Which disciple of Jesus went to India?

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By BibleAsk Team


The Disciple that Went to India

The question of which disciple of Jesus went to India is a topic of historical debate and speculation. While there are various traditions and legends associated with the apostles’ travels and missionary activities, the historical evidence regarding the specific disciple who traveled to India is limited. This essay will explore the historical facts, church traditions, and scholarly perspectives surrounding the question of the disciple who went to India, drawing on relevant historical sources and church history.

Christian Traditions

Early Christian traditions provide various accounts of the apostles’ missionary journeys and activities following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Several traditions suggest that one of the apostles traveled to the Indian continent to preach the Gospel and establish Christian communities in the region.

1. Thomas the Apostle

All that is known of Thomas from the Bible is recorded in the gospel of John (chs. 11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29; 21:2). He is commonly known as ‘doubting Thomas’ (John 20:24, 25), but he was a brave and loyal warrior for Christ. The apostle John writes of his bravery, “Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

The most prominent tradition identifies Thomas, also known as Doubting Thomas, as the missionary to India. After Pentecost, the apostle traveled outside the Roman Empire to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and sailed to that continent in AD 50. The record of Eusebius affirms that the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew were assigned to minster there.

It is believed that the apostle Thomas landed at the port of Muziris, (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor in modern-day Kerala state) where there was a Jewish community at the time. The Saint Thomas Christian tradition says that he baptized several families and established seven churches (communities) in Kerala. These churches are at Kodungallur, Palayoor, Kottakkavu, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal, and Thiruvithamcode.

According to Syrian Christian tradition, Thomas was martyred at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai in 72 A.D. and his body was interred in Mylapore. A Syrian ecclesiastical calendar has an entry which reads, “3 July, St. Thomas who was pierced with a lance there. His body is in Urhai (Edessa) having been brought there by the merchant Khabin.”

2. Acts of Thomas

The Acts of Thomas, an apocryphal work dated to the third century AD, provides a detailed account of Thomas’s missionary journey to that continent. The text describes Thomas’s travels, preaching, miracles, and eventual martyrdom in that nation. While the Acts of Thomas is not considered canonical by mainstream Christianity, it reflects early Christian traditions and beliefs regarding Thomas’s missionary activities.

Historical Evidence

While the Acts of Thomas and other early Christian traditions suggest that the apostle traveled to India, the historical evidence supporting this claim is less clear. Scholars and historians have debated the authenticity and reliability of these traditions, examining the available evidence to determine the likelihood of his presence there.

The saint Thomas Christians say that they have in their possession a version of the gospel story said to have been handed down to them by the apostle Thomas. He is often regarded as the Patron Saint of India, and the name Thomas remains quite popular among Saint Thomas Christians there.

1. Lack of Contemporary Evidence

One challenge in assessing the historical validity of Thomas’s journey to that far continent is the absence of contemporary evidence from the first century AD. The Acts of Thomas, written several centuries after Thomas’s purported travels, is the earliest extant source that provides detailed information about his missionary activities in India.

2. Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence

Some scholars have pointed to archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggesting the presence of Christianity in India during the early centuries AD. Inscriptions, artifacts, and architectural remains found in various parts of that continent indicate the existence of Christian communities and churches dating back to the first millennium AD. However, these findings do not conclusively prove Thomas’s direct involvement in their establishment.

Church Legacy

Despite the lack of definitive historical evidence, the tradition of Thomas’s missionary journey to India has had a significant impact on Christian history and the development of Christianity in the region.

1. Establishment of Christian Communities

According to tradition, Thomas preached the Gospel and baptized converts in various regions of India, including the Malabar Coast in present-day Kerala. The establishment of Christian communities in South India, particularly among the Syriac-speaking population, is often attributed to Thomas’s missionary efforts.

2. Cultural and Religious Influence

The tradition of Thomas’s journey to India has left a lasting cultural and religious influence on the region. Thomas is venerated as a saint in both Eastern and Western Christian traditions, and his tomb in Mylapore, Chennai, is a pilgrimage site for Christians and non-Christians alike. The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches in India trace their origins to the apostolic mission of Thomas, emphasizing their connection to the apostolic tradition.

Modern Scholarship and Interpretation

In recent years, scholars and historians have reexamined the question of Thomas’s journey to India, seeking to separate historical fact from legend and tradition. While the historical evidence supporting Thomas’s presence in India remains inconclusive, scholars acknowledge the significance of the tradition within the context of Christian history and the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

1. Theological and Symbolic Significance

Regardless of the historical veracity of Thomas’s journey to India, the tradition holds theological and symbolic significance for Christians around the world. The story of Thomas’s missionary zeal, his doubts and struggles, and his ultimate faithfulness to Christ resonate with believers as a testament to the transformative power of the Gospel and the call to proclaim it to all nations.

2. Missionary Implications

The tradition of Thomas’s missionary journey to the Indian continent serves as a reminder of the global nature of Christianity and the ongoing mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel to every corner of the earth. Thomas’s example inspires Christians to be bold witnesses for Christ, willing to go wherever the Lord may lead them, even to the ends of the earth.

In conclusion, the question of which disciple of Jesus went to India is steeped in tradition, legend, and historical speculation. While the tradition of Thomas’s journey to India has had a profound impact on Christian history and the development of Christianity in that region, the historical evidence supporting this claim is less certain. Nevertheless, the tradition of Thomas’s missionary zeal and his purported travels to that continent continues to inspire Christians to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, fulfilling the Great Commission entrusted to them by Jesus Christ.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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