“On Thomas and Evidence—No Doubt!”

By Paul N. Anderson
George Fox University
Newberg, Oregon
April 2017

The final episode of CNN’s second Finding Jesus series focuses on the Apostle Thomas (the twin), who is presented as an active figure in the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of John. While Thomas is named in all four Gospels, it is only in John’s presentation of the end of Jesus’s ministry that he plays a memorable role. Interestingly, when Jesus first appears to his disciples in the upper room, following the resurrection, Thomas is absent (John 20:19-23). I doubt that they were sharing an early form if the Eucharist, as the episode suggests; rather they were huddled and afraid, lest they also be rounded up and killed as followers of the crucified one. Given that Thomas makes the climactic confession in the Fourth Gospel—even challenging the language with which Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) later expected to be addressed—his role is indeed central to John’s story of Jesus.

At this point, the absence of Thomas in the upper room might also be telling. Has he abandoned the other disciples, or did he feel the group should break up (Candida Moss)? Thomas, who earlier offered to go with Jesus die with him in Judea (John 11:16), and who asked how to know the way Jesus is going (John 14:5), here makes a striking request for evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) When Jesus then appears and invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and side, Thomas does so and declares: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) That being the case, instead of being called “doubting Thomas,” Mark Goodacre rightly suggest he should be called “faithful Thomas.” Interestingly, after inviting Thomas to touch the physical evidence of his wounds, Jesus declares especially blessed those who have not seen, and yet believe.

The rest of the episode explores the ancient tradition that Thomas was sent to India in 52 AD. This would have been in keeping with the Great Commission of Jesus, commanding his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), but there is no clear evidence that such was the case for the mission of Thomas, other than church traditions. Whereas western scholars have doubted this tradition as folklore, however, several elements of evidence suggest that there may be a stronger case for such a tradition than has been previously imagined.

First, there are seven million Christians in India today, claiming an unbroken heritage going back to the mission of Thomas in the first century. To this day, Mar Thoma Christians perform liturgies in Syriac, which is very similar to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke with his disciples. Some written texts (on palm leaves) date back to the 12th century, but Portuguese Catholic colonizers destroyed the bulk of Thomasine documents in the 16th century—deeming Thomistic Christians heretics—so earlier evidence was unfortunately lost. And yet, the fact that oral traditions in song and dance continue to be performed in India’s Christian churches to this day attests to the likelihood that they did not simply emerge out of nowhere (Charles Stang). They plausibly betray a common historical origin going back to ancient times, at least.

A second element of evidence is that the 3rd century Acts of Thomas (not to be confused with The Gospel of Thomas) tells stories of the Apostle Thomas traveling to India to fulfill the Lord’s commission to preach the gospel to every nation. While he did not wish to embark on such a trip, the casting of lots and the will of Christ compelled Thomas to take the gospel to the eastern kingdoms. Upon his arrival in northwest India, Thomas reached king Gondophares, establishing seven churches and baptizing as many as 17,000 believers. During his mission to the south of India, however, king Misdaeus became threatened by the conversion of his wife and family members, and Thomas was martyred by the king’s soldiers. Nonetheless, his last words are remembered as repeating his earlier confession of faithfulness to Christ as narrated in John 20:28: “My Lord and my God!”

Third, as the second set of Finding Jesus episodes has sought to engage, some features of archaeological evidence have been drawn into the coverage in ways that could be telling. For instance, ancient trade routes have shown that if one followed the course of monsoon winds at the time, a ship could reach India within 40 days (Candida Moss). And, archaeological digs have recently discovered European and Mediterranean pottery and artifacts confirming trade routes active in the first century. Further, as Nicola Denzey Lewis shows in her visit to the British Museum, a coin bearing the image of the Indian king, Gondophares, dating from 60 AD, confirms his existence, thus situating the accounts related to the mission of Thomas to India with evidence from material culture.

While the testing of a bone fragment attributed to Thomas as tested by Georges Kazan and Thomas Higham of Oxford proved less than conclusive, it did show evidence of the bone’s dating from the late first through the fourth centuries. That shows a very early connection, although the patina on the bone might also have been a factor in the later elements of the dating. Nonetheless, the tradition indeed seems strong that Thomas the Apostle came to India in the middle first century AD, evangelizing the Parthian kingdoms and spreading the gospel to the east, as Peter did in Rome (Nicola Denzey Lewis). After all, if Paul, John, and others carried the gospel to the Mediterranean world, it would be surprising to learn that no one carried the good news eastward.

All of this is of special interest to me personally, as the emerging New Testament scholar whose first book I published a couple of years ago (Johnson Thomaskutty) has just finished a book on Thomas (to be published by Bloomsbury), which I hope to see in the near future. This work is also significant, as the eastern churches were wrongly distanced from apostolic and orthodox Christianities for theological reasons in the patristic era, not simply in colonial times. Thus, the World Council of Churches includes the Mar Thoma Church in its fellowship even if other communions do not. Thus, whether or not these stories of Thomas and his eastern mission reflect history or folklore, they do cohere with the presence of Christianity in India since ancient times, despite the disparaging of Nestorian Christianity as heretical in the 5th century ecumenical councils (Ephesus 431; Chalcedon 451).

