The Legend of Saint Thomas

stained glass window of Saint Thomas the Apostle; date and artist unknown; north wall, Saint Birinus Church, Dorchester, England; swiped with permission from the flickr account of Father Lawrence Lew, OPAnd it came to pass, in those days, that Thomas abode at Jerusalem. And in a dream the Lord appeared to him, and said, Behold, Gondaphorus, who ruleth in India, hath sent Abbas his servant into Syria, that he may find men skilful in the art of building. Go thou, therefore, and I will show thee unto him. But Thomas answered, and said, Lord, suffer me not to go into India. But the Lord answered, and said to him, Fear not, but rise up and depart; for behold, I am with thee, and when thou shalt have converted the nations of India, thou shalt come to me, and I will give unto thee the recompense of thy reward. And when Thomas heard this, he said, Thou art my Lord and I am thy servant. Let it be as thou hast said. And he went his way.

And it came to pass that as Abbas, the servant of Gondaphorus the king, stood in the market-place, the Lord met him, and said, Young man, what seekest thou? And Abbas answered, and said, Behold, my master hath sent me hither, that I might bring to him cunning workmen who shall build for him a palace like unto those that are in Rome. And when he had spoken these things, the Lord showed unto him Thomas, as that skillful and cunning workman whom he sought.

And straightway Thomas the apostle, and the servant of Gondaphorus the king, departed. And as they journeyed, the word of the Lord spake by the mouth of Thomas, and great multitudes of the Gentiles were converted and baptized. And when they came to Aden, which lieth at the going in of the Red Sea, they tarried many days.

And departing thence, they came into the coasts of India. And behold, there was a marriage in that city, and both Thomas and Abbas were called to the marriage. And the whole city was with them. And while they rejoiced together, behold, Thomas spake to the people the word of the Lord, and wrought many mighty works before them all, so that great multitudes believed and were baptized. And the daughter of the king, (whose feast it was,) and her husband, and the king also, were among them. And this was she, who, after a long time, was called Pelagia, and took the holy veil, and suffered martyrdom. But the bridegroom was called Denis, and became the bishop of that city.

And going from thence, they departed, and came to Gondaphorus the king. And to him was Thomas the apostle brought, as a cunning workman, skilled in all manner of building. And the king commanded him to build for him a royal palace, and gave him vast treasures wherewith to build it, and having done this, he went into another country.

And it came to pass, that when Thomas received the treasure of the king, he put not his hand to the palace of the king, but went his way throughout the kingdom, for the space of two years, preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, and giving his treasures to the poor.

And after the space of two years, Gondaphorus the king returned into his own city, and when he had asked concerning his palace, Thomas answered, and said, Behold, O king! the palace is builded; but thou shalt dwell therein only in the world that is to come. Then was the king exceeding wroth, when he had heard these things, and commanded his soldiers to cast Thomas into prison, and to flay him alive, and afterward to burn his body with fire.

And it came to pass, that in those days Syd, the brother of Gondaphorus, died, and the king commanded them to prepare for him a goodly sepulchre. And on the fourth day, as they made lamentation over him, behold, he that was dead sat up and began to speak. And they were sore affrighted and amazed. But he said to the king, Behold, O king! he whom thou hast commanded to be flayed and burned is the friend of God. For lo! the angels of God, who serve him, took me into paradise, and showed to me a palace adorned with gold and silver and precious stones. And when I was astonished at its beauty, one cried out to me, and said, Behold, this is the palace which Thomas has builded for the king, thy brother. But he has become unworthy; yet, if thou thyself wouldst dwell therein, we will beseech the Lord, that thou mayest live again and redeem it of thy brother by paying unto him the treasure he has lost.

