Wandering in the East

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 19

"You will be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and in all the earth," says Jesus in the canonical Acts of the Apostles . The first mission fields he named were modest in scope and near at hand; that named in the final clause was limitless. "Be wanderers," Jesus enjoins in Saying 42 of the Gospel of Thomas . And Thomas, according to legend and tradition, roamed farther than any other apostle, including even the widely-traveled Paul. While Paul was going northwestward, through Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece, Thomas is said to have gone to the south and east, and to lands not even on the map in the time of Christ.

In the Middle East

Father Vincenzo Maria was one of four Carmelite friars sent to India by the Pope in 1656, when the Dutch were becoming ascendant on the seas, to try to keep Thomas Christians loyal to Rome. The four took care to get passports from the Dutch as well as the Portuguese. Vincenzo Maria wrote a memoir of his mission. In it he summarized the travels of Thomas, as recounted by sixteenth and seventeenth-century friars. His account, which can have little if any historical value, is a convenient summary of the various traditions and legends that had evolved through the centuries.

Thomas, he says, began his mission in Syria-Mesopotamia. From there the apostle went east to China, "the States of the Great Mogul," and "the kingdom of Sian." (The city of Sian in northwest China was the ancient capital of the Han dynasty, western Tang capital, and site of a Nestorian stele.) He then revisited his original Middle East converts. A leap across a continent and an ocean brought him to Brazil, then back to Ethiopia, and thence to the island of Socotra, off the coast of the Arabian peninsula, and finally to southern India. There he evangelized the Malabar Coast, and finally the Coromandel Coast (Madras and Mylapore), where he was martyred.

Some early modern European students of Syriac writings and civilization were inclined to believe that Thomas had indeed traveled to at least a few of places listed by Vincenzo Maria. From the middle of the nineteenth century, when old Syriac documents became available in England and elsewhere, scholars tended to divide between those who thought the apostle's wanderings had taken him to northwest India (the Parthia of Gundaphorus) and those who favored southern India as his missionary field. For reasons given in earlier chapters, it is hard to conclude that Christianity came to the south of India before Nestorian missionaries reached the region. Maybe Parthia should be taken more seriously as a possibility.

Parthia West and East

First on Vincenzo Maria's list is Syria-Mesopotamia. The Carmelite friar specifically mentions "the neighborhood of Edessa," but in the same breath expands the initial mission field to almost all of the Persian empire, or "Parthia," where he preached "to Parthians, Medes, Bactrians, Hyrcanians, and Taprobanians." ( Ancient Bactria was, roughly, what is now northern Afghanistan; Hyrcania abutted the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea; Taprobane was Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka.) Apparently he was depending on the Nestorian tradition for the emphasis on Parthia; he has Thomas visit it twice.

Edessa is the place Thomas would have been most likely to visit, if indeed an apostle by that name went anywhere outside of Palestine. And there are signs pointing to a sojourn in Edessa. There or in its area of cultural influence, it seems, most of the Thomas literature originated -- the texts purporting to record the words Thomas received from his spiritual twin and master and to describe his travels and preaching. And Mesopotamia, neighboring the Mediterranean littoral where Jesus and his followers lived, with many people speaking almost the same language as they did, had a substantial Jewish population; they would have been a natural target of the first evangelizers wherever they might have gone.

James Robinson, a leading figure in making available to the scholarly world the Coptic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, suggests that Aramaic-speaking mendicant prophets from Judea would naturally have gravitated toward Aramaic-speaking farming and shepherd hamlets toward the northeast, and some might well have settled in the center of Syriac culture, Edessa. They would have brought with them the stock of sayings in Aramaic that came to form the Gospel of Thomas . Thomas himself could have been such a settler. To support this attractive speculation, however, no firm evidence has come to light.

"Parthia" more broadly may be a stronger candidate than Edessa itself to be called Thomas's mission field. Whatever writer or group composed the original Acts of Judas Thomas had assigned him to an "India" where Gundaphorus had been the ruler. A later Syriac document, The Teachings of the Apostles , divides the twelvefold mission field much as the Acts of Judas Thomas does, but goes further, naming the regions that each of the Twelve had in his care.

"India, and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea," says the Teachings , "received the Apostles' Hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the church which he built there, and ministered there."

Other writers in the early centuries sent Thomas to Parthia. A passage in the pseudo-Clement's Recognitions (possibly written in the third century) describes, as Bardaisan did, how those who were exposed to the teachings of "the righteous and true Prophet" (that is, Jesus) are able to overcome their barbarous customs: "among the Parthians -- as Thomas, who is preaching the Gospel among them, has written to us -- not many are now addicted to polygamy" (emphasis supplied ). Thus is added, parenthetically and probably too late to be taken seriously as persuasive evidence, another voice assigning Thomas to Parthia.

Many later writers, ancient and modern, have also placed Thomas either in India or in Parthia, but they are simply repeating what they have read or heard.

About the only thing we can be fairly sure of is that groups of Christians, in and around Edessa, further down the Euphrates, and in Egypt, elevated Thomas to a uniquely high apostolic status within their own churches. The period in which this happened was possibly from the first ( and certainly beginning no later than the second) to fourth centuries. From late in the second century on, churches West and East were coming to attach great importance to apostolic origins that would establish the authority of their clergy as spiritual descendants of Christ's close followers.

Church of the East and the Middle Kingdom

The tradition of Thomas's preeminence was adopted by the Nestorian Church of the East, which broke with the West in the fifth century. The Nestorian church is also known as the Eastern Syrian (and, beginning in the nineteenth century, as the Assyrian) church. As we have already noted, Sassanid shahs of Persia favored Nestorians over the churches of the Roman world; such Christians were no longer automatically suspected of loyalty to Roman authority. Later Arab Muslim rulers also were mainly tolerant of the Nestorian church, for a similar reason: it was not the church of the West.

