Saint Thomas, Apostle

Thomas is listed in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the Twelve Apostles. His name in Aramaic, Te’oma, means ‘twin’, as does Didymus in Greek. What we know of Thomas comes mostly from the New Testament, although there are many other legends about him. He is mentioned just once in each of the Synoptic Gospels and always in the same context – he is listed as one of the Twelve Apostles chosen from among the disciples of Jesus. There is no other mention of him in these Gospels. He is also mentioned just once in the Acts of the Apostles, where he is simply listed among the Apostles who gather in the “upper room” immediately after the Ascension of Jesus.

However, he is mentioned four times in John’s Gospel, where something of his character appears. He comes across as somewhat aggressive and argumentative. In chapter 11 of John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus has just received word that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is seriously ill. But Jesus waits for two days before deciding to go to Bethany. The disciples are somewhat alarmed because there are people there who are threatening the life of Jesus, and so they try to dissuade him from going. But when it is clear that Jesus has made up his mind, Thomas says to his companions:

Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Was it just bravado or was it a statement of loyalty? Perhaps it was something of both.

Later, during the Last Supper, when Jesus speaks of leaving his disciples, but also says that he will come back to take them to himself, Jesus continues:

And you know the way to the place where I am going.

It is then that Thomas indignantly blurts out,

Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?

And we can be thankful to Thomas for eliciting one of Jesus’ most beautiful and meaningful statements:

I am the way and the truth and the life…

We next meet Thomas in chapter 20 of John. Jesus is risen. He has already appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday, but Thomas is not there and, when told of the meeting, refuses to believe.

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

On the following Sunday, Jesus appears again and tells Thomas to examine his hands and put his own hands in Jesus’ side:

Do not doubt but believe.

Again, the impulsive Thomas goes to the other extreme. He falls to his knees and exclaims:

My Lord and my God!

He is the only person in the Gospel to address Jesus as ‘God’. It was an expression of deep faith.

Thomas’ last appearance in this Gospel is in the final chapter when we are told that seven disciples, after the Resurrection, went fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Of the five disciples named, one is Thomas the Twin.

Apart from the Gospel narrative, there are many legends about Thomas. For instance, there is one that he was the only witness to the Assumption of Mary and that as she rose heavenwards she dropped her ‘girdle’, the knotted textile cord used as a belt. This story was frequently depicted in the art of Florence and the supposed original girdle is a relic belonging to Prato Cathedral in Tuscany.

There is also long tradition in Edessa, Mesopotamia, that Thomas was the Apostle of India. It is said that Thomas’ bones were brought from India to Edessa. The local church of Kerala State in South India has a tradition that Thomas sailed there to spread the Christian faith.

According to tradition, Thomas landed in Kodungallur in AD 52, in the company of a Jewish merchant, named Hebban. There were Jewish colonies in Kodungallur since ancient times, and Jews continue to reside in Kerala, tracing their ancient history. In the 13th century, Marco Polo, who visited South India, mentions the Syrian Christians of Quilon and also refers to a tomb of Thomas, confirming the tradition that Thomas died in South India.

While exploring the Malabar coast of Kerala, South India, after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese encountered Christians in South Western India, who traced their foundations to Thomas. On the isolated island of Socotra south of Yemen in the Arabian Sea, a community of Christians had been attested as early as 354 AD. They survived to be documented in 1542 by Saint Francis Xavier, and told him that their ancestors had been evangelized by Thomas. Francis Xavier was careful to station four Jesuits to guide the faithful in Socotra into orthodoxy. An attempt was made by the Portuguese in the 16th century to trace the original tomb of Thomas.

Finally, they settled on Mylapore, near Madras (Chennai) in south India, as the site of his martyrdom. Near Chennai stands a small hill called St Thomas Mount, where the Apostle is said to have been killed in 72 AD. Also to be found in Chennai is the Diocese of Saint Thomas of Mylapore to which his mortal remains were supposedly transferred.

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