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03 Acts of Thomas and church apologists

Chapter Three

This is the essential Acts of Thomas, with the opening and closing parts quoted at length for reference. Fr. A. Mathias Mundadan, Professor of Church History and Theology at the Dharmaram Pontifical Institute, Bangalore, in History of Christianity in India, says, “The description of the place of St. Thomas’s martyrdom [in the Acts] would easily suggest Mylapore as the town of king Mazdai [Misdaeus].”

This statement is patently absurd in the face of the evidence of the Acts itself. Mylapore has never been “a desert country” as Mazdai’s land is described in the Acts―his city is not described at all―and has never had a Zoroastrian king or a mountain with an ancient royal sepulchre in it. Mylapore has always been known as a Hindu pilgrimage town and busy port, with jasmine gardens, jungles, pea****s and lush coconut groves. Mundadan can get away with his motivated assertions because most students of the St. Thomas legend do not know the Acts of Thomas or the topography of Mylapore and its larger environs. They also do not know West Asia and Persia and the history of Christianity in these places and the Roman Empire. They have no means by which to judge the declared conceits of Mundadan and the tribe of scholars that he represents. They must accept these conceits in good faith―and unfortunately their good faith is exploited to the limit.

There is simply nothing Indian, much less South Indian, in the setting and ambiance of the Acts of Thomas. All internal evidence suggests Syria, Iraq and Persia―or Parthia as it was called in the first century CE―as the place where the drama of the Acts was played out to its preordained end, or to a kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire―like Edessa itself―as there are strong Greco-Roman influences in the text. India as a specific place and Gundaphorus and Misdaeus-Mazdai as Indian kings appear to be literary devices used by Bardesanes to give credibility to the unconventional religious theme of the book.

C.B. Firth, in An Introduction to Indian Church History, writes, “it is no uncommon thing to find [ancient writers] using [the name India] of countries such as Ethiopia, Arabia or Afghanistan. Indeed, except for those who had reason to be acquainted with our India, ‘India’ was a vague term which might stand for almost any region beyond the Empire’s south-eastern frontiers. … To the fourth century Fathers India is the place of St. Thomas’s labours; but others, of earlier date, say Parthia, that is the Persian Empire stretching from North-West India to Mesopotamia; and of these the most notable is Eusebius the historian, who wrote in the fourth century. He says, ‘When the holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over all the world, Thomas, so the tradition has it, obtained as his portion Parthia….’ Eusebius quotes as his authority for this statement the famous Alexandrian Father, Origen (ca. 185-254), thus carrying back the tradition to the first half of the third century. According to Origen and Eusebius, then, it was Parthia to which St. Thomas went. Moreover in another place Eusebius says that it was St. Bartholomew who went to India. … In what he says of St. Bartholomew, Eusebius may well have in mind one of the countries bordering on the Red Sea.”

C.B. Firth could have included the testimony of Origen’s teacher, the Greek missionary theologian Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-235), who had travelled from Greece to Italy, Syria and Palestine before settling in Egypt. Clement is known as an apologist rather than a father of the Church, as he tried to reconcile Platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. He is the first orthodox Christian scholar to say that St. Thomas went to Parthia.

But before we continue with the fathers of the Church and their testimony for or against St. Thomas in India, reference must be made to another apocryphal Syrian text called the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It was written at Edessa by an unknown Arian author about 250 CE and deals with Christian ethics, the duties of priests, the Eucharistic liturgy, rituals, and various other church problems. It says, “India and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea, received the Apostle’s Hand of the Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the church which he built and ministered there.”

Further on the Didache names the land that had priests ordained by Aggaeus the disciple of Addaeus (Addai) the disciple of Judas Thomas, as “the whole of Persia of the Assyrians and Medes, and the countries round about Babylon … even to the borders of the Indians and even to the country of Gog and Magog”.

In hoary British tradition, Gog and Magog are two giants of Cornwall who were slain by Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of London, but the author of the Didache is probably referring to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and the land of Magog from whence Gog would come, which lay somewhere to the north of Israel.

