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A Second Look at Thomas the Apostle

The Apostle Thomas is often referred to as "Doubting" Thomas because, when he had been told that Jesus had risen from the grave, he refused to believe it. It was only after Thomas had actually seen Jesus with his own eyes and had personally inspected and touched the wounds in Jesus' hands and side that the Apostle Thomas came to believe that Jesus had in fact been resurrected.

The name Thomas is commonly believed to have derived from Aramaic toma, meaning "twin". In The Gospel of John, Thomas is referred to as "Thomas, also called Didymus", where didimo is Greek for "twin". It is possible that Thomas was born a twin and, for that reason, his parents decided to call him "the twin". However, because, according to The Gospel of John, he was called "the twin" in both Greek and in Aramaic, "the twin" was probably not a given name but instead was a nickname given to the Apostle because he looked a lot like someone else.

The most likely person Thomas might have been compared to would have been Jesus, and that would seem to explain why The Gospel of John mentions that Thomas was called "the twin" in both Aramaic and in Greek but does not bother to mention who Thomas was said to look like (most likely by those who were not followers of Jesus). The idea that Thomas was commonly seen by outsiders as Jesus' twin is in fact reflected (forgive the pun) in The Book of Thomas the Contender, which was found in the Nag Hammadi library. In that text, Jesus says to Thomas "since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion...", making it clear that there was common belief that Thomas was Jesus' twin or body double.

Another possibility is that the Apostle's given name actually was Thomas but (1) that the name did not derive from Aramaic toma and (2) that, because Thomas looked like Jesus and his name appeared to derive from toma, a false etymology quickly developed that led to him being called "the twin" by the Greek speaking community of the region. Judea had long been part of the Seleucid Empire, and a very common Macedonian name was Ptolemy, which, in Aramaic, was rendered as Talmai or Talmais. That might explain why he was also known as Judas , which basically identified him as Judean; because there was a desire to make it clear that he was of Judaic rather than Greek descent. Note that Bartholomew, the name of the Apostle who may have traveled to India with Thomas after Jesus' crucifixion, is believed to derive from bar Talmai, meaning "son of Ptolemy".

According to The Acts of Thomas, the Apostle Thomas traveled from Syria to Taxila in present-day Pakistan. He later sailed to the Southwestern coast of India, where he established several churches in and around Kerala before being killed. While his presence in Southwestern India may seem strange to those who first hear of it, there is actually good reason for him to have traveled there. Trade routes by ship had been established between India and the Middle East in very ancient times. A Jewish diaspora, in fact, was already well established in Southwestern India at the time of Jesus. The mission of the Apostles was specifically to spread the gospel to the Jewish people throughout the world. So it makes perfect sense that some of the Apostles may have either elected (or perhaps had been selected) to travel to India to fulfill that objective. The presence of ancient Christian churches in Southwestern India today in fact gives credence to the claims made in The Acts of Thomas.

If Thomas traveled to India, he did not travel alone. According to The Acts of Thomas, Thomas traveled there with a merchant named Abannes. That introduces a rather interesting possibility. The Roman Empress Julia Domna (170 to 217 CE), who was of Syrian descent, hired a Greek named Philostratus to write a book called The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. According to the book, Apollonius was a Pythagorean philosopher/mystic who traveled from Syria to Taxila at approximately the same time as Thomas was said to have traveled there. Apollonius traveled with a friend and ardent follower that he met in Syria named Damis, whose name appears to suggest that he may have been Thomas. Note again that Thomas's traveling companion was said to have been a merchant named Abannes, a name which conceivably could be a mispronunciation of Apollonius. Islamic texts in fact refer to Apollonius as Abuluniyus, Balinus and Ablus, so it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the name Apollonius might have undergone some revision over time, eventually becoming Abbanes.

According to The Acts of Thomas, Thomas traveled to Taxila to meet a king named Gundepheres. Numismatic evidence suggests that the king may have been called Hyndopheres. If so, what is believed to have been his name actually may have been a title: Hindu Pharaoh. Note that The Life of Apollonius of Tyana refers to the king of Taxila as Phraotes, which may be similarly derived from pharaoh as well.

Much of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana was supposedly based on notes kept by Damis that had eventually fallen into the possession of Julia Domna. Julia Domna however died before Philostratus completed his work, which raises a question as to whether Philostratus faithfully fulfilled her request after her death or whether he intentionally pursued his own agenda, creating a work that was perhaps vastly different from what Julia Domna might have originally requested of him.

In addition to his travels to India, the Apostle Thomas is also intimately connected to the Shroud of Turin and its potential provenance in Edessa. The shroud was said to have been sent by the Apostle Thomas to King Abgar V of the Syriac kingdom of Edessa, who had written to Jesus. The shroud was brought to Edessa by a disciple of Thomas named Thaddeus. The story of King Abgar V echoes a theme that is intimately connected to Thomas: the idea that some people demand proof of Jesus' resurrection, but fail to believe even when evidence is provided, while others eagerly accept the resurrection as fact without any need for such evidence. One should keep in mind that a "twin" is a likeness of an original image; thus the association of Thomas with the shroud (containing a likeness of Jesus) and the Abgar story appears, at least superficially (forgive the pun), to be based on the name the Apostle was known by.

Someone, perhaps one who is conspiracy minded, might be inclined to suggest that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, that it was Thomas, who looked a lot like Jesus, who was seen after Jesus' crucifixion. While certainly within the realm of possibility, the idea does raise significant questions. Could the apostles not have been aware that such misidentification was taking place among the other followers of Jesus? Could they have remained silent while rumors of Jesus' return spread wildly among those other disciples? Could the apostles, through intentional silence, have allowed such rumors to spread, not only among the Judeo-Christians in Judea and Galilee but also among the gentiles, in order to promote the idea that the one that they had been following was truly the Messiah prophesied in the Bible and that he would soon return to cast judgment on the Romans and other evildoers in the world? Could they have allowed a myth to have taken form entirely for selfish reasons—such as a desire to inherit the leadership of the army of followers who had come to believe in Jesus, or a desire to spread panic within the ranks of the Roman army? And could they have been willing to travel to foreign lands and to forfeit their own lives and those of their followers in order to promote such a misplaced belief?

Given the resurrection of Jesus, one could argue that anything is possible. Where, after all, did the Apostle Thomas go after Jesus ascended to his father in heaven? He left the Levant and traveled to faraway India, to a distant land with a Jewish diaspora, a place where he felt he would be welcome and yet where he also could be certain that no one would ever possibly recognize him or confuse him with another. Perhaps, after forty days of basking in the Judean limelight, Thomas finally came to his senses and high-tailed it out of Dodge.

But before you doubt my own faith in Jesus, know that I am a firm believer in the miracle of the shroud and the image that it bears. It alone is sufficient to shore up my faith. And its eventual appearance in Edessa, where the relics of Thomas were eventually brought, was surely not a random coincidence; for the shroud and the Apostle belonged together, as they were intimately bound. The way I see it, it was most likely the discovery of the shroud that first gave rise to the wildly spreading rumors of Jesus' resurrection; the appearance of Thomas, if it played a role at all, would have merely been the icing on the cake.