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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Thomas versus Peter

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 18

Archbishop Menezes was determined to root out the Nestorian doctrine and local customs of the Thomas Christians, once and for all. Through argument, cajolery, threats, and considerable force of personality, he tried to persuade the Thomas Christians to accept the creed, rites, and authority of Rome. His visitation to Kerala lasted nearly eleven strenuous months. Archdeacon George proved to be a resourceful foe, skilled at exploiting the divisions within the ranks of the foreigners -- rivalries between Jesuit and Dominican orders, between Italian and Spanish friars on one hand and Portuguese on the other, between Lisbon and Rome for control of the local clergy.

Menezes and "Methods of Certainty"

At the end of the century Menezes, threatening to call in the Portuguese army, browbeat the Raja of Cochin into abandoning the Thomasite cause. Archdeacon George finally capitulated, at least in word. He issued a summons for a synod at Diamper, to be held in l599. Clergy and lay representatives from each church gathered to pledge themselves to a new order.

For nine days the synod met, reading and adopting the decrees dictated by Menezes. These are remarkable documents. Probably no other set of papers in history has given so detailed a picture of a system that was being swept away and a system that was being substituted. It was as if a template had been designed to sop up and erase the dogmas, liturgy, writings, ecclesiastical structure, and customs and folkways of the Thomas Christians, and then inked to replace what had been obliterated, item by item, with approved Roman Catholic material.

The kattanars had to become celibate; married kattanars must part from their wives. The clergy had to give up its fees. The authority of the Pope and the Inquisition was accepted. Nestorius and all the saints of his church were anathematized, the Patriarch of Babylon renounced. The Thomasites' liturgy and sacramental practices were revised in detail. Their sacred texts and educational writings in Syriac were to be delivered up for "correction." Once they were handed over, Menezes had them burned.

The third of the synod's nine sessions dealt with the division between Peter and Thomas, leading to a decree:

The Synod is with great sorrow sensible of that heresy, and perverse error, . . that there was one law of St. Thomas and another of St. Peter, which made two different and distinct churches, and both immediately from Christ; and that one had nothing to do with the other, neither did the prelate of the one owe any obedience to the prelate of the other; and that they who had followed the law of St. Peter, had endeavored to destroy the law of St. Thomas, for which they had been punished by him; all which is manifest error, schism, and heresy, there being but one law to all Christians.

The decree went on to affirm one faith, one baptism, one Lord of all, one catholic and apostolic church, and "one universal pastor, to whom all other prelates owe obedience, the Pope and Bishop of Rome."

Shortly after the synod, lingering defiance at the important town of Parayur took the form of a debate staged by actors representing St. Peter and St. Thomas. A third as St. Cyriac, patron of the local church, acted as umpire. According to a report sent to Menezes, Thomas inveighed against Peter: "You have brought into this country an Archbishop . . . who by sheer violence has maintained the cause of the Portuguese, and introduced your law among the people who owe you no allegiance. Your successors, the Bishops of Rome, can have no authority whatever in this country."

"We are both Apostles of Jesus Christ," "Thomas" added. "Our power is, therefore, so equal, that you have no more jurisdiction over my Christians, than I have over yours." "Peter" answered that his law was for all the world. In the end, Cyriac was asked for a decision, which predictably was in favor of Thomas: the true pastor of Christians in India was the Patriarch of Babylon; they should be on guard against the heretic Menezes; the oaths he had extorted at Diamper were null and void.

The debate was repeated elsewhere. Menezes was alarmed, and denounced the actors as mouthpieces of the devil. He sent a priest to exorcise them. Apparently the rebellious were deeply impressed by the rite and, as the Portuguese historian of these times wrote, "the devil ceased to speak through the man's organs."

Karma, Dharma, and Reincarnation

Some of the Diamper decrees called upon the Thomas Christians to change the customs by which they had lived in harmony with their Hindu neighbors, and by which they had become somewhat Hinduized. They must dress in a distinctive Christian way. They must stop using Hindu musicians in their services. They must drop Hindu elements in their marriage rites. Frequent ablutions, a feature of Hindu worship, were banned.

One decree dealt with "errors and ignorance" that the followers of Thomas had imbibed by living among infidels. It struck at three taken-for-granted axioms that underlie the Hindu system: belief in reincarnation, karma, and dharma. These were beliefs that an individual soul continues in successive bodies until it finally wins release from the cycle of rebirths through reunion with universal soul; that merits or demerits of an individual's actions (karma) in the current life are imprinted on the continuing soul; and that one's life in each incarnation is to be guided by a set of rules appropriate for his or her caste status (one's dharma). In the words of the decree:

The first [error] is, that there is a transmigration of souls, which after death go either into the bodies of beasts, or of some other man; . . . [whereas the catholic faith teaches] that our souls after death are carried to heaven or hell, or purgatory, or Limbus, according to everyone's merits. The second [error] is, that all things come necessarily to pass, either through fate or fortune, which they call the nativity of men, who, they say, are compelled to be what they are . . . which is a manifest error, and condemned by holy mother church forasmuch as it destroys that liberty of will, with which God created us.

