Traditions about Thomas
Who was Thomas’ Twin?
The name Thomas is the Aramaic word for “twin,” and John informs us that he was “called Didymus,” which also means “twin.” Thus, this was his nickname as well. Guy N. Woods says, “It seems most likely that Thomas had a twin brother or sister; how else may his name be accounted for; but, there is no mention of either in the sacred writings.”1 But that hasn’t stopped people from making guesses.
One tradition is that he had a twin sister named Lysia, while another tradition says he was the twin brother of Jesus Himself, and is to be identified as Jude2 (there is a lot of extra-biblical evidence to suggest his name was Judas Thomas). 3 Another tradition is that his twin brother was named Eliezer.4
The “Gospel of Thomas”
There are two different writings with this title. One of them makes up stories about Jesus as a youth, such as these:
Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the fjord of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to His father Joseph: “Behold, your son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath.” And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying, “Why are you doing on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do?” And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them, “Off you go!” And the sparrows flew, and went off crying…
And the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a willow branch, and let out the water which Jesus had collected. And Jesus, seeing what was done, was angry, and said to him, “O wicked, impious, and foolish! What harm did the pools and the waters do to you? Behold, even now you shall be dried up like a tree, and you will not bring forth either leaves, or root, or fruit.” And immediately that boy was dried up. And Jesus departed and went to Joseph’s house. But the parents of the boy that had been dried up took him up, bewailing his youth, and brought him to Joseph, and reproached him because, they said, “You have such a child doing these things.”
After that, He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him, “You shall not go back the way you came.” And immediately he fell down dead. … The parents of the dead boy went to Joseph, and blamed him, saying, “Since you have such a child, it is impossible for you to live with us in the village; or else teach Him to bless, and not to curse, for He is killing our children.”5
This work, usually referred to as The Gospel According to Thomas, was a favorite among the Naasseni, a second-century Gnostic sect. 6
Another work, titled The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus which was discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library. About half of the sayings are similar to things found in the true gospel accounts, while the others seem to have a Gnostic origin/slant to them.
“Acts of Thomas”
This work, which some experts date to the first century, was held in high esteem among some of the heretical groups.7 “The main heresy which it contained was that the apostle Thomas baptized, not with water, but with oil only.”8 This work may be the origin of the tradition that Thomas evangelized in India.
The story begins with the apostles gathered together to assign regions of missionary work. Thomas got stuck with India, and wasn’t happy about it. He complained, then prayed, saying, “Wherever You wish to send me, send me elsewhere; for I am not going to the Indians.”
So, Jesus appears and finds a traveling Indian merchant who is looking for a carpenter, then tells him, “I have a slave, a carpenter, and I wish to sell him.” And He points to Thomas at a distance, and then writes out a bill of sale that says, “I, Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter, declare that I have sold my slave, Judas by name, to you Abbanes, and merchant of Gundaphoros, the king of the Indians.” Then Jesus went to Thomas and began walking with him to Abbanes. The Indian merchant asked Thomas, “Is this your master?” Thomas said, “Yes.” The Indian says, “I have bought you from him.” And Thomas was silent.
They go to a wedding feast in India where Thomas is hit on the head by a wine-pourer for using too much perfume, then Thomas prophesies that the man will be forgiven for this action in the world to come, but on the earth, he was going to be killed. Thomas then sings a song in Hebrew (so no one there understands), and a lion kills the wine-pourer.
Later, Jesus appears to the groom, who thinks He is Thomas, for they looked identical.9 The wedded couple is converted to the Lord, which greatly upsets the king of India, and he demands Thomas be arrested. But Thomas had already sailed away to other parts of India.
Some time afterwards, the merchant who had bought Thomas went to see the king because the king wanted a new palace built. He hired Thomas to build it, and provided him with money to buy materials and to pay the workers. Several months later, Thomas sends him a message that the temple is done. So the king comes to the city, and asks where the temple is, and the people told him, “He has neither built a palace nor done anything else of what he promised to do; but he goes around the cities and districts, and if he has anything, he gives all to the poor and teaches that there is one God, and heals the diseased and drives out demons…” So the king tracks down Thomas and asks him directly, “Have you built me a palace?” And Thomas replies, “Yes, I built it.” The King says, “When, then, are we to go and see it?” Thomas’ reply is, “You can’t see it now; but when you have departed this life, then you will see it.” So Thomas and the merchant are thrown into jail while the king decides how he wants to kill them.
But, in the night, the king’s brother dies, is taken to heaven, and sees the palace that was built in heaven for his brother, and demands to be taken back to the land of the living so he can buy it from the king. The king, seeing his brother come back from the dead believes about the heavenly palace, and frees Thomas and follows him.10
Other Traditions about Thomas
A work attributed to Clement of Rome states that Thomas argued before Caiaphas that what Jesus taught was exactly what the Old Testament prophets believed.11 Later, the same writer said that seven years after the Lord’s ascension, Thomas was preaching to the Parthians.12
Clement of Alexandria seems to argue that Thomas did not die a martyr’s death.13 But Hippolytus says:
Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with pine spears at Calamene, the city of India, and was buried there.14
This story about his death is also recorded in Consummation of Thomas the Apostle.15
The Christians of St. Thomas
In India, in the 1500s, Portuguese sailors landed and discovered a group who called themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.” This group taught the necessity of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and were governed by elders. The rejected the authority of the pope, and rejected celibacy for their ministers. They rejected praying to saints, and rejected images. As a result, they came under heavy persecution from the Catholics, including torture and death. Well over half of the Christians of St. Thomas finally accepted Catholicism.16
But their existence does seem to give some validity to the missionary work of Thomas in India.
-Bradley S. Cobb
2 McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 10, page 367. Eusebius seems to make this connection as well, though he doesn’t say that this Judas is the brother of Jesus. Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 13, paragraph 10. The east Syrian (Mesopotamian) churches still identify Thomas with Jude, and call him the twin brother of Jesus.
3 In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, he is called “Judas Thomas,” and the names are used of him interchangeably. The Old Syriac translation of the New Testament reads “Judas Thomas” instead of “Judas, not Iscariot” in John 14:22.
4 See Homily II, Chapter 1, in the Pseudo-Clementine Literature section of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 229. It is possible that this is a different Thomas, but it is noteworthy that he is a twin and accompanies Peter and Zacchaeus.
5 The Gospel of Thomas, first Greek form, 2-4. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 395.
6 This quote is given by Hippolytus in The Refutation of All Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 2. See Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, page 50.
7 There is debate among scholars whether this was originally written in Syriac, then translated to Greek, or if it was first in Greek, then in Syriac, and then back into Greek when the original Greek writing was lost. It is highly doubtful that this book is to be dated any later than the middle second-century.
8 From Professor M.B. Riddle’s “Introductory Notice” to the Apocryphal Acts in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 357.
9 If this were true, it would explain why the Jewish leaders needed Judas to identify Jesus. They wouldn’t want to accidentally grab Thomas instead.
10 The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, pages 535-549.
11 Recognitions of Clement, Book 1, Chapter 61. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 93.
12 Recognitions of Clement, Book 9, Chapter 29. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 189. Origen agreed with this assessment, see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 13.
13 Clement of Alexandria, Strata, or Miscellanies, 3.4.25. Found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Page 385.
14 Hippolytus on the Twelve Apostles. Where Each of Them Preacher, and Where He Met His End. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, page 255.
15 This work is a sequel of sorts to Acts of Thomas, and many consider it to be part of the same writing.
16 This information comes from McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 10, page 368.