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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Land of Pepper (Southwest India)

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 15

We return to the Acts of Judas Thomas . The last seven chapters or Acts (7 through l3) form a more or less continuous novella. Siphor, a captain of the guard in the kingdom of one Mazdai (in Syriac; in Greek, Misdaeus), begs the apostle for help. For three years his wife and daughter have been possessed by evil demons, who first assailed them as they returned from a wedding. Can Thomas deliver them from the incubi? Thomas asks "Do you believe that Jesus will heal them?" The captain declares his belief and the apostle agrees to go with him.

Leaving his new converts in the realm of Gundaphorus in the charge of a deacon, Thomas joins Siphor in a wagon-cart, which, after adventures that need not concern us, comes to the realm of King Mazdai. There the apostle preaches to crowds of people and exorcises the demons who have been tormenting the captain's wife and daughter.

Among the apostle's listeners is a rich and noble lady named Mygdonia. She is the the wife of Karish (in Greek, Charisius) a prince "next to the king" in authority, to whom she has been married less than a year. She becomes a devotee of the apostle, hanging hungrily on his words. She hears a sermon in which he preaches Christian morality and the virtues of meekness and gentleness, concluding with an admonition to "abstain from all foul deeds, especially them of the body, whereby comes eternal condemnation. For this is the chief city of all evils." Mygdonia throws herself at his feet and begs him to pray for her, so that "the compassion of the God whom you preach may come upon me, and I may become his dwelling place." Thomas tells her to put aside her rich adornments and worldly ways.

Back home, Mygdonia refuses to dine with her husband, pleading that she does not feel well. Moreover, she refuses to go to bed with him. Sleeping disconsolately alone, Karish has a dream. He is reclining at dinner with the king when an eagle swoops down and snatches up two partridges. Again the bird of prey raids the table, carrying off a pigeon and a dove. The kings shoots an arrow at the eagle; the missile passes through the bird without causing injury. Karish tells Mygdonia of the dream, saying he is fearful and vexed, "because I had tasted of the partridge, and he suffered me not to put it in my mouth again."

Karish is destined never again to taste of the partridge. After listening to Thomas a second day, Mygdonia returns home to pray that God give her "the strength to overcome the shamelessness of Karish." Again she refuses to share her husband's bed, and when he insists she flees to her nurse's room. Partly saddened, partly outraged, Karish takes his troubles to the king the following day. He complains that a sorcerer has come among them, preaching a new God and laying on his listeners a radical new saying, that "it is impossible for you to enter eternal life unless you rid yourselves of wives, and wives of husbands."

The king is sympathetic and orders that Thomas be thrown into prison. While incarcerated, the apostle sings the "Hymn of the Soul," or "Hymn of the Pearl," which has been acclaimed as one of the gems of Syriac literature.

The Pearl and the Twin

In the hymn, the King of Kings and Queen of the East send out their young son to search in Egypt for a pearl, which is protected by a huge serpent. They remove from the lad his splendid garment of many hues, spangled in gold and embroidered with precious gems, telling him they will restore it when he returns with the pearl. The little prince sets forth, traveling through places with names linked with Iran and Mesopotamia, reaches Egypt, and settles down to figure out how he can recover the pearl. But he lapses into the life of the local people, eats their food, wears filthy garments, and eventually falls into a deep sleep. His watching parents send a letter; it takes the form of an eagle speeding to his side. The message reminds him of his mission and of the robe that awaits his return. The young man bestirs himself, outwits the serpent, snatches the pearl, and turns toward home.

But suddenly he sees the robe as if it were himself, as if he were seeing himself in a mirror: "I saw it wholly in myself, and I saw myself through it, and we were distinctly two, yet one in a single form." These words invite many readings. Among those that readily come to mind, they are a metaphor for the angel paired with every living soul; for the paradoxical nature of humankind, who are flesh and spirit at the same time; for the unitive experience of the mystic, two becoming one. The prince, like Thomas and Mani, has a spiritual twin. In the tension of the mirror image, earthly being and heavenly spirit are one but not one.

