Thomas-Malabar Connection & The Jewish Heritage, A Biblical & Analytical ApproachAuthored by Josephgpal on Sunday, December 30, 2007 10:57 127 Comments
This short article is an attempt to view the Thomas tradition from a Biblical perspective with an analytical lens. Hence this should not be treated as a stand-alone article but must be read in conjunction with other historical information which are not stressed or cited in here.
I. Why is it so Difficult to Believe in Thomas-Malabar Connection
The apostle Thomas found it difficult to believe the Resurrection of his Master from death until he saw Him personally. Today modern “scholars” find it even more difficult to believe in the apostleship of Thomas to Kerala. Why is it so difficult to believe in the Kerala Christianity as started from the first century?
Even today after so many archeological evidences have come up to corroborate the Middle East connection of Malabar Coast from the BC period, so many skeptics still adamantly deny this historical fact as hoax. It is true that tradition as such is not to be trusted unless otherwise proved to be fact supported by the other branches of knowledge.
In this article I try to see the Thomas tradition analytically from the point of view of the foundation of all knowledge; the Bible. The Biblical historical facts together with the latest archeological evidences strongly point to the Thomas tradition as a fact.
When the Problem Started?
It has become a modern scholarly fashion to deny anything and everything in the fields of literature and history. This tendency takes the force of a tornado when it comes to religion and Bible. Whatever was established as absolute truth in the past centuries have become suddenly the object of much disputation and doubts. Hence we hear great scholars claiming that Moses never existed, Joshua never existed, Isaiah never existed, Hittites never existed, gospels were not written by the apostles etc, etc.
Even in modern times one hears that Shakespeare never wrote the plays which are credited to his name throughout the previous centuries! This is the modern scholarship! When one considers this “modern” phenomenon, one gets to know the real cause BEHIND this development and can pinpoint it as ……the theory of evolution!! Yes, it has revolutionized the modern scholarship so thoroughly that today whoever opposes this “theory” is considered as “uneducated”. This theory (which works BEHIND the modern scholarship) in history and literature goes something like this: that the modern human beings are at the latest stage of advanced evolutionary spectrum and the ancient people were not as “evolved” as we are in intellectual faculty and hence we cannot depend on their statements and historical records.
In the Biblical textual criticism, one scholar named Julius Wellhausen changed all the previously held concepts. He claimed that Moses never wrote the Pentateuch, that in fact the Old Testament was orally transmitted fables which were recorded at different periods in time by different people and that the Pentateuch is a “synthesis” of at least four traditions (Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomical). Gradually this spirit of distrust on the word of God spread to almost all the books in the Bible.
This is in spite of the fact that Jesus Himself claimed emphatically several times that “Moses WROTE” the Pentateuch (John 5:46, Mark 10:5 as examples). So either Jesus is a liar or Wellhausen is a liar. But if Jesus is a liar then we do not have a Savior, there is no Messiah, there is no redemption, there is no Christianity and there is NO NASRANIS! Then those ancient prophets and apostles who forsook everything including their family and ultimately gave up their lives for the name of Christ were all idiots and fools!
But the modern archeological excavations have been proving time and again that the persons, the places, the races and the incidents are as historical as what is happening today. Moreover, archaeology has proven that the art of writing was used even before Moses’ time. Moses could write the Law because he “was instructed in all the wisdom of Egyptians and was powerful in words and in works” (Acts 7:22). Remember Egypt was the super power when Moses was raised as the son for 40 years in the palace of Pharaoh (Acts 7:23). So God made sure that he got the best education available!!
Wellhausen and Thomas
This same Wellhausen spirit has been present in the study of Thomas Christianity in Kerala. The so called scholars simply deny the historicity of Thomas’ visit to India. But we do have many Biblical, traditional, historical and archeological evidences to support the Thomas visit. However the skeptical scholars give us a concession by stating that Christianity came to Kerala during the time of Portuguese, Dutch and British rules and not earlier.
