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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Thomas and Edessa

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 14

The first fairly reliable evidence that mainstream churches on the Mediterranean model were gaining a foothold in the Syriac-speaking world beyond the Euphrates comes from the Edessan Chronicle , as compiled in the sixth century. It refers to a Bishop Kune, who laid the foundations of a church in Edessa in the year 313. This is the record's first mention of a bishop in the region, although, as we have seen, there were several earlier groups or sects in Edessa that considered themselves Christians.

Theologians and bishops were by now attaching great importance to establishing a tradition of apostolic leadership. The "apostles," now identified with the immediate circle around Jesus, were put forward both as the authenticators of the writings in the New Testament and as the founders of a direct line of authority -- of spiritual descent -- from Christ to the bishops. An effort was now made to give the Edessan church, like those in the Catholic churches, an apostolic origin. Eusebius of Caesarea had a hand in the process by reporting a supposed correspondence between King Abgar V in Edessa and Jesus.

Jesus-Abgar Correspondence

Eusebius wrote that he personally had seen the exchange of letters, supplied to him from the archives at Edessa, and had himself translated the writings from Syriac. Apart from this material in his Church History , he showed little interest in or knowledge of Christianity east of the Euphrates. And although he listed lines of bishops in many places around the Mediterranean, he mentions none from Mesopotamia and eastern Syria. Indeed, the whole of his history is concerned with the church in the Mediterranean world, and the insertion of the Abgar-Jesus correspondence stands out as a conspicuous deviation from his main theme.

According to Eusebius's account, King Abgar sent a letter to "Jesus, the good Deliverer," saying that he had heard of the cures he had wrought, without medicine or herbs, and had concluded that Jesus was either God or the son of God: "I have written to request that you would trouble yourself to come to me, and cure this disease which I have; for I have also heard that the Jews murmur against you, and wish to do you harm. But I have a city, small and beautiful, which is enough for two."

Jesus replied:

Blessed are you who believed in me, not having seen me. . . . Now concerning what you wrote to me, I must first complete here all for which I was sent, and after thus completing it be taken up to Him who sent me, and when I have been taken up I will send one of my disciples to heal your suffering and give life to you and those with you.

After the earthly career of Jesus ended, Eusebius continues, "Judas who was also Thomas" sent Thaddeus (in Syriac, Addai), one of the seventy disciples, to Edessa. (The Syriac list of the Seventy -- or Seventy-two -- is different from the lists known in western Christendom.) He began making miraculous cures and Abgar realized that he must be the emissary promised by Jesus. The king told him that he believed in Jesus. Addai worked cures on the king and others, and converted many.

What could have been the motives for fabricating this remarkable correspondence -- motives of Eusebius or of those who may have foisted the story on him? In a sense, Thomas became the apostle to Edessa, if only by proxy. This might seem to serve the purposes of those who wanted to establish an apostolic origin for a church not dependent on the western tradition.

Even a mainstream bishop like Kune, noting the special reverence enjoyed by the Twin, might have been ready to establish him as the apostle to Edessa -- at one remove -- in order to win over the citizenry. But equally the story keeps Thomas himself out of Edessa, and could serve to undercut his authority there. Addai, not Thomas, would be the actual founder. Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone in Edessa itself was aware of the story until the fourth century. Ephraim, writing half a century after Eusebius's account appeared, is effusive about the return of Thomas's bones to Edessa, but is silent about the Abgar-Jesus correspondence. And that rather sensational exchange of letters could hardly have reposed unknown in the city archives for centuries without the knowledge of Edessans.

Walter Bauer, the German scholar who traced the evolution of orthodoxy from the varied Christian sects found in the early centuries of the faith, suggested an ingenious hypothesis. Bishop Kune arrived as a bishop early in the fourth century, ordained by the bishop of Antioch. He may have shown the "archive" to Eusebius (who apparently never visited Edessa) when the church historian was collecting material in nearby Palestine. To make Thomas and Addai the founders would give the first church in Edessa an apostolic succession that Marcionites and Bardesanites could not claim.

The view of Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard may hold the answer to the riddle: Thaddeus was deliberately substituted for Thomas as the founder of Christianity in Edessa at a time when the emergent orthodox church of the Mediterranean world was establishing itself in that city. As will shortly appear, by the fourth century a story had been devised to substitute Peter as the apostolic connection with Jesus for the Edessan church .

Behind these varied speculations there is the solid evidence of a "Thomas" literature in Syriac dating from the second and early third centuries (perhaps reaching as far back as the first century). And, as Ephraim bears witness late in the fourth century, there were then still those who did special honor to the apostle's name.

Nestorians and the Break with the West

Little will be said here of the perennial conflict in the fourth and fifth centuries, within the churches of the Mediterranean world, over credal statements and attempts to define the nature of Christ and the Trinity. Each of the factions, gathered around particular prelates who rivaled each other for authority and power, sought the support of the emperors in Constantinople and their families. And the worldly rulers favored this, then that, faction. From council to council, today's orthodoxy could become tomorrow's heterodoxy, leading to anathemas and excommunications and overnight rehabilitations. Two of the chief protagonists were Nestorius, a monk of Antioch who became patriarch of Constantinople, and Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria.

Of the various contending factions of the time, the Nestorians are of most interest to seekers of Thomas lore, for they looked upon the Twin as their founding apostle. The Nestorians have attracted little scholarly attention in the western world, but we are told that three of their traditions supported claims to an apostolic origin separate from Peter. Nestorians accepted as authentic the Jesus-Abgar correspondence and the report of Addai's mission to Edessa, acting as proxy for Thomas. They regarded Thomas, Addai and Mari, another of the Seventy disciples, as the founders of their church. Nestorians also accepted the Acts of Judas Thomas as authoritative, especially in its account of the transfer of the apostle's remains to Edessa.

