In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I examine the evidence the apostles of Jesus died as martyrs. Because the evidence is early and consistent, there is widespread agreement that Peter, Paul, and both James died as martyrs. But scholars are much more divided over the tradition surrounding “doubting” Thomas. Did he really make it to India, as tradition suggests, and die there as a martyr?
The Eastern Church has consistently held that Thomas ministered in India. Alphonse Mingana notes:
It is the constant tradition of 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 dissociated from that of India.
But how reliable is the evidence?
Can We Trust the Historical Record?
Perhaps the biggest challenge in assessing the Thomas tradition is that the historical record is unconventional on Western standards. No written history of India exists until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. As a result, many critics have claimed that since India lacked historical writing it also lacked a sense of history. Only recently has this assumption been challenged. While early India may have lacked extensive historical writings, it does not follow that it also lacked a historicalconsciousness.
The Thomas Christians, for instance, still strongly hold to oral traditions that claim they were founded by the apostle Thomas. In place of written documentation are songs and poems, such as the Thomma Parvam, which was not written down until the early seventeenth century. This is not a good reason to glibly dismiss their historical value.In fact, Gillman and Klimkeit note a double standard among Western scholars who dismiss apostolic roots in India, because the tradition is deemed too late and legend-filled, and yet are ready to overlook the fact that the earliest record of Patrick of Ireland comes from the late eighth century, roughly three centuries after his death.
Was Travel to India Possible in the First Century?
In the first century, an apostolic mission from Jerusalem to India was entirely physically possible. India may have been more open to direct communication with the West during the first two hundred years of the Common Era than during any other period before the coming of the Portuguese in the seventeenth century. Trade between Rome and India flourished in the first and second centuries, at least from the time of Claudius (c. AD 45) to the time of Hadrian (d. AD 138). Significant routes and gaps through the mountains could be traversed quite efficiently. There is no good reason to doubt that a trip by the apostles Thomas to India was entirely possible.
But the key question is whether it is probable.
Did Thomas Minister in India?
Early church writings consistently link Thomas to India and Parthia. Three points stand out regarding their witness to Thomas. First, the testimony that he went to India is unanimous, consistent, and reasonably early. Second, we have no contradictory evidence stating Thomas did not go to India or Parthia or that he went elsewhere. Third, fathers both in the East and in the West confirm the tradition. Since the beginning of the third century it has become an almost undisputable tradition that Thomas ministered in India. In addition to the traditions about Thomas in India, there is additional evidence that Christianity made it to India by at least the second century, if not earlier.
While the evidence is not conclusive, a few reasons seem to indicate that it is at least probable that Thomas ministered in India. First, we have no doubt a mission from Jerusalem to Rome was physically possible in the first century. Second, Thomas had seen the risen Jesus (John 20:26-29), was zealous in his willingness to suffer and die for him (John 11:16), had received the missionary call from Jesus (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8), and, given all we know of him, fits the profile of someone who would partake of such an endeavor. While the case for Thomas in India is more provisional than for Peter and Paul in Rome, it does seem more probable than not that he ministered in India.
In the next post, we will consider the evidence that Thomas died as a martyr.