And when Gondaphorus had heard these things, he was sore afraid. And he straightway ran to the prison, and came in unto the apostle, and smote off his chains. And bringing a royal robe, he would have put it on him. But Thomas answering, said, Knowest thou not, O king! that those who would have power in heavenly things care not for that which is carnal and earthly? And when he had said this, the king fell down at his feet, confessing his sins. And Thomas baptized both him, and his brother, and all his house, and said to them, In heaven there are many mansions, prepared from the foundation of the world. But these are purchased only by faith and almsgiving. Your riches are able to go before you into these heavenly habitations, but thither they can never follow you.

And after these things, Thomas arose and departed, and came into all the kingdoms of India, preaching the Gospel, and doing many mighty miracles. And all the nations of India believed and were baptized, hearing his words, and seeing the wonders which he did.

And it came to pass that Mesdeus the king heard thereof. And when Thomas came into his country, he laid hands upon him, and commanded him to adore his idols, even the images of the Sun, which he had made. And Thomas answered, and said, Let it be even as thou hast said, if at my word the idol bow not its head into the dust. And when he had said this, the idol fell down prostrate to the earth.

And there arose a great sedition among the people, and the greater part stood with Thomas. But the king was exceeding angry, and cast him into prison, and delivered him up to the soldiers, that they might put him to death. And the soldiers, taking him, led him forth to the top of a mountain over against the city. And when he had prayed a long time, they pierced him with their spears, and, falling down, he yielded up the ghost. And his disciples, which stood by, wept for him with many tears, and, taking up his body, they wound it in precious spices, and laid it in a tomb. But the church grew and waxed mightily, and Siforus the priest, and Zuganes the deacon, whom Thomas had ordained as he went forth to die on the mountain, taught in his stead.

Such is the legend of Saint Thomas, as recited in the name of Abdias of Babylon, “bishop and disciple,” 1 in his “ten books upon the conflicts of the apostles.” Whatever we may think of the individual events therein detailed, the great outline of the story has much intrinsic probability, and is of no slight interest to the student of Christian history. Especially is this so in the present age, when the vast and mystic East opens her gates once more to the knock of the evangelist, and when the whole Christian world is agitated with a missionary zeal which must be comparatively fruitless, unless guided by a knowledge of the people whom it approaches, and of the religious traditions with which it must combat or agree. It is our intention in this article to suggest some of the chief facts in the ecclesiastical annals of these unknown lands, and to trace, so far as we may be able, the dogmatic genealogy of those religious notions with which the Gospel has been, and will be, there forced to contend.

In the legend which we have repeated, and the discussion of which will occupy the present article, the scene of the labors of Saint Thomas is laid in India. The tradition that he preached in Parthia and other countries of the east, and that he perished by martyrdom, is nearly as old as Christianity itself. All of the early writers are agreed that his apostolic province lay north and east of Palestine, and that the Persians, Bactrians, Scythians, and other kindred nations were entrusted to his spiritual care. But in regard to the particular regions over which he travelled, and the extent of his missionary efforts, as embraced in modern geographical divisions, there appears to be no small discrepancy between them. Thus, while certain ancient authors ascribe to him the evangelization of the entire East, Socrates and Theodoret expressly state that the Gospel was not preached in India till the fourth century, when Frumentius carried thither the knowledge of the true faith, and established a mission, of which he himself became the bishop; while some extend his wanderings to the Ganges, or even to the Celestial empire itself, others limit him within the eastern boundary of Persia, and place his death and burial-place near the city of Edessa, less than two hundred miles north-east from Antioch.

Much of this apparent disagreement, however, is explained away by the acknowledged ambiguity of the phrases under which these different countries were anciently described. “India” and “Ethiopia” seem to have been terms as loosely applied in that age as “the East,” in Europe, and “the West,” in America, are today; and it is not at all unlikely that, as has been the case with the latter phrase in this country, the application of the former was gradually changed as their nearer frontiers became better known, and were localized under distinct and peculiar names. The India of Socrates and Theodoret may or may not embrace the districts included in the India of Gaudentius and Sophronius; and each, in his historic statement, may be entirely accurate in fact, though contradictory to the others in his language.