In reflecting upon the set of episodes in CNN’s second Finding Jesus series, several impressions follow. First, a good deal of corroborative evidence supports the traditional presentations of Jesus and the apostles in the Gospels and Acts, although conclusive external proof often remains elusive.[1] Second, while archaeological evidence often supports biblical presentations of events overall, relics, bones, and shrouds most often fall short of evidentiary proof, often dating from either the Byzantine era (4th century and forward) or the times of the Crusades (12th century and forward). Third, as a Johannine scholar, I was repeatedly impressed at how much bearing the Gospel of John has on nearly all of the presentations despite being marginalized from modern historical Jesus studies; that error is in the process of being corrected in the new millennium.[2] Fourth, whether or not compelling historical evidence supports an ancient memory or a biblical presentation of Jesus and his followers, their most important features involve what we learn from the stories and what those learnings mean for later audiences in their respective contexts.

That being the case, whether a historical figure who lived and ministered over two millennia ago can actually be “found” using the best tools we have available to us today, such might not be the most important feature of this inquiry. Whereas the wounds in the hands and side of Jesus are unavailable to us today as they were to Thomas, feeling the presence of the one who breathed on his disciples, commissioned them as agents of redemption, and declared, “receive the Holy Spirit,” invites an alternative form of encounter. Thus, “finding Jesus” in the 21st century might finally be less a matter of the dating of bones and the exploration of ruins, and something more in the pattern of an earlier encounter also in John 20, where the mere mention of her name leads Mary Magdalene to declare her convincement: “Rabonni”—teacher. And, on the embracing of such first-hand evidence as a moment of recognition, Thomas would likely agree—no doubt.


[1] Thus, “not necessarily” does not imply “necessarily not.” In my recent contextual introduction to the New Testament (From Crisis to Christ, Nashville: Abingdon, 2014, pp. x-xii), I describe what I call “second criticality” as the most intellectually coherent way to conduct biblical studies. After all, simply to question a view is not to overturn it, and at times critical scholars themselves are in disagreement with each other, requiring critical assessment of critical views as well as traditional ones. This approach was also outlined in The Bible and Interpretation (May, 2015: http://mail.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/PDFs/IntroAnderson.pdf).

[2] See, for instance, the work of the John, Jesus, and History Project, just having completed five triennia of meetings at the national Society of Biblical Literature meetings (http://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/john1357917).

Comments (2)

The reference to 'a coin' of Gondophares in the British Museum suggests some rather remarkable verisimilitude (why do I get so polysyllabic?) in the Acts of Thomas, but that is not really so. According to Kay Rienjang's account of Indo-Parthian coinage the Museum has 213, or was it 258, at any rate very many, due to many kings who used the name/title Gondophares, 'winner of glory'. ActsT uses one of the best known Indian royal names in its story and that is not really a sign of authenticity. Furthermore it is no easy matter to find a date suiting all three of Thomas, Gondophares the dynastic founder (indeed of Jesus' time) and Misdaeus = Bazodeo = Vasudeva, the Kushan Emperor of around AD 200, whose name would have sounded like 'hater of God' to a Greek ear and made him a suitable bad guy for the Thomas story.
Susan Meyers (Spiritual Epicleses in the Acts of Thomas p.54) describes Acts T as a work intended to outdo Mani and the Manichaeans by presenting a hero who had both a closer relationship with Jesus and a
purer form of self-denial. It certainly seems to me that the slightly eccentric, from our modern Christian point of view, Christology of Acts T should be mentioned before we go too far down the road of 'Christian text confirmed by archaeology', in particular the view of Thomas as Jesus' twin or physical and spiritual alter ego.
There may be a connection with the world of John's Gospel, but mainly to remind us, by the theme of the Twin, of the many strange hints in John about Jesus' relationships, including those with Lazarus and the Beloved
Disciple. These hints must be theological pointers - really what else? The theological motivation of Acts T is more naive and must be something to do with the need of the Indian Church for an apostolic founder and the expectation of martyrdom and relics. That powerful, overwhelming aesthetic of ours!
Do we not need to appreciate the texts of early Christianity as statements which may indeed have historical and of course, to different degrees, spiritual value but are ultimately theological statements controlled by ideas about God rather than by memories and documents?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/11/2017 - 17:09

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

We should always remember that it is only possible for us to believe because there were those who did see. The faith of later Christians is based on the concrete evidence that was presented to the disciples. The disciples themselves also needed to have faith of a kind - faith that their senses were not deceiving them - but this is no more than the faith that we are living in the real world and not the Matrix.

What the disciples witnessed was not - indeed, could not have been - some illusion. To doubt the reality of the experience would have been to doubt the very grounds on which any grasp of reality is based. But to accept the experience was to accept that reality is very much more than the disciples had expected. And, ultimately, they had no choice but to accept that.

We are in the same position. It can be difficult to accept this vastly expanded reality but there is no alternative. The power of delusion has its limits and those limits are annihilated in the attempt to deny the reality of the Resurrection.

#2 - David Madison - 04/13/2017 - 13:37

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