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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Barlaam, Josaphat, and Mithra

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 21

Gundaphorus and his Parthians, it will be remembered, were ousted from Taxila and the land of five rivers about the middle of the first century A.D.. The new arrivals were from western China. They are known today as the Kushans, after the name of the dynasty established by the dominant clan. They had earlier overrun the lands west of the Indus and then pressed on southeastward, taking not only the eastern Parthian territories but extending their rule into India as far as Mathura, east of Delhi. This great Kushan empire, extending from Samarkand and Tashkent to the plain of the Ganges was the meeting place of Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese interests and influences. One of the Kushan rulers took on the grand titles of all the other empires: Caesar, King of Kings, Great King, Son of God -- the four whose lands stretched across the whole Eurasian continent.

The Kushan empire was a holy land for Buddhists, and was the ground in which Northern Buddhism (Mahayana, or Great Vehicle) developed. A leading sage and poet of the first century A.D. was Asvaghosa, whose life of Sakyamuni was highly revered. Asvaghosa relates that the Buddha-to-be entered as a thought into his mother's womb, and, after birth (through her side), took seven steps, saying: "I am born for supreme knowledge, for the welfare of the world -- thus, this is my last birth." Attendant Brahmins assured his father, king of the Sakya clan, that the boy (who had the signs of a Great Person, such as a topknot protuberance and a hairy tuft between the eyes) would have a remarkable future as a powerful ruler.

But one sage told the king that his son would follow another path open to a Great Person: he would forsake the kingdom, be indifferent to worldly things, attain the highest truth through great exertions, and "shine forth as a sun of knowledge to destroy the darkness of illusion in the world."

The king was not pleased with the thought of thus losing his heir and did everything he could to give the young prince a life of pleasure. He set the youth up in a separate walled house, where he was shielded from seeing the miseries of the world, surrounded him with seductive girls, guarded him from troublesome teachers who might lead his thoughts to more spiritual matters. The prince took a wife and had a child. But one day, riding out of the palace, he happened to see a blind man, a leper, a dead man, and a mendicant.

Siddhartha became intensely aware that life is transitory and full of suffering. He left his family and took to a life of extreme asceticism (the approved course for a holy man), but decided that "truth" was not thus to be found. He then sat in deep meditation for forty-nine days under a pipal tree, resisting temptations of power and riches, achieved enlightenment, preached his first sermon outside Benares, and spent the rest of his long life spreading the Four Noble Truths: life in this world is suffering and impermanence; cravings are the source of that suffering; cessation of cravings is the remedy; that cessation can be brought about by following his eight-fold path -- involving wisdom, moral speech, moral action, and meditation.

Barlaam and Josaphat

The story of the Buddha's life underwent an extraordinary transmutation as it moved west and became what is one of the most widespread legends ever told -- the story of Barlaam and Josaphat. More than sixty translations, versions, or paraphrases have been identified. It was altered to fit the religious climate of each language and culture. As it moved westward, the story was adopted and adapted by Manicheans in central Asia, and then it became Christianized.

In its new version, Barlaam was a Christian monk who had converted Josaphat (the name was a linguistic development from the word Bodhisattva -- one capable of Buddhahood). It may be that Georgian Christians in the Caucasus were the first to give the story a Christian cast, in the sixth or seventh century. A Christian version in Greek was known at least as early as the eighth century. A papal librarian translated it into Latin in the ninth century and it later gained wide popularity throughout the West.

The Ethiopic version is found in one of the surviving texts. It opens with a reference to Thomas's mission in India, and so do Greek and Syriac texts. There follows the story of Josaphat, the son of an Indian ruler whose priests were alarmed by the spread of Christianity. When he was born, all the sages and astrologers predicted a splendid future for him except one, who foretold that he would become a Christian.

To prevent such an outcome, the king brought up his son in secluded palaces and protected him from all contacts with the world. But a Christian sage, Barlaam, disguised himself as a merchant and inveigled his way into the youth's presence. He taught the prince Christian doctrine and finally converted and baptized him. The king tried to win back his son by every means he could think of, including an offer of half his kingdom. All the king's efforts failed. Josaphat abandoned his princely life and became an ascetic in the desert, joined there by his preceptor, Barlaam. The severely ascetic flavor of Barlaam and Josaphat and the story's glorification of monastic life presumably made it useful to Manicheans. The tale became a great favorite among Christian monks in the Middle Ages.

