Saint Thomas was born in a Jewish family in Galilee and was a builder like Saint Joseph. Like other apostles, he gave up everything and followed Jesus during his public ministry. His date of birth is unknown, and his date of death is on 21 December 72. Church used to celebrate his feast on 21 December. It is now on 3 July known as Dukhrana which means remembrance. Saint John the Evangelist records three interactions of Thomas with Jesus, which are all communicative of Thomas’ commitment to Jesus and his ministry. Thomas was the only apostle who preached outside the Roman Empire. Along with other countries, he also preached in India and faced martyrdom there. Though his burial was in Mylapore, the church moved major parts of his remains to Edessa and Italy.
The original name of Saint Thomas, according to the tradition, is Judas Thomas or Judas the Twin. The literal meaning of Thomas is twin originated from Te’oma in Aramaic and Didymos in Greek (Jn 11:16). Thomas had a twin brother or sister. According to the Syriac tradition, believers call Saint Thomas as Mar Thoma Sleeha which means Lord Thomas the Apostle.
In the Gospels
Synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles list Thomas along with the other apostles (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13). However, John’s gospel gives a glimpse into Saint Thomas’ personality on three occasions.
The Committed Apostle: News came to Jesus that Lazarus, one of his beloved friends, who hosted him several times during his journey to Jerusalem, was sick. Later Jesus revealed to the disciples that Lazarus had died, and Jesus expressed his wish to visit the family. The apostles were afraid to go to Jerusalem because the Jews had previously tried to stone Jesus to death (Jn 11:8). While they discouraged Jesus from going ahead, Thomas came forward and said to the other apostles, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). Thomas was so committed to Jesus during the public ministry that he was even willing to die with Jesus. And he empowered the others also to do so even before they received the courage from the Holy Spirit.
The Curious Learner: A curious student would inquire about the unknown mysteries. Saint Thomas was such an enthusiastic learner. During Jesus’ discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper, he said to them: “You know the way to where I am going” (Jn 14:4). The apostles did not know what Jesus meant. While the others were reluctant to ask for clarification because of the fear of how the master would react, Thomas showed the boldness to ask Jesus representing all the disciples, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5). That allowed Jesus to clarify, and the privilege for others to hear from the master, a significant mystery, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Basing on that, Thomas taught about Jesus as the way to the Father. So, the Christians who inherited faith from the Apostle Thomas were known as “Margam koodiyavar” (Those who joined the way).
A Convinced Believer: A negative title attributed to Saint Thomas is the “Doubting Apostle.” The Risen Lord appeared to his disciples in the “upper room” on the evening of the day he rose from the dead. All the apostles except Thomas were present. The reason for Thomas’ absence might be his need to grieve in solitude, or as a courageous person, he went outside to study the situation. Thomas missed the exciting experience of seeing the Risen Lord, the privilege to receive the Holy Spirit from Jesus through his breathing over the Apostles and the commissioning of the Apostles to continue his mission: “he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples kept looking at the Lord and were full of joy. Again Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ And with that, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain people’s sins, they are retained’ ” (Jn 20:20-23).
When the Apostles shared the breathtaking experience of seeing the Risen Lord, it was heartbreaking for Thomas because he had missed such a precious experience. Thomas knew that the disciples were telling the truth. But out of his downheartedness, he demanded the same experience as a pre-condition for him to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas realized his mistake of not remaining in continuous fellowship with the disciples in prayer. Though he expressed his anguish, he kept up communion with the apostles.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples on the next Sunday, Thomas was with them and could get personal attention from Jesus, who invited him to touch his wound marks. The insistence of Thomas became an added proof to the world on the Lord’s resurrection. He also gave a great theological statement, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas expressed and taught to the world the divinity of Jesus: The Lord Jesus is also the Almighty God. Thomas was not a blind believer but a convinced faithful. After receiving the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Thomas boldly presented Jesus to the people outside the Roman Empire and became a martyr for Jesus.
The missionary expeditions of Thomas
Jesus had selected and trained the apostles and other disciples as a succession plan to continue his mission. Though the book of Acts describes the missionary journeys of Saint Paul, Saint Peter, and others, we have little of Thomas there. However, we have a few written records on the missionary journey of Saint Thomas in some non-canonical books. According to Eusebius, Thomas had preached in Parthia (North-Eastern Iran) and India. Some Eastern Churches assert that Saint Thomas brought Christianity to China in 64 and Japan in 70 AD.
