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St Thomas preaching the Gospel to Jews and then to others in India 52 A.D.

In India Christianity is the third largest religion. With 19.6 million followers amounting to 2.34% of the population it is behind both the Hindus and Moslems but still a significant factor. How did Christianity make it to India from its roots in the Middle East and how long ago did it make that trip? The answer can be surprising.

When we think of the spread of Christianity following the death and resurrection of Jesus and his Disciples spreading the word we think in terms of what is written in the New Testament and tend to compartmentalize. We read the Acts of the Apostles preaching the word in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and then going up to Italy. We forget that there was Egypt where the Gospel of Thomas was found and that it was also going down into Africa. We do this because most of the books in the New Testament were either written by Paul or in letters attributed to him and dealt with a much localized area. We forget that the ancient world was far more complicated than we imagine.

There was a vast trading complex taking place between India and the West taking advantage of the Monsoon winds to carry vast ships over the waves. As a result when traders from the West started routing trade with India they were surprised to discover a history of Christian Churches and Christianity in what they considered a faraway land. How to explain this? One of the things that must be remembered is the command to go forth unto all the world and spread the Gospel. Paul interpreted this, along with visions he claimed to have had of Jesus telling him just this. This was at odds with James the actual younger brother of Jesus who among other things said do you think I who grew up with him wouldn’t have discussed this? There was also Simon Peter who disputed that the Gentiles were to be given the good news. In fact since the Messiah was solely a Jewish concept why would the gentiles be interested at all? This was changed as Paul advanced new concepts regarding the death of Jesus making it the entire world that he had come to redeem.

In this manner taking the news of the story of Jesus to Egypt involved ministering to Jews who were living there in colonies. The way India supposedly became the next to be saved is reported in Wikipedia as: An early 3rd-century Syriac work known as the Acts of Thomas connects the tradition of the apostle Thomas' Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. The year of his arrival is widely disputed due to lack of credible records. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission but the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. The apostle's ministry reputedly resulted in many conversions throughout this northern kingdom, including the king and his brother. The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadwa, one of the rulers of a 1st-century dynasty in southern India. According to the tradition of the Mar Thoma or “Church of Thomas,” Thomas evangelized along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India, though the various churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. He reputedly preached to all classes of people and had about seventeen thousand converts, including members of the four principal castes. According to legend, St. Thomas attained martyrdom at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai and is buried on the site of San Thome Cathedral.

So in keeping with the concept that this Jewish sect was not preaching to gentiles but fellow Jews it was certainly keeping the tradition of a Jewish Rabbi and his works when he came to India in what is reckoned to be 52 C.E. The movement also took on the name of Syriac because as a dialect of Aramaic it is what the Jews there would have spoken. Why did it catch on and why did St. Thomas end up founding seven churches in India and then up into China? Because the concept that God’s Son came down to earth, was executed and then rose again from the dead had an appeal to the people there. When Europeans finally rounded the cape and began to explore northward they were amazed to find that the Christian Religion here had Indian trappings and traditions. Actually many books and writings were destroyed by priests who viewed them as works of the Devil. They were also appalled that the Pope was not regarded as the head of the church here though there was an Eastern Orthodox presence. Perhaps this history gives a much different picture of Doubting Thomas and he should be recognized as one who truly did go out into the entire world to preach the Gospel.

In addition also cited: St. Thomas traveled from Kottakavu or Crangannur, now called Kodungallur (Mussiris) and landed at Palayur by boat through the backwaters. At that time, Palayur was a stronghold of the Brahmins and also of Jews. He came to visit the Jewish merchants at Palayur at "Judankunnu" (meaning the hill of Jews) and to preach the Christian gospel. The place has since become a dry land but its historicity as a boat jetty called locally as 'Bottukulam' has been preserved as a monument to St. Thomas (see picture).[4] [5]

Of the seven churches originally established by St. Thomas, only three namely, Palayoor in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archdiocese of Thrissur, Parur in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam, and Niranam under the Orthodox Syrian Church (Devalokam Aramana) could claim continuity, while the remaining four churches have undergone several cnanges in their locations.[6]

It is stated that a Hindu temple that was abandoned by the Brahmins was converted into the present church. Further, as a proof of Jewish settlements existing when St Thomas arrived here in 52 AD, ruins of a synagogue could be seen near a Hindu temple, close to the church. Temple remnants in the form of broken idols, sculptures and relics of the old temple can also be seen near the precincts of the church, in addition to two large tanks near the west and east gates of the church.[7]

It is also stated that the conversion of Brahmins has resulted in such an aversion among the Nambudri Brahmins that they do not even accept cold water or tender coconut water anywhere in the vicinity of the Church.[citation needed] It is recorded that St. Thomas stayed in India for 17 years;4 years in Sindh (now in Pakistan), about 6 years in Malabar and 7 years at Mylapuram or Mailapore in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Postal Service of the Government of India brought out two commemorative stamps, in 1964 and 1973, in honor of the historic arrival of St. Thomas in India in 52 AD.[8]

St. Thomas was proclaimed 'The Apostle of India' by the Holy See. His skeleton remains were brought to India in 1953 by Cardinal Tisserant.[8] Furthermore, a document called ‘Grandavariola’ kept by a local Brahmin family (who had moved out from Palayur during the preaching) testifies to the date of the gospel work of St. Thomas as the Indian equivilant of 52 A.D.

So when we read the New Testament remember there was a whole world out there unknown to those who wrote only a limited story of what was happening. Finds in Egypt and India point to a whole new story which is in the words of the late Paul Harvey, “The rest of the story.”


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