But two things refute this false claim; the name “St. Thomas Christians” and the presence of Syriac language. If the Europeans brought Christianity to Kerala, naturally the name will be either Anglican Church or Dutch church etc. and the liturgical language will not be Syriac but English or Dutch or Latin.
Thus we can establish easily that the Kerala Christians go back even before the European missionaries. But the question is, since what time.
II. Thomas Came to Malabar
The Bible itself claims as the sure word of God tested and proved seven times like Silver by God Himself (Psalm 12:6). It contains history, doctrines, biographies, advices, prophecies, definitions etc. So it is a good starting point for Thomas visit to Kerala.
The New Testament Pattern
The New Testament clearly shows that the disciples took Jesus their Master as seriously and literally. (Remember the incident of the mother of Zebedee brothers coming to Jesus and requesting for the most important positions in the Kingdom of God). Whatever He commanded them, they did.
Initially Jesus prohibited them from proclaiming the gospel to the gentiles (Matt.10:5-6, 15:24). He commanded them to preach ONLY to the lost house of Israel. Even at the time of His ascension, He did not command them to go to the gentiles but only to the Jews and the lost house of Israel. In Acts 1:8 Jesus commands His disciples, “but you will receive power, the Holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be witnesses of Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”. Indeed they did go to the ends of the world! But still, to the disciples, this “end of the earth” DID NOT include gentiles!!!
This is contrary to the popular beliefs!
It is much afterwards (read Acts chapter 10 fully) when God through a vision to Peter opens the door to the gentiles!! Here, if you read carefully you will notice that God had to do miracles to CONVINCE the Jewish Christians who came along with Peter. Usually a person has to get baptized first and laid hands on and then only he receives the Holy Spirit. But in this case the order was REVERSED! They received the Holy Spirit first and then Peter asked them to be baptized!
For this action, that of opening the door to the gentiles, Peter is cross examined in Jerusalem by the Jewish Christians there (Acts 11:1-3)! When the Jewish Christians came to know about this incident they get ASTONISHED (Acts 10:45/ 11:18). Why? Because it was NEVER in their mind to preach the gospel to the gentiles!!
Even the original converts in Antioch were Jews only, NOT gentiles (Acts 11:19)! It is after Peter opened the door to the gentiles that gentiles were converted in Antioch also (Acts 11:20)!
Even then the FIRST PREFERNCE always went to the children of Israel. The pattern was always “to the Jews first and then to the gentiles” (See Acts13:46-47, Rom 1:16, and 2:9-10, 3:2). Even at a very later stage of his life, the apostle to the gentiles, Paul gives first preference to the Jews. Read the last chapter of Acts. When Paul reaches Rome as a comparatively free prisoner he calls the elders of the Jews together in Rome to proclaim the gospel FIRST (Acts 28:17).
Again there was another pattern of custom among the apostles. None worked among a church founded by another apostle unless it was an emergency (Rom.15:20/ 2 Cor.10:15-16). It was always the same apostle and his assistants who founded and sustained the same church. This was in line with one of the Ten Commandments; thou shall not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor.
We have to remember that of all the apostles, ONLY Paul and Barnabas were exclusively selected as “apostles of the gentiles” (Gal.2:9, Rom.11:13). None of the original 12 apostles were ever called in the Bible as apostles of the gentiles. They were in fact sent exclusively to the lost house of Israel (James 1:1). This does not mean that they rejected any gentile who came to Christ. They happily accepted any gentile who came into the faith. But basically and more importantly they were to search and go to the lost house of Israel including the Jews who were scattered all over the earth.
Viewed in this way, we can know for sure that Apostle Thomas was NOT an apostle of the gentiles. I can emphatically state that Thomas came to India looking for Jews and other lost Israelites on the Malabar Coast including Mumbai and China. But like all the genuine apostles of Christ, he never rejected any gentile, but he came basically looking for Israelites.
In the New Testament we see that Antioch and Syria was already converted by others. So it is highly unlikely that Thomas ever worked in Antioch but as history shows he went east of Syria and that will take him straight to Indo-Parthian Empire and Far East!