There are some writings and traditions on the missionary work of Saint Thomas in India. He reached Muziris (Kodungalloor in the present Kerala State) in 52 AD. There was a Jewish community there. Saint Thomas established seven and a half churches in what is now Kerala. They are at Kodungalloor, Palayoor (Chattukulangara), Kataoka (Paravoor), Kokkamangalam, Nirupam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kollam and Thiruvithamcode (Travancore), the half church. Thomas baptized several families including Pakalomattom, Sankarapuri, Kalli, Kaliyankal, Nedumpilly, Panakkamattom, Kunnappilly, Vazhappilly, Payyappilly, Maliakkal, Pattamukku and Thaiyil. Some other families also claim to have their Christin origin during this time.
A third-century Syriac text, known as the Acts of Thomas, presents a story on the missionary work of Thomas in India. According to the legend, the apostles drew lots to divide the world for their missionary expedition. Thomas got India by lot and he was reluctant to go there. However, Jesus appeared to him in a vision and reassured him of his support. Meanwhile, Abbanes, a merchant and representative of the Indo-Parthian king Gundaphorus came to Jerusalem searching for a carpenter to build a palace for his king in India. Jesus appeared to Abbanes and “sold” Thomas as a carpenter. Thomas, realizing the wish of Jesus, went to India with Abbanes. The King Gundaphorus was the ruler of present-day Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sind from the year 20 to 46 AD.
Gundaphorus entrusted money to Thomas to build a magnificent palace for him. Thomas preached the gospel and helped the poor with the money he received from the king. Realizing that Thomas was “misusing” his money and not building the palace, the king summoned Thomas and questioned him. Thomas replied that he was building the palace in heaven with the money and the king can occupy it after his death. The king, who assumed Thomas cheated him, imprisoned Thomas.
While Thomas was in prison, the king’s brother Gad died. Realizing that Thomas was a miracle-worker, the king summoned Thomas from prison to pray over the dead body of his brother. At the prayer of Thomas, Gad came back to life. He explained to the king that in his lifeless state, he saw a beautiful palace that Thomas had built in heaven for the king. King Gundaphorus prostrated in front of Thomas and apologized for his mistake. This incident led to the king’s conversion and many people in his kingdom.
The writings attributed to Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are the books attributed to Saint Thomas. However, the church does not approve the authorship of Thomas for these books or accept them as canonical writings. The Catholic Church considers the Gospel of Thomas as of gnostic origin and heretical.
Saint Thomas had sent his disciple Mar Addai for evangelization in Edessa. Thomas used to send letters from Taxila and Malabar in India to Edessa. The church in Edessa read the letters during the Sunday liturgy and preserved them for later use. This practice developed a bond between Thomas and the church in Edessa. Christians in Edessa considered Thomas as their apostle. Since they felt close to Saint Thomas, they transported his bones from Mylapore to Edessa on 3 July, 232.
The letters of Saint Thomas in Aramaic language to the Church of Edessa did not spread to other churches nor did they enter the canon of the New Testament because they were more newsletters than letters of spiritual instruction. The church in Edessa valued them because they were from their spiritual father addressed to them. So, they preserved them along with other precious manuscripts of gospels and epistles in their church. A flood from River Daisan in 201 destroyed these documents along with the church that preserved them.
Thomas, as Eyewitness of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption
The traditional belief is that Thomas saw the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven. A text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea called “The Passing of Mary” expresses a legend on this. According to this document, when the Blessed Virgin Mary was nearing death, angels appeared to all the apostles asking them to visit the Blessed Mother before her death. All of them, except Thomas, saw her death and burial. Since Thomas was in India, he could reach only on the third day after her death. Because Thomas insisted, people opened the tomb of Mary. The tomb was empty. When Thomas raised his eyes, he witnessed Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven, and she dropped her girdle to Thomas. The other apostles, hearing the story, came back and saw Mary’s empty tomb and the girdle that Thomas received. The pre- Tridentine and medieval art depict Thomas receiving the girdle. Pope Gelasius I pronounced “The Passing of Mary” as a heretical document in 494.
