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St. Thomas and the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala
 
It seems appropriate to begin the essay by mentioning a light-hearted comment of Mar Adolph Medlycott, the first Bishop of the-then Diocese of Trichur, as givenin his scholarly work, India and the Apostle Thomas; An inquiry, with a critical analysis of the ActaThomae, about the-status quaestionison the historical link between the Apostle Thomas and the Syro-Malabar Church.

According to him, the Apostle Thomas seems to have been ill-fated to have the exact identity of the field of his evangelisation workremain under a cloud of doubt precisely because he himself had once misgivings about the fact of Christ’s Resurrection. Be that as it may, the early Church viewed India as the land evangelised by St Thomas.

It knew him as an apostle and celebrated in the liturgy his martyrdomin India. The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the several patristic writings and the narratives of pilgrims like the one of Etheria (Egeria) to the revered tomb of the Apostle in Edessaare pointers to the ancientChurch’s shared tradition.

In this framework one may as well cite the living tradition of the St Thomas Christians in India as being particularly significant inasmuch it has not hadany rivals. Even those who entertain a mental reservation about the authenticity of the content of their tradition, they do not challenge the fact of the existence of the tradition, though they may try to explain it away.

In the wake of the emergence of historical positivism, several scholars have tried to purge history of the myths, popular credence and unsubstantiated assertions that had got layered into it down through the centuries.Naturally, the same purgative methodology came to be adopted vis-à-vis ecclesiastical historiography too. A case in point is the monumental two-volume work Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den erstenDreiJahrhunderten(1902) by the celebrated German academician Adolph von Harnack.

Even after a century, Harnack’s book still commands respect. According to him, ancient Church history “lies buried among legends; or rather, it has been replaced by a history (that isstrongly marked by tendency) of what is said to have been enacted”. Harnackregards the Scriptural observation, particularly thePauline one that the Gospel had already been preached till the confines of the earth as a “deliberate rhetorical exaggeration”. (For other NT allusions to the worldwide diffusion of the Good News, see 1 Thess 1,8; 4, 16, Rom 1,8; Col 1, 13, 23; et al.).

There are over 27 NTindicationsand they faithfully mirror, in actual fact, the-then worldview of the Mediterranean peoples and are not to be condescendingly swept aside as overstatements.

The Mediterranean peoples entertained the firm conviction that their region lay at the “Centre of the earth”, as the term “Mediterranean” (Media +terra) implies. The four directions “the East, the West, the North and the South” were all consequently calculated from the “Centre of the Earth”.

One may say that this world-perspective of the Mediterranean peoples stands even today unquestioned. Up until the discovery of the seaway westward and eastward of the Mediterranean region at the close of the 15th century, the idea of the earth’s expansiveness was limited, for the Mediterranean peoples, to their region. From the “Centre of the earth”they saw the Atlantic skyline of Spain and Portugal as the western end (confines) of the earth.

The ancient town of Finisterre (Finis+ terrae in Latin,meaning “end of the earth”; Fisterra in Galego) on the Atlantic coast, with a 5,000-strong population had been a mythical and symbolic spot for the Romans. The renowned pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela housing the tomb of Apostle St James distances merely 91 kms from Fisterra and it was believed to have been one of the western confines of the world, evangelised by the Apostle. Thus, according to Scriptural tradition, the Gospel had already reached the western confines in the apostolic period.

In much the same way India was believed to be on the Eastern confines of the world. The Biblical authors knew that Alexander the Great had reached the eastern end of the earth, where he defeated King Porusin the battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC).“After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeatedKing Darius of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king.

He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth.He advanced to the ends of the earth and plundered many nations” (1Macc 1,1-3; see also Esther 1,1). Here the allusion is clearly to the North-Western India, where according to the apocryphal work Acta Thomae, the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares(c. 20-50 AD) would one day welcome Apostle Thomas.

As the Acta Thomae is apocrypha, the name Gondophares was thought to have been only a figment of its author’s imagination until coin hoardswith the inscription of Gondophares’ name on them were unearthed. With this discovery, the Acta Thomae began to be taken seriously.

In the light of the discovery of the coins, historians like Harnackwere prepared to concede that St Thomas had preached in North-West India. An eminent personage to tow Harnack’s line was Pope Benedict XVI. There are popular authors who share this view. Andsubsequently, some also affirm that there are no credible historical evidences to show that the Apostle went to South-West India, for that matter, to Malabar, the native terrain of the members of the Syro-Malabar Church.

For the Mediterranean peoples, the “confines of the earth” towards the South may be localised in the Horn of Africa, namely Somalia-Ethiopia, as Lk 11,31 indicates: “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here”.

For the NT, “the whole world” signified just about the Mediterranean world, extending from the Iberian Peninsula in the West, reaching India in the East and the Horn of Africa towards the South – all indicating the confines of the world. Viewed in this perspective, one may speak of an indirect Scriptural corroboration for the tradition of theSt Thomas Christians in their belief that their land had been evangelised by the Apostle Thomas.

Besides rightly naming Gondophernes as a king in India who received St Thomas, the Acta Thomae gives some other related key events. The apocrypha states that after his ministry in the kingdom of Gondophares, the Apostle left for yet another kingdom in India itself, where he would suffer martyrdom. Thus, Thomas is shown as dying in India.

The book speaks about “a brother” who transferred the Apostle’s mortal remains out of India to Edessa. This means that the original tomb in India was empty. The Acta Thomae says that the dust from the empty tomb brought about miraculous healing. All these particulars faithfully corresponded to the practices prevailing at the tomb of Mylapore, identified by the Portuguese in the early 16thcentury.

The tomb was empty and loose earth from it was being taken away by pilgrims. There was a Muslim caretaker whose task was to maintain the supply of loose earth available for the pilgrims. All these details go to show that the Acta Thomae is built around a historical nucleus. Some scholars hold that the book as it has come down to us may have been the fruit of some major interpolations on the part of unorthodox sects.

Whatever the case may be, even though the Malabar Church never presented the Acta Thomae wheninquisitive Westerners and other researchers asked them to produce some documentary evidence in order to substantiate its tradition, the apocryphal work may be seen as confirming the living tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church.The Malabar tradition about the landing of Thomas in Cranganore too falls in line with the present-day excavations in the ancient port-city.

That there are no indisputably corroborative evidences to confirm the tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church about is origin does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that St Thomas did not evangelise India. In fact, some of those who question the genuineness of the tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church about its origin, do so in order to spotlight the dark spots in its history and communal structure.

The dark spots are there for everyone to see. It makes little sense to look for the “golden age” in the history of the Pre-Portuguese Malabar Church. Casteism, untouchability, lack of the spirit of evangelisation, cultic conservatism had markedly characterised the community.

However, its tradition about its origin does not depend on certain ancient parchments but is the expression of an intensely lived experience of an entire community. Its tradition,in fact, squares with that of the ancient universal Church.The Syro-Malabar Church continues to celebrate its tradition particularly in its liturgy and gives expression to it in numerous manners in its everyday life and observances.

Br. Benedict Vadakkekara OFM Cap.


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