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East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia by T.V. Philip


T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998.This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: Christianity in India


India and the Western World in the First Century

India has been open to the outside world from ancient times and a vigorous commercial activity went on between India and the Mediterranean world even before the Christian era. This is testified by both the western and Indian classical writers. Knowledge of Indian geography and India’s trade with the Mediterranean world is abundantly testified by western classical writers on India such as Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), Pliny (AD 23-79), Ptolemy (AD 100-160) and the author of Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. They give detailed information about the people, climate, trade routes, ports, cargoes and the economic condition of India. In their writings Muziris (Crananore), about twenty miles north of today’s Cochin, on the Malabar coast in South India is mentioned as an important part and trading centre. [Periplus of the Erythrean Sea states that Muziris abounds in ships sent with cargoes from Arabia and by the Greeks.] The Tamil classics also speak of the great commercial activity in South India during the first centuries.

There were three main routes which connected India with the western world. First, there was an overland route which linked India with the silk route from Antioch to Central Asia and to China. In normal circumstances the Himalayan range in the north was no serious obstacle to India’s trade with Central Asia along the silk route. Secondly, there was a route through the Persian Gulf. It connected the mouth of Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates and thence up the river to the point where roads branched off to Antioch and the Laventine ports. The third route was from India to the Red Sea and from there by road to the Nile and to Alexandria.

It was the third route through the Red Sea which was commonly used in the first centuries of the Christian era. Roman ships leaving the ports of the Red Sea and using the monsoon winds sailed across the Arabian sea to the ports of South Indian kingdoms. Cargoes such as textiles of various kinds, spices and semi-precious stones were shipped back to Egypt and from there on to Rome. The Romans paid for these goods in gold coins which have been found in large numbers in South India. The Akananuru, a first or second century Tamil work mentions that ‘ the Yavanas came in large vessels carrying gold and they returned with pepper.’ It was no wonder that Pliny, the Roman historian complained of the luxury trade with India draining the Roman treasury. Some Roman coins from the time of the Republic have been found in North India. But the coins from the time of Augustus and Tiberius are numerous especially in South India. The firm establishment of Augustus as the emperor brought peace and prosperity and the fashionable Roman world began to demand oriental luxuries, on a scale unknown before, which increased the trade. Moreover, the discovery of the direction of the monsoon winds by Hippalus in AD 45 helped the trade by sea immensely.

The sea route from Egypt to India became very vital for the Roman trade and Augustus had to take steps to ensure its safety. The veiled hostility of Parthia, the irruption of Scythian tribes into central Asia, the great length and the uncertainty of the land routes, and the enormous expenses incurred in bringing wares through desert routes of Arabia --all these conditions influenced the Romans towards using as far as possible the route through the Red Sea. The constant presence of the Sabaean, Nabataean, and Axumite intermediaries along the route impressed upon Augustus that for the sake of his empire’s welfare and for the sake of his own interest in Egypt, the necessity to take steps to make Roman trade with India easier and more profitable for state and people. (E. H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India, London, Curzon Press. 1928, p.14.) He took steps to guard the journey from the Nile to Myos Hormos and to Berenice. The Himyarites and Sabaeans, the intermediaries in the trade, were the most substantial barriers to direct trade with India. Against them, Augustus turned the force of the Romans.

People were grateful. Augustus was hailed as a god and temples were raised for him at several places including one at Muziris by the Greek residents in India. It was only natural that the Romans should direct their great efforts towards an active and direct trade by a cheap, quick and tolerably safe route by sea. Such trade activities helped the movements of people and cultural influences between India and the outside world. According to Warmington, after the discovery of the monsoons, (Ibid.. p.78.) the presence of Indians in Alexandria was numerous and the Greeks, Syrians, Jews and in some cases Arabians dwelt in India. Shilappadikaram, a Tamil work of the second century, describes the homes of wealthy Greeks in the capital city of the Chera kingdom. It says, "All night lamps were burning, the lamps of the foreigners who talk strange tongues, who watch over precious cargoes near the docks." The settlement of Jews in India in the first century and before, demonstrates how a foreign religious community could settle down peacefully and become part of the Indian society and also the religious tolerance that existed in India.

