We know much more about the others—St. Peter as the leader of the nascent Christian community, St. Paul as the great New Testament writer, St. John as the author of the magnificently imaginative Book of Revelation, and a number of others who became the founders of the churches around the eastern rim of the Mediterranean.
But St. Thomas himself went on to lead an illustrious and faith-filled life as an apostle in his own right. In a fitting turnaround from his doubts over the Resurrection of Christ, he is, according to tradition, the first to have witnessed the Assumption of Mary. (Click here and here for sources.) He’s also connected by tradition to the conversion of Edessa, in modern-day Turkey, which is regarded as the first Christian city in the ancient world. Just how much of a role he played is unclear—but public veneration of the apostle continued for centuries, so one way or another, he left his mark on that ancient city.
St. Thomas’ name also is, regrettably, attached to the gnostic text, the Gospel of St. Thomas, and the heretical Acts of Thomas.
On the upside, his lasting achievement is most likely the founding of a Christian church, known as the St. Thomas Christians. Here is how his missions are described in one ancient text:
It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India. – Hymns of St. Ephraem
While his actual involvement in Edessa may be questionable, a number of historians have concluded that his mission to India is historically credible and probable.
The community of St. Thomas Christians survives to this day and is concentrated in the Indian state of Kerala, boasting an impressive eight million members, according to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The St. Thomas Christians are a distinctive Christian tradition in their own right, with an eclectic blend of Hindu culture, Jewish tradition, and Syrian liturgy (one of the oldest St. Thomas churches is pictured at right). They also are known for developing their own unique cross (which can be viewed here).
For many centuries, the St. Thomas Christians were essentially self-sufficient, but that history is also punctuated by periods in which—either by choice or cultural conquest—they were brought under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, the so-called Nestorian Church, and the Oriental Orthodox patriarchs. They have, in turn, experienced their own sharp divisions over time, and today have splintered into a number of different church affiliations—Catholic, Orthodox, independent, and evangelical.
Like his early life as a disciple of Jesus, it would seem that St. Thomas’ legacy is a conflicted one, which makes it all the more intriguing and worthy of our curiosity and study.