Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire/The Acts of Judas Thomas

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We have now come to that original and characteristic product of early Syriac-speaking Christianity, the Acts of Judas Thomas, the brother of our Lord and the Apostle of India.

I am quite aware that this statement is highly controversial. The Acta Thomae are commonly supposed to be one of a series of fabulous Greek tales describing the missionary adventures of all the Apostles. This conception of the work I hold to be altogether erroneous. That the stories told in the Acts of Thomas have little or no historical basis is indeed almost self-evident, but I do not believe that it was intended to form part of a series, and I believe most firmly that it was originally composed in Syriac, not Greek. Possibly also I ought to defend myself for investing an admittedly fabulous narrative with so much importance. It is not so very long ago since students of Church history might be divided into the credulous folk who wholly or partly believed these tales, and the wise who neglected them altogether. But the present generation is too much accustomed to the serious religious novel not to be in sympathy with a doctrinal work cast in narrative form. That the Acts of Thomas is the work of a man very much in earnest there can be no manner of doubt. The style is simple, as becomes the narrative setting, but it is as truly a book of religious philosophy as the Pilgrim's Progress, and it demands from us serious study.

Before indicating the main grounds upon which I regard these Acts as a Syriac work it may be not superfluous to give a short abstract of the story which forms the framework of the book[1].

I. At the beginning we are told how the Twelve Apostles divided the countries of the earth among themselves by lot, and that the lot which fell to Judas Thomas—Judas the Twin—was India. But Judas Thomas did not wish to go and preach to the Indians, so our Lord appeared to an Indian merchant named Ḥabbân, a servant of King Gundaphar, and sold Thomas to him as a slave. Thomas and Ḥabbân go off by sea and disembark at the town of Sandarûk (or, Sanadrûk). Here they find that the King of the place is making a great feast to celebrate his only daughter's marriage, and they go in with the rest to the feast. At the feast Thomas sings a curious Hymn: he also prophesies the violent death of one of the guests, an event which comes to pass that very night. The King hears of this and forces Thomas to go in and pray over the bride. He does so and then departs. But when the bride and bridegroom are alone our Lord Himself appears to them in the likeness of Thomas and persuades them both to a life of virginity. In the end the King also is converted, and the young people join St Thomas in India.

II. Meanwhile Thomas and Ḥabbân had gone on to King Gundaphar in India, and Thomas agrees to build a palace for the King. But all the money that is given him for the palace he spends among the poor. When King Gundaphar discovers it he is very angry, and casts Thomas into prison till he shall make up his mind by what death he shall die. Now that very night Gad, the King's brother, dies and is taken by angels to heaven: there he sees a magnificent palace, which is the very palace that has been built for his brother by the Apostle. So Gad begs to be allowed to come back to life that he may buy the palace from the King, as he does not know its value. This is granted; but when the King hears the tale he understands and believes. Thomas is set free, and the King and his brother are both baptised in a bath-house and receive the Eucharist.

III. After this Judas Thomas brings to life a youth who had been killed by a devil in the form of a black snake[2].

IV. Next an ass's colt, of the stock that served Balaam the prophet, comes and speaks and directs Thomas to the city. At the gate of the city the colt falls down and dies, having performed its mission.

V. In the city Thomas delivers a beautiful woman from the attacks of a devil. The woman is baptised and she receives the Communion.

VI. During the ceremony a young man's hand withers, and he confesses that he had killed a woman who would not live a life of virginity with him. On his repentance he brings Judas Thomas to the dead woman's body, and by means of the Apostle she is brought to life again. She then describes the torments of the unchaste that she had seen in hell, and the episode closes with an exhortation.

VII. After these things while the Apostle is preaching in India, the General of King Mazdai comes beseeching him to free his wife and daughter from evil and lascivious devils. Judas Thomas leaves his converts under the care of the deacon Xanthippus (or, Xenophon) and goes with the General. On the way the horses of their chariot break down, but four wild asses come to be harnessed in their stead, and with their help the devils are driven out and the women healed.

