“All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie.” – Pope Leo X to Cardinal Bembo in the Pageant of Popes by Bishop John Bale (1548)
In the beginning of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Roman Catholic hagiographer Donald Attwater writes, “Research into the lives of the earlier saints is beset with special difficulties. There are those which face other historians and biographers: fewness of records, their unreliability, uncertainties and contradictions, conflicting interpretations, and so on. But there are added to these, in particular, the ‘selectiveness’ of the material available and, not infrequently, what by later standards seems the unscrupulously and absurd credulousness of many writers of the past. Most hagiographers were interested in nothing but the directly religious aspects of their subjects’ lives: at the worst, a ‘biography’ became no more than a list of miracles, often puerile, or of voluntary physical austerities, or, in the case of a martyr, of repeated torments a single one of which no human body could survive. Or again, when material was lacking, the earlier hagiographer sometimes did not disdain to manufacture it himself or to borrow it: so that we may even come upon two saints whose written lives are almost word for word the same, with only names and places different. A high degree of authenticity and historical interest is a rather rare element in the huge whole of earlier hagiographical literature; instead we find myth, folklore, legend, and romantic and ‘edifying’ fiction.”
A prime example of this kind of myth making — besides the Jesus story itself — was the identification and validation of St. Peter’s tomb in Rome, said to be situated under the high altar of Christendom’s most famous church. In fact the tomb is not there, or to put it more politely, unverified by expert and disinterested parties as belonging to St. Peter or any other early Christian saint. Attwater says that the excavations are “impressive and of profound interest, but not wholly conclusive on this point.” But the world’s leading authority on Roman Catholic affairs, Avro Manhattan, in The Vatican Billions, writes, “The most fabulous [story] was undoubtedly that promoted by the cult of the Blessed Peter, the Turnkey of Heaven. The cult demanded a journey to Rome where Peter’s tomb lay.
“Peter had been crucified there, it was asserted with no more plausible data than a pious tradition, for the bishops of Rome had no more evidence then than the pontiffs of the twentieth century. The latter have tried to substantiate it with doubtful archaeological finds. The process begun by Pope Pius XII [in 1939] was completed by Pope Paul VI. In 1968 Paul declared officially that ‘a few fragments of human bones found under the Basilica of St. Peter are the authentic mortal remains of the Apostle’.
“How the “identification” had been carried out, on a site where hundreds of thousands of bodies have been buried during many centuries, was never plausibly explained, in view also of the fact that there has never been any definite historical evidence to prove that Peter was ever in Rome. The Roman bishops, however, cultivated the myth with undiminished eagerness. This they did not as mere upholders of a devout legend, but as the skilful promoters of a growing cult which had concrete and far-reaching objectives, since its magnification brought them immense authority and with it, money”.
The revelation that the tomb of St. Peter is a fake will not come as a surprise to Europeans. They know better than anyone else the deceitful nature of the Roman Church. But the same revelation about the tomb of St. Thomas in Madras will come as a surprise to Indians. They know the story of St. Thomas in India because it has been repeated by interested persons of eminence and enterprise, and sometimes even of scholarship, since the sixteenth century. They accept it “on authority” and seem not to have found reason to doubt it — be they informed secular intellectuals or Dalit Christian converts. They have been put to sleep by its seemingly pious nature and so do not realise its implications. And they have been confounded by the fact that the legend is old and very complicated and keeps changing shape with each new rendition. It does not have any relevance to modern life, but it is still part of Indian Christian mythology and its unreformed mediaeval mind-set.
In this book we are going to try to unravel the St. Thomas legend as it is known in India, but before beginning at the beginning, with the Acts of Thomas itself, we must take a brief look at what Christian apologists say for the story they are so eager to sell to the professors and politicians — Indian Christians, Marxists, and mainstream secular media editors have already bought it; it is a good stick to beat Hindus with, as will soon enough be seen.
For example, the Protestant missionary Claudius Buchanan, writing in the last century, in Christian Researches in India, says, “The nation in general are called St. Thomas Christians in all parts of India, and its imparts an antiquity that reaches far beyond the Eutychians and Nestorians or any other sect.… I am satisfied that we have as good authority for believing that the Apostle Thomas died in India as that the Apostle Peter died in Rome.”
