The Thomas People
A fter the crucifixion of Jesus, when his eleven main disciples had gained new Courage (Acts Ch. 2) they began to spread abroad the Teachings they had been given. They allocated amongst themselves different peoples and territories to which they would go. This is explained in an ancient document of the Syrian Church which refers to Thomas thus: 'India, and all the countries belonging to it and round it, even to the farthest sea, received the apostles' ordination to the priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was guide and ruler in the Church which he had built there, in which he also ministered.'
This acknowledges that he initiated a great gathering or spiritual community of people that at its fullest extent stretched from Egypt (otherwise the Thomas Text would not have been at the St Palamon monastery at Chenoboskia), right across the countries now Palestine and Israel, into Syria and extending to the south of India. These were the Thomas People. The Thomas People are to be distinguished from the Gnostics. These people who existed at much the same time and place were another community deeply interested in Jesus. Their Gnostic Gospels are markedly different from the Thomas Text and the other scriptures of the Thomas People. They too were persecuted by the early Christian Church and to some extent went underground to be kept alive in secret societies.
However, as we shall see, the Thomas People were more seriously dealt with, and even today many sincere Church people are uncomfortable with parts of the Thomas Text. First Thomas went from the fertile region watered by the river Jordan, across the deserts using the great trade routes to the next fertile region to the east, the valley of the Euphrates. He came to Edessa now called Urfa. It was then an important city which, because of its splendour and the quality of its life, was known as the Athens of the East. Here, aided especially by his own disciple Adonya or Addai, he began to gather his people, who included in due course the King Abgai. No doubt to begin with the Teachings were communicated, as a living quality, directly from one person to another.
However it must have been that while in Edessa Thomas sought out the scribe in the market place to dictate his recollected sayings of Jesus, to create the first written Thomas Text, the primary scripture of the Thomas People, for scholars generally consider it was written there. We shall see that by 46 a.d. Thomas may have left Edessa for distant places, where it is hardly conceivable he could have dictated his Text. Therefore the Thomas Text would come from very early after the mission of Jesus, within perhaps only about a single decade. Soon the growing community based on Edessa added another scripture, a forerunner or prototype of the Gospel of Matthew, referred to by scholars as proto-Matthew although it has also been called the Gospel of the Hebrews.* There are references to this in ancient literature, but the full text no longer exists. In due course a hierarchy of leaders was established in order to form a structured Church. One of the scriptures important to that Syrian Church was the Diatessaron of Titian written in about 170 a.d. This was a kind of amalgam or composite of the four Gospels of the Bible, together with a fifth source probably the Thomas Text.
It has been subject to frequent amendment by redactors, a particular effect being to bring it more into harmony with the canonical Gospels. Titian's Diatessaron became the primary gospel used in the Syrian Church, and a major basis of the doctrines and teaching of that Church. Especially in the earlier versions of the Diatessaron a special use of the Biblical Greek word sozo and its derivatives has been noted. Instead of this being 'to save', 'salvation' and 'the saviour', Syrian words meaning 'to live', 'life' and 'the life giver' are used; so Jesus is spoken of as the Life Giver, meaning in the here and now. Few of the documents of that Church remain, and then usually in the form of copies from many centuries later. These have been subjected to changes by successive redactors, but it is nevertheless possible to discern a coherent and consistent teaching of that Church. These documents are known as The Acts of Thomas, the Hymn of the Pearl, and the Book of Thomas. It is considered that these were written during the period 150 to 350 a.d., and almost certainly in Syriac. The first two are now known in Syriac and Greek forms; the Book of Thomas was discovered in a Coptic version in the Nag Hammadi Library.
