The Great Commission, as it is often called, was the instruction by Jesus to his close followers to spread his message to all peoples. It appears in various forms in the bible now accepted by Christian churches. In the evangelist Mark's version it is found (among final verses added some time after the original text was written) in the words, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature."
Of the books regarded by mainstream churches as authoritative, only the Acts of the Apostles has much to say about what the apostles actually did to spread the new faith. It is largely concerned with the missionary travels of Paul, who was not one of the Twelve. Peter played an important but subsidiary role. Moreover, Paul was portrayed as the one who sought to adapt Jesus's message to appeal to non-Jews, while Peter appeared at times as the defender of Jewish law. Others of the Twelve were scarcely mentioned, and stayed fairly close to home. Even Peter's sojourn and martyrdom in Rome, so crucial to his reputed role as founder of the church there, are based, not on the approved New Testament canon but on church tradition. For only one other of the original Twelve is there a tradition of equal authority for believers, and that one places Thomas in India. In the East -- that is, east of the Euphrates, east of the Greco-Roman world -- Thomas, not Peter, came to be widely regarded by Christians as the true founder of their church.
In Western Christendom Thomas is known from the gospel of John, the only one of the four gospels in which he appears as a distinct individual although he is mentioned by name in the earlier ones. Of his four appearances in John, his best known is as the member of Jesus's band of close followers who doubts that Jesus has really risen from the dead, who is convinced only when he can touch the wound in Jesus's side, and who then addresses him -- the first of the disciples to do so -- as "My Lord and my God."
One scholar, Gregory J. Riley, suggests that the writer of John wanted to portray Thomas as rather slow of wit and laggard in recognizing the divinity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection -- issues on which it appears that two very early church communities, one looking for guidance to John and the other to Thomas, strongly differed.
Many early Christian writings, later rejected by orthodoxy, filled the very considerable gap left by the cursory New Testament record of apostolic missionary work that was supposed to cover "all the world." Most of the Twelve were enshrined in other books, usually called "Acts," that describe the life of each, the territory he covered, his teachings, miracles, and martyrdom. During the second and third centuries, particularly, there was an outpouring of such apocryphal literature.
[In Judaism the "Apocrypha" are texts that can be usefully read, but are not accepted as the word of God. Those writings were included in the early Greek translation of their Bible, the Septuagint, but not in the original Hebrew Bible. Roman Catholics, but not most Protestants, regard those books as part of their canon. With regard to the New Testament, "Apocrypha" came to refer to a body of early Christian writings that were not accepted into the canon and were eventually denounced by mainstream churches as spurious, false, rejected.]
The various apocryphal Acts of the apostles were not entirely religious in character. They were writings of a type commonly called by classicists "romances." These were a form of popular literature that trace the adventures of a hero beset by misfortune. Romances were full of travels (a sea journey was almost obligatory), long separations from family and friends, happy reunions, affairs of the heart, workings of fantastic wonders, and exhibitions of magical powers. Often they contained elements of fable, with people transmuted into animals who teach homely wisdom and point morals. Usually there was an element of mild eroticism.
In the various accounts of the apostles the religious element, of course, was conspicuous. And the erotic element took a turn not usually expected, for the message was severely encratite (enkrates = self-disciplined, continent; in the present context, "encratite" has come to connote abstention from sexual activity). The apocryphal Acts preached total chastity, even in marriage. Indeed, this theme is so prominent, and the moral strength of leading female characters who are sexually inactive is so highly praised, that at least one scholar has suggested that widowed women were the authors.
There was ample scope, however, for describing the utter devotedness of female disciples, who hung on the apostles' words, craved the holy men's presence, and forsook their fiances and husbands, and also for describing the pangs and frustration of abandoned mates who beseeched their wives to return to the marriage bed. And there were episodes in which innocent women fell victim to lecherous villains and devils, or ardent swains were struck down by jealous demons.
Apart from specialized scholars, modern readers are not likely to be drawn to the apocryphal Acts, even if they are aware of them. The writings, however, are reminders that magic, miraculous cures, resurrections of the dead, exorcisms, angels and demons were at home in the cultural setting of the times, and they sometimes contain passages of considerable literary power. The apocryphal Acts have been called "the most important witnesses to the religious ideals of a great part of the Christian race, ideals which did not always follow the paths which were later considered acceptable to the Christian Church."
In many ways, the most interesting of the apostolic biographies is the Acts of Judas Thomas (AJT). The book is one of five that came to be grouped together, the others being Acts of Andrew, John, Paul and Peter. All came to be denounced as spurious. Pope Leo the Great wrote in the fifth century that "the apocryphal writings . . . which, under the names of the Apostles contain a hotbed of manifest perversity, should not only be forbidden but altogether removed and burnt with fire."
In the apocryphal Acts, Jesus is sometimes an elusive, protean figure, taking on various appearances: sometimes he is an old man, sometimes a youth, sometimes fat, sometimes lean. There is a strong suggestion that he was not really corporeal. He is always depicted in his post-resurrection appearances, when he is pure spirit (rid of the human body) talking to the spiritual element in his listeners. In his Acts Thomas exclaims at one point: "Glory be to thee, Jesus of many forms, glory to thee who appears in the guise of our poor manhood." In short, there is usually a strong suggestion of docetism (Greek dokein = to seem), the view that Jesus only seemed to be a man, that the divine spirit took on his appearance. (Among other early views about the nature of Christ, he was pure spirit temporarily inhabiting the body of Jesus.)