Moreover, in those early ages kingdoms were less known than nations. The ancients spoke of “Persians,” “Romans,” “Jews,” “Egyptians,” rather than of the countries in which they were supposed to dwell; while in our day, on the contrary, the explorations of geography have rendered the regions far more definite than the nations which inhabit them. For this reason, what would be comparatively a safe guide to any given locality in modern usage, would be far less reliable in writings of a thousand years ago. Thus we may well dismiss whatever doubts this seeming disagreement at first sight throws around the post-scriptural account of this apostle, or at least hold it in abeyance, to be obliterated if subsequent investigations should disclose sufficient evidence of the toils and triumphs of Saint Thomas in the vast empires of oriental Asia.

It is in this generic sense of the terms that “India” and “the Indies” are employed by the author of this legend, and under the singular as well as under the plural name are included many kingdoms through which the apostle travelled, from that in which he preached the Gospel at the nuptials of a king to that in which he found the mountain of his martyrdom. Each of these seems to have had its own court and king, and to have been so far independent of the others that the same religion which was maintained and promulgated by the state in one, was persecuted and condemned by the rulers of the other. It is not, therefore, to these names that we can look with any confidence of finding such vestiges of the apostle’s footsteps as shall afford us a definite clue to the countries or the nations which enjoyed the fruits of his laborious love.

Such, however, is not the case with the name of King Gondaphorus to whom particularly, according to the legend, the mission of Saint Thomas was directed. Until within a few years, the age, the residence, even the existence of this personage has been matter of serious controversy. The opinion most commonly received among the learned was, that “Gondaphorus” was a corruption of “Gun dishavor” or “Gondisapor,” a city built by Artaxerxes, and deriving its name from Sapor or Schavor, the son and successor of its founder. 2 As the city could have acquired this title only in the fourth century, this, among other reasons, has generally led historians to deny the substantial authenticity of the legend itself, and to regard it as the fabrication of some later age.

Recent investigations among Indian antiquities have thrown new light upon this subject, and, in this particular, at least, seem to have cleared the legend from all suspicions of fraud. Among the many coins and medals lately discovered in the East are those of the Indo-Scythian kings who ruled in the valley of the Indus about the beginning of our present era. One of these kings bore the name of “Gondaphorus,” and pieces of his coinage are now said to be preserved in different collections of Paris and the East. 3 This striking corroboration, in the nineteenth century, of a tradition which, in one shape or another, has been current in the Christian world for eighteen hundred years, can hardly fail to satisfy the most critical examiner that the legend ascribed to Abdias is, in its grand outline, entitled to a far higher degree of credit than it has been accustomed lately to receive.

The course of the apostle and his companion toward the east, so far as this tradition and its modern limitations have defined it, may thus be traced. Leaving Jerusalem, they journeyed by the usual route to the Red Sea, and thence along the coasts of Arabia Petraea and Arabia Felix to Aden, then, as now, a city of much commercial importance, on account of its excellent harbor and commanding situation. Here they remained for a considerable period of time, the apostle preaching the Gospel and laying foundations on which other men might build. Embarking thence, they sailed around the southern borders of the Arabian peninsula, and, crossing the Gulf of Oman, landed at one of the then flourishing cities near the mouths of the Indus. After some delay, of which Saint Thomas made good use in the service of the Gospel, they pushed north-easterly into the interior to the immediate province of King Gondaphorus, where, after the labors of two years, the apostle brought the monarch and his family under obedience to the yoke of Christ. His special work thus accomplished, Saint Thomas travelled into many other kingdoms on the same divine errand, and terminated his devoted and fruitful life by holy martyrdom. Thus far, the legend; and that it agrees with and is in fact the interpreter of all other traditions of Saint Thomas, as well as of those various monuments which, until recently, have been unknown as teachers of Christian history, will shortly be made manifest.

