Wednesday, July 03, 2013


Today is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, also known as St. Thomas Didymus (or the Twin) and St. Thomas the Doubter. According to legend, he spread the gospel in India, of which he is the patron saint. The Saint Thomas Christians of India (Malankara Orthodox, Syro-Malabar Catholic, Syro-Malankara Catholic, and others) trace their community back to him. It's commonly held that this is due to confusing an early Thomas (usually Thomas of Cana) with the Thomas; but it is undeniable that the Nasrani or Saint Thomas community in India is very old, going back at least to the third century, and by the third century it is also a very widespread view in the Roman world, both in the West and in the East, that St. Thomas the Apostle journeyed to India.

The Acts of Thomas is a gnostic work that seems to have been mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis, thus strongly suggesting that it was in circulation in the fourth century; it likely goes back to early third century Edessa, in Syria. It is a Gnostic work, although this becomes obvious relatively rarely. It collects together stories of St. Thomas's mission to India. My favorite story is that of St. Thomas and King Gundaphorus, which has a lot of other versions that appear to derive from the Acts of Thomas version.

Thomas, traveling with a merchant into India, was brought before Gundaphorus, who asked him his craft. Thomas said that he was a carpenter and a builder, capable of building many things, including palaces for kings. So Gundaphorus asked him to build him a palace. Thomas replied that he would wait for the winter months to build the palace; which amazed Gundaphorus, because everyone else built in the summer. But Thomas insisted, and Gundaphorus gave him a large quantity of money for building the palace, and continued to send him large quantities of money and provisions as the months went by. But Thomas took all the money and provisions he received from Gundaphorus and began dispensing it to the poor, saying, "Kings know how to obtain the reward of kings, but now the poor must receive their refreshment."

After a while King Gundaphorus sent a messenger to Thomas, and asked him how the palace was going.

"Everything is built except the roof," Thomas replied. So Gundaphorus sent him gold and silver to roof the palace, and Thomas, thanking God, gave it all to the poor, telling them, "The Lord has given you this, and gives everyone their food; for he cares for widows and orphans, and is the relief of the afflicted."

After a while the king came to the city and began inquiring of his friends and allies about the palace. They told him that Thomas had done nothing about any palace, but instead had been going about giving large sums of money to the afflicted, healing the sick, and preaching a new God. Needless to say, Gundaphorus was a bit angry and sent for Thomas.

"Have you built me my palace?" he asked.

"Yes," the apostle said.

"Then show it to me," the king said.

Then Thomas shook his head. "You cannot see it now; you will only be able to see it when you have departed from this life."

The king, of course, was exceedingly angry; Thomas was thrown into prison, and Gundaphorus decided that he would flay the apostle alive.

In the meantime the king's brother Gad had become deathly ill and died. The king loved his brother, and with great sorrow made preparations to mourn him. However, as they were putting the burial-clothes on his body, Gad revived. The king was overjoyed and ran to his side.

Then Gad said to Gundaphorus, "Brother, I know your generous heart, and how you would give half your kingdom to anyone who asked for my sake; I beg that you grant me one favor."

And Gundaphorus said to Gad, "Ask anything and I will grant it."

Then Gad said, "Brother, sell me your palace in the heavens."

The king was very puzzled by this and asked, "How could I have a palace in the heavens?"

Then Gad told him that when he died, his soul was carried by angels up to the heavens, where they showed him many palaces. At length they approached to one that was particularly beautiful, and Gad had begged the angels to let him live in even the humblest room of this beautiful palace. But the angels shook their heads, saying he could not dwell in that building. It had been built by Thomas for his brother. Then Gad had asked them to let him return to his brother in order to buy the palace from him. And they let him return for this very purpose.

Then Gundaphorus said to his brother, "Brother, it is not in my power to sell you that particular palace. But if you wish to buy such a palace, it is in my power to give you the means to buy it."

So Thomas was set free in order to build a palace for Gad, just like the one he had built for Gundaphorus. The two brothers became Christians and devoted much of their lives to relieving the poor in their dominion; for it is of such stewardship that the best palaces are made.

Such is the legend. In the 1800s in Afghanistan and the Punjab, the British came across coins that had the first mention of Gundaphorus, or Gudapharasa. There were several kings in a row named Gandapur, one of whom, usually known today as Gondophares IV Sases, would have ruled at exactly the right time to meet the Apostle. After the first Gondophares, it seems to have been used as a title, so it's entirely possible that the name is used in the Acts of Thomas just because it had become a well-known name of an Indian king. And we know nothing else about the real Gudapharasa, beyond the fact that he is attested to by coins minted for him and what is attributed to him in this legend of St. Thomas. But it's also the case that people used to think he was entirely made up in the first place.

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