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Thomas the Apostle
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” my grandmother would say, totally enigmatically and without any further word of explanation. It took many years before I began to understand what she meant but then it took more to put the idea into useful practice. To see how my new or recently recruited buyers were developing, I would set them a task to create a tender for the supply of something comparatively ordinary, say translation services or bathroom supplies, something that we encounter in everyday life and think we know something about. Then I would invite myself to their meetings with the suppliers to see how they approached the discussions. Most of the time they would not ask enough questions, after all no-one likes to appear stupid about toilet rolls does they? Very often then the “little knowledge” and their associated assumptions got in the way of real understanding. I think that grandma would have liked Tomas the Apostle and I think he would have made a good purchasing manager for he was never afraid to ask the difficult questions.
Thomas is listed by the all four Gospel writers as one of the original twelve. However, only John draws a portrait of Thomas and gives him words to say. He appears first when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to visit Mary and Martha and their dead brother Lazarus. The Apostles were reluctant to go back to Judea even for this because this was where threats had already been made against Jesus’ life. Not so Thomas, who in his straightforward way says, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” When Jesus says, “You know the way to the place I am going” it is Thomas who challenges him saying “Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?” and then there is the famous appearance of Thomas when he insists that he will only believe that Jesus is resurrected and alive if he sees the nail marks in his hands and is able to put his finger where the nails were and his hand into his pierced side. Once again, Thomas is being practical. In many ways, he is very modern in his approach; let me see, let me measure, let me understand. In a sense, our up to date technical knowledge and understanding can get in the way of a simple belief in the miraculous or the inexplicable. As A N Wilson, a particularly sceptical commentator on the Gospels, points out as an example, it was comparatively easy for people of the first century to believe that Jesus had ascended into heaven since they were not burdened with our knowledge that if you go straight up from here there is an ionosphere, a stratosphere, space dust and so on.
although the Gospel account of Thomas is short there are other books, notably the Acts of Thomas that tell us more. After Pentecost, Thomas preached in Persia and most particularly India. Nineveh legend says that Thomas objected to being assigned India as a missionary territory but a number of events occurred so that he was in India working as a slave carpenter for a King Gundafor (See the Catholic Encyclopaedia entry for Thomas the Apostle and various articles about Kerala and Southern India). Thomas built a palace for this King and is said to have built the first church in India with his own hands. The carpenters’ square is meant to remind us of these things and symbolically of the sure and true foundations of his faith. He had seen Jesus, had come to believe and bequeathed to us his fervent acclamation, the climax of John’s Gospel “My Lord and my God.”
To complete Thomas’ story, the tradition he preached in India is supported by the early church fathers, Ambrose, Paulinus, Jerome and Gregory of Tours. It is claimed that he reached the southernmost point of the continent. He was stabbed with a spear by a pagan priest while praying in Mylapur. His relics were then moved to Mesopotamia and then later in the 13th century to Ortona in Italy.
There is still though a group of Christians on the West coast of southern India who use an ancient Syriac for their liturgical language and so might provide confirmation for Thomas’ reported travels.
Naturally and quite appropriately there is some doubt about all this. But you know, I rather think that Thomas would be happy that there are some uncertainties and that we are still asking questions.