Thomas the Apostle Biography

Thomas the Apostle, also known as St. Thomas or Didymus, was a missionary from Galilee, Roman Empire, who played a significant role in the New Testament. Despite being one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, Thomas gained the nickname of the “Doubting Thomas” due to his initial skepticism towards Jesus’s resurrection. However, his loyalty and encouragement towards his fellow apostles were evident in his actions. Later in life, Thomas became a missionary in Kerala, India, where he converted many locals to Christianity and built numerous churches. Unfortunately, he met a tragic end, being stabbed to death in Mylapore. Today, Thomas is revered as the patron saint of India, the blind, and craftsmen, leaving a lasting impact on both his homeland and the faith he preached.

Quick Facts

  • Nick Name: doubting Thomas
  • Also Known As: Judas Thomas
  • Born Country: Israel
  • Spiritual & Religious Leaders
  • Israeli Male
  • Died on: December 21, 72
  • Place of death: St Thomas Mount
  • Cause of Death: Killed

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thomas the Apostle, also known as Thoma Sheliha, Jumeau (French), and Didymus (meaning “twin” in Greek), was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ mentioned in the New Testament. Not much is known about Thomas’s early years. He was probably born in 1st century A.D. in Galilee, Roman Empire (modern-day Israel). He was a Jew, but nothing is known about how he turned into an apostle of Christ.

Mention in the New Testament

Thomas appears in Matthew (10:3), Luke (6), Mark (3:18), and Acts of the Apostles (1:13). However, he is most elaborately mentioned in the Gospel of John. The most significant feature of his character was his loyalty. When Jesus said he wished to visit Lazarus who had died in Judea, Thomas encouraged his fellow disciples to accompany him, so that they could “die with him” (John 11:16). John 14:1-5 mentions St. Thomas as the one who objected before the Last Supper. Thomas could not comprehend Jesus’s reference to his own death and resurrection. He asked Jesus how they would know the way. Jesus responded by saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Thomas is also known for not being in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his “Resurrection” for the first time. He doubted Jesus’s resurrection when he first heard of it from the other apostles. Thomas is thus also known as the “Doubting Thomas” or the “Doubting Apostle.” He later accepted his mistake when he saw the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’s body and fell at Jesus’s feet.

His Mission in India and Death

Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala in India believe that Thomas the Apostle had left the Roman Empire and traveled all the way to the Malabar Coast (modern-day Kerala) to preach the gospels. Some also believe that Thomas had first reached northwest India but had left the area when there was an invasion. He had then traveled to the Malabar Coast in a vessel, probably passing through southeast Arabia and Socotra on his way. They believe Thomas had reached Muziris (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor/Cranganore in Kerala, India) in 52 A.D. (or 50 A.D.). He was accompanied by Jewish merchant Abbanes (or Hebban). He soon began preaching the gospels in the Malabar coast. He also established numerous churches along the Periyar River and the nearby areas which had Jewish colonies. He also ordained teachers and elders, who were the earliest representatives of the Malankara Church. The churches he built were located at Kodungallur, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Palayoor, Kottakkavu (Paravur), Kollam, Kokkamangalam, and Thiruvithamcode. Thomas also baptized many families, such as the Sankaramangalam, Pakalomattom, Nedumpally, Kaliyankal, Payyappilly, Mampally, and Kalli families. The Ainatu family from Kerala claims they have descended from the Tamil Brahmins (or Iyers) who had been converted to Christianity by Thomas in Mylapore. When Pope Benedict XVI visited India in 2006, he confirmed that Thomas had landed in western India, probably at a place that is part of present-day Pakistan. He then spread Christianity from there to southern India. This started a debate among believers of Christianity in Kerala, as many believed Thomas had directly landed in Kerala. Some also believe that St. Thomas was actually Thomas of Cana who had traveled to Kerala from the Middle East between the 4th and the 9th century. It is said that Thomas was killed with a spear, and thus martyred, in 72 A.D. in Mylapore, near Madras. In 1341, a devastating flood destroyed the port city, after which the structure of the coastal area changed. Syrian tales specifically mention that Thomas was martyred on July 3, 72 A.D. at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai and was later interred in Mylapore. Some say he died on December 21 the same year. According to Ephrem the Syrian, Thomas was first killed in India and then his relics were carried to Edessa. Barbosa’s records, dating back to the 16th century, state that Thomas’s tomb (in India) was initially taken care of by a Muslim who kept a lamp burning at the spot. The San Thomé Basilica in Mylapore, which is situated at Thomas’s tomb, was constructed by the Portuguese settlers in the 16th century. It was then rebuilt in the 19th century. Muslims consider it a revered place. The Acts of Thomas (Acta Thomae, written in Syriac) has a different version of the story. It states that Thomas had initially visited an Indo-Parthian king named Gondophernes. The king had assigned him the task of building a royal palace, as Thomas was a carpenter. However, when Thomas spent the money given to him (for the construction) on charity, the king imprisoned him. He was later freed of his slavery. He had then started building churches. The work mentions Thomas was killed during the reign of the king of Mylapore, in Madras (modern-day Chennai). It is also believed that Thomas had initially stated he was not healthy enough to go to India and preach. He had also said that a Hebrew would not be a suitable teacher for Indians. However, Christ had then sold Thomas as a slave to a merchant, who had taken him to the king in India. It is believed Thomas the Apostle’s relics were carried to Ortona, Abruzzo, Italy, in 1258. The relics remain in Italy, in the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Other Interpretations

Some Syrian traditions state that Thomas’s full name was Judas Thomas. The Acts of Thomas, too, identify Saint Thomas with the apostle Judas, Son of James, also known as Jude. The first sentence of the work, however, differentiates between Thomas and Judas. James Tabor felt Thomas was actually Judah, Jesus brother who was mentioned in Mark. The Book of Thomas the Contender, which is part of the Nag Hammadi library, states that Thomas was probably a twin of Jesus. Another tale states that Thomas the Apostle was the only one to witness the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The other apostles were in Jerusalem to witness her death. Though Thomas was in India, following Mary’s first burial, he was transported to her tomb, where he witnessed her rise to heaven.

Culture and Legacy

Thomas the Apostle is the patron saint of India. He is also the patron saint of the visually challenged (due to his spiritual blindness), craftsmen (including carpenters, architects, and masons), theologians, and geometricians. Anybody who refuses to believe in something without first-hand experience is known as a “Doubting Thomas,” referring to Thomas’s initial refusal to believe in the tales of Jesus’s resurrection. Initially, the Roman calendar mentioned his feast day as December 21. In 1969, it was transferred to July 3. Roman Catholics who follow the General Roman Calendar dating back to 1960 or earlier and Anglicans such as those of the Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and the Lutheran Church continue to celebrate Thomas’s feast day on December 21. However, a large number of modern liturgical calendars (such as that of the Church of England) celebrates his feast day on July 3. According to the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, his feast day is on October 6. The Sunday following Easter (Pascha) is regarded as the Sunday of Thomas. Thomas the Apostle is also commemorated (with the other apostles) on June 30 (July 13, according to another calendar version), in what is known as the Synaxis of the Holy Apostles.

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