The Origins of Christianity in India

All historians agree that the Indian church is very ancient but they differ as to how early the Gospel had been brought to India and who or what agency brought it and to which part of India. No book or inscription or monument of the first two centuries exist to enlighten us on the origin of Christianity until the third century when the ancient Christian writers began to mention the church in India. The historians of the origins of Christianity in India have to depend mainly upon traditions both within India and outside and occasional references here and there in later writers.

Broadly speaking there are two views among the historians as to the origins of Christianity in India. One view is that the Indian church has an apostolic foundation arising out of the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in the first century. The other view is that the church was founded in India at a very early date (during the course of the first three centuries) by Christians from East Syria. The more general view is that the church had its origin in the first century in the apostolic activity of St. Thomas. The St. Thomas community (Syrian Christians) in South India hold the apostolic foundation of their church as an article of faith. This view is based mainly on two traditions, one existing among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala and the other among the East Syrians. There are some references in early Church Fathers, both the western and Syrian, supporting the view that St. Thomas’s activity was in India.

The tradition current among the St. Thomas Christians in India is as follows: St. Thomas, after visiting Socotora (an island in the Arabian Sea off the north-east coast of Africa) came to Muziris (Cranganore or Kodungallur) on the Periyar estuary north of Cochin in about AD 52. He is said to have preached to the Jewish colony settled there and to have made converts. He traveled south and converted high caste Hindus and established churches in seven places (Maliankara, Palayur, Parur Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Quilon) in four of which places Syrian churches still exist. Then he went to the eastern coast where he died as a martyr in AD 72. There is a tomb in Maylapore (near Madras) which is believed to be that of St. Thomas. This tradition has been persistent among the St. Thomas Christians for centuries and the community entertains little doubt as to the truth of the tradition. There are a number of different versions of the tradition expressed in songs and stories, all of them of later dates. But it is important to note that there is no other rival tradition in the church with regard to its origin and there is no other country in the world that claims that St. Thomas died there.

Similar to the Indian tradition, the East Syrian church holds a strong tradition of the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in India. This tradition is found in the writings of the Syrian fathers from the third century onwards. About this Mingana writes, "It is the constant tradition in 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 disassociated from that of India. To refer to all the Syrian and Christian Arab authors who speak of India in connection with Thomas would therefore be equivalent to referring to all who have made mention of the name of St. Thomas. Thomas and India are in this respect synonymous." (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in India, p. 301.) Among the non-East Syrian writers, while Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose and Jerome (fathers of the fourth century) held to the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas, Origen, Clementine Recognition, Eusebius of Caesarea, Rufinus of Aquileia and Socrates say that Thomas worked in Parthia. Here we are not to see any contradiction as the Parthian empire extended up to North India at that time. "The Parthian empire had spread into India and in the middle of the first century BC, a new Parthian kingdom, centered on Taxila, had been founded in northwestern India. Orosius in the fifth century said that generally the country (from the Indus to the Tigris) was called Parthia." (L. W. Brown, op. cit.. p. 46.) By the end of the fourth century the western sources are more or less unanimous that Thomas worked in India. Some writers have pointed out that the name ‘India’ has been very loosely used by some early writers. A few western writers might have used the name, India, as a convenient term for the lands of the East. But we need to remember, as we have already pointed out, that India was well known in the West because of the vigorous commercial activities that went on between India and the Mediterranean world. This was specially true with regard to East Syrians. "For them," says Mingana, "India is nearly always our modern India." (Ibid., p. 47.)

