The Other Thomas

Charles Nicholl

‘The tale of the apostle Thomas is a sea unspeakably vast.’ Thus the Syriac poet Jacob of Sarugh, who lived in upper Mesopotamia in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The words are stirring but to our ears perhaps surprising, because in the West we think we know Thomas’s ‘tale’ and its significance pretty well. He was ‘one of the twelve’, the inner circle of followers or disciples of Jesus. More particularly, he was the disciple who questioned the truth of Jesus’s resurrection. In John 20, the only gospel source for the story, he demands to see and touch the physical evidence of crucifixion – ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe’– and when invited or commanded by Jesus to do this he becomes a believer. This iconic scene echoes through Western culture, in paintings, carvings, miracle plays, poems and sermons. Another thing we know from the gospel story is that Thomas was a twin, for that is the meaning of his original Aramaic name, Tau’ma. The author of John helpfully points this out to his Greek-speaking readership when he thrice refers to him as ‘Thomas called Didymus’, the latter being the Greek word for ‘twin’. This is elaborated in the Apocrypha, which insist that his brother was Jesus himself, but that is a non-canonical tangent to be avoided for the moment. The Thomas we know is the familiar stubborn-minded questioner, the one we see in Caravaggio’s great painting, with his lined face, grimy thumbnail and russet-coloured coat torn at the shoulder. He has become proverbial, a part of everyday speech, his name indissolubly linked with his scepticism: ‘Doubting Thomas’.[*] For many today, compounded more of doubt than of belief, he seems the most admirable, or anyway the most sympathetic, of the disciples. We recognise him as someone not unlike ourselves.

A statue of St Thomas at the Palayur Jetty, Kerala.
A statue of St Thomas at the Palayur Jetty, Kerala.

But there is another part of Thomas’s story which is less familiar to the West, and which would certainly have loomed large in Jacob of Sarugh’s conception of him: his mission (or missions) to India. That he came is an ancient tradition in India, and the core belief of a thriving Christian community there. According to the Mar Thoma Nazranis or St Thomas Christians of Kerala, whose current membership is about one million, the apostle landed on the Malabar coast a couple of decades after the execution of Jesus. His point of entry – variously named in the old Indian sources – is identified with Cranganore, at the mouth of the Periyar River, and thus with the long-vanished trading port known to the Greeks and Romans as Muziris. In the kingdom of the Cheras, after whom the modern state of Kerala is named, he performed miracles and healed the sick, converted Hindus and Jews and established seven churches (or in some versions, intriguingly, seven and a half). Journeying on across the Western Ghats into the Chola kingdom, he was martyred in 72 AD at Mylapore, now a suburb of Chennai, where the cathedral of San Thome, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, marks the traditional site of his burial. Implicit in this claim of apostolic origin – and explicit in the church’s prolific output of booklets and websites – is the idea that this exotic little branch of the Christian family tree is actually one of the oldest of all Christian churches. Its ancient pedigree has stood it in good stead amid the frequently volatile sectarianism of modern India. ‘Remember,’ the former Indian president Rajendra Prasud said in a speech on St Thomas’s Day in New Delhi, ‘St Thomas came to India when many countries in Europe had not yet become Christian; and so those Indians that trace their Christianity back to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than the Christians of many European countries do; and it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened.’

My interest in this other Thomas tradition was sparked when I visited Chennai a few years ago, and was surprised to learn – and surprised by my ignorance – that the apostle had been buried in this far-flung corner of Tamil Nadu. The cathedral of San Thome, rebuilt in 1893, is a large neo-Gothic structure in wedding-cake white not far from the southern end of Chennai’s Marine Beach. I saw his tomb in the crypt beneath it, and the displayed sliver of his bone, and the shard of the spear that killed him. The tomb does not actually contain Thomas’s remains, which have a chequered history. They were removed, or ‘translated’, in the early third century to the Syrian city of Edessa, a major centre of Eastern Christianity, where their presence was celebrated by Syriac hymnodists such as Ephraem of Nisibis and Jacob of Sarugh; and after a brief stay in the 12th century on the island of Chios they ended up in Ortona on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

The setting in the crypt is unsympathetic – the gloomy ‘In’ and ‘Out’ corridors with green lino floors are no doubt necessary in the busy pilgrimage season – and I have anyway never had much of a thing for alleged holy relics. From the cathedral a pleasant auto-rickshaw ride through the old streets of Mylapore took me to Little Mount, a rocky hillock rising from the coastal plain, where the saint spent his last days in a cave; and then on inland to the larger St Thomas’s Mount, where I climbed the 134 steps to the little white shrine on the summit which marks the site of his martyrdom, speared to death by soldiers under the orders of a hostile Hindu raja. On the altar stands the Mount Cross, to which various supernatural stories attach but which is quite powerful enough without them. Dug up by the Portuguese in 1547 from under the ruins of an earlier shrine, it is a glowering slab of granite, about two feet square – ‘as big as a millstone’ was an early description. A curvaceous ‘Persian cross’ with triple buttoned extremities is carved in relief on it. The cross is surrounded by an arch, on the upper surface of which is an inscription in Pahlavi whose meaning is still disputed; on paleographic grounds this is assigned to the seventh or eighth century. The cross itself may be older – not as old as St Thomas, as the relics claim to be, but very beautiful and austere.

What this unexpected extension of the Thomas story produced in me was not any access of religious feeling but an intense biographical curiosity. His Indian adventure seemed to round off a life story of which I had hitherto only known part: that deeply ingrained part of discipleship and doubting. The Thomas of the gospels is a man caught in a momentary spotlight: the famous scene of doubt and resolution is told, in the King James translation, in about 150 words. But here was something longer, more circumstantial, more actual – a twenty-year mission, a journey through broadly identifiable places around and across the southern tip of India. Could the story be true? And if it was how could one know: what kind of markers of its truth could one see and touch?

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[*] Frank Kermode wrote about Doubting Thomas in the LRB of 5 January 2006.