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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Wanderer in the West

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 20

Vincenzo Maria listed Brazil as one of the lands Thomas visited. French historian Jacques Lafaye has been the chief contemporary explorer of this vein of Thomas lore; any brief account must rely heavily on his Guadalupe et Quetzalcoatl .

For the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era European ideas of world geography remained remarkably fixed. Ptolemy, the second-century Hellenistic astronomer and geographer, was regarded as the impeccable authority. Up to the middle of the fifteenth century, few cartographers made any attempt to reform their maps in the light of new knowledge, even after medieval travelers like Marco Polo had given fairly detailed reports of the lands they had visited.

Then adventurous European navigators began to make startling discoveries. But attempts to incorporate their findings into realistic maps remained muddled for a long time. A learned writer, describing the main features of the world's surfaces in l533, could still write: "Beyond l80 degrees east longitude, many countries were discovered by Marco Polo a Venetian and others, and the sea-coasts of those countries have now recently again been explored by Colombus a Genoese and Amerigo Vespucci in navigating the western ocean." He added that to this part of Asia belong Newfoundland, Florida, Cathay, and Mexico.

Thomas in the Americas

To the Portuguese and Spanish, the Americas were simply "The Indies" for most of the sixteenth century. The Portuguese, who had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and found the Malabar Coast across the Indian Ocean, thought, when they reached the land we now call Brazil, that they had reached the same general region.

Perhaps, then, we ought not be astonished at the contents of a letter written by a Portuguese Jesuit from Bahia, Brazil, in l549. "A trustworthy person," he says, "has told me that the manioc roots of which bread is made in this country were a gift from St. Thomas, for formerly the Indians had no kind of bread. . . . Not far from here are footprints impressed on a rock and everyone says they are the footprints of St. Thomas."

The discoverer of the footprints was Father Nobrega, whose mission to Brazil is specifically mentioned by Vincenzo Maria. Nobrega reported that the local tribe called Thomas "Zum," or "Pay Zum" -- "Pay," it seems, being the name given to any local priest or shaman. Similar local holy men, and even footprints, were found in other places -- in Paraguay, Peru, and Ecuador. One missionary sent a rock, bearing footlike impressions, from Chile to Rome, for examination by experts. A Portuguese missionary report of Thomas's martyrdom says that his footprint was embedded in the rock on which he stood when struck down. (Adam's Peak, the highest point in Sri Lanka, also boasts a footprint of Thomas.)

The footprints and tradition of bearded saints and a rough phonetic affinity of names did not in themselves plant the idea that the apostle had come to the New World. These and other signs were simply that -- signs, corroborating or consistent with what was known from sources far more reliable in the minds of Iberian missionaries of that period, from Scripture itself.

Iberian conquerors and clerics became aware that the continents across the Atlantic were vast territories holding a large population of "Indians," as they were then and are still called. It was inconceivable that so large a portion of humankind had been overlooked in carrying out Christ's injunction to the apostles: "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." The mandate had been repeated several times in the New Testament. And the apostle Paul, adopting the words of the Psalmist, had reported that "their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the end of the world."

A Belgian savant wrote Christopher Columbus in 1495 to say that "by God's will you have reached the extreme parts of Upper India; thus you make known to the descendants of the former inhabitants what these have neglected of the preaching of Thomas . . . .," thus confirming Paul's words.

In the early nineteenth century the idea of a migration of Asians across a prehistoric land bridge between Siberia and Alaska had not yet taken hold. There was widespread speculation that the Indians of the Americas were descended from the lost tribes of Israel. American historian, William Prescott, took such claims seriously enough to record that "Mexican antiquaries consider St. Thomas as having charge of the mission to the people of Anahuac (Mexico)." Joseph Smith said that, in the golden tablets he had beheld, it was recorded that a remnant of the lost tribes of Israel, the Nephites, had received the New Law from the apostles in South America; after many vicissitudes, they had migrated to New York State. Thus the lost-tribes-in-America theory became part of the Mormon tradition.

The idea of an apostolic evangelization of the New World gradually took hold among some people living in Latin America. The indigenous population, the "Indians," had seen their familiar world shattered by the Iberian onslaught; their gods seemed to have abandoned them. From their point of view it was comforting to believe that the new religion had links with their old one. Some pride and self-assurance could be salvaged from the wreckage; they did, after all, have a role -- ancient and honorable, however painful it had become in recent times -- in human history and in the working of God's purposes.

In Mexico the original inhabitants, encouraged by some of the missionaries, could find comfort in identifying Thomas with Quetzlcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god. This bearded and white-faced messiah was supposed to return from the east in a certain year of the Aztec calendary cycle, to reclaim the people who had suffered defeat by invaders from the north centuries before. The Acts of Judas Thomas , placing Thomas in "India," provided at least a legendary basis for identifying the apostle who must have evangelized Mexico. Despite criticism from less imaginative and more solid scholarly sources, these views apparently had a considerable following.

The indigenous inhabitants of Mexico had allies. A growing number of Spanish immigrants and their descendants, the creoles, who had committed their lives to the New World, found in the legend of apostolic conversions a means of reducing their emotional, cultural, religious, and eventually their political dependence on Spain. Like their British counterparts in North America, creoles in Mexico, including clerics, increasingly resented the superior airs and arrogant ways of a ruling class sent out from the homeland to be their overlords, staying just long enough to make their fortunes, putting down no roots. If the Thomas legend was to be believed, the true Mexicans, creoles and Indians alike, did not wholly owe even the gift of the true faith to their temporary governors and clerics from Spain.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Lafaye recounts, a few creole historians and investigators of indigenous culture found what they took to be signs that Mexico had been exposed to Christian teachings long before the arrival of Cortez. A cross motif appears in Aztec religious art. Indian legends tell of a great flood that had destroyed most of the earth. Ritual practices included confession, fasting, tonsure of priests.

