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06 Thomas of Cana & Nestorians

Chapter Six

Thomas of Cana, or Knai Thoma as he is known to Syrian Christians, the Canaanite merchant from Jerusalem who had led the fourth century migration of Syrian Christians to Malabar, was probably a Manichee Christian. This may be inferred from the name of the Christian quarter that he built, Mahadevarapatnam, at Cranganore, on land that had been given to him and Bishop Joseph of Edessa by the reigning Cheraman Perumal (a title used by various Cheras rulers). Cranganore had a great Shiva temple in its vicinity, at Tiruvanchikulam, and it was not possible that Christians who followed and fed on the intolerant salvation cult of the Roman Empire would call their quarter after the name of a Hindu deity. Manichaeism, on the other hand, was a benign, eclectic religion that mixed the teachings of Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses and Jesus in a cosmic system devised by Mani, a third century Parthian aristocrat who had studied in a Judeo-Christian community of Mandaeists in southern Babylonia. He called himself the Apostle of Light and said that he was the last prophet after a long line that had begun with Adam.

Mani’s religion was evangelical and ascetic, and tended to take on the form of the religious culture of the place it was in. As it flourished in a Mesopotamia and Persia that had been Christianised by St. Thomas and his disciples, it was a form of Gnostic Christianity not very different from that of Bardesanes and the Acts of Thomas. Mani had studied the teachings of Bardesanes and apocryphal Christian texts like the Acts formed part of the Manichaean canon. Indeed, there were very striking similarities between the story of Mani and that of Judas Thomas. They preached in the same places in the Persian Empire, performed the same miracles, used the same ritual chrism or baptism with oil, and laid the same emphasis on sexual continence. Mani is also said to have converted a king of India, probably in Baluchistan which is the furthest east he travelled, and he was martyred even as Judas Thomas, by a Zoroastrian king at Gondeshapur in southwestern Persia .

Henry Love, writing about the establishment of the first Syrian church in Malabar, in Vestiges of Old Madras, says, “Whether the founder of this church was the apostle, or Thomas the Manichaean who lived in the third century, or whether the Christians named themselves after Thomas the Armenian … is a debatable matter which need not be discussed.”

Thomas of Cana―or his bishop from Edessa, Joseph―can be said to be the founder of the church in Malabar, but within a hundred years of his death it would join itself to the Nestorian Church of the East at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, which in turn was closely linked to the Church of Edessa. Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, in Eastern Christianity in India, gives the date of this event as about 450 CE, and it is because of this union that the Church of the East can be said to be the first Christian church in India―Manichaeism being a religion in its own right.

The attachment of the Syrian Christians of Malabar to the Nestorian Church was necessitated by their geographical isolation. They required bishops with a valid ordination and these could only be obtained from Mesopotamia and Persia. But there was a sentimental attraction too. The Nestorians also revered St. Thomas―Edessa had become their theological stronghold―and Nestorian bishops wholeheartedly promoted his cult in India.

This cult amounted to a kind of St. Thomas religion, and this is attested to by Bishop Jordan, the French Dominican friar who was sent to Quilon by Pope John XXII, in 1330, to convert the Syrians to the Roman creed. Friar Jordan soon had to abandon his Indian flock as incorrigible, and in Marvels Described, writes, “In this India there is a scattered people, one here, another there, who call themselves Christian, but are not so, nor have they baptism, nor do they know anything about the faith: nay, they believe St. Thomas the Great to be Christ.”

There was a good reason for this identification of Thomas with Jesus―aside from their physical resemblance[20]―and the Syrian Christians seem to have retained a memory of it from their Judeo-Gnostic origins. These origins were indicated by the appellation “Nazarene” or “Nazarani”―being the same as the biblical “Nazarite”―which they carried into the seventeenth century, along with uncut hair that was worn tied up with a cross in a top-knot.