Among the East Syrian writers, the most important writer is St. Ephrem, in the fourth century, who lived in Edessa for some time and was a great hymn writer. Edessa claims to be the resting place of the bones of St. Thomas brought back from India by a Syrian merchant. An annual festival on July 3rd is celebrated there commemorating the transference of the bones of St. Thomas from India to Edessa. St. Ephrem has several hymns in honour of St. Thomas in which he sings of the apostle’s preaching of the Gospel in India, of the bringing of his bones to Edessa, of the honour that the Edessene church got thereby, and of the miracles wrought at the shrine. (C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, Madras, CLS, 1968, p. 5.) Ephrem sings:

Blessed art thou, Thomas, the Twin in thy deeds.
Twin is thy spiritual power;
nor one thy power, nor one thy name:...
Blessed art thou, O Thrice- Blessed city, thou hast acquired, this pearl, none greater doth India yield;
Blessed art thou, worthy to possess the priceless gem.
Praise to thee, 0 Gracious Son, who thus thy adorers dost enrich. (A.E. Medlycott. India and the Apostle Thomas, pp.26-27 quoted by Firth p. 6.)

One example of the evidence for the Indian apostolate of Thomas is Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles), a book probably written around AD 250, which says, "India and all its countries and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea, received the Apostle’s Hand of the Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the church which he built and ministered there." (Firth, op.cit., p.8.)

However, the earliest available record and a detailed one of St. Thomas’ travels and his missionary work in India is contained in the book: Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac probably by a Christian in Edessa around AD 200. It is a very lively account in narrative form in thirteen acts. The book ends with the statement, "The acts of Judas Thomas are completed, which he wrought in the land of the Indians, fulfilling the command of him, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

The book begins by telling how the eleven apostles, after the resurrection of Jesus, met in Jerusalem and divided the world by lot among themselves for missionary work. India fell to Judas Thomas, "who is also called Didymus." He was reluctant to go saying, "how can I, who am a Hebrew, go and preach the truth among the Indians." The Lord Christ appeared to him at night. Thomas pleaded with the Lord, "send me anywhere but not to India." The Lord assured him saying, "Fear not, my Grace is sufficient." The story tells how Thomas was sold for three pounds to a merchant Abban from India who was looking for a carpenter for his king Gundaphorous to build him a palace. They began their voyage to India and arrived first at Andrapolis, (Historians differ as to the exact location of Andrapolis, whether it was within India proper or a nearby place. In the story it is said that from Andrapolis, Abban and Thomas left for India. According to Warmington, Andrapolis was the capital of the Andhra Kingdom in Deccan and was in India.) a royal city where there was a wedding of the king’s daughter. Abban and Thomas were also invited to the wedding. After a prayer by Thomas and the appearance of Jesus to the bride and bridegroom, they decided to forego marriage and live in celibacy. From there Abban and Thomas left for India. Having arrived in India. Thomas undertook to build a palace for the king Gundaphorous and received some money in advance. Thomas, instead of building the palace, distributed the money to the poor. In answer to the king’s enquiries Thomas said that he has indeed built it, but the king will not be able to see it till he has departed this life. The king was very angry and sent both Thomas and Abban to prison. At this time the king’s brother, Gad, fell ill and died. In heaven the angels asked him in which of the mansions he saw in heaven would he like to live. He selected a certain building only to be told that he could not have it because it was built for his brother, Gundaphorous, by Thomas. Gad asked permission to go back and buy the palace from his brother. His return astonished Gundaphorous. Thomas was released from prison and the king and his brother were baptized. Thomas continued his preaching, making many converts.

Then Thomas was sent for by another king called Mazdai in another part of India to heal his wife and daughter who were possessed of devils. The women were restored to sanity and they decided to abandon marriage. Many members of the royal family were converted. The king was angry and put Thomas to death. Later when one of the king’s sons became insane, they opened Thomas’s tomb hoping that a touch of the holy man’s bones may cure the child. But the grave was found empty. However, the king took some dust from the tomb and put it on the child. The child was cured and the king became a Christian.