Again if we can follow the Acts of the Apostles as a guideline to know how the “primitive” apostles’ style of functioning which never was contradictory, we can see that they had several missionary journeys to the same places. Read how many times Paul traveled on the same routes but each time farther and farther. On his fourth and a very long journey he reached Rome and was acquitted from death sentence (2 Tim.4:16-17). Tradition says he made a fifth and final journey to Rome and succumbed to death by beheading.
He himself says that he wanted to travel as far as Spain (Rom 15:24). Again tradition says that he reached even unto the British Isles! And remember that the journeys into the then Europe was a dangerous affair as just about 80 years before, Julius Caesar was fighting the barbarian Germanic tribes who knew nothing but destruction and looting.
If the apostles could travel and proclaim gospel to the barbarian countries in the far west, it was much easier for Thomas to travel Far East into a land which was civilized and friendly and which lay on the centuries old trade routes compared to the barbaric Europe.
The fact is Thomas made several missionary journeys in to the Far East to establish new churches among the Jews and later to sustain them just like all the other apostles did. His first journey took him to Indo-Parthian kingdom of Gondophorus which lies in the North West side of present India and his second journey took him to the Malabar and Coromandel area. His third and final journey took him to China.
Why Thomas Came to India.
Let us forget the Evolutionary idea and grasp an important truth about these ancient people. They were more intelligent and hard working people than we are and they knew exactly what they were doing! Much of their work and writings have been hidden by time and earth or destroyed by the incessant wars and other natural calamities which continued ever after. [I do not say that they never made mistakes or that we do not need to check for any error in their works. But my point is they made mistakes ONLY AS MUCH AS we the modern people do! Today also we need to sift through original and spurious works by the current authors. There is a big difference between propagandist history and genuine history. The propagandist historian (for example a Marxist) first makes the conclusion he wants and then sift through historical information and select only those facts which suits his conclusions whereas a genuine historian first goes through the history, collects all the facts and then makes his conclusion. Both types of historians existed throughout history. We need to be careful.]
If we study the pattern, as I said earlier, of the apostles in the New Testament and especially the Acts we see that they followed the same pattern; proclaim gospel first to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, then to the mixed people of Samaria (Hebrews and Assyrians were mixed in Samaria) and then to the ends of the earth (where to the Jews first and then to the gentiles).
As serious priority was given to the Jews first we can understand that Jesus and the apostles wanted to cover the Jews in the entire world wherever they could be found. Why?
Because God made the first covenant with Israel, He prophesied He will make a second and better covenant WITH THE SAME people (Jer.31:31, 33). Unlike the first covenant which the entire Israel accepted, the second covenant was “accepted” but only by a very few not by the entire Israel. It is when they rejected the second covenant that God called the gentiles to the covenant (Matt.22:2-10).
However it was necessary on God’s part to send the message of the second covenant to each Jewish community on the earth “for a witness” (courtesy Matthew 24:14) so that they cannot complain that they did not accept it because they did not hear it! That is why Jesus included the Israelites on the “end of the earth”.
Is God powerful enough to do this? The answer is yes. If it is God who scattered the Israelites and Jews all over the world He knows exactly where to find them. “For, behold, I will command, and I will shake the house of Israel AMONG ALL THE NATIONS, as one shakes with a sieve; yet NOT A GRAIN shall fall to the ground” (Amos 9:9)[emphasis added].
Consider this as a powerful statement from God and He knows exactly what He is doing!! In order not to leave any Jews and the lost Israelites in India and Malabar Coast without hearing the gospel, God sent Thomas to India. Now the point is, were there Hebrews in Kerala?
Hebrews in Kerala
Just like today’s Syriac Nasranis in Kerala, the Jews and the lost house of Israel were famed for their world migration known to history as the famous Jewish Diaspora. They have come to India as well. There are historical references to prove that Jews came to Kerala as early as 900 BC during King Solomon’s time. These Jews in Kerala are known as Bene Israel or the black Jews.