The Nazarenes were an ancient Jewish sect whose most famous member before Jesus was Samson,[21] known from the Old Testament story. They gave special importance to uncut hair, which they believed to contain divine power, and were later associated with the Essenes, the nationalistic religious community on the Dead Sea with which Jesus and Thomas were also related.[22]

The Nazarenes did not originally regard Jesus as divine or a universal saviour of mankind, though they did believe him to be their promised messiah. His twin brother Thomas was revered as co-messiah with him, and together they constituted the hereditary king and high priest of Israel, in the royal line of David. Their nationalistic cult spread northwards among the Jews, to supplant the similar and ancient Greek cult of the Divine Twins, Castor and Pollux, at Edessa. Judas Thomas had visited Edessa after sending his disciple Addai there, to instruct the king in his Nazarene doctrine. The creed demanded strict adherence to orthodox Jewish law and recognition of Jesus as messiah and earthly king of Israel. It repudiated the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, and maintained a militant hostility towards Paul and the whole edifice of Pauline thought. This meant that Jesus was not Christ―an idea that Paul had borrowed from Greek philosophy―but resurgent Israel’s national saviour.

The Nazarene hierarchy of Jerusalem had fled to Edessa prior to the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE, and it is only after the Nazarenes had lost the national cause that Jesus and Judas Thomas took on divine roles. Paul’s Greek―some say Gnostic―ideas were accepted over those of orthodox Judaism, and for the first time in history the appellation “Christian” came into use in Syria, even as the first Christian church was built at Edessa on the ruins of the demolished Greek temple. Jesus and Thomas had ousted Castor and Pollux. Later, near the end of the second century, the Abgar, Edessa’s prince and Bardesanes’s friend, was baptized a Christian and Edessa became a Christian state.

But from the beginning of the Christian era to the Arab invasions of the seventh century, Judas Thomas was and remained the central object of worship at Edessa. He had lived and taught in the city and if he did not die there, his body was returned soon afterwards from Persia. His cult was brought to India by Thomas of Cana and the four hundred Syrian refugees he led, in 345 CE, and even as Thomas was identified with Jesus, so Thomas of Cana came to be identified with Thomas the Apostle within a few generations of his death in Malabar.

This is an old idea. Henry Love had suggested it in the last century, in Vestiges of Old Madras, and before him England’s greatest historian, Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, had asked if the Indian Thomas was an apostle, an Armenian merchant, or a Manichaean. Major T.R. Vedantham had again questioned the identity of St. Thomas in 1987, in the “St. Thomas Legend”, serialized in the South Madras News. He had carefully reviewed the material available and come to the inescapable conclusion that Thomas of Cana was the man whom Syrian Christians had made into their Indian apostle St. Thomas.

20. Rupert Furneau, in The Other Side of the Story, says that Jesus and Thomas were look-alike twins, and that Thomas capitalized on the resemblance wherever he went. Furneau quotes the famous Austrian historian and archaeologist Robert Isaac Eisler, who reconstructs the description of Jesus and thus of Thomas found in the Antiquities of Josephus, after removing the fanciful interpolations that Christian editors had made in the text. Eisler writes, “His nature and form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits [four feet six inches] high, hunch-backed, with a long face, long nose, and meeting eyebrows, so that they who see him might be affrighted, with scanty hair with a parting in the middle of the head, after the manner of the Nazarites, and with an undeveloped beard.” The hunched back of Jesus and Thomas is attributed to their profession of carpenter.

21. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in The Messianic Legacy, write, “Jesus almost certainly was not of Nazareth. An overwhelming body of evidence indicates that Nazareth did not exist in biblical times. The town is unlikely to have appeared before the third century. ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, as most biblical scholars would now readily concur, is a mistranslation of the original Greek phrase ‘Jesus the Nazarene’.”

22. Studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls done by Barbara Theiring over a twenty year period, some of the results of which are contained in her book Jesus the Man: A New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls, reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary and the disciples including Paul, were members of the Essene community at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Theiring says that Jesus married twice, fathered children, married one of his daughters to Paul, survived the crucifixion, and died of old age at Rome.

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