For a long time several historians considered the Acts of Judas Thomas as of no historical value. They pointed out that the teaching of the Acts was unorthodox and the stories told were fantastic. The aim of the author was to establish the doctrine that marriage is sinful and Christians ought to abstain from it, and therefore the book was of Gnostic origin. Today historians are inclined to take more seriously the historical value of the Acts of Thomas and its theological orthodoxy. In our earlier sections, we have noted that F.C. Burkitt, Arthur Voobus and several other historians have shown that the emphasis on celibacy and abstinence from marriage belonged to an authentic tradition of the Syrian church till the fourth century. L.W. Brown observes, "The great stress on celibacy as a way of salvation, and the emphasis on the miraculous are not in themselves proof of a non-Catholic origin for the Acts, as even in the time of Aphrates only the unmarried could be baptized in Edessa." (LW. Brown, op.cit,, p.43.)

R. Murray points out how at several points the Acts of Thomas reflect the theology of the East Syrian church. Reflecting the asceticism of the East Syrian church, the Acts tells how Thomas refused to receive silver and gold from people. In Acts six of the book, Thomas thanks God that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and wanderer for God. The East Syrian writers when they speak of incarnation, speak of Christ putting on the body as a garment. Murray writes," ‘Christ put on the body’. This simple image of clothing is the Syriac fathers’ favourite way of describing the Incarnation. It occurs consistently in the Acts of Judas Thomas, while in Didascalia it comes as a heading.... (R. Murray, op cit., p.69.) Again Murray says, "The invocations to the Mother-spirit to descend on the candidate for baptism in the Acts of Judas Thomas are typical of early Syriac literature." (Ibid., p. 80.) Drivers also points out that the literary heritage of the early Syriac-speaking church is reflected in the Acts of Thomas, Odes of Solomon and in Tatian’s Diatessiron.

Perhaps for a historian, a more important and interesting observation is that of Warmington when he says:

Even if we cast aside as unhistorical every allegation of fact in the stories about St. Thomas, we must at least admit that they reflect voyages habitually undertaken to India during the most prosperous period of the Roman Empire. Thus the story which brings the saint to Gondophares is an echo either of land-journeys taken through Parthia towards India, or of voyages taken to Indus by using monsoon. The tradition which makes him land at Andrapolis is, I think, a reminiscence of voyages taken with monsoon to some port in the west coast of India under Andhra control. Again the south Indian tradition which makes St. Thomas land close to Cranganore recalls voyages of the final stage, and lastly, when the tradition brings him overland from Malabar to Chola coast, we have an echo of inland penetration of Greek merchants possibly to Madura. (Warmington, Op.cit., p. 83.)

There is no doubt that the Acts of Judas Thomas is a very imaginative reconstruction of the world of Judas Thomas and his travels and work in India. It is neither fiction nor history but it is both. It contains truth and fiction written in very lively narrative form reflecting both theology of the East Syrian church and the history of the origins of Christianity in India.

Till the middle of the 19th century, no king by the name Gundaphorus was known in Indian history. Since AD 1834 numerous coins have been found in the Punjab and Afghanistan bearing his name in Greek on one side and in Pali on the other, and they are dated to be from the first half of the first century. In some coins the name of Gad, his brother is also found. There is also a stone inscription (now in Lahore museum) containing his name and dates which tell us that he was an Indo-Parthian prince in the north western part of India (from AD 19-45) at the time when St. Thomas is supposed to have come there. In this connection Stephen Neill has raised an important point. "We have no means of knowing how it came about that the name of Gondophorus whose time and succession had wholly vanished from the earth was still remembered in a syriac speaking country at least a century, perhaps considerably more than a century, after his death". Stephen Neill himself answers it thus: "It appears that there had been more contact between north-west India and the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, than had been generally supposed. (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p.28.) He is certainly right in pointing out the frequent contact between north-west India and the countries now known as Iraq and Iran in the early centuries of the Christian era. But contacts alone need not retain in Edessa the memory of a Parthian king after a century and half. What Stephen Neill failed to recognise was the possibility of a tradition existing in Edessa at the time of the writing of the Acts of Thomas that Thomas worked in the kingdom of Gundaphorus. Whatever else may be legendary, one thing is certain that the author of the Acts of Judas Thomas was fully aware of a tradition in Edessa of St. Thomas’s work in the kingdom of Gundaphorus in north west India. As L.W. Brown notes there was a considerable Jewish colony in north-western India in the first century, which might have attracted the attention of the first Christian missionaries.