The holy apostle, having once established Christianity in those parts of India which lie nearest to Jerusalem, would naturally extend his journey into more distant regions, rather than retrace his steps, and occupy, as his field of labor, a territory to which the Gospel would, without his intervention, probably be soon proclaimed. For, having in himself powers plenipotentiary for the organization and perpetuation of the church, wherever he might plant it, and being assured, as a Christian and disciple, that the zeal and perseverance of his fellow-workers might safely be entrusted with the conversion of the nations adjacent to the centres of Christian doctrine, it was simply manlike, simply apostolic, for him to set his face steadfastly toward those who, but for him, might not in many generations obtain the light of faith. If, therefore, the footsteps which we have already traced be genuine, we may with reason look for traces of the same unwearied feet in other and still more unknown lands.

And herein also, the traditions of the early ages will not disappoint us. Still reckoning by nations, rather than by kingdoms, the ancient writers tell us that Saint Thomas preached the Gospel to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, Germanians, Seres, Indians, and Scythians. Thus in a fragment of Saint Dorotheus, (A.D. 254,) “The apostle Thomas, having announced the Gospel to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Germanians, Bactrians, and Mages, suffered martyrdom at Calamila, a city of India.” Theodoret, speaking of the universality of the preaching of the apostles, says, “They have caused, not only the Romans, and those who inhabit the Roman empire, but the Scythians, … the Indians, … the Persians, the Seres, and the Hyrcanians to receive from them the law of the Crucified.” Origen, and from him Eusebius, relates that Saint Thomas received Parthia as his allotted sphere; and Sophronius mentions that he planted the faith among the Medes, Persians, Carmanians, (Germanians,) Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and other nations of the extreme east. Both the latter and Saint Gaudentius declare that he suffered at Calamina in India.

The same traditions are faithfully preserved among the Christians of India. In the breviary of the Church of Malabar, it is stated that Saint Thomas converted the Indians, Chinese, and Ethiopians, and that these different nations, together with the Persians, offer their adorations to God in commemoration of this devoted apostle, from whom their forefathers received the truth of Christ. The presumption of fact, which arises out of such a mass of testimony as these and other witnesses which might be quoted offer us, existing for so many ages and in countries so widely separated from each other, is surely sufficient to justify a careful study of the localities to which these different nations belonged, as indicative of the later and more extended missionary labors of Saint Thomas.

According to the best authorities on the subjects of ancient geography and ethnology, all the various territories which were inhabited by the nations whose conversion has been attributed to Saint Thomas lie east of the Euphrates, and, with the single exception of the Scythians, below the fortieth parallel of latitude. The Medes occupied the districts between the Caspian and Persian seas. The Hyrcanians lay on the south-east of the Caspian, the Parthians and the Bactrians lying east of them; and all three being included in the present Turkistan. The Persians held the northeastern borders of the Persian Gulf, next to the kingdom of the Medes; the Germanians, or Carmanians, lying next on the south-east, in part of what is now known as Beloochistan, and the lower corner of modern Persia. The “Seres” was a name given to the Chinese in the earliest historic ages, and embraced the vast and cultivated people who dwell beyond the Emodi, or Himalaya, mountains, and east of the sources of the Indus. The Indians and Scythians—the former occupying from the Indian Ocean and the latter from the Arctic zone—met together between the Bactrians and the Seres, and formed the Indo-Scythian races of the ante-Christian age. Calamila, or Calamina, the city near which the apostle finally rested from his labors, is on the eastern coast of Hindostan, a short distance from Madras, and has been known, at different periods, by the names of Meliapour, Beit-Thoma, and Saint Thomas.