The Hymn is a Gnostic tale stripped of most of the usual cosmological setting, a relatively straightforward account of a soul that has left behind the Light and come into the world, lost itself in "Egypt" (a code word for the wicked world), is awakened to its true nature by a messenger, recognizes its real self, and rejoins the Father. The imagery is familiarly Gnostic: a garment of light for the spirit; filthy rags for the body in this world; falling into a deep sleep, for forgetfulness of one's spiritual home; the King of Kings and Queen of the East for the male and female aspects of the true godhead.

The twin motif recurs throughout the Acts of Judas Thomas , where Thomas is repeatedly recognized as the twin of Jesus. Some Gnostics thought that each soul imprisoned in a human body has a counterpart angel in the heavenly realm to which it is joined at death -- if its possessor is a Knower. The roles of the favrashi in Zoroastrianism and Vajrapani in Buddhism have already been noted.

The geographical setting of the "Hymn of the Pearl" is the expanse of land stretching from the Nile to the Indus. Names of places and peoples include the Kushans of Punjab and Afghanistan, Messene at the southern end of Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Hyrcania, east of the Caspian Sea. There are no allusions at all to Christian texts, there is no use of distinctively Christian imagery. Scholars have long speculated on the origins of the Hymn, including the possibility that it came from Bardaisan. There is now a general consensus that it was probably written before the Acts of Judas Thomas but incorporated into that writing either in the original document or later by the Manicheans.

After reciting the Hymn of the Pearl, the apostle frees himself miraculously from prison, encounters Mygdonia on the street, and at her entreaty gives her "the seal" --anointing her with oil, baptizing her in a nearby fountain, and giving her the eucharist of bread.

A bigger partridge than she is about to be snatched -- Tertia, the king's wife. Mazdai is furious when he learns that she, too, has been converted. To prevent her from receiving the final seal, the king locks her in the palace, and Thomas is again thrown into prison. A son of the king comes to him and is the next to be converted and baptized. This is too much for the king to endure.

Mazdai now orders that Thomas be killed, and four soldiers escort the "sorcerer" out of town, taking him to the mountain where they will spear him to death. As he is led away, Thomas notes that it is appropriate for four spear men to be assigned to cut him down, "for of four [elements] am I made. My Lord and God Jesus Christ, being of one [air or spirit], was pierced by one, but I, which am of four, am pierced by four." Just before he is dispatched, Thomas makes Siphor a presbyter and Vizan a deacon, and they later make many converts.

Soon after the martyrdom of Thomas one of the king's sons is smitten by a devil and no one can cure him. Remembering Thomas's powers, Mazdai hopes that a bone from his body might cure the boy. He has the sepulcher opened but it is empty, "for one of the brethren had stolen him away and taken him unto Mesopotamia." Mazdai, however, takes dust from the tomb and hangs it in a pouch about his son's neck. The child is cured and the king becomes a Christian.

Malabar Coast

We have already noted that nothing in the Acts of Judas Thomas indicates where Mazdai's kingdom might have been. The text itself, after the episode in the kingdom of Gundaphorus, speaks of places that apparently could be easily and quickly reached from that realm. The most durable of all Thomas traditions, however, and the one that has actively survived up to the present, places the apostle in the southwestern tip of the Indian subcontinent, in what is now the state of Kerala.

That tip of India is as far from the Taxila of Gundaphorus as the Everglades of Florida are from Denver, and as dissimilar as those two in terrain, climate, and the furnishings of nature. The southern region is lushly green, tropical, warm-to-hot the year round, looking to the sea. The other is dry for most of the year, forested in parts but also with huge barren tracts, continental in climate and outlook. The people of the South are dark, often very dark, those of the Northwest wheaten-colored, sometimes even blue-eyed (a legacy from Alexander the Great's soldiers, it is said), scarcely distinguishable from their Middle Eastern brethren in the same latitudes.