The Bible shows that during the time of King Solomon in Israel, he with the help of King Hiram of Tyre made sea trading a profitable business of international trading. Solomon and Hiram made a bilateral agreement of cooperation and trade (1 Kings 5:12). Solomon had a port at Eziongeber (today’s Aquaba) (1 Kings 9:26) and had hired a fleet of ships that went to and came from both Ophir and Tarshish. There are so many varied theories regarding the locations of Ophir and Tarshish. But the general idea by majority is that the eastern Tarshish is the present Japan/China and Ophir is Sophir, the Coptic name for India.
Wherever these locations are, what is interesting to us is that this fleet of ships was sailing along the Malabar Coast because the items brought to Solomon in these ships are almug trees, ivory, apes, peacocks etc.
While one may argue that apes and ivory can be obtained from Africa, the peacocks and almug wood cannot be, as these are available only in India and Kerala! Almug tree is the famous sandalwood which is found only on the Malabar Coast. Let us read what the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says about this: “it was evidently a fine, close grained wood, suitable for carving. Tradition says that this was the famous sandal wood, which was in ancient times put to similar uses in India and was all through the ages highly prized for its color, fragrance, durability and texture. It is the wood of a tree, Pterocar pussantalinus (N.D. Santalaceae), which grows to a height of 25 to 30 feet; it is a native of the mountains of Malabar” (ISBE).
It is clear that these sandal wood trees were not grown in Lebanon like the famous cedar trees because the Bible states that: “NO such almug trees have come, NOR have there been seen such to this day” (1Kings 10:12). If the sandal trees were grown in Lebanon like the cedar they could have brought BEFORE and AFTERWARDS to Israel. But it never happened as Israel could not bring sandal wood from Kerala because immediately after Solomon, the prosperous country succumbed to a great civil war which ultimately split the country in to two: Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judea. The once prosperous sea trade was stopped and the country’s economy declined so that no more sandal wood could be brought from Malabar.
If you consider the apes and peacocks what is interesting is that the Hebrew words used for both these are not etymologically Hebrew but FOREIGN words borrowed from outside sources. The Hebrew word used for apes is “koph”. ISBE may be quoted here: “An INDIAN origin may be inferred from the fact that the Hebrew ḳōph, the Greek kḗbos (κῆβος) and the English “ape” are akin to the Sanskrit “kapi”, which is referred to the root kap, kamp, “to tremble”[emphasis added]. (Remember our Kapish cartoon stories).
The Hebrew word used for peacock is “tukkiyim” which is claimed to be borrowed from the ancient TAMIL word “tokei” used for peacock. Again ISBE states “as the ships of Solomon are known to have visited the coasts of India and Ceylon, and Tarshish was on the Malabar coast of India, where the native name of the peacock was tokei, from which tukkīyīm undoubtedly was derived…….. The historian Tennant says that the Hebrew names for “ivory” and “apes” were also the same as the Tamil”.
I asked one Tamil friend about this but he did not know about “tokei”. I will appreciate if somebody can find out this from any ancient Tamil expert.
If all the above items like apes, peacocks and sandal wood can be brought from India and Malabar then it would be uneconomical and unwise to sail to Africa for ivory ALONE because according to ‘Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ ivory was available in India also. Considering that Solomon was the wisest man we can conclude that all the above items were brought from Malabar.
Thus it is proved that right from BC 900 Kerala had friendly trade connections from the Middle East. Now consider the genetic tendency of Hebrews for migration it would not be difficult to state that they settled along western coast of India from that time onwards. This is supported by the Bible which states that the Hebrews together with the Phynicians SAILED to Ophir and Tarshish. See 1King 9:27, 10:22, 2 Chron 8:18, 9:10). Indian history also says the same thing.
Second Immigration prior to Thomas
Centuries later, when Nebuchadnezzar (BC 604-561) attacked and conquered Judea, there was again another Jewish Diaspora which has reached the Indian coast including Malabar. This is stated in none other than the Bible itself. Read Esther 8:8-9. Here king Xerxes who ruled Persia between BC 485 and 465 tells to his Jewish minister Mordecai to send a letter TO ALL THE JEWS who live FROM INDIA to Ethiopia.