The connection of these ancient nations and countries with, and their successive propinquity to, each other enables us to form a tolerably correct idea of the course of the apostle’s missionary work, from the baptism of Gondaphorus to the close of his own career. For although our guide is simply the intrinsic probability which grows out of the nature of the workman and the work God had appointed him to do, yet, to whoever takes the map of the various regions which we have described as the scenes of the apostolic life and death, it will appear that one of two courses must have been adopted. The first starts from the valley of the Indus, and, leading westward, reaches in turn the Germanians, Persians, and Medes; then, turning toward the north and flexing eastward by the southern border of the Caspian Sea, it penetrates the land of the Hyrcanians, Parthians, Bactrians, Indo-Scythians, and Seres; where, again met by the upper Indus, it bends southward, and, striking through the heart of Hindostan, ends in the lower portion of the peninsula at or near Madras. The second, beginning at the same point, follows up the Indus in a path directly opposite to the former, until the place of departure is again reached and the final journey through modern India begins. It is scarcely possible to say which of these two routes is most probably correct. Future researches may throw light upon the extent of the region over which King Gondaphorus reigned, upon the relation of the dialects of these bordering nations to each other, and thus afford a clue to the more exact path of the apostle. But in either case, the districts over which he travelled, and the races into contact with whom he carried the Gospel, are distinguished with a high degree of certainty, and the triumphs of the cross under his leadership may thus be clearly understood.

Indeed, the work of scarce any apostle of the twelve can now be better followed than that of Thomas. The chief indefiniteness attaches to his mission to the Seres; for here little is extant to show, with any great conclusiveness, whether his labors terminated with the borders of Indo-Scythia, or penetrated to the Yellow Sea. Some monuments of antiquity have, it is true, been found, which point strongly to the spreading of the Gospel over a large part of China by primitive if not by apostolic missionaries; but nothing has as yet been discovered which would justify the conclusion that Saint Thomas actually attempted the evangelization of that immense and thickly-populated empire. If such had been the case, it is hardly possible that India should have received him back again, and given him the distant Calamina for his martyrdom.

The area of territory over which the apostle Thomas must thus have journeyed embraces over three million two hundred and fifty thousand square miles, and the people to whom he opened the doors of heaven, through the Gospel, numbered more than two hundred millions of souls. The linear distance of his own personal travels probably exceeded ten thousand miles, and this, for the most part, necessarily on foot. The consideration of these facts, and of the results which followed from the apostle’s labors, will give us some idea of the work which our Divine Lord committed to his immediate disciples, and of the untiring zeal and superhuman endurance with which they were endowed. It has become far easier for us to say, “The Lord hath shortened his hand,” than to go and do likewise.

Yet it is still true that Thomas was an apostle; that it was the will of the Master that all nations should at once almost receive some knowledge of his Gospel; that the miraculous gift of tongues swept out of the way one of the greatest obstacles to missionary labor; and that Saint Thomas had received the gifts of faith and charity to such a degree as enabled him to co-operate, to the utmost, with the graces of his work. And it is also true that, had not he and the others of the twelve been such as they were and accomplished what they did, the promises of Christ would have been unfulfilled, and the church have suffered from their failure to its latest day. But in that they were apostles, in that they did their work, the seed of the Gospel can scarcely fall, to-day, on soil which has not been already watered by the blood of martyrs, or among people in whom it has not, long ago, sprung up and brought forth fruit abundantly.

There were, however, in the case of Saint Thomas, other and natural reasons why his work should have been so vast and his success so extraordinary. The facility of intercourse between the east and the west was far greater in his day than in our own. The successive conquests of Alexander had led him beyond the present western boundary of China. The Roman empire, at the beginning of our era, reached beyond the Euphrates, and the intimate connection of part with part, and the ease of intercourse between the imperial city and the farthest military outpost, can scarcely be exaggerated. 4 Up to the seventh century, this unity continued to a great degree unbroken, and will account not only for the presence of the minister of Gondaphorus in Jerusalem and for the results which followed it, but for the diffusion and preservation of the traditions which have handed down those events to us.