VIII. Soon after this a noble lady, by name Mygdonia, the wife of Cyrus[3], a kinsman of King Mazdai, is converted by Thomas to the life of virginity. Cyrus is in despair; and when his personal influence fails to move Mygdonia, he goes and complains to the King, who sends and arrests Thomas at the house of Ṣîfûr the General. Thomas is scourged and sent to prison, where he sings a Hymn of praise[4]. But Mygdonia remains firm, and secretly visits Thomas in the prison with her nurse Narqia: there he baptises them and celebrates the Eucharist. In the meanwhile King Mazdai and Cyrus, who regard the conversion of Mygdonia as due to magic and enchantment, agree to let Thomas go if he will tell her to be as she was before. Thomas warns them that it will be useless, and that neither his persuasion nor tortures would change her new spirit: this is proved to be the case, and Mygdonia refuses to listen to the Apostle when he pretends to tell her to go back to her husband. After this Thomas returns to the house of Ṣîfûr the General and baptises him and his family, and gives them also the Eucharist: at the same time Mygdonia converts Tertia, the wife of King Mazdai. Mazdai now becomes seriously angry and drags Thomas off to prison again, but on the way he converts Vîzân, the King's son. In the prison the Apostle makes his final address, beginning with the Lord's Prayer. Manashar, Vîzân's wife (who has just been healed of a long sickness by our Lord Himself appearing to her in the form of a youth), joins them in the prison, and the Apostle baptises Vîzân, Manashar, and Tertia. In the morning Thomas is brought out and condemned to death by the King: he is taken outside the town and after a short prayer is speared by four soldiers. Before his death he ordains Ṣîfûr and Vîzân, and the converts continue in the faith after being encouraged by a vision of the ascended Judas Thomas.

The bones of the Apostle were secretly taken away to the 'West' by one of the brethren, but a long time afterwards the dust from the grave charms away a devil from one of King Mazdai's sons, whereupon the king also believes and prays Ṣîfûr and the brethren for forgiveness.

Such is the tale of St Thomas. It is quite possible that some of the details of the legend are older than our Acts. The reputed bones of the Apostle were preserved at Edessa, and doubtless some story of their adventures had grown up around the shrine. But the real interest of the Acts is not historical, any more than the interest of Lear or Hamlet is historical. The interest lies in the prayers and sermons of Judas Thomas. These are not mere embellishments of the narrative, but the very essence of the book. What the author wishes us to give our earnest attention to is the Gospel of Virginity and Poverty and its effect upon the soul. As to the intense seriousness of the book there can be no doubt at all: no early Christian writer, orthodox or heterodox, would quote the Lord's Prayer in full merely for ornament.

It will be noticed even from this short summary that the Acts of Thomas form a work complete in itself. From the moment that St Thomas starts for India we hear no more of the other Apostles. He is absolutely independent of every one except his Lord. The word Church occurs only once and that by mistake[5]. Moreover the whole framework of the tale is Eastern, and Eastern of a very decided type. The proper names are such as would occur to a Syriac-speaking Christian, but they could hardly have been invented by a Greek. It is to Justi's Iranisches Namenbuch not to Pape's Griechische Eigennamen that we have to look for their elucidation. Cyrus—not in the Greek but in an approximation to the genuine Oriental form—Mazdai, Vîzân, Manashar, are good old Persian names. Mygdonia is another name for Nisibis. Except Xenophon the deacon and Tertia the queen there is not one European-sounding name among them.

But the main argument for regarding the Acta Thomae as an original Syriac composition is independent of these general considerations. It consists in the large number of passages where the existing Greek is either a mistranslation or a misreading of the Syriac. The Greek and the Syriac often diverge freely from one another, and there is often no attempt to translate literally; but in a sufficient number of instances the evidence is clear enough for an induction.

A full critical discussion involves considerations of Syriac grammar and palaeography and would be out of place here: I must refer the reader to my paper in the Journal of Theological Studies for October, 1899. At the same time I will indicate in a couple of examples the nature of the evidence.

When Judas Thomas is about to go away with Ṣîfûr the General to cure his wife and daughter he bids farewell to his converts, and says to them: "Be ye holding to us and looking at us as the ministers of God; though we also, if we do not take pains that we may be worthy of this name, punishment we shall receive, and for judgment and requital it will be to us" (Wright, Syriac Text 23711—14 = Bonnet, Acta Thomae 4813—16). The corresponding Greek has: "Remember us, as also we remember you: for unless we fulfil the burden of the commandments (τὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν φορτίον τελέσωμεν) we shall not be worthy heralds of the name of Christ, and moreover shall receive at the last punishment for our own heads (τὴν τιμωρίαν … τῆς ἑαυτῶν κεφαλῆς)". Here there is wide divergence, but a glance at the Syriac at once reveals its origin. The Syriac idiom for 'to take pains' is literally 'to take up the burden' and a word-for-word rendering of the Syriac in this passage would be "if we do not take up the burden that we may be worthy of this name." The Greek translator misunderstood the phrase, and in his version he brought in the wholly foreign conception of submitting to the yoke of the law. Similarly, the odd introduction of κεφαλὴ in the latter part of the sentence comes from the fact that the Syriac word for punishment (not necessarily capital) is literally "a putting on the head." It would be a miracle indeed if the Greek were original here and the Syriac with its characteristic and perfectly natural idioms a translation.