The Didache is following the earlier Acts of Thomas when it says that St. Thomas evangelized India―by which it means Parthia from the evidence in the text itself―as it was written at Edessa too where the Acts was written by a heterodox author who could have been a disciple of Bardesanes. He is a typical hagiographer, magnifying the works of St. Thomas and his disciples throughout the world―for this must be the significance of the reference to the mythical land of Gog and Magog.

These two third century Syrian texts are the literary foundation on which the tradition of St. Thomas in India is built. Without them, and especially without the Acts, there is no St. Thomas east of Khorasan which was the centre of the Parthian Empire and is the “India” of the Acts, even as “the farthest sea” of the Didache is the Red and Arabian Seas that bordered the Parthian Empire.

Now to return to the fathers and doctors of the Church who testify to the coming of St. Thomas to India, the fourth century Ephraim of Edessa (the same who attacked Bardesanes), Gregory of Nazianzus,[11] Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, the fifth century Gaudentius of Brescia, Paulinus of Nola, the sixth century Gregory of Tours, the seventh century Isidore of Seville, and the eighth century Bede of Jarrow, are all quoting the Acts, or works and verbal traditions based on the Acts, or the authority of each other. Their testimony is worthless as history even if it is made in good faith.

The same could be said of the testimony of the second and third century Clement and Origen, and fourth century Eusebius, but the difference is that their earlier date and closeness to the alleged events and its first traditions―which are not recorded in a stylized religious fiction like the Acts―give them more credibility. They, too, had knowledge of the Acts and Didache but chose to ignore them and declare that St. Thomas went to Parthia. Eusebius, who had done research at Edessa for his Ecclesiastical History but lived at Caesarea Maritima in Palestine, the port from which St. Thomas would have had to embark for India (unless he sailed from Gaza, or the Gulf of Aqaba port of Eilat, or the Egyptian ports of Elim or Berenice), certainly knew both traditions thoroughly and is a principal witness. Moreover he held unorthodox religious views and would have been sympathetic to the Christian theosophy expounded in the Acts. Yet he states that St. Thomas went from Jerusalem by land to proselytise the Parthians. This supports the tradition that St. Thomas went to Edessa to meet his disciple Addai, whom he had sent earlier to meet the Abgar―the same Edessa that would later honour him with a book, a mummy, a tomb, and a cult.

But Clement, Origen and Eusebius are not the only early Christian scholars to say that St. Thomas went to Parthia. There is also the fourth century priest, Rufinus of Aquileia, who translated Greek theological texts into Latin, and the fifth century Byzantine church historian and legal consultant, Socrates of Constantinople, who also wrote an Ecclesiastical History after Eusebius, the second edition which is still completely extant and considered an indispensable documentary source of early church history.

Both Rufinus and Socrates would have known the Greek version of the Acts which was made immediately after the Syriac text was written (if it wasn’t the other way round as some scholars believe). They would also have known the testimony of Ephraim, Gregory, Ambrose and Jerome for St. Thomas in India. Yet Rufinus and Socrates both declare that St. Thomas went to Parthia.

The reason that the testimony of the Acts of Thomas is rejected by Clement, Origen, Eusebius, Rufinus and Socrates is the same as that of modern scholars who reject it. The Acts is a purely fictional work without any historical authority, written specifically to promote the doctrine that a Christian must be chaste even within the relationship of marriage. This opinion, held by some Gnostics and apparently by St. Thomas too, was presented to the Edessene public by Bardesanes in the form of an engaging miracle romance.[12] The story was deliberately set in India, a vast land to the east of Edessa from which all sort of peculiar religious theories emanated. Bardesanes was a theologian not a geographer, and the latter discipline was made to serve the former―just as it is made to do today by interested Catholic scholars.

The reasonable view held by many scholars, that nobody in third century Asia was interested in St. Thomas except Edessa, where his cult was centred and from where it radiated, was anticipated by Rev. Dr. G. Milne Rae at the end of the last century.

