Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches

Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches

by Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent

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ISBN-13: 9780520960589
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/19/2015
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage , #55
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Marquette University.

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Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches

By Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96058-9


Saint Thomas, Missionary Apostle to India

The Acts of Thomas is an early third-century attestation of a missionary narrative in the Syriac tradition that attributes the conversion of India to Saint Thomas, the apostle known as Jesus's twin (John 20:24). In this extended apocryphal narrative, Christ commissions Judas Thomas to travel to India to convert its people. Thomas journeys there by way of the trade routes as a servant enslaved to merchants.

The Acts of Thomas has received much scholarly attention and is the subject of several full-length studies, notably those of A. F. J. Klijn, J. Bremmer, and H. J. W. Drijvers. The text appears to have been written in Syriac, but was almost immediately translated into Greek, and then was translated into Syriac again. Scholars examine this text from a variety of angles, ranging from the history of early Syrian asceticism to the text's influence in Manichaean circles. Scholars have described the text as Gnostic, Encratite, Manichaean, or anti-Manichaean. J. W. Childers notes that different recensions do reflect particular theological tendencies. The earlier scholarly tendency, however, to characterize the Acts as "Gnostic" may derive from Western scholars' lack of acquaintance with the unique traits of early Syriac Christianity.

Many stories about Saint Thomas from late antiquity have survived, but the Acts of Thomas is unique in its influence on subsequent sacred fictions. It presents the Christian missionary life as one of sacrifice, itinerancy, asceticism, and imitation of Christ. The Acts of Thomas enshrines the symbol of the missionary apostle in Syriac religious memory. In the late antique world this narrative spread an account of imaginary conversions of mythic places on the road to India. And the symbol of the missionary struck a chord in the cultures of the Christian East, within both the Roman Empire and the Sasanian milieu. The text's widespreaddissemination and translation attest to its popularity in late antiquity. While the authors of subsequent missionary stories studied in this book may not intentionally imitate the Acts of Thomas in their hagiographies, it is clear that the Acts of Thomas gave power to the symbol of the missionary saint.


The Acts of Thomas contains thirteen chapters that depict India's conversion to Christianity through the apostle Thomas. As it is longer than any other text included in this book, I summarize the narrative here. Readers familiar with the story may wish to pass over this section. The section divisions in parentheses correspond to Klijn's commentary and translation of the Syriac text.

The [First] Act of Judas Thomas, the Apostle: Jesus assigns each apostle an area of the world to convert. The lot of India falls to Thomas, his slave (1.1). Jesus sells Thomas to the merchant Habban to be a carpenter for King Gundaphorus (1.2). Thomas and Habban set out for India, and they reach Sandaruk (1.3). Thomas attends a banquet of the king in honor of the princess's wedding, but he abstains from eating, anointing himself, and praying. A Hebrew flute girl notices him (1.4). A cupbearer slaps Thomas [now called "Judas"] for not celebrating. Thomas sings a song in Hebrew that describes the church as a bride of light, with the apostles as groomsmen (1.6–7). The Hebrew flute girl recognizes the words he sings, and the cupbearer is torn apart by a lion (1.8). The flute girl proclaims that Thomas is either God or his apostle (1.9). Thomas prays over the princess bride and the bridegroom, and the prayer contains a Christological proclamation (1.10). When the bride and bridegroom are about to consummate their marriage, Jesus appears to the bride in the form of Thomas (1.11). Jesus persuades the couple to abstain from the sickness, death, and torment that he associates with sex and childrearing, and they agree (1.12). This scandalizes the king and queen (1.13). The girl explains to her parents that she is wed to a heavenly bridegroom, Christ (1.14). The groom praises Christ, who has shown him his true self (1.15). The king is furious, and he chases the apostle out of his kingdom, but the apostle continues his journey in India (1.16).

