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Thomas Martyr - Sean Mcdowell

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Sean McDowell | February 25, 2016


In my last post, I evaluated the tradition that the apostle Thomas ministered in India. While the evidence for Thomas in India is not as strong as for Peter and Paul in Rome, it is at least probable that he founded the church in India. But did Thomas die as a martyr?


The Acts of Thomas (c. AD 200-220) is the earliest literary account of the martyrdom of Thomas in India. It begins with the apostles in Jerusalem dividing up the world for missions. According to lot, Thomas was assigned to go to India, but he reluctantly objected, even though Jesus appears to him at night. Shortly thereafter a merchant named Abban came from India looking for a carpenter to work for king Gondophares. Jesus offers to sell him Thomas as a slave, and this time Thomas enthusiastically agrees. Once he arrives in the city, Gondophares assigns Thomas to build him a palace outside the city gates. Thomas agrees, but instead of using the money to build the palace, he gives it away to the poor and afflicted. Gondophares, furious when he heard how Thomas used the money, casts him in prison, contemplating how he would kill him. That very night the king’s brother Gad died and was taken by an angel to see the palace Thomas had built in heaven. Gad was allowed to return to life the next day and tell his brother all he had seen. As a result, both Gondophares and Gad sought the forgiveness of Thomas, and decide also to follow the Lord. Thomas travels to another land, and after preaching, casting out demons, and performing miracles, he is eventually thrown in prison by king Misdaeus (Mizdai). Thomas prays as he is escorted to his death by four guards who kill him with spears.

Scholars either consider this account entirely fictional, or believe that there is a historical core beneath the legendary embellishment. Western scholars tend to assume its legendary nature rather than argue for it.

Nevertheless, it would be premature—simply because it was written in the early third century, at least two to three generations removed from the events—to dismiss the Acts of Thomas as lacking any historical value. While earlier sources are certainly preferred, later sources often provide valuable historical information. A helpful example comes from comparing the Acts of Thomas with the writings of Plutarch. In his Lives, Plutarch wrote over sixty biographies, fifty of which have survived. For several subjects in the Lives, Plutarch is treated as seriously as with earlier sources. He is the main source for a number of ancient figures, many of whom lived hundreds of years before his writing (e.g., Pelopidas, Timoleon, Dion, Eumenes, Agis, Cleomenes).


Understanding the genre of the Acts is important in determining its historicity. Christine Thomas has suggested that the various Acts of this period, and other similar novels, are best categorized as historical fiction.[1] The mere fact that the Acts of Thomas contains known historical figures such as Thomas, Gondophares, Gad, and possibly even Habban and Xanthippe, Mazdai, and the city of Andrapolis, indicates that it is not entirely divorced from a historical memory. Rather than inventing a narrative for the apostle, the authors of the Acts would elaborate upon a known historical tradition.

Kurikilamkatt asks an important question: “If the story did not have a historical background and if the readers of the book knew Thomas had gone to some places other than those mentioned in the Ath [Acts of Thomas], how could the author of the Ath believe that any credibility would be given to his story?”[2] Later tradition, as well as the lack of any competing tradition for his journeys and fate, helps confirm this conclusion.


The most significant find convincing many scholars of the historical core of Acts of Thomas was the discovery in 1834 of a collection of ancient coins in the Kabul Valley of Afghanistan. Ancient coins often provide similar information as modern coins, including the names of various rulers and kings. Among the many forgotten kings whose images christened these coins, was the name “Gondophares” in a variety of spellings including “Gundaphar,” “Gundaphara,” “Gondophernes” and “Gondapharasa.” Many other coins were soon found in different regions confirming the existence of Gondophares and his family as well. Additionally, ruins have been discovered that many consider his former palace. Some other clues have been found that lend some credibility to the possibility of a historical core behind the Acts of Thomas.[3]

Subsequent research dated the coins to the first century AD. More specific dating became possible with the discovery of a stone tablet among the ruins of a Buddhist city near Peshawar that contained six lines of text in an Indo-Bactrian language. Moffett concludes, “Deciphered, the inscription not only named King Gundaphar, it dated him squarely in the early first century A.D., making him a contemporary of the apostle Thomas just as the maligned Acts of Thomas had described him.”[4]

In addition to the written tradition of the death of Thomas in The Acts of Thomas, there is an oral tradition found among the St. Thomas Christians.