Milne Rae was a professor at Madras Christian College and wrote a book, The Syrian Church in India, which provoked severe criticism from the Syrian Christian community. In it he denies the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas, and in a second research paper asks, “In what literature is the name of St. Thomas first associated with India? It will appear I think the home of that literature, the original hotbed in which it was reared, was no other than the Church of Edessa. For there is no place within the area occupied, by the language in which those books were written, that had any such interest in the fortunes and destiny of the Apostle. The story of Thomas preaching and his martyrdom in India is first found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and it is curious to note that throughout the work the Apostle is generally called Judas Thomas, a name which he also received in that group of documents which Eusebius found among the archives at Edessa. It is palpably a Gnostic work and students of Gnosticism, judging from the stages of development at which they find the heresy in the Acts, assign it to the end of the second century. It may have been written by Bardesanes. But whoever the real author was, I think the details of this work are not only consistent with the belief that they were put together by a member of the Edessene Church, but also defy explanation on any other hypothesis.”

Donald At****er, in  The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, with reference to L.W. Brown in The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, writes, “There is endless discussion about St. Thomas’s subsequent life. In particular, did he take the gospel to India, where for many centuries the Christians of Kerala have called themselves ‘St. Thomas Christians’? That he did so, and was martyred there, is the theme of a long document of the third or fourth century, called the Acts of Thomas. This is one of the most readable and intrinsically interesting of early Christian apocryphal writings; but it is no more than a popular romance, written in the interest of false Gnostic teachings (e.g. the virtual necessity of celibacy for Christians). It is not impossible that St. Thomas should have reached southern India, but the historical reality of his mission there cannot be considered proved. It is also said that he evangelized Parthia, and in the fourth century his relics were claimed to be at Edessa in Mesopotamia.”

As for the testimony of the early fathers Ephraim, Gregory, Ambrose and Jerome, M. Augustus Neander, in General History of the Christian Religion and Church, writes, “The writings of the so-called apostolic fathers have unhappily for the most part come down to us in a condition very little worthy of confidence. At a very early date spurious writings were planned in the names of these men so highly venerated in the church for the purpose of giving authority to particular opinions or principles.”

Augustus Neander is being generous to the fathers of the Church. Herbert Cutner, in Jesus: God, Man or Myth?, accuses  them directly of being credulous. He writes, “If the crass superstition of that parcel of fools, the Apostolic Fathers, and the idiotic ‘details’ put in the various apocryphal Gospels do not in themselves put these ‘authorities’ out of court, then I’m afraid no argument ever discovered could do so.”

In a sense this is the last word, for the Acts of Thomas does by its own internal “details” destroy the history that it is said to record, and the testimony of the fathers, with few exceptions, is disproved by their mindless pronouncements on what they wish to confirm. Their “evidence” is never anything more than a pious testimony based on personal faith and opinion that was highly coloured by the political and theological pressures of the day. Their “authority” has been exploited down the ages and is a precursor of the modern Catholic superstition of papal infallibility.[13]

Judge C.B. Waite, in History of the Christian Religion to the Year Two Hundred, carefully reviewed all the available early documents of the Church. His impartial criticism of them caused many scholars to conclude that Church history of the first two centuries is based on myth and invention. S.J. Case, in The Historicity of Jesus, while defending the historicity of Jesus, admits that the apocryphal books are not true in their details. L. de la Vallee-Poussin, A. Harnack and Richard Garbe do not give the Acts of Thomas any credibility at all.

Jacques Basnage, the French Protestant minister and historiographer of the seventeenth century, rejected the tradition that St. Thomas came to India. So did the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical historian of the same period, Louis-Sebastien Le Nain de Tillemont, who provided a rigorous appraisal of early historical writing in his Memoirs useful for the Ecclesiastical History of the First Six Centuries. The French Protestant La Croze in the eighteenth century and the English Protestants James Hough and Sir John Kaye in the nineteenth century, all historians of repute, also rejected the tradition.

