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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Passages to India

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 2

According to the Acts of Judas Thomas, the apostle and his new master first touched land in a city called Andrapolis. There the local king was celebrating the marriage of his only daughter. A royal message commanded everyone in town, citizen and foreigner alike, high or low, to take part in the wedding feast and to show appropriate jubilation. Reluctantly, Thomas went to a banqueting hall, but he took no part in the festivities. He ate no food and drank no wine, reclined at table with his eyes cast down, and ignored an attentive Jewish flute-girl, who thought him the handsomest man in the hall.

A Severed Hand and a Heavenly Wedding.

A cupbearer, taking umbrage at Thomas's glum withdrawal, clouted him on the ear. Thomas responded with an odd prophecy. His God, he said, would forgive his assailant in the world to come, "but in this world He will show His wonder on the hand which smote me, and I shall see it dragged along by a dog." Thomas then sang a wedding hymn in Hebrew--not in celebration of the royal marriage then in progress but in praise of a spiritual union in a celestial realm. The song begins with praise of "the maiden" who is "the daughter of light." "Truth rests upon her head." Those who had received the light of the "Father of all" and had been enlightened by the vision of their Lord, "glorified and praised, with the Living Spirit, the Father of Truth and the Mother of Wisdom."

Various images in his chant, especially its final passage, give us an early hint that, in the Acts of Judas Thomas, we are dealing with a text tinged with Gnosticism, a religious movement of the early Christian centuries that we have already briefly noted. The text here used is a translation from a Greek version. The later Syriac version, written when orthodoxy had become more sharply defined in the east, drops or alters the Gnostic references. For example, "the Living Spirit, the Father of Truth and Mother of Wisdom" become the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While Thomas was chanting, the cupbearer who had cuffed him went outside to draw water at a fountain. There a lion attacked him and tore him apart. A black dog snatched up his severed right hand and carried it through the banquet hall. In the festive company only the flute-girl had understood Thomas's words to the offending servitor, for he had spoken in Hebrew. And only she had understood the words of his Hebrew hymn. Now she threw herself at Thomas's feet, exclaiming that he was either God or the apostle of God. She told the assembled guests of his prophecy about the cupbearer's hand, which all had seen in the dog's mouth. (In Da Asia , an encyclopedic work by Diego de Conto, an eighteenth-century Portuguese, the scene of Thomas at the wedding feast in Andrapolis is described with some new flourishes and a happier ending. Seeing the apostle apparently in an ecstasy in the banquet hall, one of the king's ministers slapped him. Thomas foretold punishment for the deed in this world in order to save the offender from eternal damnation. When the man went out to a fountain to wash, a tiger bit off his sacrilegious hand. Bleeding, the man came back inside, followed by a dog carrying the hand. Thomas, feeling pity, took the hand and restored it to the man's arm.)

Word of this astonishing episode reached the king, who then had Thomas brought to his daughter's bridal chamber to pray for and bless the newlyweds. And there, for now, we will leave the apostle, in order to inquire where Andrapolis, the site of these happenings, might have been.

The Many "Indias."

Where, for that matter, was "India"? What did learned people of the Greco-Roman world, whose limited knowledge of the earth's surface shaped the Western notions of geography of the time, mean by the term? In the first century of the Christian era it could have been applied to several regions around the Arabian Sea: to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent; to the Northwest (modern Pakistan and Punjab), which was the region known as India to Alexander the Great; to the west coast of peninsular India; and to lands as far from the "real" India as Ethiopia and southern Arabia.

