St Thomas – The Apostle of India


Early Life

St Thomas the Apostle was born in Galilee, Israel around the 1st century. He is also known as Didymus, meaning the Twin due to his paired fingers.

An apostle of Christ

Little is mentioned of St Thomas in the first 3 gospels other then the sole mention of the 12 apostles in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, and Luke 6:15. However, it is in the Gospel of St John, that we learn a lot more of the apostle and that he is a loyal student of Jesus.

  1. Gospel of John, Chapter 11 = In this passage we learn that Lazarus was very sick (and later died) in Judea and since he was a man whom Jesus loved (John 11:3), Jesus wanted to go visit him. But, the apostles were scared as Jesus had offended some Jews from that area and because they threatened to stone, the apostles discouraged Jesus to go to Judea. However, St Thomas boldly responded in verse 16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. This verse clearly highlights how St Thomas had great devotion for Christ as he was willing to die for him and that his steadfast faith made him a strong loyal follower of Christ.
  2. Gospel of John Chapter 14 = In the first 4 verses we see Jesus Christ comforting the disciples about preparing a place for them (in heaven). But in verse 5 Thomas unwary of this said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Here we see Thomas as a humble student ready to admit his ignorance and naivety and to learn from Christ, Moreover it is from this one inquisitive question we receive one of Christ’s most important lessons – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
  3. Gospel of John, Chapter 20 = It is from verse 24 onwards that St Thomas is most remembered for – as Doubting Thomas. This is because Thomas was absent when Jesus first appeared to the disciples (verse 24) and thus was sceptical of their message of the Risen Christ and wants visual and physical proof – to touch the Risen Christ (verse 25). However eight days after the resurrection, it is in verse 26 and 27 that Christ appears to Thomas, and offers him peace, showing Jesus doesn’t excommunicate slow believers. Then Jesus asks him to place his hand on his wounds and it is this act that straightaway reaffirms his faith. This also reiterates the state of the Body and Blood of Christ that we consume – by partaking in his broken body and poured out blood, it symbolises our own confirmation of faith. It is then Thomas confesses, “My Lord and My God”, a very strong declaration of faith of Christ’s divinity and his presence in our life. It is this very phrase that our church, the Malankara Orthodox Church adopts in its logo. Finally, in verse 29, Christ shares his last beatitude, a blessing addressed to all of us who wholeheartedly accept the Risen Christ without having seen him personally as Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

After the ascension of Christ

The apostles wanted to fulfil the command of Jesus to preach the gospel to all the nations of the world and so they divided up the world for their missionary work and India fell to Thomas. Thomas arrived in A.D 52 in the port of Muziris near Kodungallur in Malabar.

St Thomas then preached the gospel firstly to Jews and many high caste Brahmins. He also established seven and a half churches at Kodungallur, Palayur, Paravur, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal, Kollam and Thiruvithamchode (half church).

The foundation of the Palayur church is associated with a spectacular miracle, where St Thomas arrived at Palayur and Brahmins were in the temple tank, throwing water upwards as an offering to gods. St Thomas asked them whether they were able to get the water suspended in the air, as a proof that their god had accepted it. The Brahmins replied this was impossible. The Apostle performed a miracle and the water remained in the air, proving that Christ had accepted the offering. This convinced the Brahmins, who accepted baptism from the Apostle in the same tank and the temple was renovated to serve as a church.

Other traditions = According to The Passing of Mary, by Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas was the only witness of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The other apostles were in Jerusalem to witness her death. Thomas was in India, but after her burial he was went to her tomb, where he witnessed her bodily assumption into heaven.

His Death

St Thomas died on the Little Mount in Mylapore, now a suburb of Chennai (Madras). The most accepted belief is that Saint Thomas died a martyr’s death in AD 72. Reportedly, angry Brahmins pierced the Apostle with a spear, either when he was praying or when he destroyed, a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. His tomb is venerated in Mylapore. Then tradition goes that his relics were translated to Edessa in Syria in 394 and eventually to Ortona in Italy. Now the Church observes December 21 as the Martyrdom Day of St Thomas.