Letters of St. Thomas the Apostle to Edessa from India
The definite statement that Apostle Thomas sent letters from India, which were preserved and read in the Church services, occurs in the Syriac Doctrine of the Apostles.
It can be read in W. Cureton’s “Ancient Syriac Documents” , p.32.
“And after the death of the apostles there were Guides and Rulers in the churches, and whatsoever the apostles had committed to them, and they had received from them, they taught to the multitudes all the time of their lives. They, again, at their deaths also committed and delivered to their disciples after them every thing which they had received from the apostles; also what James had written from Jerusalem, and Simon from the city of Rome, and John from Ephesus, and Mark from the great Alexandria, and Andrew from Phrygia, and Luke from Macedonia, and Judas Thomas from India: that the epistles of an apostle might be received and read in the churches that were in every place, like those Triumphs of their Acts, which Luke wrote, are read; that by this the apostles might be known, and the prophets, and the Old Testament and the New; that one truth was preached by them all, that one Spirit spoke in them all from one God, whom they had all worshipped and had all preached. And the various countries received their teaching. “
The passage seems to have stood originally in “The Doctrine of Addai”: see F.Nau, La Didascalie des dovze Apôtres, Appendices, 230.
Does it seem too bold to postulate that Thomas wrote a letter from Taxila and or from Malabar to the Church in Edessa ?
J N Farquhar in the books “The Apostle Thomas in North India” and “The Apostle Thomas in South India” has critically examined the possibilities. This brief write up is based on these two books.
There is one very definite statement in early Syriac literature to the effect that he sent letters from India; and there is abundance of indirect evidence that such a letter as we have described lay in Edessa until the close of the second century at least.
In all references to Thomas in literature arising from Edessa, the Apostle is called Judas Thomas; and it seems clear that the double name comes from the Apostle’s letter. In writing the letter he would inevitably use his own name, and would naturally add to it the word for “twin,” which had been so universally used instead of his real name.
There are two possibilities of Thomas the Apostle writing to the Church in Edessa from Taxila and from Malabar. Lets briefly examine how would have the letters being send from Taxila and Malabar.
How was the letter sent from Taxila ?
Two routes, in normal circumstances, were open from Taxila to Edessa. The first was the land route from Taxila, which led over the Indus, up the Cabul valley, over the Hindu Kush and then west to Merv. Thence it led to Hecatompylos, Ecbatana and Ctesiphon, and so on to Edessa.
Our knowledge of the relations subsisting between the two Parthian empires at this time is too slight to enable us to say with certainty whether the land route would in those days be safe and speedy or not. It seems likely that it would be quite impossible, but the sea route would certainly be open.
Habban would send the letter down the Indus to some Government official in Pattala, and he in turn would send it, by the captain of the first ship sailing to the Persian Gulf, to some friend or agent of Tobias in Charax Spasini—which is now roughly represented by Basrah. From Charax it would be sent by road to Edessa.
How was the letter sent from Malabar ?
As soon as he was settled in Muziris, he would wish to communicate, if possible, with Habban. If Gudnaphar had a Trade Agent (panyadyaksha) in the Muziris port, as seems probable, he would arrange to forward Thomas’s letter at the first opportunity. Otherwise, Thomas would get one of his commercial friends to send the letter by the first ship sailing to the Indus.
Further, if we are right in our conjecture, that he had sent a letter from Taxila to Edessa with the news of his arrival in Gudnaphar’s capital he would be most eager to write again to the Church, to tell them about his new field.
Trade between the Persian Gulf and India began at very early dates and plays a large part in Indian commerce to-day.1
In the first century, we hear of ships sailing from Charax Spasini, Apologus, and the other ports of the Gulf to Barygaza and other Indian marts.2
Thus, when a ship arrived in Muziris from Charax, it would be possible, on its return voyage, to send by it a letter, which, delivered to an agent in Charax, would be sent by road to Edessa.
This would be the second of his letters sent from India to the Church of Edessa, according to the statement of the Syriac Didascalia.3
How was the letter treated in Edessa ?
Edessa, modern Urfa in southeastern Turkey, is mentioned in various Greek, Latin, Syriac and Arbic sources. These describe the city as a Hellenistic stronghold, the first Chrisitan kingdom and the cradle of Syriac literature. The historical position made the city an important station on the silk route- like Nisibis and Singara to the east and as such it linked India and China with the Mediterranean world.
The Edessenes believed that their Church stood in peculiarly close relations with the Apostle Thomas, that he was, in the fullest sense, the friend of the Church of Edessa. This deeply rooted feeling comes out clearly in the extraordinary belief that it was Thomas who sent Addai to them. From the same feeling, that Thomas was their Apostle, came the exploit in which a few Edessenes moved or stole the relics of the Apostle and brought them to Edessa.4
There would be great excitement in the Church at Edessa, when the Apostle’s letter arrived and was read at the service on Sunday; and from that day those Christian men and women would feel very closely bound to the daring leader who had carried the message of the Cross into the very heart of Asia.
The letter would be frequently read or referred to in the Church services; and the whole community would feel that Judas Thomas was their Apostle, although he had never visited their city. Every Edessene Christian knew that the land of Thomas’s apostolate was India.
What would happened to the letter ?
If Thomas actually wrote a letter to the Church in Edessa, how did it not become known throughout the Christian world ?.How is it that it is not found in the N.T.?
The reason is that it was a news-letter rather than a letter of spiritual edification. Therefore, other Christian centers would be less likely to desire to possess copies of it for reading in their churches.
But for the Church of Edessa it had the supremest interest, first, because it was a real apostolic letter, secondly, because it was addressed to the Edessene Church; thirdly, because it was written in Aramaic; and lastly, because of the bonds which bound their own beloved leader Tobias to Habban and the Apostle.
But if they treasured the letter so highly, how is it that it does not survive in Syriac literature?
As soon as the first church building5 was erected in Edessa, the letter would be kept, along with the other apostolic documents (gospels or epistles) which they possessed, in the Church itself; and this Church (the earliest church building of which we have any record) was destroyed by a flood of the river Daisan in A.D.201 and all the precious MSS. necessarily perished in the disaster.6
Since the author of The Acts of Judas Thomas was able to copy out the historical details contained in the letter, it seems we may safely conclude that his original work must be dated before A.D.201.
Extract from the books of J N Farquhar, “The Apostle Thomas in North India” and “The Apostle Thomas in South India”
- Cambridge History of India [↩]
- Charlesworth, Trade Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire- Rawlinson, Intercourse between India and the Western World [↩]
- Nau, La Didascalie des Douze Apotres, Paris, 1912, p. 230. [↩]
- Phillips, Doctrine of Addai, 5; Eusebius, H.E., I., xiii., 4, 11; II., i. 6. [↩]
- The Edessene tradition is that this Church was built by Addai. If the tradition is true, its date was about A.D.95. [↩]
- Harnack, Mission and Expansion, II., 86. [↩]