Nestorians, it will be recalled, clung to three legends that supported their claim to apostolic origins: the visit of the Magi (a group including Caspar, son of a Gundaphorus) to the infant Jesus; the correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus; the Acts of Judas Thomas , which in at least one version, moved his bones to Edessa after his martyrdom.

The principal seat of the Nestorian church in Ctesiphon-Seleucia, near ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia, was an important post in trade between Europe and Asia, a meeting place of caravans from the Arabian peninsula, central Asia, India and China, and a stage in the water-borne traffic on the Euphrates, connecting with the Persian Gulf. Nestorians made the most of their central location, learned the languages of their neighbors, and became vigorous merchants and proselytizers.

Well-educated, they were also in demand as doctors and public officials, never numerous enough to be regarded as a serious threat to civil authority but conspicuous enough to be resented by xenophobes. At its height the church had more than two hundred metropolitan sees, and extended -- albeit sparsely -- from the Arabian peninsula to China, from Siberia to Ceylon. For several hundred years Nestorianism was the Christianity of Asia.

Apparently Nestorians quickly moved into Turkestan, and later into China. One branch of the Nestorian church, which later came into communion with Rome although still sharing many Nestorian rites and practices, is known as the Chaldean church. Its breviary refers several times to the role of Thomas among the Chinese: "by St. Thomas the Chinese also with the Ethiopians have turned to the truth;" "St. Thomas has flown and gone to the Kingdom of Heaven among the Chinese;" "the Indians and the Chinese . . . bring worship in commemoration of Thomas to Thy name, our Savior."

In the year 781 the ancient capital of several Chinese dynasties, Ch'ang-an (later known as Sian), became the site of a stone monument, seven and a half feet high, with an inscription commemorating the introduction and propagation of "the noble law of Ta T'sin [Syria] in the Middle Kingdom." Other Chinese characters give a vague outline of Christian doctrine and an account of the arrival of a monk from Ta T'sin in 635, bringing sacred writings.

A decree of the year 638 by emperor Tai-Tsung, inscribed on the stele, approves the new doctrine and orders the construction of a church in the Square of Peace and Justice in the city. The Chinese inscriptions also include a brief account of the fortunes of the faith in China -- favored by one emperor, not by a second (who preferred Buddhism), restored to favor by a third.

In 845 the Chinese emperor began the Great Persecution, to drive out of China all "foreign" religions, including Buddhism. More than two thousand Nestorian and Muslim missionaries had to flee. Turkestan became the next major center of Nestorians in central Asia.

There was a widespread belief in Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Nestorianism was at its height in Asia, that a rich and powerful Christian potentate ruled over vast regions of Asia. Marco Polo, telling of a visit to the upper reaches of the Orkhov River, which flows into Lake Baikal, reports that Tartars living in a neighboring region paid tribute to Prester John. The priest-king, he says, decided to scatter them when they became numerous and threatening. Portuguese rulers and explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were moved not only by lust for gold and a desire to convert the heathen; they also hoped to find the Christians of Prester John. They were sure they could count on him to be an ally against the Muslim powers that blocked the way to Asia.

Later legend transfers Prester John to Abyssinia. The confusion of Ethiopia with India persisted through the fifteenth century. Some speculate that Prester John was from the beginning an Abyssinian prince. Pope Alexander III, writing in ll77 to "Magnificus Rex Indorum, sacerdotus sanctissimus " (Magnificent King of the Indies, most holy priest) probably was addressing the king of Abyssinia.

Mongols and Nestorians

The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan was friendly to Nestorians, and sent two monks as emissaries to the West. One of them, Rabban Sawma, arrived in Rome in l287 and visited "the cell of Mar Papa" [the home of the pope]. He found that the latest pope had died and that twelve cardinals were running the papacy. "Which of the Apostles taught the Gospel in your quarter of the world?" Sawma was asked. And he replied: "Mar Thomas, and Mar Addai, and Mar Mari taught the Gospel in our quarter of the world and we hold at the present time the canons which they delivered to us." A later Mongol conqueror was the ruin of the Church of the East. Nestorians were strongly established in Baghdad in the thirteenth century. Some would say they were then at their zenith. But in the following century they fell victim to Tamurlaine as he devastated Asia. He sacked the city, leaving a pyramid of skulls said to number 90,000. Driven from Baghdad, a remnant of Nestorians settled in northern Mesopotamia and eastern Turkey among the Kurds. In India the wandering medieval friars and other travelers testified to the low estate to which Nestorians had fallen. They were scattered about in small numbers.

In their mountain villages around the upper reaches of the Tigris, Nestorians sank into poverty and ignorance, forgotten by the western world. They were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by the British, active in that region for reasons of empire. Missionaries from the West followed. Their well-meant attentions aroused the envy and fury of the Nestorians' Kurdish and other tribal neighbors. An estimated 20,000 Nestorians were massacred.

The Nestorians (or Assyrians as they were called by Anglicans) fared no better in the twentieth century. They were again caught up in international politics, suffering further persecutions and bloodlettings at the hands of Ottoman Turks, l Kurds, and Iraqis. The catholicos eventually wound up in the United States, where he became a citizen. Some Nestorians remained in Iraq and Iran, but the largest number went to America. Only a pathetic remnant remained of the Thomas church that had once been the dominant form of Christianity in half the world.

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.