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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

A Saintly Rival

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 6

Another saintly visitor, it is said, came through the kingdom of Gundaphorus in the middle of the first century. Apollonius of Tyana is described as a deeply contemplative young man from southern Anatolia, with strong hints of the divine in his nature: the god Proteus -- noted for great wisdom, mutability, and ability to foresee the future -- had appeared to the pregnant mother of Apollonius to inform her of the child she would bring forth. Having concluded at an early age that, above the many gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, there was one overarching god and that all living things shared in its existence, Apollonius set forth on extensive travels. As a respecter of all life, he was a vegetarian and condemned animal sacrifice. He took wine only as a libation to the sun, the one god. Shunning animal skins, he wore only linen.

First, according to his biographer, he visited Mesopotamia and then went on to "Mount Caucasus" (for Greeks and Romans, the Caucasus Mountains included the great ranges east of what we call the Caucasus, all the way to the Himalayas) and the Indus River. He spent some time in Taxila, where he was well received by the satrap. His companion-biographer, Damis, gives what seems to be a fairly accurate description of the place and notes that although the houses appeared, from their fronts facing the street, to be one-storeyed, actually there were additional floors underground -- a feature of post-earthquake Taxila.

Traveling further into India, Apollonius conversed with gymnosophists and was deeply impressed: "I have seen the [Brahmins] of India dwelling on the earth and yet not on the earth, possessing nothing and yet having all things." "We know everything, just because we begin by knowing ourselves; for no one of us would be admitted to the philosophy unless he first knew himself," said the Brahmins to Apollonius. When he left India after a four-month visit, sages told him he would be considered a god, not only after his death but in this life. He returned to Mesopotamia by sea.

Throughout, we are told, Apollonius was gentle, thoughtful of others, courageous, and simple. He worked many miracles and foretold many things to come. Toward the end of his life he demonstrated his courage and civic virtue. The tyrant emperor Domitian, whom he had boldly criticized for cruelties, had him arrested on charges of sorcery. In prison he miraculously freed himself from the fetters, to show that he could escape if he wished, but he chose to remain for trial.

Apollonius confronted Domitian, denounced him again for bringing the empire to ruin, and then vanished from sight. But he reappeared the same day among distant friends, to whom he held out his hand to be touched, as proof that "I have not yet laid aside the body." Domitian was assassinated while Apollonius was in Ephesus, and the holy man saw the event as if he had been present, shouting "Strike the tyrant!" His biographer says that "with regard to the manner in which he died, if he actually did die, there are many stories." According to one account, he disappeared into a temple on Crete, where heavenly voices sang out, "Leave the earth; come to heaven--come--come."

Clearly we are dealing here with a text that could readily be read as a parody of the life of Jesus, or of Thomas, or of both intertwined. The story was meant to offer a serious alternative to the Christian accounts of God's appearance on earth. And the way the tale originated is as interesting as the story itself.

At the beginning of the third century Domna Julia, the second wife of Emperor Septimus Severus, was a notable figure at her husband's court. She was Syrian by birth, the daughter of a high priest of the sun god in her native land. She was a celebrated intellectual who had a voice in the highest affairs of state, especially during the reign of her son Caracalla. Titles were showered on her, including "Mother of the Fatherland."

Julia gathered about her the most interesting men in the empire. One of her favorites was a writer named Philostratus. Apparently she suggested to him that Apollonius of Tyana deserved to be more widely known and might even replace in the hearts of her subjects the Jesus whom too many of them were beginning to worship. Philostratus claimed that he found, by great good fortune, the notes of Damis, who had held himself out as the constant companion of Apollonius.

Philostratus proceeded to write the biography, in the manner of similar romances of the time. It was recognized for what it was, by both pagans and Christians, the latter being mightily annoyed, at the time of its appearance and for centuries thereafter, at what they considered a travesty of their own gospel. Julia and Philostratus presumably would have been pleased to know that, more than fourteen centuries later, publication of an English translation of the book was partially banned in England on the ground that it was an attempt to injure the Christian religion.

The Acts of Judas Thomas and Apollonius of Tyana appeared at roughly the same time, early in the third century.

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