Thomas

Contributor

Date

Location

Map

Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

Acts of Thomas

Historical Context

Thomas, also called Didymus or “twin,” was one of Jesus’ twelve original disciples. He is perhaps best known as “Doubting Thomas” for his disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection until he actually touched the wounds from the crucifixion (John 20:24-28). According to the dominant tradition, Thomas was martyred in Mylapore, in present-day Chennai in southeastern India, at the hands of a local king named Misdaeus. At the time of Thomas’ martyrdom (most sources say around 72 CE, but the exact date is unclear), most of India was primarily Hindu.

King Misdaeus set out to kill Thomas, not because the apostle was a Christian per se, but because Thomas’ actions caused Tertia, Misdaeus' wife, to refuse to sleep with him. At the time the Acts of Thomas was written, celibacy was a virtue practiced by Christians who often considered themselves as more devout than others. Adherents to the Gnostic tradition, to which the Acts of Thomas has several connections, also highly regarded celibacy because, according to Gnosticism, physical concepts like sexuality were impure.

There are multiple different accounts of Thomas’ martyrdom. The oldest and strongest tradition places the apostle’s death at the hands of Misdaeus. Another has him dying at the hands of Brahmans (Hindu priests) when they grew angry because Thomas had converted so many people. Still another, far less common tradition holds that Thomas was killed by accident from an arrow shot by a peacock hunter.

Summary

After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles cast lots to divide the nations among themselves to evangelize. When Thomas’ lot falls to India, he is reluctant to go, and Jesus appears to him in a vision and explicitly calls him to India. Thomas begs to go elsewhere, so Jesus arranges for him to go by selling him as a carpenter to an Indian merchant. Thomas and the merchant travel to India; after staying there for a while, Thomas’ help is requested by a captain of King Misdaeus named Siphor. The apostle travels with Siphor, heals his demon-possessed daughter and wife. In response to the miracle, Siphor and his family convert to Christianity.

Afterward, Thomas begins preaching from Siphor’s house. Mygdonia, the wife of Charisius (the king’s close relative), comes to hear Thomas preach and believes in Jesus through him. After this, she refuses to sleep with her husband, who is patient at first. However, when Charisius finds out that her behavior is due to her association with Thomas, he becomes angry and asks  Misdaeus to intervene. Misdaeus sends soldiers with Charisius to arrest Thomas and throw him in prison.

Charisius tells Thomas that if he tries to persuade his wife to sleep with him again, he will free the apostle. Thomas then tells Mygdonia to sleep with Charisius, knowing she will refuse because of her faith. In keeping his word, Charisius releases Thomas. Soon after, the king tells his wife Tertia of what has been going on between Charisius and Mygdonia. Tertia then goes to talk some sense into Mygdonia, but Mygdonia tells her of eternal life and Thomas’ teachings. Intrigued by this, Tertia goes to hear the apostle, and Tertia believes in Jesus. When the king discovers that his wife has become a Christian, he goes to Siphor’s house with soldiers and violently arrests Thomas.

The king’s son, Vazan, requests custody of Thomas before his father questions the apostle, and Vazan asks Thomas about his God. Thomas tells him about eternal life, and Vazan wishes to free him. He can do nothing, however, before his father arrives. Misdaeus brings Thomas before the judgment seat and has a hot iron plate brought out for Thomas to stand on. Before he steps onto it, water bursts forth from the ground and cools the plate. Fearing he will drown in the torrent, Misdaeus begs Thomas to ask God to stop, and Thomas prays. Almost immediately, the water disperses, and Misdaeus sends Thomas back to prison.

Vazan visits Thomas in prison, as do Mygdonia and Tertia. They wish to be baptized, and Vazan desires Thomas to heal and save his sick wife. Thomas encourages Vazan that, if he believes, Jesus will heal his wife immediately. That night, a bright light fills the prison, and all who believe in Jesus awake and escape. Vazan runs into his wife, who is completely healed, and the group go to Vazan’s house, where they are baptized and receive the Eucharist.

Thomas returns to the prison, where Misdaeus comes to retrieve him the next day. The apostle is taken to the judgment hall and sentenced to death by spearing. The king’s soldiers lead Thomas to a mountain, where he prays in thanksgiving to God. Leaving the care of the local church to Siphor and Vezan, Thomas is speared to death by four soldiers.

Misdaeus and Charisius still attempt in vain to sleep with their wives, but eventually let them live according to their will. After some time passes, one of Misdaeus’ other sons is possessed by a demon, so the king goes to Thomas’ tomb to retrieve a relic, thinking his bones will heal his son. He finds the body gone, taken to the West, but Thomas appears to him and tells him that Jesus will have mercy on his son. The king returns to find his son healed, proclaims faith in Christ, and joins Siphor and the other Christians.

Significance

According to the church historian Eusebius, Thomas was allotted Parthia to evangelize (Church History 3.1.1). A few other writers mention Thomas preaching in Parthia, as well as in Media, Persia, or Ethiopia. The majority of other ancient traditions, including the Acts of Thomas (written ca. 200-250 CE), maintain that Thomas was the first apostle to visit the East and carried out the bulk of his ministry in India, of which he is the patron saint.

India is still home to a sect of Christians known as the St. Thomas Christians, who claim to have been founded by Thomas himself nearly 2000 years ago. Many of these Christians trace their lineage all the way back to Thomas’ first converts. Today, in Chennai, at the traditional site of his martyrdom, stands the pure-white San Thomé Cathedral, one of the most recognizable cathedrals in the world.

The name Thomas in Aramaic and the nickname Didymus in Greek both mean “twin.” According to the Acts of Thomas and several other ancient (and mostly Gnostic) traditions, Thomas was the twin brother of Christ. In the Acts, this sometimes leads to Thomas being mistaken for Christ, and vice versa. The significance of this, particularly within Gnostic texts, is that Thomas represents the physical form of Jesus, since Gnostics believed that Christ himself was not physical, but an ethereal being.

Bibliography

Bacon, David Francis. "Thomas Didymus." Pages 405-10 in Lives of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. New York: Baker and Scribner, 1846.

Bremmer, Jan N. The Apocryphal Acts of Thomas. Vol. 6 of Studies on Early Christian Apocrypha. Leuven: Peeters, 2001.

de Sam Lazaro, Fred. "Ancient Christians in India." Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Last modified April 24, 2009. Accessed April 15, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/04/24/april-24-2009-ancient-christians-in-india/2754/.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History.

Garbe, Richard. "St. Thomas in India." The Monist 25.1 (1915): 1-27.

Hennecke, Edgar. "Acts of Thomas." Pages 339-405 in Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. Rev. ed. Vol. 2 of New Testament Apocrypha. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Jenkins, Philip. "India's Original Christians." Christian Century, November 28, 2012.

Moolan, John. "Martyrology of St. Thomas the Apostle with Special Reference to the Syro-Malabar Church." Christian Orient 26.1: 18-33.

Image Credit

Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Files

Rubens - Mart. Thomas.jpg

Citation

“Thomas,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed October 18, 2019, http://mappingthemartyrs.ohio5.org/items/show/37.