EXPLORING OUR CATHOLIC PAST

Whatever Happened ... to the Apostles?

7. ST. THOMAS THE TWIN

By Paul Stenhouse, MSC, PhD

This is the seventh of a series of fourteen articles by PAUL STENHOUSE MSC discussing Catholic tradition concerning the twelve Apostles, their background, mission and manner of death. The thirteenth will be devoted to Judas Iscariot and the final article will treat of St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.'

ALL MEN called Thomas ultimately derive their names from the apostle of that name mentioned by the Synoptic gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and by St John.1 Up until the Norman conquest [1066 AD] Thomas is found in England only as a priest's name. In the late Middle Ages it was one of the most popular men's names [see Tom, Dick and Harry, or as in Shakespeare's Henry IV,2 Tom, Dick and Francis] but it owed its popularity principally to the love of the English Catholics for St Thomas à Becket, of Canterbury.

Henry VIII hated this martyred Archbishop who had incurred the wrath of his ancestor Henry II. After pillaging [20 cart-loads of gold and silver] and then destroying in 1538 the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury - regarded as the most beautiful shrine in Christendom - Henry VIII even changed the names of all the Churches dedicated to Thomas à Becket, to Thomas the Apostle.3

Thomas the apostle, familiarly known as the 'doubter' because of his refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead4 bore an Aramaic name האמא Toma which meant 'twin: in Greek ιδυμος hence the name he sometimes is given - 'Didymus.'

.. tradition has it that [Thomas] preached to the people of India. From the sixth century, a feast of the translation of his relics has been kept at Edessa on July 3.'

— Roman Breviary, Introduction to the Feast of St Thomas, Apostle, July 3.

The historian of early Christianity, Eusebius bishop of Caesarea [260- 340 AD] and The Apostolic Constitutions [written about 350 AD] tell us that Thomas's real name was Judah, which probably means that Toma was a surname [his father/grandfather may have had a twin]. He was probably called by his surname to distinguish him from the other Judahs mentioned in the Gospels: Judah, brother of St James `the Less, son of Alphaeus, whom we commonly call St Jude; and Judah from Kerioth, whom we know as the traitor Judas Iscariot.

The Clementine 'Homilies: a second century work wrongly attributed to Pope St Clement, relate that Toma had a twin brother called Eliezer; while other sources maintained that he had a twin sister called Lydia. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, [1863 ed.] quotes a source I've not been able to check that said that Thomas was born in Antioch.

Apart from Thomas's being mentioned in the lists of Apostles referred to above, St John has preserved three incidents that highlight traits of the character of Thomas who appears as a man slow to believe, looking at every side of a question [he has traditionally been represented always with a set square because he was a careful person. He is venerated as patron of architects and builders] courageous yet subject to despondency, tending to look at the negative side of things, yet filled with a burning love for his Master.

The first incident occurs when Jesus tells his disciples of the dangers facing him on his journey to Jerusalem as he journeyed to Bethany. Thomas remarked to his companions [John 11,16] `Let us also go, that we may die with him.'

The second occurred during the Last Supper [John14,5] when our Lord told his disciples that he was going to his Father to prepare a place for them, and that they know the way. Thomas replied, `Lord we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?'

The third incident occurred after the Resurrection, and is the best known of all three. [John 20,25] Thomas wasn't present when our Lord appeared to his disciples, and when he was told that he had appeared to them he refused to believe 'unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will not believe it'. When our Lord appeared the next day and Thomas saw him, he was so overcome by joy that he exclaimed in extraordinary words that have been uttered myriad times by believers down the millennia: 'My Lord and my God'.

St Augustine comments: 'Thomas doubted, to allay our doubts. Pope St Gregory the Great put it even more clearly: 'The doubt of Thomas is of more benefit to us in our search for Faith, than the faith of the disciples who believed.'5

Thomas features in the New Testament only twice after this wonderful profession of Faith: once on the Lake with the seven disciples, [John 21,2] where he is ranked after Peter; and in the group of Apostles listed after the Ascension. [Acts 1,13].

The travels of St Thomas after the Apostles set out in obedience to our Lord's command to 'bear witness' to Him 'to the end of the earth,'6 are well attested.

Eusebius of Caesarea, [260-340],7 the Historian Socrates [380-450]8 and the Clementine 'Recognitions' [attributed to Pope St Clement of Rome, but extant only in the latin of Rufinus who died in 410AD]9 all mention that he preached the Gospel among the Parthians.

St Jerome says that he was also in Persia.10 St Gregory Nazianzen, [329- 389],11 Pseudo-Dorothaeus [the real Dorothaeus of Tyr appears to have died in 362]12 and Nicephorus of Constantinople [1266-1335]13 add that he preached the Gospel in India and was martyred there.

Christians belonging to the Malabar Rite [Catholic and Nestorian] trace their Church back to St Thomas the Apostle. Some sceptics think that they are confusing the Apostle with a Nestorian missionary of the same name who died in India, but this argument is a peculiarly 19th century one: agnostics can't believe that Thomas the apostle went to India, therefore he didn't.

Nor is the apostolate and death of Thomas the Apostle in India to be ruled out just because his tomb is supposed to be in Edessa [in modern day Urfa, in Turkey, not all that far from Mosul in Iraq].14

St John Chrysostom says that St Thomas's tomb in Edessa is as well known as the tombs of St Peter and Paul in Rome, and the tomb of St John the Evangelist in Ephesus. It is not inconceivable that the body of the saint was brought back to Edessa after his martyrdom in India. The Roman Breviary [quoted above] notes the tradition that he preached in India, as well as the fact that a Feast of the translation [i.e. transference] of his relics is celebrated in Edessa on July 3rd. The relics could well have been brought from India. But God knows best.

  1. Matthew 10,3; Mark, 3,18; Luke, 6,15; Acts 1,13.
  2. II, iv, 9.
  3. The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian names, Oxford, 1950, p.267.
  4. John 20,25ff.
  5. Homily 26, In Evangelism 7, Migne: tome 76, col. 1201.
  6. Acts 1,8.
  7. Ecclesiastical History, 111,1.
  8. Ecclesiastical History, I, 19.
  9. 9,29.
  10. De Vitis Apostolorum, 5 [Migne, tome xxiii, co1.721].
  11. Orat.xxxiii, ad Arian,II.
  12. Migne, Patres Graecitome xcii, 7, col 1072.
  13. Ecclesiastical History,II,40.
  14. See St John Chrysostom, Hom. in Heb. 26.



From "Annals Australasia" January/February 2005

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