Bardesanes, the traditional author of the Acts of Thomas, was born at Edessa in Syria (now Sanliurfa in south-eastern Turkey) in 154 CE. He died there, after a short exile in Armenia, in 233 CE. His parents were wealthy Persian aristocrats and he was brought up with a prince, Bar-Manu, who later succeeded to the throne of the Abgars. He married and had a son, Harmonius, who was a skilled musician and poet. He wrote in Greek and Syriac, the latter tongue a widely spoken Aramaic dialect that was the Christian literary and liturgical language of Edessa up to the seventh century, when it was supplanted by Arabic.
Bardesanes was converted to Gnosticism, or Christian theosophy, in 179 CE, and he persuaded his friend the prince to convert with him. He thus had a hand in creating the first Christian state, though it is said that St. Thomas had already visited the kingdom and a church had been established in it by his disciple Addai as early as 29 CE. Whatever the truth of the early stories — such as the one about the Abgar writing a letter to Jesus asking for a cure — Edessa had become a chief centre of Christianity in West Asia by the end of the second century. This attracted the attention of Rome, as the state stood between Rome and her enemy Parthia, and Emperor Caracalla invaded Edessa and defeated the Abgar in 216 CE. Bardesanes made a strong defence of Christianity before the Roman court, but subsequently left Edessa for a time and went to Armenia where he wrote a history based on the temple records of Ani. He wrote the Acts of Thomas at Edessa about 210 CE, before the Roman invasion, and is remembered by Christian theosophists as an ardent missionary and popular, charismatic religious leader.
G.R.S. Mead, in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, writes, “Bardesanes was also a great student of Indian religion, and wrote a book on the subject, from which the Platonist Prophyry subsequently quoted. But it is as a poet and writer on Christian theology and theosophy that Bardesanes gained so wide a reputation; he wrote many books in Syriac and also Greek … [and] he was the first to adapt the Syriac tongue to metrical forms and set the words to music; these hymns became immensely popular, not only in the Edessene kingdom but wherever the Syriac tongue was spoken.”
Bardesanes’s faith was true after his master Valentinus, the founder of Gnostic schools in Alexandria and Rome, and orthodox Christians have cursed him bitterly for it. Ephraim of Edessa, a father of the Church, writing 120 years after his death, says that he died “with the Lord in his mouth and demons in his heart”. He accused Bardesanes of being a heretic and sophist, a greedy sheep-dog in league with the wolves, and a cunning dissembler practicing deceit with his songs. If this is what a Christian saint has to say about his theology, it is something of an irony that Roman Catholic scholars are so eager to accept his geography.
It may have been reasonable for Bardesanes to set the protagonist of his Gnostic romance, Judas Thomas, in India, as he was a student of Indian philosophy and had met and conversed with Indian sramanas (Buddhist monks) travelling through Edessa. But it is really not known what he meant by this geographical designation, as we will see, and except for the Persian names — or their Greek equivalent if it is a Greek version of the Acts — the idiom and atmosphere of the book are entirely West Asian with Roman cultural overtones.
It is also not known whether Bardesanes wrote the story in Greek or Syriac. Hans Jones, in The Gnostic Religion, argues that the Acts, a “Gnostic composition with orthodox reworkings”, was originally written in Syriac. But Montague Rhodes James, the translator of the Oxford edition of The Apocryphal New Testament, believed that it was first written in Greek and soon afterward translated into Syriac. He says, “This is the only one of the five primary romances which we possess in its entirety. It is of great length and considerable interest.”
Indeed, the text runs to 74 printed pages. We begin a summary of it with Mead, who writes this extraordinary sentence:
“The Apostle Judas Thomas, or the Twin of Jesus, is fabled to have received India by lot for his apostolic sphere of work. Thomas at first does not wish to go, but is sold by Jesus his master, to a trader from the East as a slave skilled in carpentry.”
We continue the narrative with M.R. James, quoting at length his translation of the Acts from the Greek. It begins abruptly, without saying where Thomas is or how he got there, except for the indefinite geographical designation “India” which ancient authors used as a synonym for Asia.