One example more. You will remember that the daughter of the King of Sandarûk was converted with her husband to a life of Christian virginity on her bridal night. The next morning her mother expostulates with her. In the girl's reply she says among other things, according to the Greek (Bonnet 1219), ἐξουθένισα τὸν ἄνδρα τοῦτον I have despised this man, i.e. her husband. This is, to say the least, surprising. The young man had just been converted along with herself, and to despise one's fellow-believers has never been a Christian virtue, even in the most heretical sects. But the difficulty vanishes when we look at the Syriac, which has not 'this man' but 'this deed,' i.e. the ἔργον τῆς αἰσχύνης mentioned three lines before[6]. In Syriac writing gaβrâ 'man' and ʿ'βâdâ 'deed' are almost exactly alike, different as they sound. Thus the unsatisfactory expression in the Greek is easily explicable as a translator's misreading: on any other hypothesis it would be difficult to account for its presence.

These are but two instances out of many, and in what follows I shall feel justified in assuming the Acts of Thomas to be an original Syriac composition. I need only add that the same view is held by Nöldeke, and (as I have learnt quite lately) it was also maintained by the late Prof. R. L. Bensly.

But if these Acts be of Syriac origin we are dealing with a work immensely important for the history of Christian thought in the Euphrates Valley. To begin with, the work is one of the oldest non-biblical monuments of Syriac literature. The text of the quotations from the Gospels alone would be enough to shew this. Whatever editorial touches the Acts of Thomas may have received, the Scripture allusions have been left in their original form, for they follow the Old Syriac, not the Peshitta. Notably this is the case with the Lord's Prayer, which as I remarked above is quoted in full, and in agreement with the very striking renderings of Cureton's text. The example of Aphraates warns us, it is true, from dating a Syriac work early because its doctrinal statements appear too primitive for the 4th century, but in the case of the Acts of Thomas we have to take into account the popularity of the book even in orthodox circles. There are clear references to it in Ephraim[7], and Jacob of Serug wrote a poem on the Palace which St Thomas built in Heaven for the King of India. I do not think we shall be far wrong if we put the date of our Acts before the middle of the 3rd century. Of course they have suffered a little in transmission. Here and there a too definitely unorthodox clause has been excised altogether or some harmless platitude has been substituted, but the general accuracy of the text as published by Wright is attested by the very ancient palimpsest fragments at Sinai.

I have designated the work as unorthodox. This perhaps requires some justification. Judged by an Athanasian standard it is of course quite heretical, but the standard of the early Syriac-speaking Churches was nearer that of Aphraates. To my own mind the un-catholic note is struck in the puritan recklessness of the writer: he never allows for the weakness of humanity or for the economy of Church government. This is the note of Tertullian, of Montanus, of the Donatists—the note struck in our own century by Edward Irving. But more definite indications are not wanting. In the first place, I cannot believe that an orthodox circle would have developed the very remarkable belief that Judas Thomas—Judas the Twin—was the twin-brother of our Lord Himself. Not only do men and women in these Acts mistake the one for the other, but the very devils and wild beasts salute the Apostle as 'Twin of the Messiah[8].' No wonder that some of the mss. have obliterated this title!

The argument commonly relied upon for regarding the Acta Thomae as 'Gnostic' is the occurrence of certain mystical and very imperfectly understood expressions in the prayers and invocations. Some few of these have disappeared in Syriac from the text as preserved in the British Museum ms. used by Wright, and many more have been left out in the Sachau ms. at Berlin: but in some cases at least the queer phrases in the Greek are the result not of heterodox doctrine but of the ignorance or helplessness of the writer[9]. The discussion of such points involves critical details and the niceties of Semitic grammar: all that needs to be pointed out here is the improbability that a writer so much in earnest as the author of the Acts would indicate an elaborate and strange cosmogony by a few side touches.

In any case there is a great gulf fixed between these Acts and the thoroughly Greek Gnostic Acts of John. According to the Acts of John the highest gift of the true Christian is spiritual insight to perceive the hidden meaning of that which is hidden from the uninstructed believer. "Behold Me," Christ says there to St John, "in truth that I am, not what I said, but what thou art able to know … The things that they say of Me I had not, and the things that they say not those I suffered. Now what they are I will signify unto thee, for I know that thou wilt understand[10]." The language of the Acts of Judas Thomas is quite other than this. Not philosophy but ethics is here the essence of Christianity: the chief aim of the writer is to produce a change of conduct, not spiritual enlightenment. St Thomas knows that the mysteries of life cannot be rightly uttered in human speech, but so far as may be he expounds them to all the people. There is no intentional concealment of doctrine, no inner circle of Illuminati.