There are other facts which seem to indicate a northern locus for St. Thomas’s work. Bardaisan in his Book of Fate (AD 196) speaks of Parthian Christians living among pagans, which might be a result of the destruction of the Indian Parthian empire by Kushan invaders about AD 50. There are also said to be Christian tribes still living in north India, but holding their faith a secret from all others. For example, at Tatta in Sind (the ancient port of Pattiala at the mouth of Indus), there is a fakir community which calls itself by an Aramaic name, something like ‘Bartolmai’, and claims to have been descended from St. Thomas’s converts and to have books and relics to prove it. Unfortunately no outsider has ever beep allowed to see this alleged proof. (LW. Brown, op.cit, p.47. The information about the Bartolmai tribe is given by R. A. Trotter in a paper presented at a conference in Sind in 1947.)

The historical information provided by the Acts of Judas Thomas about the coming of St. Thomas to north west India and also the information that Christianity came to India for the first time with the apostolate of St. Thomas can be accepted as reliable.

There is another tradition that Thomas came to south India. On the basis of the Acts of Thomas, there are historians who argue that Thomas went only to the north west and they deny the south Indian tradition. Then there are others, who deny the Acts of Thomas as a reliable historical source and accept only the south Indian tradition. They point out that we do not possess any concrete evidence for the early preaching of the Gospel in northwest India as we have for south India. They say that the south Indian claim to apostolate is supported by the fact that there is the community of St. Thomas Christians with their living tradition and the tomb of St. Thomas which is claimed to be that of the apostle Thomas.

The fact that there is no strong Christian community in north western India need not lead us to conclude that there was no Christian community there at any time. There are a number of instances in the history of the church that countries and places which were once strong centres of Christianity have become, in later years, centres of Islam or Buddhism. This is true with regard to North Africa, some places in Arabia or Persia, Central Asia or China.

There is a third group who argue for both places. Bishop Medlycott, H. Heras, J.N. Farquhar and S.H. Moffett are some of them. Medlycott thinks of two separate journeys, one from Palestine through Mesopotamia and Persia by land to north west India, the other, after a return to Palestine, via Egypt and Ethiopia and Socotra and thence across the Arabian Sea to Malabar. (Medlycott, op.cit.. pp. I47-148.) J.N. Farquhar thinks of one journey in the East. He says that St. Thomas first went to north western India travelling by sea and up the river Indus, but had to leave because of the Kushan invasions, which eventually wiped out the Christians of that region so that no trace remained. Then he left India by sea, landed in Socotra and spent some time there during which he made converts; and afterwards he sailed for India again and came to Malabar, from where in due course he crossed over to the east coast. He mentions that Thomas even went to Burma, and after returning to India he was martyred at Mylapore. (C.B. Firth op.cit.. pp. 16-17: IN. Farquhar, ‘The Apostle Thomas in North India and the Apostle Thomas in South India,’ Manchester, The Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library, x:l and xi:l.) About this John Stewart comments:

Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to how, when and where St. Thomas died, or as to what he did and the churches he founded, it is at all events practically certain that he did visit India both north and south, and spent a considerable time preaching the Gospel wherever he went. The mass of tradition, especially that bearing his stay in the south is too great to be ignored or lightly passed over. There is the additional evidence that large Christian churches calling themselves by his name and claiming him as their founder still exist. (John Stewart, op.cit., p. 104.)

S.H Moffett summarizes the general consensus that is emerging among historians when he writes:

The consensus of the majority is that both theories are reasonable and, far from being mutually exclusive, can be interpreted as strengthening each other. It is not implausible to believe that after preaching in Gundaphar’s kingdom in the North, Thomas moved on as all traditions affirm, to preach the Gospel to other kingdoms as well, the kingdoms of south western and south eastern India, until at last he was put to death, perhaps near Madras. If, as seems quite possible, he was the apostle to India at all, it is satisfying to believe with considerable reason that he was the apostle to all India. (Moffett, op.cit., P. 36.)