Judas Thomas and the merchant trader Abbanes arrive by ship at a royal city called Andropolis (identified as Sandaruck in Balochistan, one of the ancient Alexandrias). They disembark, “and lo, there were noises of flutes and water-organs … for the king hath an only daughter, and now he giveth her in marriage unto a husband … and Abbanes hearing that, said to the apostle: Let us go [to the marriage feast] lest we offend the king, especially seeing we are strangers. And he said: Let us go.…
“And after they had put up in the inn and rested a little space they went to the marriage; and the apostle seeing them all reclining, laid himself, he also, in the midst … but Abbanes the merchant, being the master, laid himself in another place.
“And as they dined and drank, the apostle tasted nothing; so that they were about him said unto him: Wherefore art thou come here, neither eating nor drinking? but he answered them, saying: I am come here for somewhat greater than the food or the drink, and that I may fulfil the king’s will, and whoso hearkeneth not to the heralds shall be subject to the king’s judgement.
“So when they had dined and drunken, and garlands and unguents were brought to them, even man took of the unguent, and one anointed his face and another his beard and another other parts of his body; but the apostle anointed the top of his head and smeared a little upon his nostrils, and dropped it into his ears and touched his teeth with it, and carefully anointed the parts about his heart: and the wreath that was brought to him, woven of myrtle and other flowers, he took, and set it on his head, and took a branch of calamus and held it in his hand.
“Now the flute-girl … went about to them all and played, but when she came to the place where the apostle was, she stood over him and played at his head for a long space: now this flute-girl was by race a Hebrew.
“And as the apostle continued looking at the ground, one of the cup-bearers stretched forth his hand and gave him a buffet; and the apostle lifted up his eyes and looked upon him that smote him and said: My God will forgive thee in the life to come this iniquity, but in this world thou shalt show forth his wonders, and even now shall I behold this hand that hath smitten me dragged by dogs. And having said so, he began to sing.…”
Later that night, the apostle’s curse takes effect, and “the cup-bearer that had buffeted him went down to the well to draw water; and there chanced to be a lion there, and it slew him and left him lying in that place, having torn his limbs in pieces, and forthwith dogs seized his members, and among them one black dog holding his right hand in his mouth bare it into the place of the banquet.”
This is how the drama in the Acts of Thomas opens.
The fabulous story continues when the king, hearing of the apostle’s powers, comes and asks him to pray for his daughter and her new husband. Judas Thomas agrees, and laying hands on the newly wedded couple, he prays to Jesus, and then leaves them and that place and departs.
Now the king asks for the room to be cleared, so that the couple may be left alone, “and when all were gone out and the doors were shut, the bridegroom lifted up the curtain of the bride-chamber to fetch the bride unto him. And he saw the Lord Jesus bearing the likeness of Judas Thomas and speaking with the bride — even of him that but now had blessed them and gone out from them, the apostle; and he saith unto him: Wentest thou not out in the sight of all? how then art thou found here? But the Lord said to him: I am not Judas which is also called Thomas, but I am his brother. And the Lord sat down upon the bed and bade them also sit upon chairs, and began to say unto them:
“Remember, my children, what my brother spake unto you and what he delivered before you: and know this, that if ye abstain from this foul intercourse.…”
The royal couple are persuaded to abstain, and are converted by Jesus, and are chaste and do not consummate their marriage, and “when the king heard these things from the bridegroom and the bride, he rent his clothes and said unto them that stood by him: Go forth quickly … and take and bring me that man that is a sorcerer who by ill fortune came unto this city; for with mine own hands I brought him into this house, and I told him to pray over this mine ill-starred daughter; and whoso findeth and bringeth him to me, I will give him whatever he asketh of me.”
But Judas Thomas was not to be found, for he had fled that place, and was come into the cities of India.
“Now when the apostle was come into the cities of India with Abbanes the merchant, Abbanes went to salute the king Gundaphorus, and reported to him of the carpenter whom he had brought with him. And the king was glad … and the king said: Canst thou build me a palace? And he answered: Yea, I can both build and furnish it; for to this end am I come, to build and to do the work of a carpenter.”