On one point the Thomasites were obdurate: they would not accept low-caste converts into their churches. And their opponents, aware that the Thomas Christians' high status and therefore their usefulness depended on preserving caste lines, did not press the point. The synod devised a compromise decree. It expressed a pious wish that all castes worship together, but recognized that "all these Christians are subject to heathen princes" who might make difficulties if the castes were mixed; that is, Christians' recognition as a high caste, by non-Christian rulers, would be jeopardized. Bishops were to try to set up separate churches when converts were made in low castes; pending the building of such churches, "let them attend Mass from the Porch."

At the end of the synod, Menezes added another jolt. By long custom, nephews had succeeded uncles as head vicars in their churches -- also a general Nestorian practice. Menezes divided the diocese into seventy-five parishes and appointed new vicars for each. And for the first time the Thomas Christians became subject to a Portuguese bishop who would rule his diocese personally and not rely on an Indian archdeacon for its administration.

A much later prelate -- Cardinal Tisserant, responsible for overseeing Roman Catholic activity in India in the middle of the twentieth century -- was somewhat apologetic for the extreme nature of some of the measures like book-burning. He said that Menezes's "method was that of certainty . . . arising from the lofty motive of prudence," to make the revival of heresy more difficult, but resulted in part from ignorance of what might usefully be saved in the Syriac rite. Spanish, French, or Italian prelates, he added, would probably not have done what Menezes did. A Portuguese Jesuit, Fr. Roz was consecrated as bishop of Malabar in l60l.

The "method of certainty" succeeded for half a century, at least in large part, although there was constant friction with the Thomasite clergy and their supporters. The Europeans had imposed a revolution that might last only as long as Portuguese force was behind it. Lisbon and Rome had chosen to ignore the Thomas Christians' deep attachment to their local Hinduized customs, directly related to high caste status. And the Thomasites were attached to their apostle, to the Syriac liturgy and to the practice of drawing their bishops from Syria-Mesopotamia -- a practice that also had political underpinnings, emphasizing as it did the wish of Keralans to be free of European domination or even the appearance of such ties.

The Dutch and British Arrive

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch were effectively challenging Portuguese naval power and control of sea trade with the East. The Portuguese intercepted a Syrian bishop sent out to Malabar in l652, but their grip on the route to India slipped rapidly. The Dutch captured Cochin in l663 and expelled all foreign clerics. Their rivals no longer controlled Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and a Syrian bishop was delivered to India. In l685 two Jacobite priests from Mosul in northern Mesopotamia arrived and from then on a major part of the Thomas Christians regarded the Patriarch of Antioch as their spiritual head.

The switch from Nestorians of east Syria to Jacobites (or Monophysites) of west Syria has puzzled and somewhat shocked Western churchmen and theologians, who find in the change a regrettable lack of concern with doctrine. But through their history the Thomas Christians had avoided involvement, among themselves, in the doctrinal quarrels that divided the churches of the Mediterranean and European world. The preservation of their local clergy and customs, with minimal interference from foreigners, at peace with Hindu neighbors, meant much more than dogma. Many Thomasites re-established their local churches with Syriac liturgy; many others remained in communion with Rome. Both groups came to be called Syrians, including Catholic Syrians.

In later years other divisions appeared as more Western missionaries, especially British, came to India. British suppression of local armies deprived the Thomasites of their prestige as fighters and their long ties with the Nayars, the warrior caste. British rulers of the region, often strongly influenced by zealous British evangelical movements and eager to rescue their Indian subjects from "heathenism," unwittingly made life much harder for established Christians. The new masters ousted the Pakalamarran family, who for centuries had been the heads of the St. Thomas Christians, as archdeacons and then as Syrian "metrans." The colonial power's favoritism toward Christian converts led to the Thomasites' loss of superior status and their shared customs and ceremonials with high-caste HIndus. Most came to be regarded as "polluted" and were denied their centuries-long access to HIndu holy places and processions.

Many separate and rival churches developed. Quarrels and law suits over rights to church property and prerogatives of priestly families broke out among various descendants of the Syrians themselves as well as other churches. Some groups of Syrians managed to retain high status, remaining distinct from the converts, mainly low-caste or outcaste people, of later Christian missionaries. With these later developments we are not here concerned.