In fact even the Indian history shows several Hebrew migrations to Kerala in ancient times. Often they came by the trade ships. Muziris on the Malabar Coast was famous as the most trading port in India from the time of Romans. The reader must have become familiar by now about the Roman coins found in several places from South India, about Periplus of the Erythrian Sea documents etc from this NSC site. I do not want to go into details of these.
If God did not leave out any Jewish community in other parts of the world from hearing the gospel (Rom. 10:18) how He will leave out those in Kerala?
So, all of the above will show that an original apostle came to India and Malabar to proclaim the new gospel to the Jews. But the question is who and why Thomas?
Yes, historical references point to Thomas as the one who came to India and no other country or people – not even the east Syrian Christianity – claim Thomas as their apostle!
For the early historical references please see the “St. Thomas Tradition & the Indian sojourn in foreign sources’ in the NSC.
As many of the historians point out correctly, the most important aspect is the heavy SILENCE of the whole world regarding Thomas. No one claims Thomas to be their founder apostle except Parthia, India and China. Many of the other apostles’ works are claimed by other countries. If the Thomas visit was not a strong fact of history in the earliest century, there were chances for the East Syrian Patriarchate to claim the parent ship of the Malabar church. But on the contrary their records state that Thomas is the founder of the Malabar church.
Another group of early Christian migrants, Knanayas who came in the fourth century, could claim the glamour but they are also silent on this aspect. Their tradition also state that there were Thomas Christians in Kerala ALREADY when they arrived. If the Knanayas founded the Malabar church why there are two separate groups of Thekkumbhagars and Vadakkumbhagars from that time onwards? Since the Knanayas came later from the Middle East, Thomas is not their founding apostle.
Their famous claim of themselves as the Southists which did not mingle with the Northists clearly shows that there were St. Thomas Christians known as Northists when they arrived in Kerala.
Viewed in this way we can state that almost all the genuine historians are unanimous in agreeing that it was Thomas Dydimus who came to Malabar and started the Nasrani church here.
III. Early Christian Converts
Who were the early Christian converts in Kerala when Thomas came? We have seen from the above that the first converts were, of course, the Jews and other lost Israelites (black Jews) who were settled in Kerala in the previous centuries because it is for them that Thomas came to Malabar. Who were the other converts? We know from the Bible that God and Jesus Christ never discriminated people based on the color, class, caste, wealth, sex, social status etc. Thomas also would not do the same.
However certain practical elements would have made a big difference in conversion. If you go through the Bible one thing becomes clear. The Bible is mostly addressed to those who knew reading and writing. This is not discrimination from God’s part but a practical blockade made by man himself.
All the prophets were men of learning. It is a common erroneous thinking that God’s people were all illiterate and uneducated. True, God often calls simple and humble servants but that does not mean that they are ignorant or illiterate! For example Bible says “Moses was instructed in ALL the WISDOM of Egyptians and was powerful in WORDS and in works” (Acts 7:22) [emphasis added]. Many books of prophets especially that of Isaiah are considered among the best in the world of literature because of its language, literary style and grandeur. David’s psalms are still considered to be an inspiration for many poets. For example, consider many Malayalam devotional songs. Most of them are inspired by the Psalms.
All the apostles as well as the early Christians could read and write. All the epistles of the apostles were addressed to people who could read and write. Just like Moses, Paul was also a great man of learning. He studied in the most famous Jewish school of the first century; that of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34, 22:3). Paul knew his native language of Syriac as well as Greek (Acts 21:37) and Hebrew (Acts 21:40). Some scholars believe that he knew Latin as well as he was a Roman citizen. The earliest converts also knew reading and writing because the Bible says that when the gospel was proclaimed in Berea in Greece the converts checked the Bible on a DAILY basis to prove it (Acts 17:11).
Most of the paintings of the apostles show them as old and dirty. But the fact is just the opposite. Some of them were from well to do families. For example John and James, the sons of the Zebedee were comparatively from rich family as the Bible says that they had “hired servants” (Mark 1:20). They were influential also as later when Jesus was arrested and taken to the High Priest’s house, John and Peter could enter the court because John was known to that house (John 18:15). Whether rich or poor all the Jews are supposed to know reading and writing so that they can read the Bible daily and especially on Sabbaths.
