other things that were customary in the holy places were done; we read also some things concerning saint Thomas himself. The church there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and as there was much that I desired to see, it was necessary for me to make a three days' stay there."

Thomas and India

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, which lies beyond Parthia to the east, 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, ch. ii.

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 erected his shrine. The Thomas traditions became embodied in Syriac liturgy, thus they were universally credited by the Christian community there.

The various denominations of modern Saint Thomas Christians believe that Thomas landed at Kodungallur in AD 52 and ascribe their unwritten tradition to the end of the 2nd century. The Acts of Thomas describes in chapter 17 Thomas' visit to king Gondophares in northern India; chapters 2 and 3 depict him as embarking on a sea voyage to India, thus connecting Thomas to the west coast of India. Though the Acts are usually considered to be moral entertainments of a legendary nature, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a surviving roughly contemporary guide to the routes commonly being used for navigating the Arabian Sea. At the times the Acts were being composed, and until the discovery of his coins in the region of Kabul and the Punjab, there was no reason to suppose that a king named "Gondophares" had ever really existed. The reign of Gondophares, established by a votive inscription of his 26th regnal year that was unknown until 1872, commenced in AD 21, so he was in fact reigning as late as AD 47. "It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the writer of the Acts must have had information based on contemporary history. For at no later date could a forger or legendary writer have known the name." (Medlycott 1905).

While exploring the Malabar coast of west India in 1498, the Portuguese encountered Christians who traced their foundations to Thomas. However, the Catholic Portuguese did not accept the legitimacy of local Malabar traditions, and they began to impose Roman Catholic practices upon the Saint Thomas Christians, some of whom conformed, to become the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church; others resisted and remained within the Indian Orthodox Church; and a number have since joined other Christian denominations.

On the isolated island of Socotra south of Yemen in the Arabian Sea, a community of Christians that had attested as early as the mid-4th century and by medieval Arab sources survived to be documented by Saint Francis Xavier, who was informed that they had been evangelized by Thomas (Medlycott 1905, ch. ii). After the Mahra sultans from the Horn of Africa conquered Socotra in 1511, all traces of the former Thomasine Christian community were utterly effaced (see Socotra).

There is near Madras (now called Chennai) in India, a small hillock called St. Thomas Mount , where the Apostle is said to have been killed in 78 AD. Also to be found in Madras is the San Thome Cathedral Basilica to which his mortal remains were supposedly transferred.

Writings attributed to Thomas

"Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples."
Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathechesis V (4th century)

In the first two centuries of the Christian era, a number of writings which claimed the authority of Thomas, some said, perhaps too loosely, to be espousing a Gnostic doctrine as Cyril was suggesting, were circulated. It is unclear why Thomas was seen as an authority for doctrine, although this belief is documented in Gnostic groups as early as the Pistis Sophia (ca 250 - 300 A.D.) which states that the "three witnesses" committing to writing "all of his words" Thomas, along with Philip and Matthew. In that Gnostic work, Mary Magdalene (one of the disciples) says

"Now at this time, my Lord, hear, so that I speak openly, for thou hast said to us 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear:' Concerning the word which thou didst say to Philip: 'Thou and Thomas and Matthew are the three to whom it has been given... to write every word of the Kingdom of the Light, and to bear witness to them'; hear now that I give the interpretation of these words. It is this which thy light-power once prophesied through Moses: 'Through two and three witnesses everything will be established. The three witnesses are Philip and Thomas and Matthew" ( —Pistis Sophia 1:43)

An early, non-Gnostic tradition may lie behind this statement, which also emphasizes the primacy of Matthew's Gospel over the other canonical three.

Besides the Acts of Thomas there was a widely circulated Infancy Gospel of Thomas probably written in the later 2nd century, and probably also in Syria, which relates the miraculous events and prodigies of Jesus' boyhood. This is the document which tells for the first time the familiar legend of the twelve sparrows which Jesus, at the age of five, fashioned from clay on the Sabbath day, that took wing and flew away. The earliest manuscript of this work is a sixth century one in Syriac. This gospel was first referred to by Irenaeus; Ron Cameron notes: "In his citation, Irenaeus first quotes a non-canonical story that circulated about the childhood of Jesus and then goes directly on to quote a passage from the infancy narrative of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:49). Since the Infancy Gospel of Thomas records both of these stories, in relative close proximity to one another, it is possible that the apocryphal writing cited by Irenaeus is, in fact, what is now known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Because of the complexities of the manuscript tradition, however, there is no certainty as to when the stories of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas began to be written down."

The best known in modern times of these documents is the "sayings" document that is being called the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal work. The opening line claims it is the work of "Didymos Judas Thomas" - who has been identified with Thomas. This work was discovered in a Coptic translation in 1948 at the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi, near the site of the monastery of Chenoboskion. Once the Coptic text was published, scholars recognized that an earlier Greek translation had been published from fragments of papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus in the 1890s.

No Christian denomination has recognized any of these works as part of the Bible.

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