Nor was this unity altogether that of conquest. Beyond the empire of Augustus lay the realms of Porus, of whom history relates that he held six hundred kings beneath his sway. Between these emperors there seem to have been two formal attempts at an intimate political alliance. Twenty-four years before the birth of Christ, an embassy from Porus followed Augustus into Spain, upon this errand, and another some years afterward met with him at Samos. In the reigns of Claudius, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and succeeding emperors, the same royal courtesies were interchanged, and it was not until the Mussulman power, sweeping like a sea of fire between the east and the west, became an impassable barrier to either, that these relations had an end.

Nearly the same may be said of commercial unity. The trade in silk, from which substance the Seres, or Chinese, derived their name, was carried on between the Romans and that distant nation on no inconsiderable scale. Numerous caravans perpetually journeyed to and fro through the wilds of Parthia and along the southern border of the Caspian Sea; while the Erythrean, Red and Mediterranean waters glittered with sails from almost every land. The whole inhabited world (if we except this continent, the date of whose first settlement no one can tell) was thus providentially brought close together, and a higher degree of unity and association established between its different nations than had existed since the dispersion at Babel, or than has now existed for over twelve hundred years.

How vast an advantage to apostolic labor this unity must have been can easily be seen. While it removed almost entirely the difficulties of travel, it assured for the traveller both safety and good-will upon the way. While it conciliated in advance the people among whom they labored, it gave weight and human authority to the Gospel, when actually preached. And, when the church had been established and little colonies of Christians marked the track of the apostles, it enabled them to maintain a constant intercourse with their spiritual children by messengers or by epistles, and to keep watch and ward over the millions entrusted to their care.

Those prophetic traditions of a coming Saviour, which pervaded the east, as well as the south and west, also effected much toward the rapid spread and wide espousal of Christian truth. The origin of these traditions is shrouded in the mystery of an unchronicled antiquity. They may be attributed to the promise in paradise, to the transfusion of Mosaic teachings, or to direct revelation by means of pagan oracles. But that they existed, in a clear and well-defined prophetic form, is established beyond question; while that they were in the first instance of divine disclosure, it becomes no Christian to deny. The learned and contemplative minds of Asia especially delighted in this state of expectation. Sons of a soil whereon the feet of God had trodden in primeval days, the very atmosphere around them still throbbed with the echoes of that voice which walked in Eden in the cool of the day. The mountains that overlooked them had aforetime walled in the garden of the Lord from a dark and half-developed world. The deserts of their meditations lay like a pall above the relics of those generations to whom the deluge brought the judgment wrath of God. Children of Sem, the eldest son of Noah, it had been theirs to see, even more clearly than God’s chosen Israel, the coming of the Incarnate to the world, as it was also theirs to win from heaven the first tidings of his birth through the glowing orient star.

Among the many forms which this tradition assumed, there is one so beautiful and so theologically accurate, that we cannot omit to cite it here. While the swan of Mantua, on the banks of father Tiber, chanted the glories of the golden age, a Hindoo poet, on the borders of the Ganges, thus painted to the wondering eyes of Indian kings the grand event in which the disorders and miseries of that present age should have an end:

“Then shall a Brahmin be born in the city of Sambhala. This shall be Vishnu Jesu. To him shall the divine scriptures and all sciences unfold themselves, without the use of so much time in their investigation as is necessary to pronounce a single word. Hence shall be given to him the name of Sarva Buddha, as to one who fully knoweth all things. Then shall Vishnu Jesu, dwelling with his people, perform that work which he alone can do. He shall purge the world from sin; he shall set up the kingdom of truth and justice; he shall offer the sacrifice; … and bind anew the universe to God. … But when the time of his old age draws nigh, he shall retire into the desert to do penance; and this is the order which Vishnu Sarva shall establish among men. He shall fix virtue and truth in the midst of the Brahmins, and confine the four castles within the boundaries of their laws. Then shall return the primeval age. Then sacrifice shall be so common that the very wilderness shall be no more a solitude. Then shall the Brahmins, confirmed in goodness, occupy themselves only in the ceremonies of religion; they shall cause penance, and all other graces which follow in the path of truth, to flourish, and shall spread everywhere the knowledge of the holy scriptures. Then shall the seasons succeed each other in unbroken order; the rains, in their appointed time, shall water the earth; the harvest, in its turn, shall yield abundance; the milk shall flow at the wish of those who seek it; and the whole world, being inebriated with prosperity and peace, as it was in the beginning, all nations shall enjoy ineffable delights.” 5