Also remember, whenever Jesus was talking to the public He always said “it is WRITTEN” to make authentic claims. That makes clear that His listeners knew the writings. Once He asked “what is WRITTEN in the Law, what you READ?” (Luke 10:26), “Did you never READ?” (Matth.21:16). He told His opponents “you err because you do not KNOW the scriptures” (Matth.22:29). It had been the Jewish custom to teach literacy to its followers so that they could read and meditate the scriptures. The Nasranis also made the same custom by making “pallikkoodams” along with the “pally” or church and hence Kerala’s literacy.
This is also another important point to consider. Unless you use “force” in converting the local people as the Portuguese were reported as have done, then the ONLY method of conversion will be that of CONVINCING the local people about God, grace, sin, atonement, Messiah, death , resurrection, kingdom of God etc the basic tenets of Christianity. Naturally that will require at least a minimum standard of literacy. Neither Jesus nor any of His true followers have used force in proclaiming the gospel. They tried to CONVINCE the listeners who could grasp the truth.
So if we know WHO COULD READ AND WRITE when Thomas came to Kerala in the first century we will come to know who the first non-Jewish converts were! If we know who, in Kerala were AWARE of the Old Testament concepts so that when the New Testament gospel was preached by Thomas they could GRASP it, we will come to know who were the non-Jewish converts were.
Did ONLY the Brahmins know the art of reading or did other castes and classes know it? Did the Buddhists know the art of reading and writing? Were there Brahmins in Kerala at that time? It will take another full article to cover this topic.
However one point becomes clear. Whoever these local non-Jewish converts were, THEY KNEW the art of reading and writing and THEY WERE FAMILIAR with the Old Testament concepts! History says that early Christians WERE READING the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew (Syraic?) as well as the Syrian Peshitta Bible!
So to conclude this part, we can say that Thomas came to Malabar looking for the lost children of Israel, that the initial and the majority of such converts were Jews and Bene-Israelites who were speaking Syriac language and that the local non-Jewish converts were a minority and they were in contact with the Israelites already as to become familiar with the Old Testament concepts.
If one studies the Acts of the Apostles, this will become clearer. In Acts we see that the Jews, spread across the world, acted as a SPRING BOARD for the spread of Christianity. The new religion spread very fast throughout the world THROUGH the Jewish Diaspora because “in EVERY CITY from ANCIENT generations Moses has those proclaiming him, having been read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). Even the apostle to the gentile, Paul also, always went to Jewish areas and from there he proclaimed the gospel to the gentiles. Often it is from the Jewish synagogues that they preached the gospel to the gentiles (see Acts 13:42)!!
This was an important step in the Master Plan of God who before “the fullness of the time came” (Gal.4:4) for Christ to be born on Earth, made sure that there was enough Jewish Diaspora throughout the world.
However the Biblical and logical evidences point out that the majority of the initial converts in Kerala were Israelites and there were less non-Jewish converts because otherwise Syriac would not have become the common liturgical language. The local mix up of the Nasranies could have happened in the later centuries. I give below seven “proofs” for my statement.
IV. Seven “Proofs” for the Jewish Heritage
1. The first and the most important proof for Jewish heritage is the Suriyani language; if the Nasranis were basically local converts, why did they ACCEPT a foreign language which they DID NOT understand? If they were local converts why did not they use Tamil or Sanskrit as their liturgical language? No one, including St. Thomas, would have objected to this because it was not necessary that a convert had to accept the Lord’s language as well, to be saved. None of the apostles insisted on this.
Even BEFORE the conversion of Paul and even BEFORE the conversion of the gentiles, the Bible shows that there were DIFFERENT languages in the church of God. Acts 6:1 shows that there were Greek speaking Jews (Hellenists) and Aramaic speaking Jews (Hebrews) in the Church of God. They used their own respective languages for liturgy.