This “good authority” is of course no authority at all. There is no historical evidence that St. Peter died in Rome or that St. Thomas died in India. The assertion that the appellation “St. Thomas” Christians is used in all parts of India and imparts an antiquity, is simply not true. Syrian Christians were not called St. Thomas Christians until after the fourteenth century and that too by Roman Catholic missionaries in Malabar. Claudius Buchanan could as easily argue that Syrian Christians come from Syria because they are called “Syrian” Christians. He would be closer to the truth.
Next, the Roman Catholic historian Fr. A. Mathias Mundadan, writing in the early 1980s, in History of Christianity in India: From the Beginning up to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century, says, “Our effort should be to concentrate on the common, basic content of the tradition upheld by the various versions and couched in many unnecessary flourishes. The investigations made … into the western tradition and different aspects of the Indian tradition give me the impression that the central content stands out in clear relief, namely St. Thomas the Apostle preached, died and was buried in South India.”
Fr. Mundadan is saying that he supports the Portuguese tale introduced into India in the sixteenth century and imposed on Mylapore by fraud and force of arms, even though it is known to be a fabricated tradition. This suggests that his position is political rather than academic. He has done his research with a foregone conclusion in mind and has reached the inevitable result. It is typical Roman Catholic scholarship and until the story of St. Thomas is taken out of such hands and looked at in its totality, which includes the traditions of the Hindu society in which it survives, we will never know the full truth of St. Thomas and India.
Fr. Mundadan’s work is important to note, but for different reasons than he and his sponsors would like us to note it. He has had access to the best research facilities and materials that money can buy, and to professional assistance and encouragement that other scholars in India cannot hope to obtain, yet he has not been able to produce any proof or concrete historical evidence that St. Thomas came to India.
Fr. Mundadan has expressed his considered opinion that the Indian Christian tradition is true. Will he dare to consider the Hindu tradition too? Will he look at the material and literary evidence, and the most ancient living Hindu tradition, that a great Shiva temple once stood on the very site that he would have St. Thomas buried?
There is yet more reasoning for St. Thomas in India, which is often presented to laymen by motivated clerics. It is a psychological device to put the unwary St. Thomas doubter on the defensive. It is called the “Why not?” argument. Duncan Forbes uses it in his book The Heart of India, more in an attempt to convince himself than his reader. He writes, “And why not believe?… There is really no reason why St. Thomas should not have come here. The route between the Roman world and India, which was Rome’s source for large quantities of fine muslins, pearls and spices, was well established.”
The route between Rome and India was indeed old and established and the travellers went the other way too, to Alexandria and Rome from India. But the possibility that St. Thomas could come to India from Palestine does not prove that he did so. The possibility does not even make for a probability. We are looking for historical proof – travellers’ tales just don’t constitute proof; they only excite the imagination.
William Dalrymple the popular author of Indian historical fiction is said to employ the same “Why not?” argument for St. Thomas in India. He will have to persuade himself about Judas Thomas and his alleged travels in India before he can persuade others in his story books.
The “Why not?” question does not have an answer of course. It is only a proposition – and it is for the St. Thomas protagonists to prove the proposition and not pretend that it stands proved until somebody comes along and disproves it. Duncan Forbes, like most western Christians, does not believe the St. Thomas legend himself. He is a travel writer and repeats the story in his book because it is entertaining. He gives himself away with the chapter headings. The chapter on St. Thomas is called “Doubting Thomas” and the chapter on St. Francis Xavier is called “The Apostle of the Indies”.
Duncan Forbes has almost got it right this time. St. Francis Xavier was known as the “Apostle of India” up to 1953. In 1953 he was replaced by St. Thomas when Cardinal Tisserant brought a piece of Thomas’s arm bone to Kodungallur from its resting place in Ortona, Italy. Prior to this date St. Thomas had always been known as the “Apostle of the East”.
