Traditions about Thaddaeus (aka “Judas, not Iscariot”)
The apocryphal Genealogies of the Apostles says that Thaddaeus was of the house of Joseph (thus of Ephraim or Manasseh),1 while a 13th century collection of biblical legends, called The Book of the Bee, says he was from the tribe of Judah.2
There was once a work entitled The Gospel of Thaddaeus, but no surviving copies exist. A third or fourth century work, called the Constitutions of the Apostles, which falsely claims to be a joint-effort of the twelve, has Thaddaeus teaching that a widow who recently lost her mate is not to be taken in by the church until she had proven that she was going to stay godly. The same writing claims that Thaddaeus said exorcists were not ordained (given that role by the church), but anyone who could prove they were truly an exorcist was to be ordained as a bishop, presbyter, or deacon.3
The Acts of Thaddaeus says that the apostle was born in Edessa, northwest of Asia Minor, and that he returned there after the ascension of Jesus to teach the king, Abgar, and the other inhabitants of the city, about the Lord. He had a very successful mission trip, and the king helped to destroy the idol temples in the area. Afterwards, it is said that he went south into Syria and preached there for five years before dying a natural death.4
Other traditions, however, include Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Persia among Thaddaeus’ mission fields. One early church historian says that Thaddaeus was martyred in Syria.5
Assadour Antreassian, in his book Jerusalem and the Armenians, states:
[A]ll Christian Churches accept the tradition that Christianity was preached in Armenia by the Apostles Thaddaeus and Bartholomew in the first half of the first century… Armenia was among the first to respond to the call of Christ so early. Thus, the above mentioned Apostles became the first illuminators of Armenia. The generally accepted chronology gives a period of eight years to the mission of St. Thaddaeus (35-43 AD) and sixteen years to that to St. Bartholomew (44-60 AD), both of whom suffered martyrdom in Armenia (Thaddaeus at Ardaze in 50 AD and Bartholomew at [Derbend] in 68 AD).6
Roman Catholic tradition says that in Persia, Thaddaeus was “martyred with a javelin or with arrows or by being tied to a cross.”7 Some claim that traditions have him murdered and buried in Egypt or Beirut.8 The most specific record of his death says that he was killed with arrows on Mt. Ararat.9
1 See Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, page 50.
2 See International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Thaddaeus.”
3 Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, chapters 25-26. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, page 493. Since the Bible describes bishops and presbyters (elders) as the same people, this later work cannot be considered authoritative at all.
4 The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thaddaeus, One of the Twelve. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, pages 558-559. The legend regarding King Abgar (or Abgarus) is fascinating. Abgar wrote to Jesus after hearing about the miracles He had done, inviting Him to come to Edessa to escape the horrible Jews. Jesus sent word back that after He ascended, He would send Thaddaeus to Edessa to preach. There are some documents which have a variation on this legend, making Thomas the missionary instead of Thaddaeus, or which have Thomas sending Thaddaeus. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 13) claims to have seen the original documents and translated them himself, including a response from Jesus.
5 See McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, page 198. The church historian is Nicephorus Callistus.
6 Assadour Antreassian, Jerusalem and the Armenians, page 20, as quoted in McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, page 199. McBirnie goes on to relate that other traditions date Thaddaeus’ missionary work in Armenia from 43-66.
7 Mary Sharp, Traveler’s Guide to Saints in Europe, as quoted by McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, page 202.
8 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Thaddaeus.” McBirnie, however, investigated these supposed traditions and discovered that the various religious groups in those areas had never heard of those traditions. See his The Search for the Twelve Apostles, pages 202-203.
9 McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, page 204.