The Indian Jews still use Hebrew/Aramaic for their liturgy even though they speak fluent local languages. The Tamil Iyers at Palakkad use still Tamil at their home even though they speak fluent Malayalam. The Gujarati cloth merchants in Cochin and Trichur use Gujarati at home though they are fluent in Malayalam. Their relatives in Coimbatore use Gujarati at home though they speak fluent Tamil.
The same way the Nasranis use(d) Suriyani for their liturgy though they are fluent in local language. What does it show? If the Aramaic Jews are not local people, if the Tamil Iyers are not local, if the Gujarati merchants are not local, what about suriyani Nasranis?
In the initial centuries Suriyani was in the full use, later limited to home use and liturgy, still later used only in liturgy and lo……, in the 1960s it was completely wiped out and replaced with local language. 2000 years is a very long time!
This decline of Suriyani can be contrasted with a record of 5th century situation. I have read an article that quoted from “Early Spread of Christianity” by Alphone Mingana: “The fifth century opens with an Indian Christianity which was in such a state of development that she is able to send her priests…….. to assist the doctors of that Church (East Syrian Church) in their revision of the ancient Syriac translations of the Pauline Epistles”!
The argument that the subsequent Syrian Christian merchants brought Suriyani to the local Nasranis also does not hold water because unless the former use force, the local Nasranis will not accept it. Even when they use force also this exercise will not succeed because the locals have to LEARN it. If none of the Europeans could impose their languages like English, Dutch, Latin etc in the liturgy of their respective churches in Kerala in comparatively modern times (post 1500 A.D.), how can we expect the Syrian merchants could DO that miracle in the early centuries? No, the Nasranis used Suriyani because it WAS their mother tongue already!
This becomes clearer when you consider the Muslims all over the world using Arabic ONLY in their liturgy because it is compulsory for them. In the earlier times it was considered blasphemy even to translate Quran into vernacular languages. Christianity NEVER had such restrictions and we find the Bible translated into several languages even from the earliest centuries making the Bible as the one Book translated into maximum languages!
2. The second important proof is the title of “Nasrani”; WHY, of all the terminologies in the world did the Mar Thoma Christians use this title? This is important when you consider that the most popular name was “Christian” throughout the WHOLE world used for the converts. Even the Ante-Nicene fathers used always “Christian”. When the very few fathers used “Nazarenes” they meant the Jewish converts in Jerusalem. It is as if this was a Jewish “family secret” which only people in Jerusalem knew. How come this is used only in Kerala outside Jerusalem?!
The above point is very important when you consider the fact that today’s newly converted Jewish Christians call themselves NOT Nazarenes but MESSIANIC Christians!!
The sect of Nazarenes was never considered as a separate religion in the initial history of the Church (Acts 24:5/ 28:22). They were considered as a NEW SECT in Judaism just like the other old sects of Pharisees (Acts 5:17), Sadducees, Herodians (Mark 3:6) and Essenes.
In fact the Nazarenes called their religion as the “WAY”. See Acts 9:2/ 19:9, 23/ 22:4, 14/ 24:22. Is it a wonder that our Nasrani forefathers called this religion as “MARGAM” in local language?! To convert to Christianity was “Margam kootuka” for them.
So, where from we got this title? It was NOT bestowed upon us by any benevolent king. But we ORIGINATED with this title! So the use of “Nazarene”, a Jewish family secret instead of “Christian” shows a clear Jewish heritage for the Nasranis!
Thomas knew very well that if Jesus was called a Nasrani then the Jews who followed Him will be called the same name. “And coming, he (Jesus) lived in a city called Nazareth, so as to fulfill that spoken by the prophets; He SHALL BE CALLED A NAZARENE” (Matt.2:23). Check in the Bible how many times Jesus is called a Nazarene. Angels, devils, ordinary people, His own disciples including Peter and Paul called Him Nazarene. Even Jesus calls Himself Nazarene (Acts 22:8)!
3. Why the seven and half churches which Thomas founded were located near the Jewish residing pockets? This is because the Jews and the local people who lived in the Jewish areas were familiar with the OT concepts and it was looking for them that he came. If Thomas came to convert Indians he should have established more churches all over Kerala and always away from the Jewish areas.