Like the other apostles, Thomas could perform many miracles by the grace of God to help and convince the people to embrace Christianity. According to the legends, Thomas performed many such signs in Syria, Persia, and India. One among the converts was the wife of the King of Mylapore in Madras.
The king of Mylapore summoned Thomas in 72 AD and asked him to offer sacrifice to an idol. When the reluctant Thomas approached the idol, it got shattered into pieces. The furious king ordered the high priest to kill Thomas. The execution was carried out by four soldiers who pierced Thomas with spears at hillock now known as Saint Thomas Mount. San Thom Cathedral now stands at his burial place.
Transportation of Relics
According to some writings and traditions, when Vasudeva I was the Kushan emperor in India, merchant Khabin transported the bones of Saint Thomas from Mylapore to Edessa on 3 July 232. The relics worked many miracles in India and Edessa. The Acts of Thomas was written in Syriac during this time. The relics of Saint Thomas were moved from Edessa to various other places later. A sailor Leone Acciaiuoli took some relics of Thomas in 1258 to the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle at Abruzzo in Ortona, Italy. There is another tradition that the skull of the saint is in the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian on the Greek Island of Patmos.
The feast day of Saint Thomas
According to the Roman calendar of the 19th century, Thomas died on 21 December. So, the church celebrated the feast of Saint Thomas on that date. The church transferred this feast to 3 July in 1939 because Saint Jerome in his Martyrology mentioned that as the date of Thomas’ martyrdom. Since the church transferred the remains of Saint Thomas from Mylapore to Edessa on 3 July 232, the feast has a link to that date. Transferring the feast from 21 December to 3 July is helpful for the better observance of advent. Traditionalist Roman Catholics and many protestant churches still celebrate Saint Thomas feast on 21 December. The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas on 6 October. The church also celebrates the Sunday after Easter as the feast of Saint Thomas to remember Saint Thomas proclaiming his faith in the Risen Lord by saying, “My Lord and my God.” The Malankara Orthodox church celebrates three feasts of Saint Thomas: on 3 July remembering the transfer of relics to Edessa, on 18 December the day the extremists lanced Thomas, and on 21 December, the day he died.
Patronage of Saint Thomas
Saint Thomas is the patron of the blind, doubtful people, architects, builders, carpenters, construction workers, geometricians, stonemasons, surveyors, theologians; and places such as Certaldo, Italy, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Traditional iconography depicts Saint Thomas as a young adult touching the resurrected Christ’s wounds. Other icons and statues show him as a youthful man holding a scroll, a square, an axe, or a spear symbolizing his preaching, his profession as a builder and his martyrdom.
1. While Jesus expressed his wish to visit the house of Lazarus at his death, Thomas encouraged other apostles to go with Jesus, even at risk to their lives. Though Thomas along with the other disciples deserted Jesus after his arrest, he accepted the second chance given to him and remained true to his mission to the point of martyrdom. Let us also find the courage to continue the evangelization of Jesus, even at the risk of losing our life.
2. The Apostle Thomas was instrumental in Jesus’ revelation of himself as the way to the Father. Thomas also taught this way to the people of many nations. Let us also accept the way of Jesus as the only way to the Father and never get deviated from it.
3. Though Saint Thomas missed the opportunity to see the Risen Lord on the first occasion, he did not give up his faith. He remained praying with the other apostles. That allowed him to experience the Risen Lord. Thomas reversed and obliterated his lack of faith through his profound declaration of “My Lord and My God.” We also might have a crisis in our spiritual journey. However, we should never give up our faith and hope in the Lord.
4. According to the Acts of Thomas, the apostle taught the Indo-Parthian king Gundaphorus the need for accumulating treasures in heaven with the resources of this world. Thomas risked his life to teach that lesson. Let us also accumulate treasure in heaven, making use of what we have in this life.
5. Though all the Apostles saw the ascension of Jesus to heaven, only Thomas had the privilege to witness the Blessed Mother’s assumption. Like the post-resurrection experience, God compensated for Thomas’ missing the opportunity to see the Blessed Mother at the deathbed, by allowing him to see her assumption. So, like Thomas innocently added weight to the Resurrection accounts, he became instrumental in promoting faith in the Blessed Mother’s assumption. Let us also honour the Blessed Mother and seek her intercession for our goal to reach heaven.