Perhaps the most accurate rendition of the tradition surrounding Thomas in southern India is told by The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India:

According to Indian tradition, St. Thomas came by sea, and first landed at Cranganore about the year 52 A.D.; converted high case Hindu families in Cranganore, Palayur, Quilon and some other places; visited the Coromandel coast, making conversions; crossed over to China and preached the Gospel; returned to India and organized the Christians of Malabar under some guides (priests) from among the leading families he had converted, and erected a few public places of worship. Then he moved to the Coromandel, and suffered martyrdom on or near the Little Mount. His body was brought to the town of Mylapore and was buried in a holy shrine he had built. Christians, goes the tradition, from Malabar, the Near East and even from China used to go on pilgrimage to Mylapore and venerate the tomb.[5]

Rather than being preserved in written text, the tradition of the St. Thomas Christians has been transmitted through songs, stories, legends, customs, and celebrations of the people. These various forms of oral tradition were how Indians at this time recorded their history. The St. Thomas Christians are utterly convinced that their heritage traces back to the apostle Thomas himself, including introduction of the Syriac or Chaldaic (East Syriac) language. The community has preserved many ancient antiquities that testify to their traditions. Some of the names of the converts of Thomas have been preserved as part of this tradition and are still remembered today in Kerala. When the Portuguese landed in Malabar around 1500, they found an indigenous community of Christians who had already held for centuries that Thomas was their founder. Like the tradition contained in the Acts of Thomas, the southern tradition contains numerous legends, exaggerations, and conflicting episodes. But the core of the tradition remains: that Thomas travelled to southern India, preached to the people, established a community, and was martyred and buried at Mylapore.

Indian scholar Benedict Vadakkekara provides five supporting reasons for the credibility of the St. Thomas tradition.[6] First, the mere existence of a community claiming apostolic roots speaks to the genuineness of the tradition. There must have been some significant reason, says Vadakkekara, for why the Indian Christians chose Thomas. Second, the St. Thomas Christians are unique in claiming Thomas as their founding apostle. The lack of competing traditions is a sign of the reliability of the St. Thomas tradition. Third, the community has passed down the tradition with consistency. Marco Polo notes (1288- 1298) the pilgrimages that Christians were making to the tomb of the apostle Thomas at Mylapore. Fourth, the tradition has been unanimous amongst both Christians and non- Christians sources. There have been some denominational splits among the St. Thomas Christians, but they unanimously share the conviction that their community has apostolic roots. Fifth, while there are undeniable embellishments, the tradition has retained its pristine simplicity.


Issues surrounding the travels and fate of Thomas go far beyond the scope of this article. If you want to analyze further factors in detail, and even consider some important objections, check out my book The Fate of the Apostles.

The evidence for the martyrdom of Thomas is certainly not as strong as for Peter, Paul, and both James. But when all the facts are considered, my research and analysis brings me to the conclusions that the martyrdom of Thomas in India seems at least more probable than not.

Regardless, we do know that Thomas (like the other apostles) willingly suffered for his faith, which shows the depth of his convictions. Thomas was not a liar. He really believed Jesus rose from the grave and was willing to suffer and die for that conviction.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at

[1] Christine Thomas, The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] James Kurikilamkatt, First Voyage of the Apostle Thomas to India (Bangalore, India: Asian Trading Corporation, 2005), 86.

[3] See Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015), 222-224.

[4] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 29.

[5] George Menachery, ed., The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India (Madras, India: BNK Press, 1982), 1:5.

[6] Vadakkekara, Origin of India’s St. Thomas Christians, 125-43.


Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTokInstagram, and his blog:



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Sean McDowell | February 18, 2016


In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I examine the evidence the apostles of Jesus died as martyrs. Because the evidence is early and consistent, there is widespread agreement that Peter, Paul, and both James died as martyrs. But scholars are much more divided over the tradition surrounding “doubting” Thomas. Did he really make it to India, as tradition suggests, and die there as a martyr?

