« The Lost Slaves | Main | Independence day »

July 04, 2004

Thomas the twin

Saturday was the commemoration of the life and work of St Thomas, Apostle, disciple, and some say martyr. Having had the pleasure of leading the Office of Evening Prayer in the Upper Room Chapel at the Abbey, it was an opportunity to contemplate his life and his achievements from his starting point of scepticism and doubt. He appears in several places in the Gospels and then we hear little of him thereafter, yet he was as active as Peter, Paul, James, John, and the rest. To us, in the Western Church he is something of an enigma, not least since he alone of the disciples was invited to touch the risen Christ.

Even his name in our versions of the Gospels is enigmatic since "Thomas" is Hebrew for "Twin" and the Gospels refer to him as "Thomas Didymus" - translated in our versions as "Thomas the Twin", yet in effect the Gospels call him simply "The Twin". Since the discovery of a complete version of his Gospel in the Coptic Church in the late 1960's, we know him as a writer, as well, yet his gospel is not (and neither is another document known as "The Acts of Thomas") included in our canon of scripture. We do not know the reasons behind the decision by the Council of Nicea to exclude it, perhaps it simply repeated what the othwers already said, or it may be that as his work had been done further East, it was not considered authoritive. It may even be that there was no one who could vouch for the authorship.

At all events, it was not included in our canon and we can only speculate on the thinking that excluded it. That said, a read of it (it is available in translation) certainly adds little to what we already have. Scholars speculate that one of the common sources of three of the four Gopsels is a source called "Q" which was a list of "sayings of Jesus". Mark uses this, Matthew expands on it, and Luke also quotes from it. "Q" is now lost completely, but Thomas seems to include a large part of that material and adds a few more of its own. Some argue that Thomas' gospel is a Gnostic gospel; this is not the case, yet it does differ from the others in some subtle, yet radical ways. According to Thomas, the Kingdom has come and is here among us. Salvation is here and now, not at some future date, and we must grasp it in the present in order to enjoy the fruits of it.

Remember, this is the man who in disbelief, touched the risen Christ and believed.

So what do we know of his subsequent life? Not a lot really, except that he travelled widely in modern Iraq, Iran, and finally into the South of India. Along the way he established communities, converting people to the message of Christ, baptising and instituting the Communion among those who accepted the Gospel message. His Church, now known as the Church of South India, was flourishing when the first Christian Missionaries arrived in Madras and Goa in 1500. I would love to have seen the faces of the Missioners as they encountered this fully developed Christian Church on the sub-continent for the first time.

Thomas died and was buried among his converts in India, a small white tomb covering his remains until the Portugese learned who was buried there and took the remains back to Portugal where he now rests in a more elaborate tomb and reliquary. Thomas fulfilled his calling and lived to see his doubts overwhelmed in the faith he planted. It is well we should remember him and celebrate his work.

Peace be with you - may we too find the strength in faith as Thomas did.

Posted by The Gray Monk at July 4, 2004 08:25 AM


You state categorically that the Gospel of Thomas is not a Gnostic gospel, but much (not all) of what I've read about it has stated the opposite. I'm wondering what you base that on and what makes you so certain of that assessment.

I've also heard much about the theory that the Gospel of Thomas includes much from "Q" that's been otherwise lost, and from what I've read and seen that certainly seems the most likely case.

I personally like the text quite a bit - the sayings are pretty interesting and insightful, whatever philosophical/religious tradition (Gnostic or more "purely" Christian) prompted them.

Posted by: Russell Newquist at July 7, 2004 05:55 PM

If the dating is correct it actually predates Gnosticism and many of its thoughts fall between that and Docetism which is the heresy that St John was worked up about in his letters and in his Revelations. It may well refelct a sort of proto-Gnostic doctrine, but I am informed by a very good lecturer on these and other heresies that Thomas is not Gnostic.

Posted by: The Gray Monk at July 8, 2004 12:33 PM