Exploits of the Apostle Thomas in India
Though we would not meet until many years later, my wife and I both enjoyed the good fortune of having college roommates from India who became our closest friends. My roommate came from a Hindu family, and my wife’s roommate from a Christian family. It was through her that I first heard of “Saint Thomas Christians”—the Christians of Southern India, who trace their faith all the way back to the Apostle Thomas himself. It’s my pleasure to present a sampling of the exploits of the Apostle Thomas in India, and the surprising source of record for his endeavors.
Due to the actions of Portuguese colonists around AD 1600, almost all indigenous Indian accounts of their early Christian history have been lost. Bearing the name of Roman Catholicism (but not the accordant character), Archbishop Dom Alexis Menezes accused the indigenous Indian Christians of a heresy inaccurately called “Nestorianism” at the Synod of Diamper in 1599.1 He then destroyed all of their writings, by the authority of the synod. Yet Menezes personally witnessed another form of Indian historical records which could not be burnt up alongside their writings.
In 1606 a Portuguese Roman Catholic named Antonio de Gouvea published “Jornada do Arcebispo de Goa Dom Frey Aleixo de Menezes Primaz da India Oriental,” recounting how the indigenous Christians of India had treated Menezes to a traditional dance, accompanied by song lyrics, devoted to the Apostle Thomas. Since there are many such dances (also called “kalis”) about Thomas, we don’t know which one Menezes witnessed for certain. The most probable however, is still the most popular one: the “Margam Kali,” translated “Way Dance” or “Dance of the Way.” A synopsis of that dance’s lyrics follows. The Westerner who finds song lyrics to be an insufficient historical record might be well served to recall that it was we Westerners who destroyed the written Indian records.2
BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE MARGUM KALI
A Chola king in the Mylapore region of India saw an elaborate palace in a dream. He sent his servant Avan West to Jerusalem to find a carpenter skilled enough to make such a palace. When Avan arrived, Jesus appeared to him, unrecognized by Avan. Jesus told Avan that He had a slave who could build the palace he described. Jesus then sold Thomas to Avan and gave Thomas the money, encouraging Thomas in his fear. When Thomas arrived in India, he impressed the king by drawing the same palace that the king had seen in his dream. So the king gave him sufficient funds to build the palace for him.
Thomas preached in Chola, then departed to the Kerala region, giving all of the money he had received to the poor. He preached Jesus’ gospel and performed miracles for several years. He gained converts including rabbis from the local Jewish communities.3 He also gained converts from among the Hindu teachers, known as Brahmins. On one occasion, he encountered Brahmins throwing water in the air in worship of one of their gods. Thomas asked why their god never accepted the offering, since the water always fell right back to them. Thomas then prayed, and cupping water in his hands, he threw it in the air. The drops hung suspended in the air and an impression remained in the water where he had scooped it out.
The Apostle proceeded to build seven churches before returning to the king of Chola.4 The king was enraged to hear that Thomas had built him a palace in heaven and not on earth, by giving away all of his treasure. He lamented the loss of wealth, imprisoned Thomas, and offered the kingdom to his own brother in despair. Very soon, his brother died and saw the palace in heaven. The brother was revived and reported the heavenly palace to the king, who rejoiced. He begged Thomas to forgive him and was baptized as a Christian. The apostle continued to minister across India and as far East as China for a total of twenty years, before being martyred with a spear in Mylapore near the Eastern coast of the Indian peninsula.
The ministry of Thomas in India is well attested by Western witnesses down through the centuries, including Eusebius of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian, Jerome, Gregory of Tours, and many more. These sources however, affirm only the fact that Thomas preached in India, offering no details of his actions there.
“The Acts of Thomas,” a third century apocryphal writing from Edessa, corroborates most of the events of the Margam Kali. Unlike the simpler report in the Margam Kali, the apocryphal “Acts” adds many problematic themes, including forbidding marital sexual relations. The book does however, serve as an early written testimony to the events of the oral history in the Margam Kali.
While we do well to send missionaries to India, we should learn about and respect indigenous Indian Christianity. The history of the Apostle Thomas also offers us powerful cultural inroads for those who seek to evangelize Hindu and Muslim Indians around the world. Indian history gives Western Christians one more reason for humility too, when realizing that the first centuries of our faith thrived far more in Asia and Africa than it did in Europe.
Prior to the proliferation of historical information in the internet age, American Protestants tended to view Christianity as if it were a story of simply the Roman Empire and her “correction” in the sixteenth century. The truth is that from the very first century, Christianity became the heritage of the Persian Empire, the Ethiopian Empire, Southern India, and many other Asian and African regions.View Sources
- Testimony of Cardinal Maffeus at Rome in 1553: “As a matter of fact they seem to have had but the name of ‘Nestorians’ but not to have held Nestorian errors, for I see nothing in these men that are here, which may have a bearing on that sect. Envy seems to have found its entry among the Maronites, Jacobites, Coptes and other Christians of those regions likely both on account of the name, and on account of the fact that they outnumbered the other sects in population as well as in the state and frequenting of the Churches, for down to India their Churches extend.” Source: www.nasrani.net
- While the Catholic Encyclopedia claims that the Indian Christians had no written historical records, Mathias Mundadan, a priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, documented multiple sixteenth century Roman Catholic testimonies to the contrary in his book “Sixteenth Century Traditions of St. Thomas Christians.”
- Ancient Jewish migration to India is independently confirmed, especially that of the Cochin Jews.
- The Indian record stands out considerably by placing an Apostle in the role of establishing physical church buildings. In contrast, most historians put the time frame at AD 230-240 for the first church buildings in the Roman Empire.