The Eastern Church has consistently held that Thomas ministered in India. Alphonse Mingana notes:

It is the constant tradition of the Eastern Church that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India, and there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of any kind who, having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas, does not associate his name with India. Some writers mention also Parthia and Persia among the lands evangelized by him, but all of them are unanimous in the matter of India. The name of Thomas can never be dissociated from that of India.[1]

But how reliable is the evidence?

Can We Trust the Historical Record?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in assessing the Thomas tradition is that the historical record is unconventional on Western standards. No written history of India exists until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. As a result, many critics have claimed that since India lacked historical writing it also lacked a sense of history. Only recently has this assumption been challenged. While early India may have lacked extensive historical writings, it does not follow that it also lacked a historical consciousness.[2]

The Thomas Christians, for instance, still strongly hold to oral traditions that claim they were founded by the apostle Thomas. In place of written documentation are songs and poems, such as the Thomma Parvam, which was not written down until the early seventeenth century. This is not a good reason to glibly dismiss their historical value.[3] In fact, Gillman and Klimkeit note a double standard among Western scholars who dismiss apostolic roots in India, because the tradition is deemed too late and legend-filled, and yet are ready to overlook the fact that the earliest record of Patrick of Ireland comes from the late eighth century, roughly three centuries after his death.[4]

Was Travel to India Possible in the First Century?

In the first century, an apostolic mission from Jerusalem to India was entirely physically possible. India may have been more open to direct communication with the West during the first two hundred years of the Common Era than during any other period before the coming of the Portuguese in the seventeenth century.[5] Trade between Rome and India flourished in the first and second centuries, at least from the time of Claudius (c. AD 45) to the time of Hadrian (d. AD 138). Significant routes and gaps through the mountains could be traversed quite efficiently.[6] There is no good reason to doubt that a trip by the apostles Thomas to India was entirely possible.

But the key question is whether it is probable.

Did Thomas Minister in India?

Early church writings consistently link Thomas to India and Parthia.[7] Three points stand out regarding their witness to Thomas. First, the testimony that he went to India is unanimous, consistent, and reasonably early. Second, we have no contradictory evidence stating Thomas did not go to India or Parthia or that he went elsewhere. Third, fathers both in the East and in the West confirm the tradition. Since the beginning of the third century it has become an almost undisputable tradition that Thomas ministered in India. In addition to the traditions about Thomas in India, there is additional evidence that Christianity made it to India by at least the second century, if not earlier.[8]

While the evidence is not conclusive, a few reasons seem to indicate that it is at least probable that Thomas ministered in India. First, we have no doubt a mission from Jerusalem to Rome was physically possible in the first century. Second, Thomas had seen the risen Jesus (John 20:26-29), was zealous in his willingness to suffer and die for him (John 11:16), had received the missionary call from Jesus (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8), and, given all we know of him, fits the profile of someone who would partake of such an endeavor. While the case for Thomas in India is more provisional than for Peter and Paul in Rome, it does seem more probable than not that he ministered in India.

In the next post, we will consider the evidence that Thomas died as a martyr.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at


[1] Alphonse Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in India (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1926), 15-16.

[2] Romila Thapar, “Historical Traditions in Early India: c. 1000 B.C. to c. AD 600,” The Oxford History of Historical Writing, ed., Andrew Feldherr and Grant Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 553-58.

[3] Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Christians in Asia before 1500 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 163-64.

[4] Ibid., 166.

[5] Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 31.

[6] L.W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 59-60.

[7] Acts of Thomas 1 (c. AD 200-220); Teachings of the Apostles 3, (3rd. century); Hippolytus on the Twelve (c. 3rd. cent.); Origen, Commentary on Genesis, vol. 3 (d. c. 254); Clementine Recognitions 9.29 (c AD 350); St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oration 33.11 (c. AD 325-390).

[8] See Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2005), 157-173.



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Another Tale of Thomas: The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin

by Jonathan D. Holste in Articles



Thomas carries around his flayed skin in this illumination from London, British Library, Or. 685 (18th cent.), a collection of apocryphal acts in Ethiopic.