The well-known policy of Saint Paul, who, preaching on Mars’ hill to the Athenians, seized the inscription on their altar, “To the unknown God,” as the text of his most memorable sermon, is a divine endorsement of the important part which God intended that these far-reaching revelations should play in the conversion of the world. Saint Thomas, in the east, had but to repeat the announcement, Him whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. He, for whom you have waited—he, Vishnu Jesu, has already come; his wisdom and his counsels I reveal to you.

And among the clear-thoughted and pure-hearted sages of the east, among the Magi of Persia, the Brahmins of India, and the philosophers of China, among such as those who at the mere bidding of a voiceless star followed it to the world’s end—to the cave of Bethlehem—these declarations of the apostle must have been the signal of salvation. In them there were no prejudices to wipe away, no new and strange ideas to be espoused. The Gospel was not to them, as to the Jews, the subversion of anticipated glory. It was the realization of expectation, the golden day which had so long shot gleams of light into the darkness of their iron age. And so it was that, while Judea could give to Christianity but simple fishermen, or at most a ruler of the synagogue, India and the orient thought not too highly of her kings and sages to yield them up to Vishnu Jesu, and offered on his altars the wealth of all her realms.

In the year 1521, certain excavations taking place under the ruins of a large and ancient church at Meliapour, there were found, in a sepulchre, at a great depth beneath the surface of the earth, the bones of a human skeleton, in a state of remarkable whiteness and preservation. With them were also found the head of a lance, still fastened in the wood, the fragments of an iron-shod club, and a vase of clay filled with earth. Some years later, near the same spot, an attempt was made by the Portuguese to build a chapel; and in digging for the foundations, the workmen came upon a monumental stone on which was sculptured a cross, some two feet long by eighteen inches wide, rudely ornamented and surrounded by an inscription in characters which, to the discoverers, were totally unknown. The authorities of Meliapour, being desirous to ascertain the meaning of the letters engraved around this cross, made diligent search among the native scholars for an interpreter, and finally obtained one in the person of a Brahmin of a neighboring city. His translation was as follows:

“Thirty years after the law of the Christians appeared to the world, on the 25th of the month of December, the apostle Saint Thomas died at Meliapour, whither he had brought the knowledge of God, the change of the law, and the overthrow of devils. God was born of the Virgin Mary, was obedient to her during thirty years, and was the eternal God. God unfolded his law to twelve apostles, and of these, one came to Meliapour, and there founded a church. The kings of Malabar, of Coromandel, of Pandi, and of other different nations, submitted to the guidance of this holy Thomas, with willing hearts, as to a devout and saintly man.” 6

The same inscription was afterward laid before other oriental scholars, each of whom, without conference or collusion with the rest, offered the same rendering of this forgotten tongue.

