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Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Did the Disciple Thomas visit Pakistan and India?

Wilson Chowdhry and Rev Darrell Hannah

The BPCA posed a question to Rev Darrell Hannah the vicar at All Saints Church in Ascot.  Rev Hannah is an expert in early Church history.  The question related to the historical accuracy of visits by the Disciple Thomas to Pakistan and India.  Certainly the Government of Pakistan has accepted that the Disciple Thomas arrived at Taxila and spoke to a King called Gondaphorus.  This is best illustrated by the historical information board  amongst the ancient ruins found at Taxila, which also includes an account of the much earlier visit to Taxila by Alexander the Great.  Paksitani Christians have always felt a sense of pride in knowing that Disciple Thomas reached their homeland, and Christians of Kerala in India, share a similar joy.  However, like much of early history the accuracy of accounts of these visits stirs much debate.  Here is The response received from Rev Hannah:

The fact is that there is much about the early history of the church, especially in the first three centuries, that we just do not know.  Our knowledge of the history of that period is a jigsaw puzzle with two-thirds of the pieces missing.  So we cannot know, we simply cannot be certain either that Thomas made it to the Indian sub-continent or that he did not. 

But couple things should be kept in mind.  First, a document entitled the Acts of Thomas, usually dated to the third century, relates Thomas ministry in India.  It is full of legendary accounts and is mostly fiction, but could be based on real history.  Second, the Acts of Thomas mentions an Indian king, Gundaphorus, whose existence and reign in the first century is confirmed by coins bearing his inscription.  Nonetheless, this in itself could only mean that the author of the Acts of Thomas knew some Indian history and had done some home work.  It does not guarantee its accuracy.

A very positive case for the historicity of Thomas in India has been made (e.g., see Medlycott, others however are more sceptical (e.g., J. N. Farquar, "The Apostle Thomas in North India," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 10 (1926) 80-111 and "The Apostle Thomas in South India," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 11 (1927) 20-50.  See also L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, (Cambridge, 1956).

A certain historical agnosticism is not out of place is cases such as this.  I does not hurt to simply say what we know and what we don't. 

I hope this helps.

Grace and peace,


Revd. Dr. Darrell D. Hannah
All Saints' Rectory
London Road

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