Gundaphorus then takes Judas Thomas outside the city, to a wet, woody place where he desires the palace to be built. The apostle draws him an elaborate plan on the ground with a reed, and the king, being pleased says: “Verily thou art a craftsman, and it befitteth thee to be a servant of kings. And he left much money with him and departed from him.”
Sometime later, the king sends more money and provisions to the apostle, whom he trusts as a good servant; but he, deceiving him, and not doing any work, goes about the countryside distributing the gold and silver as alms to the poor.
“After these things the king sent an ambassador unto the apostle, and wrote thus: Signify unto me what thou hast done, or what I shall send thee, or of what thou hast need. And the apostle sent unto him, saying: The palace is builded and only the roof remaineth. And the king hearing it sent him again gold and silver, and wrote unto him: Let it be roofed, if it is done.”
Now Gundaphorus comes on a tour to the city and inquires of his friends about the palace that Judas Thomas is building for him, and they say to him: “Neither hath he built a palace nor done aught else of that he promised to perform, but he goeth about the cities and countries, and whatsoever he hath he giveth unto the poor, and teacheth of a new God, and healeth the sick, and driveth out devils, and doeth many other wonderful things; and we think him to be a sorcerer .. And when the king heard that, he rubbed his face with his hands, and shook his head for a long space.”
The king then sends for the merchant Abbanes and Judas Thomas, and says to the apostle: “Hast thou built me the palace? And he said: Yea, and the king said: When, then, shall we go and see it? But he answered him and said: Thou canst not see it now, but when thou departest this life, then thou shalt see it. And the king was exceedingly wroth, and commanded both the merchant and Judas which is called Thomas to be put in bonds and cast into prison until he should inquire and learn unto whom the king’s money had been given, and so destroy both him and the merchant.”
Judas Thomas and the trader Abbanes are taken away to prison, and that night the king’s brother Gad falls ill, and sends for the king and says: “O king my brother, I commit unto thee mine house and my children; for I am vexed by reason of the provocation that hath befallen thee, and lo, I die … and as they talked together, the soul of his brother Gad departed.”
And angels take the soul of the king’s brother up into heaven, and they ask him: “In which place wouldst thou dwell? And when they drew near unto the building of Thomas the apostle which he had built for the king, Gad saw it and said unto the angels: I beseech you, my lords, suffer me to dwell in one of the lowest rooms of these. And they said to him: Thou canst not dwell in this building…. This is that palace which that Christian builded for thy brother. And he said: I beseech you, my lords, suffer me to go to my brother, that I may buy this palace of him; for my brother knoweth not of what sort it is, and he will sell it unto me.”
And Gad returns to life, and the king is informed. He comes and stands by his brother’s bed, amazed, and unable to speak, and Gad says to him: “Sell me that palace which thou hast in the heavens? And the king said: Whence should I have a palace in the heavens? And he said: Even that which the Christian built for thee which is now in the prison, whom the merchant brought unto thee, having purchased him of one Jesus: I mean that Hebrew slave whom thou desireth to punish as having suffered deceit at his hand: whereas I was grieved and died, and am now revived.”
But the king having learned of the palace in heaven from his brother Gad, wants to keep it, and refuses to sell it; he says they must go to the apostle and ask his forgiveness, and ask him to build another palace in heaven. The brothers go to the prison, and Judas Thomas agrees to build another palace in heaven for Gad; and the king and his brother are converted, and baptized in the public baths, and chrismed, and the apostle prays:
“Come, thou power of the Most High, and the compassion that is perfect.
“Come, gift of the Most High.
“Come, compassionate mother.
“Come, she that revealeth the hidden mysteries.
“Come, communion of the male.
“Come, she that revealeth the hidden mysteries.
“Come, mother of the seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house.
“Come, elder of the five members, mind, thought, reflection, consideration, reason; communicate with these young men.
“Come, holy spirit, and cleanse their reins and their heart, and give them the added seal, in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost.”
