The travels of St Thomas are hardly being proclaimed from the rooftops, but his message is as alive as ever in the lands that revere him two thousand years after his first visit.
The great religions of history tend to have at least one major element of travel in them. Buddhism has the Journey to the West and Islam has the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey (to the ultimate destination, which not many travellers return from – heaven.) Christianity has numerous proselytisers who have roamed the earth. One of the least publicised of these is St Thomas. His full journey is described in a fascinating new book that has received as little publicity as the saint himself.
Serena Fass’s In the Footsteps of St Thomas: the Apostle of the East provides a detailed look at the man who brought Christianity to a country that actually welcomed him. The status of Christianity in many of the lands he covered is rather less favourable these days. Fass has journeyed to most of the locations in the book, which is undoubtedly an achievement. A lot of this was done in times when idling one’s way through countries such as Syria and Iraq was more viable than it is now. She has age on her side, being more than 80 years old, plus that indomitable English spirit which enabled women of the 19th century to see more of the world than the typical male could manage.
Thomas himself is far better known as a doubter than a traveller. Images of the saint prodding the wounds of Christ have fired the imagination of countless artists. The book contains one of Michelangelo’s most vivid renderings of a scene that is troubling to sensitive viewers. The sight of Saint Thomas’ wrinkly fingers inside Christ’s pallid skin is a very real evocation of what resurrection is all about. Thomas did not win any accolades for his lack of faith, but he did redeem himself with adventures that are more historically based than might be expected. It is always a surprise to find that anything in the Bible might come close to what a fundamentalist holds dear. Scepticism is so much the reaction these days, it will take any reader aback to see St Thomas making up for his lapse of conviction by giving his life to the terrors of travel.
The extent of his journey is remarkable. The doubts seem to lie in where he ended up rather than whether he set off at all. For the millions of self-styled Thomas Christians’ in southern India, there is no doubt that he visited them in the first century. They have preserved their traditions for two millennia, and it is an identity that they cling to. The book is full of anecdotes that give credence to St Thomas’ place in their beliefs, but the physical evidence does not take the reader quite as far into the past as the Christians of India might like. Although the saint’s supposed footprint still draws thousands of pilgrims to Malayattoor around Easter time, there are not many Christian artefacts left in southern India from more than a few centuries ago.
Asia is a huge continent with a long history. The Christian input starts much earlier than most would expect. There is a popular view that Christianity outside Europe and the Middle East is a product of insensitive colonial-era missionaries. The situation is more complicated, of course, and sometimes quite difficult to follow. Very little falls into the neat national categories that are so popular in the modern world. Serena Fass’s on-the-ground research does a good job of piecing together one of the most complicated stories in the history of any religion. Non-Christians are easily mystified by the comparatively straightforward division of Catholics and Protestants; even serious students of Christianity will be confused by the churches of the East. Many are very old, which makes them even more opaque than more recent innovations.
In most cases, whether in Asia or elsewhere, conversion to Christianity was voluntary. Unlike some religions, such as Islam in parts of Central Asia, local populations were seldom informed that they had become part of a mass conversion – with a small ‘m’. The Christians of Asia tended to adopt this religion because it worked for them, and they were usually allowed to continue ancient practices at the same time. This was the cause of a century-long legal battle in Rome, where Popes judged whether Chinese Christians should be allowed to venerate their ancestors, as the Jesuits felt they should, or whether this was a pagan practice.
As Fass points out, in India there is some national pride that the Christian tradition is truly ancient; it is not the product of deranged evangelists of the 20th century. She quotes India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: ‘Within 100 years or so of the death of Jesus, Christian missionaries came to South India by sea. They were received courteously and permitted to preach their new faith. They converted a large number of people, and their descendants have lived there, with varying fortune, to this day’.