Thomas Rediscovered

Even before they came to India, the Portuguese were well aware of the local tradition that the apostle Thomas had evangelized India. The king instructed his expeditions not only to capture the spice trade but to find relics of the saint. Bones were indeed dug up at the site long reputed to be Thomas's tomb, and they traveled far thereafter. The story is complicated, and will not be told here in detail. Handled with remarkable casualness as they passed through a series of hands, the supposed relics, or parts thereof, are now said to be found in India at Madras, Goa, and Cranganore (the legendary site of Thomas's landing in the middle of the first century), and in Ortona, Italy.

Inside the San Thoma Cathedral in the Mylapore quarter of Madras, the tomb excavated in the sixteenth century now lies beneath the crossing. The little Portuguese-built church on St. Thomas's Mount has a few remains. We are told that the stone behind the altar is the very one on which the apostle expired, and that it is stained with his blood.

That stone is of particular interest because it is one of the few archeological clues to the arrival of Christianity in India. The cross is carved in relief on a rectangular sandstone base, rounded at the top, which also bears an inscription. It is much like four crosses found in Kerala. Scholars now agree the inscriptions are in middle Pahlavi, the language of Sassanian Persia. One of these, in the church at Kottayam, has an upper panel, atop the inscription, showing a small cross flanked by peacocks, their bills touching the cross.

The Portuguese found a Brahmin who obliged with a translation of the Mount cross inscription -- a translation that he knew would be pleasing to the foreigners. It was distinguished (in the words of Stephen Neill) "by the fact that it made no contact at any point whatever with the language or the meaning of the original which it professed to expound." It was a recapitulation of the Thomas legend as found in traditional song-epics. There were several later attempts to translate the inscription. In l925 the reader in Assyriology in Cambridge University gave one that rings truer: "My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who caused this to be cut." The Mount cross dates from about the eighth century.

The discovery of bones said to be those of Thomas, the building of a church over the site, the elaboration of accounts placing his hermitage and place of martyrdom on nearby hills and building of another church there, gave the Portuguese a major, solidly Roman Catholic, place of pilgrimage in India, reducing the influence of Kerala and its followers of Thomas.

Behind the surprising location of his relics in Ortona, Italy, lies another set of Thomas stories, and we return briefly to the Acts of Judas Thomas . After the martyrdom of the apostle, it will be recalled, King Mazdai wanted to open his tomb to get a bone, which he hoped would cure his son of demonic possession. But he found the tomb empty, "for one of the brethren had stolen [the bones] away, and carried them to the regions of the West." So reads the Greek version of the AJT . One text is more specific about the destination: the apostle's remains were taken "unto Mesopotamia." In any event, it seems that Edessans of the fourth century believed that somehow the apostle's remains had been translated to their home town. Ephraim refers to the supposed event several times. In one of his hymns, the devil is speaking:

Into what land shall I fly?
I stirred up Death to slay the Apostles, that by their death I might escape their blows.
But harder still am I now stricken:
The Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa; . . .
The merchant brought the bones. . . .

Another of Ephraim's hymns has this verse:

Thomas, whence your lineage,
That so illustrious you should become?
A merchant your bones conveys;
A Pontiff assigns you a feast;
A King a shrine erects.

"A merchant your bones conveys": Ephraim here seems to be endorsing the legend that Habban, who had originally brought Thomas to India, had taken the apostle's relics to Edessa. A Nestorian bishop of Basrah, at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates, wrote the Book of the Bee in the thirteenth century -- gathering, he said, "the blossoms of the two Testaments and the flowers of the holy Books" and a good deal of other Nestorian lore--in which he subscribed to the Habban story, but also acknowledged a contrary version of the relics' fate:

Thomas was from Jerusalem of the tribe of Judah. He taught the Parthians, Medes and Indians; and because he baptized the daughter of the King of the Indians, he stabbed him with a spear and he died. Habban the merchant brought his body and laid it in Edessa, the blessed city of Christ our Lord. Others say he was buried in Mahluph [Mylapore], a city in the land of the Indians.

In any event, relics revered as those of Thomas were kept in a martyry outside Edessa, and transferred to a church inside the walls late in the fourth century, after Ephraim's death. The Edessene Chronicle says that in 394 "the casket of the Apostle Thomas was removed to the great church erected in his honor."

Other stories about the apostle's relics are told, of dubious historic lineage. One says that when Muslims captured Edessa in 1142, surviving Christians took the relics to the isle of Chios in the Aegean Sea, where they remained for more than a century. In 1258 the prince of Taranto raided Chios and sent the relics to Ortona, Italy, where they were installed in the cathedral. And there most of the relics (which some explorers of such matters think are more probably those of a Greek monk named Thomas) remain, except for a thigh bone that Cardinal Tisserant arranged to have sent to Cranganore in 1952, the nineteenth centenary year of Thomas's supposed arrival on the Malabar coast.

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