A third tradition concerned the visit of the three Magi (increased to twelve by later Nestorians) to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Apparently the royal personages spoke Aramaic and therefore they must have come from Edessa, the only kingdom between Rome and Persia. According to Nestorians, a son of Gundaphorus was one of the three. He is identified with Caspar. A twelfth-century Nestorian bishop in Basrah (at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates) gave this account: "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, and the star appeared to the Magi in the east, twelve Persian kings took offerings -- gold and myrrh and frankincense -- and came to worship Him; . . ." And the name of one, he added, was Gushnasaph (which somehow came to be "Caspar" in Greek), the son of Gundaphar (presumably our Gundaphorus).

In the attempt to find a formula that would define the "natures," "essences," and "persons" of Christ and the Trinity -- in abstract Greek, Syriac, and Latin terms -- Nestorians affirmed that Christ was of two "natures" (divine and human), and two "substances" or "essences" united in one person or personality. This formulation was anathematized by their rivals. The Nestorians also refused to call Mary the Mother of God (for, they asked, how could a woman give birth to God?), preferring "Mother of Jesus." They invoked the Holy Spirit (as Thomas repeatedly did in the Acts of Judas Thomas ) to consecrate the eucharist and they denied that the Holy Spirit proceeded "from the Son" as well as from the Father.

By the end of the fifth century there was a complete break between the Nestorians, east of the Euphrates, and their western Christian brethren. The patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (or patriarch of the East, also sometimes called patriarch of Babylon) was the unquestioned head of the church, claiming equal status to the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, and the bishop of Rome. Nestorian doctrine was formally adopted.

Both in creed and governance, the "Church of the East" had separated itself from the churches of the Roman world. Because the church had cut its ties with those in the rival empire, it enjoyed a new freedom from persecution under the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Decline of the City of Abgar

After the Persians acquired the important Christian center of Nisibis, in 363, Edessa was unquestionably the most important locus for the faith in the Syriac-speaking world. The Roman empire, beginning with Constantine, had come to tolerate and support Christianity; under emperor Theodosius it became the state religion. Theodosius himself was the first emperor to be baptized while still a young man; his Christian predecessors, apparently not wanting to risk losing the resulting benefit of absolution, had put off the rite until they were advanced in years. In 380 Theodosius issued an edict ordering his subjects to embrace Christianity:

It is our pleasure that all nations, which are governed by our clemency and moderation, should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by Peter to the Romans. . . . We authorize the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians; and as we judge, that all others are extravagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of Heretics.

There followed a crackdown on paganism and on Christian "heresies," the latter being defined in different ways from time to time, depending on which prelates succeeded in gaining the emperor's favor and support. In the time of Theodosius, the heresy considered especially dangerous was Arianism, which regarded Christ as divine but less than an equal with God the Father. Egypt, among other places, saw the destruction of the temples of its own gods. And again Alexandria lost its/ famous library.

In Edessa a Catholic bishop named Rabbula ruled the see from about 4ll to 430. He found, according to a panegyrical biographer, the whole region "solid with every briar of sin." Rabbula "vanquished and uprooted" the "wicked teaching of Bardaisan," and healed the "purulent cancer of the heresy of Marcion." He forbade the use of Tatian's Diatessaron, the second-century gospel harmony that combined the canonical gospels into one; Rabbula allowed only the four separate gospels to be used. He is said to have torn down the heretics' meeting places, transferred their property to the true church, and barred from communion consecrated virgins who had abandoned monastic life.

It was about this time that a new orthodox lineage of bishops was supplied for the Syriac-speaking world through the Doctrine of Addai . This text considerably elaborated the mission of Addai to King Abgar. Among the new details it was said that after Addai's death the leadership had passed to Aggai, a former goldsmith. A new king of Osrhone ordered Aggai to make a golden crown for him, and the quondam worker in precious metals, now a prelate, refused. The king had him killed by breaking his legs, and he died so quickly that there was not time for him to consecrate his successor, a presbyter named Palut.

As a result, so the story goes, Palut had to receive consecration at the hand of the bishop of Antioch, who earlier had received his commission from the bishop of Rome. Accordingly, the two lines of bishops differed importantly:

Thaddeus (Addai)

Western Catholics
Successor bishops deriving from Peter, including bishop of Antioch
Palut (in Edessa)

Thus the line from Thomas (through Addai, Aggai and Mari) was broken and Peter, through Palut, was substituted as the source of apostolic authority.

Not all Edessans -- perhaps not even a majority, among those considering themselves to be Christians -- accepted the new account. Ephraim inveighed against those who called proper Christians "Palutians": "They even call us Palutians but we have spewed them out and cast away [the name]."

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Edessa again became a front-line state in the clash of empires and faiths and dynasties. J. B. Segal, the chief modern chronicler of Edessa, has traced the story. The city was caught up in the bitter rivalry of Umayyads and Abbasids for the caliphate. In later centuries Byzantine forces and Franks (early Crusaders), on the Christian side, and Arab and Seljuk Turks on the Muslim side, struggled with those of the rival religion and fratricidally among themselves.

In ll44 an able Turkish general, Zangi, besieged and captured the city. Because the hated Franks had worshipped there, the shrine of St. Thomas was converted into a stable. The apostle's relics, as we will later learn, are said to have been removed to safer quarters. Crusader forces made one vain effort to retake the city and when they were routed, the Turks thoroughly sacked the town, this time pillaging all Christians churches and digging out long buried treasure. As Segal reports, "The news was carried throughout Christendom that the city of Abgar had fallen to the Moslems."

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.