Then Judas Thomas, having accomplished the conversion of Gundaphorus and Gad, is directed by Jesus in a dream to leave the city. He goes out, having given up the pretense of being a carpenter, and soon after comes upon a beautiful youth lying dead by the wayside. He prays over the boy, and is immediately challenged by the dragon who has slain him. The dragon calls himself Satan — and says too that he is the Great Satan. But in the contest that follows he is defeated by the apostle and compelled to suck out the poison that has killed the youth. This causes him to burst and die, but not before he gives a long speech on fornication, of which the youth is accused. The youth revives, confesses his sins before the multitude, and Judas Thomas continues on his way. He heals the sick, raises the dead, and preaches an uncompromising doctrine of sexual continence. His sole theme is that a Christian must be chaste, even within the sacrament of marriage.
This teaching is not welcomed in the cities and towns that he visits, but the people are attracted by his bizarre and violent miracles. Some are converted, anointed with oil, and put into the care of a priest. He then moves to new cities and districts, heals the sick, raises the dead, and drives devils out of women. He hears the confession of a talking donkey who admits that he was a priest of Balaam before he turned to Jesus.
But the apostle’s special field of work are women and virgins. He entices them away from their families, converts them, puts them into sackcloth and ashes, and locks them up behind doors. This causes great discord in the cities, and earns him the bitter enmity of the husbands and brothers of those he has bewitched with his words.
He is finally brought before the king, Misdaeus, and asked about his activities. The king says: “Wherefore teachest thou this new doctrine, which both Gods and men hate, and which has nought of profit? And Judas said: What evil do I teach? And Misdaeus said: Thou teachest, saying that men cannot live well except that they live chastely with the God whom thou preachest. Judas saith: Thou sayest true, O king: thus do I teach.”
Now the time of the apostle’s death draws near. The narrative is given in full here so that the reader will have a reference with which to compare the tales that are told in Malabar and Mylapore. This is the original story, from which all other versions derive. It tells of the legitimate execution of a criminal for wicked deeds, by a king who has been severely provoked by his sorcery — though it has a posthumous royal conversion and is couched in much unctuous verbiage.
Judas Thomas ignores the king’s warning. He converts the prince of the house, Iuzanes, and his mother the queen. The other women of the court have already left to follow the new creed. The city is in turmoil, and the deserted king is appalled by the events around him. He has the apostle arrested, and confronts him. He asks: “Art thou bond or free? Thomas said: I am the bondsman of one only, over whom thou hast no authority. And Misdaeus saith to him: How didst thou run away and come into this country? And Thomas said: I was sold hither by my master, that I may save many, and by thy hand depart out of this world…. And Misdaeus saith unto him: I have not made haste to destroy thee, but have had long patience with thee: but thou has added unto thine evil deeds, and thy sorceries are dispersed abroad and heard of throughout all this country: but this I do that thy sorceries may depart with thee, and our land be cleansed from them.”
But the apostle again rejects the king’s plea to reform, and so “Misdaeus considered how he should put him to death; for he was afraid because of the many people who were subject unto him, for many also of the nobles and of them that were in authority believed on him. He took him therefore and went out of the city; and armed soldiers went with him. And the people supposed that the king desired to learn somewhat of him, and they stood still and gave heed. And when they had walked one mile, he delivered him unto four soldiers and an officer, and commanded them to take him into the mountain and there pierce him with spears and put an end to him, and return again to the city. And saying thus unto the soldiers, he himself also returned unto the city.
“But the men ran after Thomas, desiring to deliver him from death. And two soldiers went on the right hand of the apostle and two on his left, holding spears, and the officer held his hand and supported him…. And being come up into the mountain unto the place where he was to be slain, he said unto them that held him, and to the rest: Brethren, hearken unto me now at the last; for I am come to my departure out of the body. Let not then the eyes of your heart be blinded, nor your ears be made deaf. Believe on the God whom I preach, and be not guides unto yourselves in the hardness of your heart, but walk in all your liberty, and in the glory that is toward men, and the life that is toward God.