Against vigorous scholarly dissent, a few diggers into Mexico's pre-Conquest civilizations built up a picture of Quetzalcoatl as a pure and ascetic man-god, opposing human sacrifice, promoting belief in one god, creator of all things, persecuted and destroyed for his faith. He, or his priest, was sometimes depicted in Aztec art in a conical cap, somewhat resembling the papal tiara, and carried a hooked staff, albeit a small one. Quetzalcoatl was a twin, and so was Thomas.

With the growing pressures for Mexican independence, Thomas was put to political uses. Lafaye quotes a creole Dominican, Brother Meir, who was agitating from exile in London for Mexican freedom from Spanish rule early in the nineteenth century: "It is a remarkable thing to confirm that all Mexican mythology is accounted for by Christianity, when we translate Quetzalcoatl as St. Thomas.

"A Gift from King Alfred"

As early as the fourth century, the Catholic church was rejecting the Acts of Judas Thomas and similar apocryphal writings. A listing long ascribed to the fifth-century Pope Gela (but, it is now thought, compiled by a cleric in southern France) explicitly condemns the Acts of Judas Thomas. The apostle's story survived, however, in texts of those Acts copied from time to time by monks and adapted by the Golden Legend, the lives of the saints. It emerges here and there in the annals and art of medieval Europe.

One appearance of the Thomas legend was in ninth-century England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains this entry for the year A.D. 883-4:

In this year the army went up the Schelde to Cond, and there sat one year. And Marinus the pope then sent lignum Domini [a piece of the Lord's cross] to King Aelfred. And in the same year, Sighelm and Aethelstan conveyed to Rome the alms which the King had vowed [to send] thither, and also to India to St. Thomas and to St. Bartholomew, when they sat down against the army at London; and there, God be thanked, their prayer was very successful, after that vow.

The twelfth-century historian William of Malmsbury enlarges on this entry. Sighelm, he says, went in person to India and brought back exotic gems and spices (liquores aromatum ). Alfred was much preoccupied in those years with Norsemen's raids and ravagings in England, and was trying to drive them out of their strongholds on the European rivers that open into the English Channel. He apparently made a vow that if his expedition succeeded he would send generous alms to Rome. Such royal payments, which were made by earlier and later kings, are presumably the forerunners of Peter's Pence.

Edward Gibbon at first reports Alfred's embassy to Thomas's tomb at Mylapore as history (neither "the author of the Saxon Chronicle nor William of Malmesbury were [sic] capable . . . of inventing this extraordinary fact"), but then has second thoughts: "I almost suspect that the English ambassadors collected their cargo and legend in Egypt."

And James Hough, nineteenth-century writer of a four-volume history of Christianity in India, follows Gibbon's lead. Commerce, he supposes, was on Alfred's mind -- commerce between Britain and India that was to become established centuries after the Saxon king's reign. Ever the imperial and Protestant Englishman and harsh critic of the "Romish" Portuguese, Hough comments that "it is indeed interesting to look back through a long vista of generations and events to the first opening of the eastern continent to the enterprise of the British isles."

India was not entirely unknown on Alfred's remote island. In one writing King Alfred describes the world as he knew it, and briefly mentions India as "the outermost of all countries." There was, moreover, a Saxon version of the life of St. Thomas, clearly based on the Acts of Judas Thomas .

The Savior himself came to him from heaven, and said to him, "a king of the Indians, who is called Gundoforus, will send his agent to Syria's land to seek some laborer who is skillful in art. I will soon send thee forth with him." Once arrived, Thomas built for Gundoforus "a kingly mansion in the Roman manner." He then had liberty to preach and baptize, "and constructed a church, and Migdonia, the king's wife's sister, believed what he taught".

Thomas in France

Across the English Channel, the apostle of the Acts of Judas Thomas made many appearances in the Middle Ages. His story is depicted in brilliant stained glass in cathedral windows at Chartres, Bourges, and Tours. The church of Sur-en-Auxois in Burgundy boasts a finely carved twelfth-century tympanum over the central door. In later centuries, perhaps under the influence of an orthodoxy stricter than that of those who fashioned the sculptured relief, it came to be identified by local archeologists as depicting the story of a saint murdered at the order of Robert, Duke of Burgundy in the eleventh century, or as a general account of the people's conversion to Christianity. Only in the twentieth century was it properly identified by the art historian Emile Mule. [The tympanum unmistakably portrays the life of Thomas as related in the Acts of Judas Thomas . Reading from left to right in the upper line and right to left in the lower we see: Thomas putting his hand in Jesus's side; Gundaphorus's emissary, Habban, meeting with Jesus and Thomas; the voyage of the Habban and Thomas to India across a sea of rippling stone; the banquet hall in Andrapolis, complete with running dog; Thomas discussing plans for a palace with Habban and Gundaphorus; the apostle distributing the king's money to the poor; Thomas building a heavenly palace; and the king's conversion.]

According to legend, Thomas had carried out the command, "Be wanderers," far more amply than any other apostle.

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