Saint Thomas and His Christians
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” - John 20:27-28
Saint Thomas the Apostle, by his Aramaic name Te’oma and the Greek equivalent Didymus, was a twin. Some traditions have his name being Judas, of course not to be identified with the one who betrayed the Lord Jesus. Most scholars assume he was a Galilean, and although the gospels do not mention his profession, it is thought he was a fisherman.
Usually we think of Peter and Paul for which there is enough information in the New Testament to get a sense of their personalities. Also, Thomas is mentioned enough in the New Testament for there to be some picture of what he was like during his life as an apostle.
Thomas’s character is outlined in The Gospel According to John. His devotion to Jesus is clearly expressed in John 11:5–16: when Jesus planned to return to Judaea, the disciples warned him of the Jews’ animosity (“now seeking to stone you”), to which Thomas soon replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Britannica)
Sacred Scripture references Thomas in the following New Testament writings: Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18), Luke chapter six, in the Acts of the Apostles (1:13), and most importantly in John (11:16), (14:1-6), (20:25-29).
The Church has also drawn some sense of who Saint Thomas was from the hagiographical (adulatory writings about the saints, mixing fiction and fact) writings known as the Acts of Thomas (Acta Thomae), and the Gospel of Thomas. For example, it is from these writings that we believe he took the Christian faith to India and died a martyrs death in 72AD by the thrust of a spear, while at prayer. Thus, we can understand why the oldest Christian Churches in India; Eastern Catholic and Ancient Oriental Orthodox refer to themselves as Saint Thomas Christians.
From Doubting To Faithful Thomas
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” - John 20:25-29
This is a very significant text within the Gospel of John, in a sense it frames or brackets John’s Gospel from the first chapter, to the twentieth chapter. This is a literary device used in the Bible known as a literary inclusion. In John 1:1 we read,“and the Word was God,” and in John 20:28,“My Lord and my God.”
This profession of faith in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is here due to the empirically minded Thomas. He will not accept what his brother disciples and apostles tell him. For all he knows their wishful thinking may have caused a group hallucination. Possibly he judged them to be more mystical in their makeup than himself, and they were professing a mystical encounter with the Lord. Thomas wanted empirical facts, that he himself could see and touch.
Then the Lord stands in their midst, even though the doors were locked; for he is no longer limited by his temporal humanity as he was before his victory and glorification upon the Holy Cross. The glorified Lord still carries the marks of his crucifixion, but now they are signs of his victory, signs that confirm the faith of those who were closest to him in his earthly ministry. “Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James” - Acts 1:13. Gathered together with his Holy Mother.
Thomas goes from doubter to one firm in his faith, so much so that eventually he will wear the martyrs crown.
The Saint Thomas Christians
Thomas is in a sense a metaphor for the missionary activity of the early Syriac Christians. Baptizing the Aramaic language by creating Syriac-Aramaic the first generation of Christians from the biblical lands, took the faith into Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Persia, Arabia, China and India.
According to the Acta Thomae, the apostles divided up the world for their missionary labors, and India fell to Thomas. However, Thomas claimed that he was not healthy enough and that a Hebrew could not teach Indians; even a vision of Christ could not change his mind. Christ then appeared to a merchant and sold Thomas to him as a slave for his master, a king who ruled over part of India. One story suggests that Thomas offered to build a palace for the Indian king that would last forever. The king gave him money, which Thomas gave to the poor. Asked to show his progress, St. Thomas explained that the palace he was building was in heaven, not on earth. Ultimately, after giving into God’s will, Thomas was freed from slavery. He planted seeds for the new Church, forming many parishes and building many churches along the way. (Catholic Encyclopedia, by Herbert Thurston; For All The Saints, by Katherine Rabenstein)
Southwestern India by the Malabar Coast in the state of Kerala, is home to the Mar Thoma Christians, also known as the Syro-Malabar Christians. They believe that Saint Thomas himself was the first Christian to evangelize this part of India. They are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and number around four million today.
While there was unity for almost a thousand years among the Saint Thomas Christians; today they are divided among Syro-Malabar Catholics, Syro-Malankara Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Anglicans, and Protestants.
Saint Thomas reveals the Apostolic foundations of the Christian faith, for he is the first human being after the resurrection of Christ to make a profession of faith, “my Lord, and my God”(John 20:28). Later, true to the Apostolic confession of faith, he will give his life in martyrdom.
Saint Thomas also symbolizes the vitality of the missionary Syriac tradition within Christianity. Spreading the truth of the Gospel of Christ over thousands of miles, along ancient roads, deserts, mountains, and along risky waterways, Syriac men and women, monastics, clergy, and laity, braved the dangers of an often hostile world. Their legacy lives on today, among those who still call themselves the Christians of Saint Thomas.
Rev. David A. Fisher