According to South Indian Christian tradition, Saint Thomas the Apostle set sail for the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) in 52 CE. His followers, who call themselves St. Thomas Christians, credit “Mar Thoma” with evangelizing throughout Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. and on into Sri Lanka. Though there are numerous sects and schisms among the historic Christians of South India—some aligned with the Chaldean Syrian Church, some with the Assyrian Church of the East, some Catholic, some Orthodox—all trace themselves back to the preaching of Thomas. Today, Christianity is the third most-practiced religion in Kerala.
There was a thriving Christian community for centuries in the Jingjiao Province of northwest China, and many adherents of Saint Thomas credit him with founding it, also. While this is possible, the written records dating from the 7th century, indicate Jingjiao was evangelized by missionaries from the Church of the East in Mesopotamia. (Martin Palmer, a scholar of Chinese Christianity, has written a book called The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. Palmer’s account of locating the remote site of the monastery that was once the heart of Chinese Christianity is fascinating, while the texts themselves present the illuminating voice of a Christian faith adapting itself to a culture and worldview very different from our own.)
Because Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam were all introduced into Indonesia by traders from India, some conjecture that Thomas may have preached in Bali. Though there is no record of a trip so far east, there is a yet even more amazing tradition all the way across the Pacific.
The Guaraní tribes of Paraguay have a tradition that the Apostle Thomas, whom they call Pai Thome, reached Paraguay and preached to the indigenous people. Two sites are venerated as places from which Pai Thome preached.
And yet, we typically don’t celebrate Thomas for this impressive evangelism campaign on his feast day. Instead, Thomas is most frequently remembered as “doubting Thomas,” who declares he wouldn’t believe Jesus was resurrected without putting his fingers into the nail-wounds in his hands and his hand into the spear-wound in his side. Jesus famously said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). It’s worth noting, however, that everyone else in the room had been present when Jesus appeared to them the day before; only Thomas had been absent.
In fact, the Gospel of John seems at pains to portray Thomas in an unflattering light. When Jesus sets out for Bethany to raise Lazarus, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 7:16b). While gloomy and beside the point, the precise meaning of this enigmatic utterance is disputed. And at the Last Supper, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). None of these incidents are recorded in the other three Gospels.
In her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels made a case that the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the controversial, non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, and hated it, prompting the writer to discredit Thomas at every opportunity.
So perhaps we could find other ways of remembering Thomas on his feast day. For instance, although he was martyred, I have never seen the red vestments and altar linens, generally used to commemorate martyrs, in church. Or we could use the opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of “Thomas Christians.” In Philadelphia, where I live, the whole Northeast section of the city is full of South Indian “Mar Thoma” churches of various denominations; maybe there are some not too far from you. In any case, there’s plenty more to focus on about Thomas the Apostle besides an odd story implying that he lacked faith.
Thomas was martyred in 72 CE in Mylapor, near Chennai. The spear with which he was killed is venerated as a holy relic.
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