4. Why copper plates were given only to Jewish mappilas, Muslim mappilas and the Nasrani mappilas? Because these people came from overseas and were fair in color. That is why the town they stayed was called “Maha-devar-pattanam”. Most importantly they brought “foreign money” to the kings in the form of international trade. If the Brahmins were converted they DID NOT NEED copper plates for privileges as they were “ALREADY” enjoying them. If the lower caste people were converted, NO kings would have given copper plates of privileges to them just because they changed their religion. The privileges were given based on caste, not religion. The lower castes will be still lower castes though they changed their religion. (Please do not consider me a pro-caste person. I am against caste discrimination. I am only discussing historical data).
So in short, if Thomas converted a lot of local people, they would not have received the copper plates of privileges. The Namboothiris will not require to get as they were already enjoying those privileges at the time of conversion and the lower castes would not get as they were from lower castes.
5. The Nasranis did not evangelize in Kerala any longer. This was a long perplexing question for the historians. But if you consider the Jewish heritage this question can be answered. They wished to keep their racial purity ideally though practically the later generations could not do that due to their sedentary life style and other historical facts. As the Portuguese has observed, the Nasranis were keeping concubines from local population especially from the Namboothiri and Nair communities. The Namboothiri’s custom allowed only the eldest son to marry from the same community. So there were excess of female population in this community who found solace in other communities like Nasranis.
If the Nasranis evangelized they had to formally intermarry with the local converts and the later generations of them wanted to avoid that. (This point needs to be further studied)
6. Stress on education. The Jews encouraged literacy and education because each Israelite was supposed to read and obey their “Torah” and meditate on them (Deut.6:8-9/ 11:18). Basically synagogues acted as schools for teaching literacy. Nasranis did the same thing because of their same heritage. They built “pallikkoodams” along with their “pallis”. That is why Nasranis, though a very minority, had almost a monopoly on the Kerala education field at the time of Independence.
7. Three natures common to Jews and Nasranis. The first one is the migratory nature. The Jews are famous for their Jewish Diaspora all over the world. Nasranis, whenever they get a chance, do the same. When they were expelled from the international trade by the Arabs, they migrated to the high ranges of Kerala, cleared the forest with much difficulty and cultivated the same products in which they were trading.
Later when the international arena was opened the Nasranis spread all over the world. Today they can be found almost in every part of the world! This is in spite of their small population. Jews also in spite of their small population have spread throughout the world.
The second is the mercantile nature. The Jews are famous as merchants. Nasranis are also famous as merchants.
The third is the money trade nature(“palisha” or interest). The Jews in earlier centuries started to engage in credit loans on interest because they were NOT allowed to own properties. So the only mode of income they could depend on was the money loaning and they used it to survive their hardships. Jews are famous as the money loaners (remember Shylock of Shakespeare’s play “Merchant of Venice”). Later these developed into famous Banks. So also the Nasranis. The majority of bankers, whether private or public, big or small in Kerala are Nasranis.
So to conclude in short, I would say that God sent Thomas to Kerala; that he came here looking for Jews and other Hebrews; that the majority of the seven and half Christian communities were local Hebrews; that there were some local LITERATE people in close contact with the Hebrews who were converted to Jewish Christianity; that they were the Nazarenes speaking Syriac, keeping their liturgy on Saturday Sabbath and avoiding unclean meats; that later when the spirit of evangelization subsided these Nazarenes wanted to keep their elitist nature among the local population; that later when more Jewish Christians came from Middle East and Persia they became one community; that the heavy local mix up happened in the later centuries due to various reasons.
A Request to Readers I request all the readers to send their comments so that we will have a brain storm exercise on this. Please do not hesitate to point out any mistake, however minor it may be, that might have crept in to this article so that all of us can convert this into a learning platform. Note:- Almost all the Bible quotes are from LITV (Literal Translation Version).
Author Joseph George can be reached on josephgpal at hotmail dot com.
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