The Acts of Thomas

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (July, 2005)

In the Acts of Thomas, we have another book that has been dismissed as late and legendary, in the face of indications in its text that it comes from the 1st century AD and is historically sound. This book, in a Greek translation from Syriac, was known long before the Gospel of Thomas, which was found in the Nag Hammadi Library. Both works represent the eastern gnostic tradition, and there is every reason to believe now that they give us the more original Christian tradition, preceding the western form that subsequently came to settle in Rome.

The book consists of a series of episodes, structured into thirteen, followed by the story of Thomas' martyrdom. It appears to be intended for edification and entertainment during a series of meetings. The adventures of its hero are reminiscent of those of Apollonius of Tyana, travelling to the east and encountering strange and wonderful sights and people. The story would be sought after for popular entertainment, and into this easily digestible form there has been inserted Christian teaching, as given by Judas Thomas during his travels as a missionary.

The antipathy to sex found in much apocryphal literature is expressed frankly. The Lord himself, said to be present "in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas", is quoted as saying:

"Know this, that if you abandon this filthy intercourse you become holy temples, pure and free from affliction and pains both manifest and hidden, and you will not be girt about with cares for life and for children, the end of which is destruction. But if you get many children, then for their sakes you become robbers and avaricious....... For the majority of children become unprofitable, possessed by demons, some openly and some in secret......Even if they are healthy, again will they be unserviceable, performing useless and abominable deeds; for they are caught either in adultery or in murder or in theft or in unchastity, and by all these you will be afflicted. But if you obey, and keep your souls pure unto God, you shall have living (spiritual) children whom these hurts do not touch."

One of the main episodes concerns a wedding at which these sentiments were put before the bridegroom and bride, with the result that they spent their wedding night without intercourse. The bride announced that she had set her husband at naught, "because I am bound in another marriage...I have had no intercourse with a short-lived husband, the end of which is remorse and bitterness of soul, because I am yoked with the true man". The bridegroom also agreed that he had been "redeemed from the fall".

An accurate historical note names the king of India in the story as Gundaphorus. He has been shown from coin evidence to have lived in the first century AD.

In the introduction to the story, the apostles, listed in their New Testament order, gather in Jerusalem and divide the regions of the world among themselves, that each might go as an appointed missionary. In the light of the evidence we have been seeing that the Herodian organisation preceded the Christian one, this would have actually taken place in the mid 1st century AD. The world was already organised for the purposes of the Jewish mission into regions, which would account for the list of Diaspora places from which representatives came to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 9-11). In the Christian stage of the history, new missionaries were sent out to the established centres, to give the revision of the doctrine that gave equality to Gentiles.

The missionaries in both stages traveled as merchants or tradesmen, using their social contacts to persuade people they met of the truth of their religion. Judas Thomas went to the east as a carpenter, one skilled in the making of wooden artefacts and the building in stone of "pillars and temples and royal palaces". He took part in normal social life, although keeping his personal rituals and refraining from some food. Hired to build a palace for an Indian king, he used the money supplied to him for the purpose to build a spiritual palace, that is, giving the money away to the poor.

The methods of mission, a travelling worker engaged at the same time in proselytisation, is reflected in Josephus' account of the conversion of Queen Helena of Adiabene by the Jewish merchant Ananias (Ant. 20, 34-48).

The final episode records the death of Judas Thomas, slain on the orders of a local king who called him a sorcerer. His bones were laid "in the tomb in which the kings of old were buried", then subsequently transferred, giving rise to the ancient tradition of the burial of Thomas at Edessa . Another tradition, still in circulation in Kashmir in India, that Jesus was buried near that city, would have arisen from the belief expressed in the story, that Jesus was seen in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas. A theory of succession from Jesus, carried to a logical conclusion, led to the belief that wherever the emissary was, Jesus also was present.

The beautiful "Hymn of the Pearl" (in this section on this site) is found in the Ninth Act of this work.