Barlaam and Josaphat were treated in Europe as Christian saints throughout the Middle Ages, and their story became part of the thirteenth-century Golden Legend , or Lives of the Saints. The Genoese bishop who collected and published the work wrote that "Barlaam fell asleep in peace about the year of the Lord 380." Barlaam and Josaphat were not fully canonized until the sixteenth century. Their day was fixed as November 27. Thus the historic Buddha and his guru became Christian saints, although no one seems to have made the Buddhist connection until scholars pointed it out late in the nineteenth century. The two have now been desanctified.

For explorers of Thomas traditions, the Ethiopic version of Barlaam and Jehosaphat is of particular interest. It opens, as we have noted, with a description of the apostle's missionary trip to India. As in the Acts of Judas Thomas , the Twelve are sent "unto all peoples."

Thomas, great in holiness, . . was sent to the country of India, and he preached unto the Indians the preachings of salvation. . . . And Thomas destroyed and made to be forsaken the country that had been wont to offer up sacrifices to graven images, and he converted the people thereof from their error.

The Ethiopic text goes on to say that after numerous companies of monks were established in Egypt, reports of their abstinence reached India, "and at length the Indians made themselves like unto [the Egyptian monks] in the beauty of their life and works." As we now know, it is far more likely that the exact opposite happened, that the example moved the other way; Buddhist monastic establishments were set up in the land of Gundaphorus long before their Christian counterparts came into being in Egypt.

One other possible Thomas connection with Barlaam and Josaphat piques the interest of those searching for the origins of legends concerning the apostle. K. S. Kekelidze, a historian from Georgia in the Caucasus, has speculated that the first Christian version of the tale was in Syriac, in the middle of the seventh century, and that it was devised for a specific purpose. Various Nestorian bishops in Persia, he suggests, were trying to break loose from the catholicos in Seleucia-Ctesiphon and create their own catholicos. In order to succeed they had to have some document that would establish their own line to an apostle and thereby counter the Nestorian claim that Thomas was their founder.

In Kekelidze's hypothesis, the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat, available in Persian, was converted into a Christian story. Thus its two principals could be hailed as the original evangelists to the East. Kekelidze suggests that the Syriac version, having served its purpose, was later consigned to the dust heap. Considering how the legend of Thomas's founding (at least by proxy) of the church in Edessa was concocted in the Abgar-Jesus correspondence, we may find it quite credible that Barlaam and Josaphat temporarily served as founders for a Christian group in search of a separate identity.

The Buddha's translation into a Christian saint apparently came three or four centuries after Ephraim had welcomed the bones of Judas Thomas to Edessa and praised his missionary work among Indians. In itself, then, it is not necessarily convincing evidence of a commerce in ideas as well as goods, eastward and westward, across southwest and south Asia, in the earlier Christian centuries. There are, however, persuasive signs of such an early mobility in religious thought. One example worth noting is found in Mithraism.

Bull-slayer and Unconquerable Sun

Mithraism was a mystery religion that swept through the Roman empire in the first three centuries A.D., found from England to the eastern Mediterranean. It is interesting to us mainly as an example of how, in the centuries spanning the beginning of the Christian era, a religion with roots in India and Iran spread into the Roman world. Its rites and beliefs were carefully guarded from the uninitiated. Modern scholars trying to penetrate its secrets have had to rely almost entirely on archeological evidence, which fortunately is plentiful.

The shrine for cult worship was a cave, or structure built to resemble a cave, called a mithraeum . Hundreds of examples, rich in figures sculpted in the round or in relief, have been found around the rim of the Mediterranean and in Turkey. Mithraea in their largest numbers, however, have been found on the central and northern European frontiers of the Roman empire, for Mithraism became especially the religion of the Roman legions. Only males could be initiated. No shrine has been found in Edessa, although it became a Roman colony in the third century. A mithraeum of that period, however, has been found at Dura Europos, a city on the lower Euphrates that was long an outpost of the Roman empire.