A Greek orator of the second century A.D. addressed some Phrygians, in what is now Turkey, about the wonders of India. "No men live more happily than you," he told his audience, "with the exception of the Indians, for in their country, it is said, the rivers flow, not like yours, with water, but one river with pellucid wine, another with honey, and another with oil." The Indians "have their springs among the hills--in the breasts, so to speak, of the earth." What a difference, he noted, between his audience and Indians, "for what you have here, you get with difficulty and in a shabby way, robbing trees of their fruit, calves of their milk, and bees of their honey; but in India things are altogether purer, except, I imagine, for violence and rascality." Dion Chrysostom, the Golden-Mouthed, the second-century author of this passage, would have known earlier reports of India, like those coming from Nearchos, admiral of Alexander the Great's fleet in the fourth century B.C. According to the chief pilot for Nearchos's fleet, Alexander had met with Indian gymnosophists--naked philosophers--when his army was encamped near the upper reaches of the Indus. One of those Alexander talked with was a sage who was with the Conqueror when he died in Babylon. This is one of the earliest reported encounters between Greeks and Indian sages.

Arab sea-captains had long known how to ride the monsoon winds directly from the mouth of the Red Sea or the southern coast of Arabia to the western coast of India, and guarded their knowledge as a profitable secret. By the first quarter of the first century A.D., however, the Roman world had learned the secret and was carrying on a vigorous trade with India. It had developed valuable and detailed information on harbors, prevailing winds, tides, local rulers and peoples, exports and imports.

The first and easiest step for sea captains from the Roman world was to sail more or less directly before the winds, which took them from the mouth of the Red Sea northeastward to the delta of the Indus, to ports near that silt-laden river's shifting mouths. The next step in using the monsoon was to venture farther south at the Indian end, particularly to ancient Barygaza (modern Broach, north of Bombay), the port for a fertile hinterland that produced wheat, rice, sesame oil, sugar cane, and cotton.

Gold for Pepper

The favorite destination for traders from the Roman world, however, was the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. Skillful navigation and seamanship were needed to reach the Malabar Coast, now in the modern Indian state of Kerala. This was the last part of the western Indian shores to be opened to direct trade across the Indian Ocean. Muziris, near modern Cochin, was the main port. Here Western traders could find pearls of high-quality, ivory, precious stones, and spices in rich variety.

The main prize, the treasure that made the hazards of the trip worth risking, was pepper. Rome became extravagantly fond of the spice. Pliny wondered why his fellow citizens had such a passion for the black pellets. Pepper, he noted, was neither sweet nor pretty, qualities that rich Romans usually looked for in their imports from the East. Indeed, he said, it has the virtues neither of fruit nor of berries, "its only desirable quality being a certain pungency." A keen appetite for that pungency spread throughout Europe, even among the barbarians. As late as the year 408 Alaric the Goth demanded three thousand pounds of pepper as part of his price for peace with Rome.

Pliny worried about the lavish expenditure by Roman emperors and patricians on such luxury items from India. Exports from the Roman world did not cover the costs of imports. Rome had to pay a great deal of good Roman coin, in gold and silver. The outlay was so large by the middle of the first century A.D. that the more prudent among Roman rulers and their advisers sought to stanch the flow. Many caches of Roman sesterces and denarii have been found in southern India. The amount of specie stamped with the head of Augustus is substantial. It grows for later years, diminishing only after Nero's time.

As Pliny said, "the desire for gain brought India near." "Indeed," he added, "the voyage is made every year, with companies of archers on board, because these seas used to be very greatly infested by pirates." India, he said, absorbed no less than fifty million sesterces of the Roman empire's wealth every year, "sending back merchandise to be sold with us at a hundred times its prime cost."

Whoever wrote the Acts of Judas Thomas would have known, then, that Thomas and Habban could have crossed the Arabian Sea to any of a number of points in India. The Indian port where they first came ashore--if indeed they did come ashore in India--could have been at the mouth of the Indus, or somewhere on the western coast like Barygaza (north of present-day Bombay), or Muziris on the Malabar Coast.

For reasons that will become apparent later in these pages, however, few scholars working independently of church traditions think that Thomas actually went to India. "Did he go to India?" may be a less interesting question than "Why did some followers of Jesus find it inspiring or advantageous in some way to say that he went to India?"

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