Book Review: Quest For The Historical Thomas Apostle Of India

Source: District of Asia

QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL THOMAS APOSTLE OF INDIA, a Re-reading of the Evidence.  By Fr. George Nedungatt SJ. Pp xxxiv + 428. 

Theological Publications in India, Bangalore 2008. Price ₹200.

“Let us remember that an ancient tradition claims that Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia (mentioned by Origen, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 3, 1) then went on to Western India (cf. Acts of Thomas 1-2 and 17ff.), from where Christianity finally reached Southern India” - Pope Benedict XVI in hisWednesday catechesis, ​L'Osservatore Romano, 28 September 2006 (Italian edition)

This remark went almost unnoticed in the West but there was media uproar in India.  The Vatican responded with a corrective statement in the official website exactly two month later, on 27 November, that the Apostle himself had proceeded to preach the gospel in South India (now online).  No explanation, however, was given for this high tremor oscillation between No and Yes in quick succession.

Obviously, the matter cannot be dismissed simply as a media matter or Quaestio disputata.  The quest for the historical Thomas has been dealt with in several studies, including some monographs, but the conclusions are as divergent as ever.  The present work explores in depth the reasons behind this divergence hoping to take the discussion beyond the disputed question. (p. xii)

Whether he succeeded in his quest or not is altogether another question.

Father George Nedungatt is a Jesuit priest, an emeritus professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and an expert in Oriental Canon Law.  He is an excellent philologist,patrologist and historian.  His mastery over very many modern and ancient languages is likewise very impressive.  The book is very dense and scholarly done. Thousands of footnotes prove this man is well read or as Americans would term it – ‘He knows what he is talking about’!

The title needs some explanation – it is not a quest for ‘Historical Thomas’ as to ascertain whether such person existed or not, but to establish the truth that he indeed is the ‘apostle of India’ and it is a historical fact.

Why is this a problem?  In a book published in 2005 on the ancient Eastern Churches Paolo Siniscalco observes: “The vast majority of Western scholars do not think that the Apostle Thomas went to India to preach the gospel of Christ.  On the contrary, many Indian scholars thinks that he did”. (p. xix).

Amongst the myriad of ‘western scholars’, we are indeed surprised to see the name of Cardinal Tisserant, who showed himself to be an admirer of the Syrian community in India.  He, in his learned article (in the famous DTC), says it is ‘highly probable’ (DTC XIV/2, Col 3093). 

Let us now glance at the riches of this book.  Part I surveys the recent literature in many languages and exposes the conclusion of learned authors on this subject.  As expected the Indian ones (Malayalam & Tamil) are in favour while almost all western scholars are against (or at least question) the historicity.  Part II undertakes the task of defining terms and the methodology. Part III considers ‘nine theories’ underlying the overall negative stance of various scholars.  After listing each one, he carefully analyses them and concludes that such a theory is untenable.  The author must be congratulated for this patient and herculean task of scrutiny.  Part IV lays the patristic foundation of ‘Thomasology’ (study of St. Thomas, as the author calls it).  After quoting almost 30 fathers (from the historical point of view, as he quotes Origen who is ‘no father of the church’ dogmatically), he then proceeds with critical hermeneutics.  The divergence in minor detail “can at times be a plus point rather than the opposite: the fathers were not simply copying another, nor relying on a single source, but drawing on various sources, so that their cumulative core agreement has extra proof value” (p. 177).  Some other fathers are a revelation to many of the readers.  It is St. John Chrysostom’s quote that stands out.  “The one who is Rome (the bishop of Rome) knows that the Indians are his members (subjects)” (PG 65, 77).  Beyond the presence of Christianity in India, it has a dogmatic valor.

Part V (the major chunk of the book) sketches various Indian traditions in favour of the historicity. 

‘Historiography in India is a rather recent phenomenon.  Knowledge of the past was left largely to tradition. … The Achilles heel of Indian culture is avowedly historiography (p. 256).  And he gives an explanation why Indians (perhaps East is general) are not so much interested in written history but ‘too much’ attached to oral tradition.  “It was India’s strength… and weakness” (p. 259).  That does not mean we can reject tradition as such.  Historical positivism is an error (p. 40). With this notion, he carefully analyses various traditions about the Apostle Thomas, especially his arrival, miracles & martyrdom.  He does apply ‘Traditionskritik (critique of tradition) in historiography to distinguish the facts from the fanciful (p. 266). It is the opinion of this reviewer that he applied this ‘too much’ and many facts were sacrificed (or questioned) in place of fancies. 

Udayapur inscription is definitely an eye-opener for many (p. 281 – 305).  The seven Churches of Apostolic foundation is also interesting (p. 345). Contrary to popular opinion, St. Thomas’ cross has a historical precedence – Pallivanavar Cross (found in the Santhome museum) and as such, to attribute ‘St. Thomas’ Cross’ to the apostle is problematic’ (p. 388).

‘The resemblance of the thought and diction of Thirukkural to the great masterpieces of the Bible and especially to the Proverbs is a pious error”.  (p. 392).  This might be a useful lesson to some of our ‘over-pious’ faithful.  Some go even farther (though the author doesn’t mention it) saying it is St. Thomas who wrote Thirukkural!

After analysing many points, he comes to answer the burning questions: Did St. Thomas one of the twelve chosen Apostles, come to India?  What is the connection between the Apostle and the Syrian community in Kerala?

As we mentioned it is a fascinating study.  To detect the treasures contained in this volume demands serious study and not just a mere reading, but the effort is amply rewarded intellectually.

We do not endorse the whole volume as such.  Indeed, many of the argument can be challenged.  The Excursus on the relics of Ortona(318 -319) cannot be accepted at all.  It is bit childish to reject a tradition that the relics of Ortona are not of the Apostle but a monk of chios.  Just because it bears the title ‘hosios’ instead of ‘hagios’ the author ruthlessly rejects them.  It cannot be.  It can be dated from the point of view of palaeographic and lexical to the 3rd–5th century, a time when the term hosios is still used as a synonym of haghios meaning “he that is in the grace of God” and is inserted in the Church(Wikipedia!). The spirit of entire book is against such an attitude.  No critical analysis is employed.  Also ‘concelebration’ mentioned in Udayapur inscription is a novel interpretation of the author.

There is indeed a wealth of rather fully developed arguments, at times somewhat overdone perhaps (repetition of arguments is indeed boring).  Some personal anecdotes may prove interesting, nay useful perhaps, but highly unexpected in a scholarly work like this.  Some of the proofs may seem to be rather far-fetched.  The proof reading is not perfect either. We do notice a few misprints.  Unfortunately, the bibliography is very modest.  Is it intentional? The printing is very readable but the cover could have been better designed.

This recension of Fr. George Nedungatt may appear rather critical.  It does not mean to detract from the value of the book. We repeat, it is a fascinating study.

The students or scholars who are interested in this question will appreciate this work, provided enough care is taken. And they should be grateful to the author for this valuable collection of documents (in a critical edition), perhaps for the first time in English. 

Fr. Therasian Babu, SSPX