Lastly, we look at a diverting mantological novel that passes itself off as serious historical research, the Acta Indica by P.V. Mathew. It has everything in it to make a good night’s read — exploding meteors over Malabar and Prophet Mani of Persia camping at Kanchipuram — but it doesn’t have St. Thomas buried in Mylapore. P.V. Mathew believes that St. Thomas came to Malabar but not to Mylapore and asserts that the Mylapore story is a Portuguese invention. Not willing to leave well enough alone, he then asserts that Prophet Mani’s disciple Mar Ammon is buried in Mylapore instead. This Mar Ammon, according to P.V. Mathew, is now worshipped in Tamil villages as Goddess Mariamman, that Prophet Mani is worshipped in the same villages as God Subramanian, and that the Pallavas were really Persians.
All of this will interest those who like to play etymological games with ancient names, secretly wish they were born in foreign, and still subscribe to the discredited Aryan invasion theory. P.V. Mathew belongs to the school that says there is nothing Hindu in Hindustan or Indian in India — nothing good anyway. It is an old missionary school and its thinking still dominates some of our most prestigious institutions.
But the real problem with Acta Indica for the student of history is its supernatural origins. P.V. Mathew writes, “I am indebted to St. Thomas the glorious Apostle of India, who sanctified me with revealed knowledge; and Moran Sabarisho, the Saint of St. Thomas Christians (pre-Portuguese period) for granting me the wisdom to understand the revealed knowledge and record it as such in this book.”
P.V. Mathew’s admission of having suffered a divine revelation is detrimental to the Roman Catholic cause, though it is in keeping with its prophetic and weird traditions. It undermines whatever authority Christian scholars have been able to garner for their mundane St. Thomas dissertations. It also confirms Dr. A Mingana’s view, in The Early Spread of Christianity in India, that, “What India gives us about Christianity in its midst is indeed nothing but pure fables.”
At the same time, we, too, must make a confession. We have meditated on St. Thomas for years in a sincere attempt to discover the truth about his alleged sojourn in India. He has not responded to our prayers. We have had to do all the work our self, with the help of human friends, and we have had to start at the very beginning with the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. This lugubrious and turgid religious story by Bardesanes of Edessa is not included in Christian bibles – not even Syrian or “St. Thomas” Christian bibles – although it is the only early ancient text to identify St. Thomas with India.
1. St. Peter’s Basilica, begun in 326 CE by Emperor Constantine over a small Pagan shrine, was built outside the walls of Rome on Vatican Hill, on an extensive and elaborate necropolis or city of the dead. This consisted of a number of pre-Christian cemeteries used at different times over a long period. Rupert Furneau, in The Other Side of the Story, says that this complex was also the site of a cave-shrine for Mithra, the Persian deity whose popular cult was the chief rival of early Christianity.
2. Two fifth century Christian sects that were centred in Syria and Persia. The Eutychians believed that the human nature of Jesus was subsumed by his divine nature, and the Nestorians believed that the divine nature of Jesus was independent of his human nature but jointed to it in a kind of moral union.
3. India Christians argue that we have given no proof that St. Thomas did not come to India. Of course we have not given any proof. We cannot prove a negative; we cannot prove something that did not happen. But we will give strong evidence against the possibility that St. Thomas did come to India (India being the subcontinent that we know by that name today).
4. The Apocrypha (Greek for “hidden things”) are Jewish and Christian religious writings that have been excluded from the canon of the Bible because their content is considered counterfeit, fictitious, spurious, false, imitative, or contrary to Christian teaching.
5. The traditional dates and authors of all the New Testament books, whether they are accepted in the canon or not, are pure conjecture as there are no extant early manuscript versions pre-dating the fourth century CE (Common Era). Emperor Diocletian destroyed all Christian writings in 303 CE, and in 326 CE, a year after the Council of Nicaea raised Jesus from the position of mortal prophet to that of immortal God by an ecclesiastical vote of 218 for, 2 against (the bishops who said nay were from Libya), Emperor Constantine sanctioned the confiscation and destruction of all works that challenged “orthodox” Christian teaching. Five years later Constantine commissioned and financed new copies of the Bible, and as there were no longer any original documents to work from, the bishops, intent on promoting the Pauline salvation cult in their own interest, were free to revise, edit and rewrite the Bible in accordance with their own tenets. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, show that the Bible, and accepted Christian tradition, is an arbitrary collection of borrowed and often fabulous tales, the historical truth of which has never been established by the best biblical scholars.