The fad that St. Thomas went to north west India does not rule out the possibility of his work in the south. In fact the south Indian tradition gains more importance in the light of the living tradition of the community of St. Thomas, the presence of a Jewish community in south India and the existence of considerable commercial activity that went on between the Mediterranean and south India. It is reasonable to believe that Thomas was the apostle to all India. Both theories are reasonable and far from being exclusive, strengthen each other. This is the general consensus that is emerging among the historians.

The second view about the origin of Christianity in India is that Indian church was founded by Christians from East Syria during the course of the first three centuries. L.W. Brown can be considered as a representative of those who hold this view. In the Introduction to his book he mentions, "It will be suggested in this book that the founders of the Church were ‘East Syrian’ traders, from the Persian Gulf area, and it will be apparent that a most important feature of its history is the succession of contacts with foreign Christians, drawn to the Malabar coast by trade." (L. W. Brown, op.cit.. p.2.) About the Acts of Thomas he writes:

Plainly, no confidence can be put in the historical reliability of these stories. They are written to magnify St. Thomas, so that reflected glory would come on the Edessene (Chaldean) Church which claimed him as its founder. There were two reasons why this was necessary. In the fourth century, there was bitter war between Parthia and Rome and it was essential to the safety of the Edessene Church that she should show her independence both in the origin and administration of the Church of the western Empire. Not only that they were not reckoned Orthodox by the Church of Antioch and the West, and the claim to apostolic foundation-made in the Abgar legend where we read of Judas Thomas himself sending Addai (Tatian) to Edessa- was a claim to be on an equal footing with the great Church of the West. When the Acts was written there were known to be Christians in India and the story here told of their origin linked them with the Edessene Church and demonstrated its apostolic outreach.

Those Fathers who mention St. Thomas all rely on the Acts for their information; no independent tradition remains. (Ibid., p. 45.)

Again, after speaking of the trade that went on between India and the Mediterranean and the existence of a Jewish community in south India in the early centuries, Brown comments:

The evidence given above does not prove the apostolic mission of St. Thomas in south India. It does show that there was no physical reason why Christian traders or the Apostle himself, could not have come to Malabar in the first century. The existence of an old local tradition and of families whose ancestry seems ancient and indigenous, rather than of foreign immigrant trading stock, are factors which suggest the possibility of an early evangelist in the country, but the dependence of all traditions on the Edessene Church prevents us considering those factors conclusive proof that this early evangelist was St. Thomas. In fact, the Edessene dependence inclines most scholars to skepticism. (Ibid., p. 63)

Brown rejects the St. Thomas tradition on the ground that it depends on the Edessean Church. According to him, The Acts of St. Thomas which embody the tradition of the Edessean church is written to magnify St. Thomas so that the reflected glory would come on the Edessean church which claimed him as its founder. Brown’s conclusion is based on this premise and it is here that Brown has gone wrong in his argument. As pointed out earlier, though the Edessean Church had a special relation to St. Thomas, they never claimed him as the founder of their church. The Addai tradition was so strong in Edessa that even if the Edessean church wanted to claim apostolic foundation for their church, they could not have succeeded in their effort.

About the Addai tradition in Edessa, S.H. Moffett significantly observes:

The Addai traditions were as persistent in the early church of Mesopotamia as the Thomas traditions were in India By the end of the fourth century Addai was commonly accepted by Syrian writers both Eastern and Western as the founder of their church. The fact that so strong a centre as Edessa was content with one of the lesser known seventy rather than one of the original Twelve supports the view that the historicity of Addai’s mission was too well known to be easily set aside. (Moffett, op.cit., 50)