Thus, again do the discoveries of later ages verify the traditions of early Christian history. That Saints Dorotheus, Sophronius, and Gaudentius possessed reliable evidence for their statement that Saint Thomas died at Calamina, we can no longer doubt. That the original framer of “The Legend of Saint Thomas” recited events which, in his day, were well known, and could be easily substantiated, is almost beyond dispute. The wondrous tales of heroism, built out of the deeds of martyrs and apostles and evangelists are not all foolish dreams. The “Legends of the Saints” are not, as the wiseacres of the day would lead us to believe, altogether idle words. Men, who could traverse sea and land, without companions, without aid, converting nations, building churches, founding hierarchies, setting their faces ever farther on, looking for no human sympathy, having no mother-country, toiling for ever toward the martyr’s crown, were not the men to fabricate childish stories, full of false visions and falser miracles. Nor were those who stood day by day on the brink of doom; who, in the morning, woke perhaps to meet the lions, perhaps the stake, but certainly the burden of the cross of Christ; who lay down at night without hope of day, the men to listen to wild tales of falsehood from some cunning tongue. Traditions of those early days were all too often written in blood. They come to us sealed with the lives of saints. They have stood the test of ages of investigation. They remain, to-day, monuments, engraved in many languages, and on many lands, asserting the achievements of our fathers, while modern science adds to ancient story the corroboration of her undeniable deductions, and vindicates the traditions of Christian antiquity both from the sneers and the indifference of self-exalted men.

It is almost needless to remark, as the conclusion of this sketch, that modern missionaries, who would rival the success of Saint Thomas, can fairly expect it from no less exertion, no less singleness of heart. Those who from this or other countries sally forth, with missionary societies behind them to supply their needs, burdened with the double cares of family and church, with boards of directors at home, as well as consciences within, to satisfy, with a support to some extent conditioned on their apparent success, can scarcely be expected to compete with him who, bidding farewell to home and friends, goes out alone, wifeless and childless, looking to God for everything, and seeking nothing but an endless crown. The history of missions proves, by indisputable statistics, which of these two methods is effective, which has borne with it the divine prestige of success, and which remains, in spite of persecutions and oppressions, vigorous and undismayed after the conflicts of eighteen hundred years. If it were a simple question of policy, between the Catholic Church and her opponents, the event would indicate her wisdom. If it were one of precedent, she has the whole apostolic college, and the missionaries of fifteen centuries upon her side. But if the touchstone of the Master be still reliable, and we may know his workmen by their fruits, then does this history of the great missionary church bear witness, that not only her vocation but her operations are divine, and may assure her children, that, though heaven and earth should fail, no jot or tittle of her power or triumph can ever pass away. The throne of Peter may be smitten by the thunderbolt of war; the hoary head of his successor may be bowed with grief; the triple crown may once more be trampled under the feet of men; the faithful may again be overwhelmed with fear; but, in the far wilderness, beyond the glittering deserts, across the frozen and the burning seas, her sons are gathering strange nations to her bosom, over whom, in her coming days of victory and peace, she may renew her joy.

For the same Lord who bade her go into the whole world and teach all his commandments gave, in the same breath, its people to her baptism; and he who promised her the nations for her inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for her possession, was the same God who said to Saint Peter, “Super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam, et porta inferi non prevalebunt.”

– text from The Catholic World magazine, no author listed, July 1869
  1. Abdias of Babylon, to whom is ascribed the work mentioned in the text, is accounted among the ecclesiastical writers of the first age. He was a Jew by birth, and one of the seventy disciples of our Lord. He went with SS. Simon and Jude into Persia, and by them was made bishop of Babylon. The work which bears his name was first printed in the year 1532. Its alleged authorship, on account of its citations, and for some other reasons, has generally been denied by the learned. On this point the present writer ventures no opinion, although convinced that the tradition, as contained in The Legend of Saint Thomas, is substantially true, and has existed in the same general outline from the earliest periods of Christian history.
  2. Gundisapor was the episcopal and metropolitan city of the province of Sarac, situated on the Tigris, six leagues from Susa. It is said to have been built by Hormisdas, the contemporary of the Emperor Constantine, and to have been called by the name of Sapor, his son, by whom it was afterward immensely enriched and beautified with the treasures which he ravished from the Roman empire.
  3. Vide Le Christianisme en Chine, etc., par M, Huc. Paris, 1857, p. 28, etc.
  4. De Quincey’s Caesars. (Introduction.)
  5. Le Christianisme en Chine, p. 5.
  6. Le Christianisme en Chine, p. 26.