The "tauroctony," a bull-killing, is the central carving in the shrines. The figure shows Mithra atop a bull, holding the animal's head back by the nostrils or horns and thrusting a dagger into its heart. Another figure often found in the shrines is a lion-headed man, naked and winged, usually holding a rod and key and standing on an orb, with a serpent encircling his body. There continues to be much scholarly speculation as to what ideas once lay behind this widespread mystery cult. It is clear that originally Mithra (or Mithras ; Mitra in Sanskrit, "Mihr" in Persian) was a god in the pantheon of the Aryans who had invaded southwestern Asia in the second millennium B.C., before they divided into two streams -- Indian and Iranian. By the third Christian century he had evolved in the Roman world into the sun-god, Sol Invinctus -- a name Constantine adopted, one that was sure to be popular with his troops. So far as is now known, Mithra appears as the bull-slayer only in his Roman manifestation.

Early in the twentieth century European scholars put forward an elaborate reconstruction of Mithraism which was for a long time widely accepted as authoritative. Mithraism, it was said, was an adaptation from the native Iranian religion of Zoroaster, concerned with the struggle between the two, almost equally strong, principles of good and evil, light and darkness. The underlying myth, in this view, was that the divine hero, Mithra, had been ordered as an agent of the Good Principle to kill the bull; he did so in a cave, and its blood fecundated the earth, giving rise to plants and a new race of humankind. The scorpion, dog, and serpent that appear in the tauroctony were considered to be agents of the Evil Principle, sent to stop life at its source.

The lion-headed man was regarded as a representation of Zurvan, the supreme divine force, endless Time and boundless Space, father of both of the principles at work in the cosmos -- Orhmazd (Good) and Ahriman (Evil). Mithra, in this view, had a role similar to that of the Logos among Stoics and Christians. He was the creature and agent of Ohrmazd, establishing and maintaining order in nature; having fashioned the world of life as demiurge, he was to continue to watch over it faithfully. Purified by dedication to virtue and by sacrifices, by meals that initiates shared, and by ablutions, devotees could hope that their souls would ascend through seven planetary spheres to their resting place.

Origen, head of the Christian catechitical school in Alexandria (about 2ll-232), wrote of the Mithraic belief that a soul passes through the barriers of the seven planets in its ascent to its true home, and "There is a ladder with seven gates and at its top an eighth gate" He appears to refer to seven grades of initiation, noted by other Christian writers and confirmed by mithraea found in the twentieth century.

Behind the relatively open and public symbols of Mithraism, in sculpture and architecture, some scholars supposed there was a hidden theology of atonement and salvation through a redeemer figure characteristic of other mystery religions, akin to Christianity. And Christians of the second and third century did indeed regard Mithraism as a rival religion. The Carthaginian polemicist Tertullian attacked it as a parody of his own faith.

In recent years different lines of interpretation of archeological evidence have raised new questions. Would not such features as animal sacrifice have been unacceptable to Zoroastrians and inconsistent with Zoroastrian myths? Isn't the the connection of the Roman Mithras to the ancient Aryans' Mithra so tenuous that they can hardly be said to belong to the same religious tradition? Aren't the astrological symbols so dominant in Mithraic cult art that the nature of the cult must be sought therein.?

One group of scholars has emphasized the parallels between figures appearing in the tauroctony and the planets and constellations known to astronomers of the time: the scorpion which had been regarded as an agent of Evil is simply the constellation Scorpio; the dog is Canis; the serpent is Draco; and so on. A band showing the full array of zodiacal signs is a frequent element in sculpted scenes of the tauroctony. The constellation Leo is the "home" of the sun god. David Ulansey has found in the tauroctony a "star map," and suggested that Stoic philosophers found in it a representation of the immensely long world cycles of the cosmos -- of creations, fadings away, and recreations -- also found in Indian speculation.

Scholars are agreed, however, that there are connections between Roman Mithraism and Indo-Iranian religious symbols and ideas. Certainly Romans, at the time Mithraism was thriving in their midst, thought it to be of Persian origin. For our purposes, the phenomenon of a religion, with roots in Iran and India, developing a new outlook and mythology, sweeping through the Roman world in the first three Christian centuries, is significant as another sign of the geographic connectedness of the Roman and Persian worlds, of the porous nature of the cultural border between them, of the cultural interchanges between the two.

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