The Acts of Thomas, like many other Acts of apostles or early saints, tell of the events and teachings of Thomas after he had begun his missionary activity. They tell of many episodes in the life of Thomas, incorporate concepts and even quotations from his Text, and give valuable insights into the rites of that early Church. Thus, adult baptism preceded by an anointing was the chief rite, and the eucharist took more the form of a love feast after an occasion of worship, apparently similar to that of the Sikh Church today. In the thirteenth century the famous cathedral at Chatres in France was built to portray, by means of statues and stained glass windows, the chief events and doctrines of the Christian Church. It is a visual Teaching, for the many pilgrims visiting it who could not read. One of the windows comprises episodes that occur only in the Acts of Thomas. So not only was that known there at that date but also, and more surprisingly, reference to the Acts of Thomas was permitted by the Catholic Church. The inspired members of that early Church initiated by Thomas later produced many texts of high mystical content. The writings of Makarios displayed the flowering of the mystical Church of Edessa.
The Acts of Thomas as we now have it has interpolated into it a particularly beautiful and meaningful poem, the Hymn of the Pearl. In the book this appears at a stage in Thomas's mission when he was established in north India, at the court of King Gundaphoros. The Hymn tells, in a form that could be chanted or even sung to music, the story of a prince living where the fertile valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris lead toward the Persian Gulf. A wonderful garment had been taken away from him, and to recover it he had to make the long journey by sea to Egypt, to search there for a pearl hidden in the Labyrinth near the pyramids, a place which mythically represented confusion and loss. Stupefied by the strange food and rigours of the search, he nearly gave up and lay down to sleep. His parents, discerning this from afar, sent to him an ambassador with a message that galvanized him to action.
He found the pearl and aided by a 'female being' returned to his home
'But I could not recall my splendour;
for, it was while I was still a boy and quite young
that I had left it behind in my father's palace.
But suddenly when I saw my garment reflected as in a mirror,
I perceived it was my whole Self as well,
and through it I recognized and saw myself.
For, though we derived from one and the same we were partially divided;
and then again we were One, with a single form.'
So here is a particularly vivid and beautiful presentation of the key proclamation, given in many great spiritual teachings of the world, that a person, filled with the urge to find Truth, may start by searching outside, turning this way and that, but in the end recognizes that it not only lies within but has always lain within, previously unseen.
Returning to Thomas himself, the Acts of Thomas clearly speak of Jesus surviving his crucifixion, being helped in his recovery by the Essenes of Quamranthe figures in white of John 20:12who were skilled in medicine. This links up with twentieth century investigations showing Jesus going to Kashmir to continue his Ministry.*
One of the first episodes concerning Thomas was that Jesus put him in the charge of a sea captain for a voyage to north India. It is known that at 46 a.d. King Gundaphoros ruled in the Indus valley, and Thomas became attached to his court as architect and carpenter to build a palace for the king. Thomas continued to spread the Teaching he had been given, and there are references to occasions when Jesus met up with him there. A very strong tradition, still strongly held today, in the south of India is that Thomas came there in 52 a.d. At that time trade winds had been recently discovered which expedited voyages between the Euphrates valley and the Malabar Coast of south-west India, now Kerala. He landed at the city of Cochin, where there had been for more than a century a Jewish community who built the largest and oldest synagogue still existing. Over several years he set up churches in seven towns that can still be identified and located. Later he travelled over the mountains to the south-east of India, where he continued to widen his community of the Thomas People. He was ultimately martyred at Madras, where great gatherings are still held each year to honour him. Thomas's work there led to the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Thomas. This is to be distinguished from the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Kerala, all of much more recent date. That Thomas Church in the early centuries allied itself with the Syrian Church.
After some time it became weak and its message diffused. However today it is vigorous, with a large number of members and many churches and shrines all in good condition. During the great struggles for power and influence between the early Christian Churches, which came to a climax during the fourth and fifth centuries, the Syrian Church and its derivatives passed into the background as far as the Churches of the west and the Russias were concerned. And the primitive Church that was the bearer of an independent tradition to that Syrian Church (however much it may have been modified subsequently) was extinguished. That extinction was so ruthless, so thorough, that only faint traces of it remain, needing all the resources of the latest scholarship to reveal. But the Thomas Text, dug up from the sand, shines like a beacon to confirm the basic Teachings on which it was built.
Thus it may truly be said that the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Thomas Text, when their inner meanings were known, had the power to gather a great spiritual people.