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Did the Apostle Thomas Die as a Martyr?

Posted February 25, 2016 by Sean McDowell

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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

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).

THE GENRE OF THE ACTS OF THOMAS

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.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONFIRMATION

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.

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.

CONCLUSION

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 seanmcdowell.org.



[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.


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