These Acts strike a higher, shriller, note than that of Catholicism, but now and again it rings true. If we overlook the fantastic machinery of the tale, and remember that the author was living in a world distracted by the indecisive yet devastating struggle of Greek and Persian, a world also where what there was of art, of science, of philosophy, was still wholly pagan, we shall find something with which to sympathise and even something to inspire. No one, save only St Francis of Assisi, has ever so whole-heartedly preached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Nowhere in Christian literature do the merchant's goods appear so little in comparison with the Pearl of great price. "As long as we are in the world," says St Thomas, "we are unable to speak about that which all the believers in God are going to receive. For if we say that He hath given us Light, we mention something which we have seen; and if we say that He hath given us Wealth, we mention something that is in the world; and if we speak of Clothing, we mention something that nobles wear; and if we speak of dainty Meats, we mention something against which we are warned; and if we speak of this temporary Rest, a chastisement is appointed for it. But we speak of God and of our Lord Jesus, and of Angels and Watchers and Holy Ones, and of the New World, and of the incorruptible food of the tree of Life, and of the draught of the water of Life; of what Eye hath not seen, nor Ear heard, nor hath it entered into the Heart of man to conceive,—what God hath prepared from of old for those who love him[11]." Surely this is the language of Gnosticism at its best. It is unencumbered with irrelevant details about the origin and physical constitution of the universe, it is couched in no uncouth jargon of Æons and Emanations, but it expresses as clearly as words can speak the great doctrine that our knowledge and our terminology is and must always remain relative and approximate. All things are said in Figures, because the Things Eternal are the things that are not seen, neither can they be named with a name.

The teaching of the Acts of Thomas contains another feature which must not remain unnoticed. It is a feature which, though not heretical in itself, is in early documents characteristic rather of Gnostic thought than of Catholic teaching. This is the lack of interest in controversy against the Jews and against idolatry. Judas Thomas does not bring forward unorthodox opinions about the old dispensation or the worship of heathen gods: he simply passes these things by with the turn of a phrase. Thus we read (Transl. p. 207) that God's will was spoken by the Prophets, but Israel did not obey because of their evil genius[12]. Again, the devils confess that they take pleasure in sacrifices and libations of wine on the altars as well as in murder and adultery (Transl. p. 213)[13]. But these are mere allusions by the way: it is not so much against the gods that St Thomas preaches as against the evil nature in man. Contrast this with the elaborate polemic against the Jews in Aphraates, and the long sermons against idolatry in the Doctrine of Addai. So much indeed is it the rule that the 'Acts' of martyrs should contain a testimony against the worship of idols that in the Latin version of the Acta Thomae there is an extended interpolation, telling how St Thomas refused to worship the Sun-god when he was brought before King Mazdai.

The interest of the author of the Acts of Thomas lay in the workings of human nature, not in the conflicting claims of rival religions—in a word, it lay in the conversion of individual souls rather than in the establishment of a Church. But to the Catholic writers from the very earliest period the case was different. To them the Jewish question was vital, not so much for the sake of convincing the Jews of error as to establish their own position. There stood the Holy Oracles, the promises of God to His people—to whom did they apply? It was as essential for the early Church to establish her claim to be the true heir of the Covenants, as it is for the High Anglican of our day to make out a case for the apostolical succession of the English bishops. With the Gnostics, unless I am mistaken, the position of things was not quite the same. Early Catholicism was a historical religion, proved by texts out of the Old Testament and by the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth: Gnosticism, on the other hand, was what we call natural religion, a philosophy. The philosophy might be illustrated from the Old Testament or the New, but it was really independent of the Bible. It was not the application of the old promises of God that troubled the author of the Acts of Thomas but the aimlessness of men's lives, which to him appeared to be filled with care and sorrow about that which must quickly pass away for ever.

In the conception of the Church—that is, the organised body of believers,—as a thing in itself to be worked for and fostered, lies, I think, the point of difference between Catholicism and Gnosticism, between Aphraates and the Acts of Thomas. To the convert of Judas Thomas there was literally nothing left on this earth to live for. "Would that the days passed swiftly over me, and that all the hours were one," says Mygdonia, "that I might go forth from this world, and go and see that Beautiful One with whose impress I have been sealed[14], that Living One and Giver of life to those who have believed in Him, where there is neither day nor night, and no darkness but light, and neither good nor bad, nor rich nor poor, neither male nor female, nor slaves nor freemen, nor any proud and uplifted over those who are humble[15]." The old civilisation was doomed, but this religious Nihilism puts nothing in its place. To the orthodox Christian, on the other hand, the Church stood as a middle term between the things of the next world and of this. It was the Body of Christ and therefore eternal; something worth living for and working for. Yet it was in the world as much as the Empire itself. The idea of the Church thus formed an invaluable fixed point, round which a new civilisation could slowly crystallise.