The Acts of Judas Thomas emerged, it seems, from the East Syrian civilization of the upper Euphrates Valley early in the third century. It was apparently written originally in Syriac (a variant of Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus and his followers), translated into Greek, then back into Syriac and several other languages. (We are told that M. Bonnet's edition of the Greek version, which is now "taken as standard, depends mainly on an eleventh-century manuscript, the only complete manuscript of the twenty-one known Greek ones.) Like other religious writings, the text varied somewhat from version to version, depending on what points the editors or re-writers wished to make.
Several things are likely to strike the modern reader. One is the negative attitude toward this world and the human body, the "visibles," which must be kept in check if the "invisibles," the spirits or souls, are to be freed. Another is the lack of interest in the Old Testament. Still another is the lack of creeds; Thomas's converts, usually won by performance of an act of exorcism or a miracle, are asked simply to believe in his God, then "sealed" by rites such as baptism. The book was written long before the credal arguments of the fourth and fifth centuries about the nature of Christ and the Trinity.
Rather, the savior's claims to reverence are found in long and often eloquent lists of attributes and titles: For example, in the Acts of Judas Thomas he is called, among other things, guide and leader, city of refuge and repose, planter of the good tree, healer of sick souls, lifegiver of the universe, discloser of hidden secrets, revealer of mysterious sayings. Robert Murray, a principal modern explorer of the origins of the Syriac-speaking church, finds at least 130 titles of Christ.
"Judas Thomas," as we have noted, was the name by which the Doubting Thomas of John's gospel was known in the Syriac culture. But "Thomas" simply means "twin," and would be rendered in Aramaic as Tauma, just as in Greek the word is "Didymus." The familiar English translations of John's gospel might seem to use redundant names for "Thomas Didymus" -- "twin-twin." In the Syriac tradition the apostle is dubbed Judas, and is distinguished from other Judases (such as Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of Jacob) by calling him the twin. And, in the Acts of Judas Thomas, the person of whom he is the twin-- corporeal, or spiritual, or allegorical?-- is Jesus.
Interestingly, John, the most "spiritual" of the gospels and the only one in which the role of Thomas is at all developed, was always a favorite of Gnostic groups. Partly for that reason, it was slow to be accepted into the canon. Scholars widely agree that the writer of that gospel was well acquainted with Gnosticism and had perhaps been a Gnostic himself at some time. Although his is the most spiritual gospel, it repeatedly knocks down the Gnostic notion that Jesus was a man temporarily occupied by the Spirit; Jesus, he affirms, was Christ the Lord.
Mark 6:3 and Matthew l3:55 list a Judas (or Jude) -- a common Jewish name -- as one of the four brothers of Jesus, but nowhere in the canon is it suggested that this Judas was a disciple. Indeed, this Judas, like other members of the family, is described as unimpressed by Jesus. Two of the scriptural lists of the Twelve include a Judas in addition to Iscariot, but Thomas is also found in the same lists. Some scholars have identified him with the author of the Epistle of Judas (or Jude), who calls himself "brother of James" (presumably referring to James the brother of Jesus), but the second-century writer of that letter is widely thought to have claimed kinship with James to give more authority to his message. As one New-Testament scholar has pointed out, "If the quest for the 'historical Jesus' is difficult, the quest for the 'historical relations of Jesus' is nigh impossible."
In the stories of the AJT Jesus and Thomas are often mistaken for each other. This brotherhood, this twinship with Jesus, immediately points to one of the dominant themes in the Thomas writings -- that the earthly self has a spiritual element which belongs in the spiritual realm. From Sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, historian Elaine Pagels concludes that the writer meant the twinship to serve as a more general symbol, to indicate that those who recognize the divine element within themselves become just like Jesus. (The apocryphal Gospel of Philip, she writes, "makes the same point more succinctly: one is to 'become not a Christian, but a Christ.'" )
The Twelve, says the Acts of Judas Thomas, gathered in Jerusalem to decide how to carry out their master's injunction to "teach all nations." They divided the world (so far as they knew it) by lot, to determine which part each should evangelize. Thomas drew India. He resisted the mission. Indians, he said, were too hard-hearted to receive the message, and besides, he did not speak their language. Jesus appeared in a vision to reassure him: "Fear not, Thomas, because my grace is with you" Thomas still balked: "Send me, Lord, wheresoever you will, but to India I will not go."
At that time a merchant named Habban -- an emissary from Gundaphorus, a great king in India --arrived on the scene. He was looking for someone to build a palace for his ruler. Jesus pointed out Thomas to him, as a skilled carpenter and a slave whom he was willing to sell. The deal was closed, the price paid in silver, and Thomas summoned. Pointing to Jesus, Habban asked the apostle, "Is this your master," and Thomas, of course, acknowledged that Jesus was indeed his master. Thereupon the Indian informed him that he now had a new owner. The two set sail for India.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.