St. Thomas the Apostle

First Century

Except for St. Peter, St. John, and, of course, St. Paul, we know precious little about what the apostles did after Pentecost. Legends there are of some of them, but not to be fully trusted.

St. Thomas, for instance, is said to have carried his mission to the territory between the Caspian Sea and India. That would mean the present countries of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The “Acts of Thomas,” a pseudo biblical writing of the third century, reports that Thomas, a carpenter by trade, was sold as a slave, and became the servant of King Gundafor, who lived in northern India. The king asked for the carpenter-apostle to build him a palace. In this connection, he also won the monarch over to Christianity. Therefore, Thomas preached widely in India, until some enemies of the faith arrested him and executed him by stabbing him with spears. This “Acts of Thomas” is both unorthodox in theology and fanciful in story line. However, there was a King Gundafor ruling northern India during the Apostle’s days.

It is south India rather than north India that lays claim to Thomas. There, the Christians of many centuries’ background still call themselves the “Thomas Christians.” They say that he was martyred at Mylapore, near Madras. Now the apostle’s body is not in Mylapore, but was at Edessa, in Turkey, as early as the fourth century; it was moved in 1258 to the Greek island of Chios; and it finally came to rest at Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Nevertheless, the South Indian Christians remain convinced that he preached and died among them.

However little we know about St. Thomas’ later career, there is enough about him in the New Testament to give us a sense of knowing him. “The Twin” (that is the meaning of the name Thomas) is referred to in three passages of the gospel of St. John.

In the first passage (John 11), when Jesus learned that his friend Lazarus was dead at Bethany, He announced that He intended to go there and “wake him.” Now at that stage of our Lord’s public career, it was dangerous for Him to go from Galilee to Judea because His enemies there were already set to kill Him. When Thomas saw that Jesus was willing to take that risk, he said generously to the other apostles, “Let us go along to die with Him!”

The second passage shows Thomas’ early inability to understand the Master. At the Last Supper, our Lord said that he was about to leave them, but they knew “the way that leads where I go.” Thomas contradicted Him, but his query drew forth a clearer reply. “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way.” Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:4-6)

The best-known passage about St. Thomas relates his reaction to the resurrection. Absent that Easter evening when the risen Christ appeared to the apostles, he declared to them that he would not believe them unless he could finger the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side. When Jesus came again a week later, Thomas was present. Speaking directly to the apostle, He said, “Take your finger and examine My hands. Put your hand into My side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!” Thomas, it seems, no longer felt the need to touch the wounds. In a magnificent testimonial to his belief not only in the resurrection but also the divinity of Christ, he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:24-28)

In the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, the north window depicts Thomas the unbelieving become Thomas the Believer. The south window depicts Thomas standing with St. Peter beside the Cross as the apostle who said, “Let us go to die with Him!” This was the true Thomas: abrupt, impatient, a bit skeptical in nature, but in his heart of hearts, loyal to the death.

--Father Robert F. McNamara