But to return to our main subject. The chief characteristics, the chief differentia, of early Christianity outside the Roman Empire in the only region where it is to be found, have their origin either in the ascetic ideal or in the absence of the specifically Greek philosophical influence. Now for reasons very unlike these two points should have a great interest to us English-speaking Christians. Instead of sitting in judgment, therefore, upon the shortcomings of the ancient Church of the Euphrates Valley and pointing out its unsuitableness for the age of Constantine and the requirements of the Byzantine Empire, I wish to recommend the early history and doctrines of that Church to your study and your sympathy. We also have no part nor lot in the Empire, and our philosophy is not in bondage to the Greeks. Upon us will come, sooner or later, the task of adjusting our Faith and our Science, of reconciling the Catholic Religion with Christian Verity, as the Athanasian Creed puts it. In the Christian Verity—that is, Theological Science,—of the 4th century there was much that was temporary, ignorant, Greek, as indeed there is in the science. Christian or otherwise, of our own day. I think it will help not only the historical investigator of the history of dogma, but also those who are fashioning the channel of our own beliefs to take serious account of the non-Greek Church of the East.

The spirit of Asceticism touches us from another side. In these cold climates the ascetic ideal has never been a really dominant factor. It is always necessary to make so much provision for the flesh that it is impossible to aim at forgetting its requirements. Even at Marseilles, in Cassian's day, it provoked merely ridicule when some of the monks attempted to live as the Egyptians lived in the warm, dry deserts. But the British Empire covers many lands and many climates, and it is the simple fact that in the land where Judas Thomas is fabled to have lived and taught the natural instincts of the people still identify true religion with the life of the wandering mendicant. The other day a lady, the wife of a missionary who has spent many years with her husband at a mission station in Southern India, told me that when Christianity really takes possession of a native of India, when he becomes really converted, he is frequently anxious to take up the wandering ascetic life. I shewed my friend the Acts of Judas Thomas, and she was interested to find in it so much of the ethical type which an Indian convert would naturally be disposed to admire. These converts, remember, are Protestants who have heard of Christianity only through the stately and respectable formularies of the Church of England or through one of the sects of English nonconformists. O testimonium animae naturaliter—asceticae! But if asceticism grows so naturally and inevitably on Eastern soil it must be a fact of human nature with which we have to reckon—to direct and educate, it may be, but not altogether to repress. Even if the heathen 'ascetic' of modern India has often more points in common with the Friar of the later middle ages than with St Francis of Assisi or Judas Thomas, yet he represents an ideal not wholly alien to the teaching of the New Testament. We live in an age of a victorious and progressive material civilisation: even if we are content to enter into life by keeping the commandments only, it may be well to remember the counsel of perfection which our Lord Himself gave to the rich young man. To refuse to listen to the note struck so eloquently, if so monotonously, in the Acts of Judas Thomas is to neglect one of the features which distinguish men from the beasts that perish.

  1. A complete English Translation is given in Wright's Apocryphal Acts, vol. ii, pp. 146—298.
  2. In this story, as in some of the others, the prayers and exhortations of Thomas are given at considerable length.
  3. The name Cyrus, in Syriac Kôrêsh, is preserved uncorrupted in the Sachau ms. In the British Museum ms. it is misspelt Kârîsh, and in the Greek corrupted to Χαρίσιος.
  4. In front of this Hymn, which is undoubtedly a genuine portion of the Acts, the British Museum Codex inserts the great Hymn of the Soul.
  5. The first word of the Hymn in the first Act: the Greek has ἡ κόρη.
  6. Cf. also Wright 29920.
  7. Carm. Nisib. 42.
  8. Wright 197, 208.
  9. E.g. Bonnet 3011—13 (= Wright 20910—13): cf. Gen i 2 in the Peshitta.
  10. Acta Iohannis xv (James, Apocrypha Anecdota ii, p. 20 ff.).
  11. Wright 205; Eng. Tr. 177.
  12. In the Syriac, yaṣr'hôn bîshâ: cf. Deut xxxi 21 and the corresponding Jewish doctrines.
  13. See also Trans. p. 198.
  14. I.e. 'into whose Name I have been baptised.' Wright's text must here be corrected from the Sachau ms.
  15. Wright, Transl. p. 265.