The Jesuit Bollandist Peeters and Maurice Winternitz, Professor of Indian Philology and Ethnology at the German  University  of  Prague, categorically deny that St. Thomas came to India. And the Indian “St. Thomas Christian” K.E. Job, a cautious voice among three archbishops, eleven bishops, and fifty-three priests who contributed to the Mar Thoma Centenary Commemoration Volume 1952, writes, “But there are few records enabling one to be positive about the scene of the activities of each of these Apostles [Peter and Paul] and how each of them carried out the commands of their Master … [and] certain knowledge about the other Apostles [Thomas and Bartholomew][14] is absolutely inadequate.”

Dr. J.N. Farquhar, author of The Apostle Thomas in North India and The Apostle Thomas in South India, admits, “We cannot prove that the story [of St. Thomas] is history.”

Dr. A. Mingana, in The Early Spread of Christianity in Asia and the Far East and The Early Spread of Christianity in India, adopts a non-committal attitude towards St. Thomas. We have quoted him as saying, “What India gives us about Christianity in its midst in indeed nothing but pure fables.”

Professor Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, observes, “Though the Saint’s mission and death in India are probably legendary, his reputed burial-place was a centre of pilgrimage for Indian Christians.”

Bishop Stephen Neill studied the St. Thomas legend carefully during his years in India, and lamented its spread among Indian Christians. He regarded the story as spurious history, and in History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to 1707 A.D., writes, “A number of scholars, among whom are to be mentioned with respect Bishop A.E. Medleycott, J.N. Farquhar and the Jesuit J. Dahlman, have built on slender foundations what can only be called Thomas romances, such as reflect the vividness of their imaginations rather than the prudence of rigid historical critics.”

11. About this Gregory, R.C. Majumdar, in The History and Culture of the Indian People, quoted by Sita Ram Goel in History of Hindu-Christian Encounters, writes, “According to the Syrian writer Zenob there was an Indian colony in the canton of Taron on the upper Euphrates, to the west of Lake Van, as early as the second century BC. The Indians had built there two temples containing images of Gods about 18 and 22 feet high. When, about AD 304, St. Gregory came to destroy these images, he was strongly opposed by the Hindus. But he defeated them and smashed the images, thus anticipating the iconoclastic zeal of Mahmud of Ghazni.”

12. Robert M. Grant, Professor of Humanities and Early Christian History at the University of Chicago and author of Historical Introduction to the New Testament and Early Christianity and Society, writes, “The various acts, close in form and content to the contemporary Hellenistic romances, turned the apostolic drama into melodrama and satisfied the popular taste for stories of travel and adventure, as well as for a kind of asceticism generally rejected by Christian leaders.”

13. This dogma of self-aggrandizement was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1870. It is in keeping with the Semitic tradition of making extravagant claims to establish personal authority. Jehovah claimed to be the only God and Jesus claimed to be the only Son of God. Next came the martyrs, confessors, fathers and saints with their claims of authority. The Roman bishops claimed to be the vicars of God on earth and became popes. Pope Hadrian I claimed in a famous forgery, the Donation of Constantine, ca. 774, to be above kings and nations and the “legal” heir to the Roman emperors. Pope Alexander VI claimed in 1493 to have dominion over the whole earth including those parts of it that he did not know about. Pope Pius IX’s claim is a logical progression of this manic scheme to take over the world (which originated with Moses and was perfected by Mohammad). It is an attempt by modern popes to establish their “only” moral and spiritual authority in a world that has so far denied them absolute powers.

14. The New Testament says almost nothing about St. Bartholomew, but an apocryphal story alleges that he founded a church at Kalyan, near modern Mumbai, and left a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Mathew there. This book was later found by Pantaenus of Alexandria, who is said to have visited India in 190 CE. All historians since Tillemont agree that Pantaenus went to Arabia Felix, which, like Ethiopia, was often referred to as “India” by ancient writers. C.B. Firth says that St. Bartholomew went to a country bordering on the Red Sea, and Donald At****er says that there is no proof that he visited India, Lycaonia (Turkey), or even Armenia where he was supposed to have been flayed alive.

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