On the scale by which the ages of the planet's land masses are reckoned, Kerala is a very young addition to the Indian peninsula. A movement of the earth's crust thrust up the sea bed along the coast and formed the Western Ghats, mountains that rise beyond the littoral. The highest reach nearly 9,000 feet. The range catches heavy rainfalls from saturated winds crossing the Arabian Sea, nourishing a luxuriant rain forest. When swollen with rain, rivers that cut through the hills and course westward into the Indian Ocean deposit enormous amounts of detritus, which oceanic currents shape into long low sandy strands parallel to the shore. When accretions of silt have built these banks above sea level, the waters between them and the shore form sluggish channels and lagoons -- the famously beautiful Backwaters of the Cochin region in Kerala.

Modern Kerala is a strip some 380 miles long and roughly 80 miles wide, extending from a coastline fringed with coconut palms, across a narrow plain scored by many rivers that flow from the foothills and higher mountains beyond. The upper regions now abound in plantations of tea, rubber, eucalyptus (prized as a building material), and spices. Of all the states in India, Kerala is the most densely populated, has the highest literacy rate, and has much the highest proportion of Christians -- more than one fifth.

According to local Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas landed on one of Kerala's sandy beaches in the year 52. He is supposed to have come ashore at Cranganore, near the old pepper port of Muziris which was the terminus for spice traders from the Roman world. Behind that ever-shifting coastline, Muziris moved inland long ago, apparently silted up by a flood of the Periyar River. Local tradition says that Thomas set out from Cranganore to spread the gospel and converted many people, including Brahmins. Some Christian families today trace their ancestry to those Brahmins; Thomas, they say, ordained their forebears as the first priests. At some point one family that traces its lineage to Brahmin converts, the Pakalamarrans, became the the hereditary heads of the St. Thomas Christian community.

Along the Malabar Coast, according to the local tradition, Thomas established seven churches, ordained two presbyters, then departed by way of a river valley that cuts through the Western Ghats, bound for the southeastern coast of India on the Bay of Bengal near present-day Madras. There he continued to make converts until he was martyred.

"India Thou Hast Made Fair"

The south Indian tradition gives reasons for killing him quite different from those found in the Acts of Judas Thomas. There is no mention of the king's fury at his wife's conversion to the apostle's encratite teaching and his urging of wives to forsake the marriage bed. Rather, jealous Brahmin priests, angered by his success in converting highly-placed people to Christianity, arranged for him to be speared to death. Or, according to one version of the story, he refused to worship the goddess Kali and miraculously set ablaze the grove dedicated to her; for this act, Thomas had to be done away with.

In the fourth century Ephraim included some allusions to Thomas's mission in one of his Syriac hymns: "Lo, in India, are thy miracles, O Thomas, and in our land is thy triumph, and everywhere our festival" And again: "The sunburnt India thou has made fair. . . . A tainted land of dark people thou hast purified. . . . More than snow and white linen, the dark bride of India thou has made fair. . . (and) the cross of light has obliterated India's darkened shades." Presumably Ephraim was speaking metaphorically, about bringing Christian light to dark Indian souls. But perhaps he was also referring to the color of skin, which would better fit many Indians of the south than those of the northwest. Quite possibly he intended both meanings.

To this day there is a large number of Keralans who call themselves St. Thomas Christians. For many centuries they drew their bishops, their liturgy, and Syriac as their liturgical language, from Mesopotamia or neighboring Syria and Iran.

The strongly-held tradition of Thomas's mission on the Malabar Coast is in part dependent on the Acts of Judas Thomas , with local variations and embellishments. As we know, there would have been nothing remarkable in a voyage from a Red Sea port directly to the Malabar Coast in the middle of the first century. Thomas would have found in Muziris a colony of traders from the Roman world -- Greeks, Jews, and Arabs. Cochin still has a small group of Jews who claim that their forebears came to the region in the middle of the first century.

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