It was not only the Addai tradition that was strong in Edessa but also the tradition that St. Thomas worked in India and died there. The Edessean church, long before Ephrem in the fourth century wrote his hymns, started celebrating the feast of St. Thomas on July 3 in commemoration of the transfer of his bones from India to Edessa. There is an indication in the Acts of St. Thomas that the relics of the apostle were already transferred to the west at the time when the book was written. Long after the martyrdom and burial of Thomas, when king Mazdai opened the tomb of the apostle with the hope of healing his sick son with the touch of the relics, the bones were not found, ‘ for one of the brethren had taken them away secretly and conveyed to the west’. St. Ephrem in his hymns recognizes that the relics were very much venerated in Edessa. The hymns of St. Ephrem in the fourth century are a clear proof of the Edessean tradition that Thomas worked and died in India. The Acts of Thomas written around AD 200 reflected an earlier tradition. It reflected a strong and genuine tradition in Edessa and not something fabricated to bring glory to the Edessean church. Mingana, who is skeptical of the apostolate of St.Thomas in India, however, as we noted earlier, strongly affirms the unanimous opinion among the Syrian writers that Thomas worked in India. According to him, "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," As Moffett stated, the fact, so strong a centre of Christianity as Edessa was content with Addai instead of Thomas as their apostle and unanimously attested to the fact that Thomas died in India supports the genuineness of the Edessean tradition.

Brown is of the opinion that the story in the Acts of Thomas is fabricated to assert Edessean independence of the ‘great church’ and to prove its orthodoxy. As we stated the Acts was written at the beginning of the third century, reflecting a tradition that existed earlier. We need to ask whether the church in Edessa was under the administration of any western churches in the second or early third century and whether it was accused of holding any unorthodox views at this time. We need to remember that orthodoxy was not a pre-supposition with the early church and in the second and third centuries the demarcation between heresy and orthodoxy was rather thin or fluid everywhere in the church. There is no strong ground to reject the Edessean tradition of Apostle Thomas. On the contrary there is strong reason to accept it as genuine.

Eusebius the church historian of the early church (early fourth century) in his Ecclesiastical history mentions that Pantaneus, the first known head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, visited India about AD 180.

[Pantaneus] displayed such zeal for the divine word that he was appointed as a herald of the Gospel of Christ to the nations of the east and was sent as far as India. ... It is reported that among the persons there who knew Christ, he found the Gospel according to St. Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language which they had preserved till that time. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5:10.)

Later in the fourth century, Jerome mentions that a deputation from India asked Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria to send Pantaneus to India to hold disputations with Hindu philosophers. Accordingly the great Christian scholar Pantaneus was sent and there he found the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew left by Batholomew.

In the first place, this tradition of Pantaneus going to India and finding a Christian community there which was visited by Bartholomew in the first century confirms the first century origins of the Church in India. Secondly, it raises the question as to who was the apostle of India, Thomas or Bartholomew or both? For a long time the historians tended to down play the apostolate of Bartholomew in India as it seemed to take away the apostolate from Thomas and gave it to Bartholomew.

We cannot easily dismiss the apostolate of Bartholomew. Today historians are beginning to accept both the visit of Pantaneus and with it the earlier mission of Bartholomew. Indian historians George Moraes and H.C. Perumalil argue for such an apostolate. They hold that the Bombay region on the Konkan coast was the field of Bartholomew’s missionary activity, In an earlier section we have shown that the Jewish Christian community in Edessa (Nazarenes) had a Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic. It is possible that what Pantaneus found in India was a copy of this Gospel. In the Christian tradition Bartholomew was the apostle to Arabia, Persia, India and Armenia. It may be that he visited India after his travels in Persia and brought with him a copy of the Gospel of Matthew (Gospel of the Nazarenes) which was already in circulation in East Syria. The tradition of Bartholomew does not weaken the tradition concerning the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. We have already mentioned that there are references in which the names of Batholomew, Addacus, Aggai and Mari are mentioned as companions or disciples of St. Thomas. There is always the possibility of more than one apostle visiting a particular place or country, It is important to note that both Eusebius and Jerome who mention the apostolate of Bartholomew in India also speak of St. Thomas apostolate in India.