And he said unto Iuzanes: Thou son of the earthly king Misdaeus and minister to the minister of our Lord Jesus Christ: give unto the servants of Misdaeus their price that they may suffer me to go and pray. And Iuzanes persuaded the soldiers to let him pray. And the blessed Thomas went to pray, and kneeled down and rose up and stretched forth his hands unto heaven … and when he had thus prayed he said unto the soldiers: Come hither and accomplish the commandments of him that sent you. And the four came and pierced him with their spears, and he fell down dead.
“And all the brethren wept; and they brought beautiful robes and much and fair linen, and buried him in a royal sepulchre wherein the former first kings were laid.”
But Siphor the priest and Iuzanes the king’s son refuse to leave the apostle and continue to sit on the mountain. Thomas suddenly appears and orders them to go back to the city, as he is not there but has gone up to heaven. He promises that they will join him soon. So Siphor and Iuzanes go down from the mountain that held the sepulcher of ancient kings.
“Now it came to pass after a long time that one of the children of Misadeus the king was smitten by a devil, and no man could cure him, for the devil was exceedingly fierce. And Misdaeus the king took thought and said: I will go and open the sepulchre, and take a bone of the apostle of God and hang it upon my son, and he shall be healed … and he went and opened the sepulchre, but found not the apostle there, for one of the brethren had stolen him away and taken him unto Mesopotamia; but from that place where the bones of the apostle had lain Misdaeus took dust and put it about his son’s neck, saying: I believe on thee, Jesus Christ, now that he hath left me which troubleth men and opposeth them lest they should see thee. And when he had hung it upon his son, the lad became whole.
“Misdaeus the king therefore was also gathered among the brethren, and bowed his head under the hands of Siphor the priest; and Siphor said unto the brethren: Pray ye for Misdaeus the king, that he may obtain mercy of Jesus Christ, and that he may no longer remember evil against him. They all therefore, with one accord rejoicing, made prayer for him … and he was gathered with the multitude of them that had believed in Christ, glorifying the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost; whose is power and adoration, now and for ever and world without end. Amen.”
6. The sobriquets “Didymus” and Thomas”, the first Greek and the second Aramaic, indicate that Judas was the natural-born twin brother of Jesus. Rupert Furneau, in The Other Side of the Story, writes, “The legend of the strong resemblance which existed between Jesus and Thomas would not have been invented by the Christians as it could have been used in explanation of the resurrection story…. It is seldom realized that Jesus had a number of brothers and sisters. Paul states that he was the first born of many brethren. By Mark and Luke four brothers are named, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. There were probably two other brothers and at least two sisters. Christian tradition, in order to confirm the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary, has tried to turn them into cousins, or alternatively to make them into half-brothers, sons of Joseph by a previous wife.”
7. This king is the only character in the Acts (besides Judas Thomas) who can perchance be identified with a historical person. Some say he is the same as Gondophernes or Guduphara, the Indo-Parthian king who ruled over Arachosia, Kabul, and Gandhara (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) from about 19 to 45 C.E. (the dates are disputed). The Acts gives no vital information about him, his reign, his city, or his country except to say that it is in “India”. He can be identified as Parthian from his name, the original Persian form of it being Vindapharna.
8. This prayer is a Manichaean invocation of a feminine Holy Spirit, according to Prof. F.C. Burkitt in a note in the Oxford edition of the Acts of Thomas that we are following, though it has been bowdlerized by the translator in favour of conventional Christian phraseology. The story itself is Syro-Persian, set in some corner of the Parthian Empire, as indicated by the style of living and distinctive cultural ambiance. It is not Indian, not even North-West Indian, and the suggestion by Tamil Christian apologists that it is South Indian is asinine.
9. This king is better known by his Persian name, Mazdai (Masdai), which is found in the Syriac version of the Acts (Misdaeus is Greek). It specifically denotes a Zoroastrian ruler. He has no known historical counterpart and the Acts gives no vital information about him except to say that he rules in “a desert country”. Some Catholic writers try to make him into a first century king of Mylapore, but the Acts does not support so far-fetched a proposition.