Noncanonical texts relating to the apostle Thomas have certainly received a good deal of attention. Much scholarly ink has been spilled on texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas (Acts Thom.).[1] In the relatively recent boom of interest in Christian apocrypha, these texts have even earned a bit of popular exposure. When it comes to narratives about the apostle Thomas, however, the well-known Acts of Thomas is far from the only game in town, so to speak. In our contribution to MNTA 2, Janet Spittler and I had the opportunity to translate for the first time into English the Greek text of another apocryphal narrative about Thomas: the Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin (Acts Thom. Skin).[2] Rather than provide a comprehensive analysis of this text, or an abbreviated form of the information Dr. Spittler and I present in MNTA 2, this piece will facilitate a first meeting between the reader and the text in the hope that you will want to read and get to know this apocryphal tale for yourself.

When Dr. Spittler and I first approached this text, we knew it as the Minor Acts of Thomas. Previous scholarship called it by this name—Acta Thomae minora, or Acta Thomae abbreviata —in order to distinguish it from the longer and more famous Acts Thom. Such titles carry the unfortunate and inaccurate implication that this text is an adaptation, abbreviation, or otherwise secondary version of Acts Thom. As we began working on this text, however, we saw that Minor Acts of Thomas simply does not fit this marvelous, unique narrative. Though the text shares thematic and narrative similarities with Acts Thom., the stories it tells are largely without parallel in that text. Further, Acts Thom. Skin was not always as obscure as it is to modern scholarship, but saw wide dissemination, not only in Greek but also Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Church Slavic. Therefore, lest this text be consigned permanently to the footnotes of the “major” Acts Thom., we chose a more descriptive title based on the narrative’s climax: the Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin.

Acts Thom. Skin narrates Thomas’s missionary activities in India. The story opens with the allotment of missionary territories to the apostles and Thomas’s assignment to India. After initial reluctance, Thomas departs for the land accompanied initially by Peter and Matthew. Once they arrive, Jesus makes an appearance to sell Thomas to the agent of King Condiphorus, and this king assigns the apostle to build a palace. To this point, of course, Acts Thom. Skin contains many parallels with Acts Thom., but from here on the stories it tells are distinct. The text proceeds to narrate the apostle’s founding of two churches, first in the household of Leucius and Arsenoë, and next in the city of Kentera. In the first of these unique episodes, Thomas preaches to Arsenoë and she becomes a Christian. Her husband Leucius discovers Arsenoë’s new beliefs when she rejects his advances—conversion here, as in other early apocryphal acts, entails sexual renunciation. Enraged, Leucius has Thomas flayed alive, and the sight of the apostle’s tortures leads to Arsenoë’s suicide. Thomas—in the moment that gives this text its name—takes his flayed skin, lays it on Arsenoë’s corpse, and brings her back to life. This convinces Leucius to become Christian. In the second episode, Thomas journeys to Kentera and meets an old man whose sons had been killed. An appearance from Jesus had convinced the eldest to end his engagement to the governor’s daughter. The governor had responded murderously. Again the apostle’s skin miraculously raises the six brothers back to life along with others buried with them. This miracle amazes those who witness it, and after a brief confrontation with the local “priest of the idols,” Thomas establishes a church in Kentera. In the end, Thomas’s labors come to a peaceful conclusion when Jesus arrives, glues Thomas’s skin back to his body, and takes him on a cloud to be with the other apostles, Paul, and Jesus’ mother Mary.

This marvelous story presented us with a number of interesting complications, not least of these is the fact that Acts Thom. Skin possesses a remarkably fluid textual tradition that frequently sees it harmonized with the narrative of Acts Thom.[3] In the Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions, this text is paired with the Martyrdom of Thomas, the standalone final act of Acts Thom. We see some harmonization among the Greek manuscripts as well. Two manuscripts contain interpolated episodes from the acts 1, 2, and 13 of Acts Thom., and replace the peaceful ending of Acts Thom. Skin with the martyrdom of Thomas as it was received into the Byzantine liturgical hagiography. One of these harmonized manuscripts was the basis for the first published edition of the Greek text edited by M. R. James in 1897.[4] In 1903, Donato Tamilia published a semi-critical edition based on two additional manuscripts without the harmonizing interpolations.[5] Finally, in 1904, Augusto Mancini published a collation of the other harmonized manuscript.[6]