There is no Indian tradition concerning the work of Bartholomew in India. Moraes explains this relating to the fact that the history of the Christians of Bartholomew got intermingled with that of St. Thomas Christians who came under the control of the Persian church. Perumalil thinks that Bartholomew Christians continued as a separate community till the coming of the Portuguese and then merged with the Christians of Bombay. (A. Mathias Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol.I, Church History Association of India, 1984, p. 66.) The fact that Batholomew left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew (the Gospel of the Nazarenes) is an indication that the first Christian converts in India were Jews. With regard to the Batholomew tradition Moffett comments:

As to whether the apostle in this particular case was Bartholomew as Pantaneus understood it or Thomas as most Indian Christians would insist, the evidence is too slight for a firm conclusion. Suffice it is to say that the overall evidence for an apostolic presence in India overwhelmingly favours Thomas. Even Jerome, who is one of the two earliest sources for the mention of Bartholomew, seems elsewhere, when writing to Marcellus, to acknowledge the primacy of Thomas. He [Jesus] was present in all places with Thomas in India, with Peter in Rome, with Paul in Illyria, with Titus in Crete, Andrew in Greece, with apostle and apostolic man in his own separate region. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 39.)

For C.B. Firth, the apostolic origin of the Indian church is a possibility. For L.W. Brown the truth of the Indian tradition that the Apostle Thomas worked in India is a reasonable probability. But he believes that the Indian church has been founded by East Syrian traders from the Persian Gulf area. His assumption is that Antioch brought the Gospel to East Syria and East Syria in turn brought the Gospel to India. He further says that the East Syrian church was under the ecclesiastical control of Antioch and the whole story of Thomas’s work in the East is a fabrication by Edessa to assert its independence of Antioch and also to prove its orthodoxy in faith, Hence Brown rejected the East Syrian tradition concerning the apostolic activity of Thomas in India.

C.S. Song, an Asian theologian speaks of the western God as a straight line God who operates in a certain logical order. Arnold Toynbee, a British historian speaks of the ego-centric illusion of the western historians who think that everything of some importance originates in the west and from there move to other areas in a linear progression. In the case of Christianity, the Gospel moved from the great centres of the Roman Empire such as Antioch or Rome to the places outside of the Roman Empire and Christian communities thus formed were dependent upon the churches in the Roman Empire for their ecclesiastical life. L.W. Brown considers the coming of Christianity in Asia this way and he cannot conceive of the possibility of the Gospel coming to the East independent of Antioch or some other centre in the west, nor can he think of an independent church in the East. Stephen Neill also argues more or less on the same line.

On the contrary, the church in ‘Asian Asia’ in the early period was proudly Asian and did not depend upon Antioch for its origin or ecclesiastical life. As Christianity expanded in its early years, Antioch was a great centre for missionary work in the Hellenistic world. The Christian expansion to the East among the Jewish communities and their semitic relatives in the Syrian orient was not undertaken by the Greek speaking missionary movement from Antioch but by the Ararnaic speaking Palestinian Christians. This is true not only in the case of Edessa but also of Adiabene. About this A. Voobus observes:

Thus, at the dawning of Christian history in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris, we see something peculiar to the gains of the Christian movement. The historical eye can see little, but that which we see commends itself as trustworthy by virtue of its naturalness. It is natural that the pioneering work in the expansion of Christian faith in the semitic areas was carried out, not by Greek-speaking Hellenistic Christians, but by Aramaic-speaking Christians who possessed the lingua franca of their contemporary orient. (E. Ferguson (ed.), Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. X, Garland Publishing Inc. New York, 1993, p.13.)

In the case of Adiabene, a number of historians are raising the possibility that the Gospel came there independent of Edessa or even prior to it. We must be prepared to accept a similar possibility in the case of the origin of Christianity in India.

From the evidence available to us, especially the East Syrian and Indian traditions, it is reasonable to believe that the Indian church has an independent origin, independent of Persian Christianity, in the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in the first century. The Indian tradition of its apostolic foundation is much stronger than that of Rome or Alexandria or Constantinople. We may further assume that St. Thomas is the apostle of all India, and Bartholomew who was a companion of Thomas also visited India and brought with him a copy of the Gospel of the Nazarenes.

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