When he spoke those words, he could not have known that the traditional enmity between Christians and Muslims would be transferred to Indian Hindus and Christians in the 21st century. Still, that is the ebb and flow of inter-communal relations everywhere, and the story of religions in Asia is no different. The plight of the Jewish community in the 20th century was foreshadowed by events millennia ago. Surprisingly, it was the large number of Jews who had migrated to southern India who gave their fellow Jew, the Christian-convert Thomas, the warmest welcome. They also converted to the new faith in sizeable numbers, as did high-caste Hindus in the same vicinity.
It is just as well the researcher has been to the locations in question and felt the local vibe. There is little written record of what happened all those centuries ago. Some Western writers have filled the gap, including St Gregory of Tours in the 6th century and William of Malmesbury in the 12th century: ‘In the year 883, Alfred King of England, hearing that there existed a Christian church in the Indies, dedicated to the memory of St Thomas and St Bartholomew, dispatched one Sighelm, a favourite ecclesiastic of his court, to carry his royal alms to that distant shrine. Sighelm successfully executed the honourable commission with which he had been entrusted, and returned in safety to England’.
One problem with identifying how far Thomas travelled is the use of the word ‘India’, which could apply to anywhere east of the Mediterranean. East of the Indus would have been truly India, and the south would be some distance further than that. Unless one was travelling by ship. The sea journey from Arabia would have taken the intrepid to Kerala, in southwestern India, which is where Thomas is supposed to have spent many years. He probably also did some evangelising at Taxila, in modern Pakistan. Less probable is that he made it the short distance from Kerala to Sri Lanka. There is evidence of an early Christian presence on the island, including a carved granite Nestorian cross, from the 6th century, found in Anuradhapura, but this is likely to have come from missionaries other than Saint Thomas.
On his way to the sea route across the Indian Ocean, Thomas appears to have introduced Christianity into Iraq. The fate of Iraq’s Christians is now considerably more imperilled than their more distant cousins in Kerala.
What is beyond doubt is that the Roman Empire, in which Jesus and Thomas lived, traded substantially with India. The Romans were addicted to pepper and other produce of the Subcontinent. Pliny the Elder complained in the first century that, ‘India, China and the Arabian Peninsula take one hundred millions sesterces form our empire per annum at a conservative estimate: that is what our luxuries and women cost us’.The Romans had trading posts in India, and Roman coins are still found regularly there. What is less common are Indian artefacts in the Roman Empire. It was Asia’s biodegradable products, such as spices, silk and parrots, that ended up within the pleasure seekers’ homes in Rome. There was, however, a statue of the goddess Lakshmi found in the ashes of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcano in the year 79.
Is there a possibility that this sort of idolatry was what drove Saint Thomas to risk his life by taking the Gospel to the distant land of pagans? The Roman Empire was surely filled with enough pagan souls needing conversion, and it is not a myth that Christians were fed to the lions in the Coliseum. Just as popular as the lions with the Roman crowds were tigers, all of which were transported by sea from India in miserable conditions. Christians and the worst criminals of the empire were the only live meat these tigers would get to eat.
Saint Thomas’s reasons for going to India are less clear than the date of his arrival in Kerala, which is always given as 52 AD. His message was well received, emphasised by a few timely miracles. The converts have never looked back, although Thomas was martyred by an unsympathetic ruler in southern India. His followers continue to use the ancient language of Syriac as part of their liturgy. Syriac is very close to Aramaic, which is the language Jesus spoke and which Mel Gibson used for the highest-grossing non-English language film of all time, The Passion of the Christ. Next up is Gibson’s film about the life of St Paul. When will it be St Thomas’ turn? The evidence for his missionary work is so ambiguous and yet so strongly felt by believers across what was most of the known world in the first century BC. And almost as elusive is Serena Fass’ book that was published in October 2017.
BY LUCIEN DE GUISE
In the Footsteps of St Thomas, Brown Dog Books, ISBN 9781785451850, £25, is available at limited locations in the UK, including Waterstones and Aid to the Church in Need. It can also be ordered online from waterstones.com