Dr. Spittler and I faced the difficult choice of which of these texts to translate. Our decision was further complicated by the fact that Tamilia’s text—although it contains the narrative with the original peaceful ending and without interpolations—is not a true critical edition. Though Tamilia provides an apparatus containing select variants from all three manuscripts known to him, his main text follows almost entirely the readings of the most heavily redacted manuscript. Initially, we considered various options that might allow us to represent the fluid tradition without having to make our own textual determinations (and thereby add to the confusion). Our contribution, for example, very nearly took the form of a parallel translation of James and Tamilia. In the end, we decided to simply translate the text of Tamilia, despite its deficiencies. This choice allowed us to present the narrative in a straightforward, easy to digest form.

As by now should be clear, much work remains to be done on Acts Thom. Skin. Work on the manuscripts continues, and our knowledge of the Greek text has not been stagnant in the period since the publication of MNTA 2. Nevertheless, a true critical edition of the Greek text—incorporating readings from at least four additional manuscripts—remains a desideratum. Even so, such a critical edition would be but the first step toward understanding this richly complex textual tradition. The analysis of the content and context of Acts Thom. Skin is still in its infancy as well, but initial study has yielded interesting intersections with some of the exciting work taking place in apocryphal studies. As one small example, Cosmin Pricop recently published a piece in this journal discussing the liturgical reception of Acts Thom. and the way that it defies the boundaries of the apocryphal “canon.”[7] In a recent paper I argue, inter alia, that Acts Thom. Skin has a similar relationship with liturgical hagiography, and that the reception history of this text makes traditional (scholarly) distinctions between apocrypha and hagiography difficult to maintain.[8] In fact, it is through such liturgical reception that the stories of Acts Thom. Skin continue to be told by Christian communities to this day.[9]

Texts like Acts Thom. Skin show the value of the work being done by the MNTA series. The work undertaken by editor Tony Burke and the many contributors to MNTA 2 provides a valuable service by making accessible a wide variety of fascinating texts beyond those typically seen in translated collections of early Christian literature—texts which have often faced undeserved obscurity. Hopefully, however, the collection will do more than provide us with new and interesting reading material, but will prompt us to look beyond the horizons set for us by previous generations of apocrypha scholarship.

Jonathan Holste is a doctoral candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at the University of Virginia. His research centers on the New Testament and early Christian literature.

[1] To get a sense of the extensive scholarly output on these texts, please see their extensive bibliographies in Christopher W. Skinner, “Gospel of Thomas,” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha, and Jonathan Henry, “Acts of Thomas,” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha.

[2] Jonathan Holste and Janet E. Spittler, “The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin,” in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, vol. 2 (ed. Tony Burke; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 316–39.

[3] For more details about the versions and witnesses of Acts Thom. Skin, see Jonathan Holste, “Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin,” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha.

[4] M. R. James, Apocrypha anecdota 2 (TS 5.1; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), xxxii–xliv (introduction), 28–63 (edition based on London, British Library, Add. 10073, fols. 128r–142v and 147r–153v (16th cent).

[5] Donato Tamilia, “Acta Thomae apocrypha,” Rendiconti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche Serie V, 12 (1903): 387–408. Tamilia brings in Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Chig. R. VI. 39, fols. 106v–115r (12th cent.) and Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Vittorio Emanuele II, Gr. 20, fols. 39r–56v (15th cent.).

[6] Augusto Mancini, “Per la critica degli Acta apocrypha Thomae,” in Atti della Reale Accademia della scienze di Torino 39 (1904): 743–58. Mancini collates Messina, Biblioteca Universitaria, San Salvatoris 30, fols. 63v–70v (1307).

[7] Cosmin Pricop, “Retelling Thomas’ Story: Reception of the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas in the Synaxarion of the Liturgical Thomas-Feast,” Ancient Jew Review, 11, 11, 2020.

[8] “Death by Harmonization: Alternate Endings of the Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin,” NASSCAL First Fridays Workshops, 5 March 2021. For more on this interesting series, please visit their website.

[9] See, for instance, this contemporary online Coptic synaxarion: “26 Bachans: The Martyrdom of St. Thomas, the Apostle,” Coptic Synaxarium.


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