The Second Act: Thomas and Habban the merchant reach India and King Gundaphorus. Thomas identifies himself as a carpenter, and he agrees to build a palace for the king (2.17–18). But Thomas instead gives the money for the palace to the poor (2.19). People report back to the king that Thomas is giving the money to the indigent, teaching them about Christianity, and practicing acts of ascetic piety: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (2.20). Thomas tells the king that he has built him a palace in heaven, and the king arrests Thomas and the merchant (2.21). The brother of the king, Gad, dies. His soul is taken to heaven, and he sees the palace that Thomas's acts of charity have built (2.22). Gad returns from heaven in order to tell his brother about the heavenly palace (2.23). The king realizes his mistake, frees Thomas and the merchant, and asks for Thomas's forgiveness (2.24). Thomas offers a prayer of thanksgiving (2.25). The entire community rejoices and prays together and prepares for baptism (2.26). Thomas pours oil over their heads, prays to the Holy Spirit, baptizes them, and then at dawn they share in the Eucharist (2.27). Thomas preaches to the newly baptized (2.28). Thomas shares a meal with his disciples, and they head off on the road together, according to Christ's instruction (2.29).

The Third Act: On the road, Thomas sees a dead boy (3.30). A snake appears and tells Thomas that he (the snake) lusted after a girl whom the [dead] boy had loved. The snake watched the two youths have sex, and then killed the boy (3.31). The snake identifies himself as the son of Satan (3.32). Thomas commands the snake to suck the poison from the dead youth, and the snake obeys. The boy comes back to life, and the snake bursts (3.33). The youth praises Christ, and Thomas encourages him (3.34–36). The entire community converts to Christianity and praises Thomas as the apostle of the living God (3.37).

The Fourth Act: A colt, speaking as a man, instructs the apostle to sit upon him, so that the he can carry the apostle the way his ancestor carried Christ. He identifies himself a descendant of Balaam's ass (4.39–40). The ass carries Thomas into the city (4.41).

The Fifth Act: Thomas exorcises a woman whom demons had raped (5.41–46). Thomas praises Jesus, he baptizes the woman, and then they share in the Eucharist (5.47–49).

The Sixth Act: A young man who fornicates with his girlfriend is unable to receive the Eucharist because he killed his girlfriend when she would not convert to Christianity with him (6.50). The young man repents and is purified by Thomas's prayer and ritual (6.51). Thomas and the crowd of people then go in search of the young woman, and they pray over her (6.52). Thomas raises her from the dead by invoking Jesus's name (6.53). The resurrected girl gives a description of the underworld, a smelly place, where the chaste are separated from fornicators (6.54). Thomas uses her warning as an admonition for all the newly baptized (6.55–58). All the people surrender themselves to the living God and commit themselves to care of the poor and widows (6.59–60). Thomas's prayer equates discipleship with "becoming a stranger" for the sake of Christ (6.61).

The Seventh Act: The general of India approaches Thomas that he might help his wife and daughter whom a violent man attacked (6.64). Thomas entrusts a deacon, Xanthippus, to care for the community, and the apostle continues on the road with the general.

The Eighth Act: The general and Thomas are aided by wild asses who bow down to them and are willingly yoked to help the apostle and the general (8.69–70). They find the general's wife and daughter, and Thomas orders the ass to instruct the demon to leave the wife and daughter of the general (8.73–74). Thomas drives the demon out of the women (8.75–77). All are amazed to hear the preaching of the wild ass and the apostle's healings (8.78–81).

The Ninth Act: Thomas and the general reach the home of Mygdonia, a kinsperson of the king, and Thomas comforts the servants of those who work for Mygdonia and her husband (9.82–84). Thomas presents an extended homily on holiness (9.85–86) and humility (9.86). Mygdonia falls at Thomas's feet and begs to become a Christian and transform her body into a holy temple of the Spirit (9.87). Thomas tells Mygdonia to rise, turn away from bodily adornments, turn away from earthly marriage, and worship Christ alone (9.88). Mygdonia pulls away from her husband Karish, resisting his company and refusing to eat with him (9.89–92). Mygdonia continues to receive instruction from Thomas (9.93–94). Her husband is angry that she spends so much time with Thomas, whom she calls a "physician of the soul" and whom he calls a "sorcerer" and a "stranger" (9.95). Karish's resentment builds as his wife refuses to eat and have sex with him (9.96). Mygdonia prays for support, and she refuses her husband's sexual advances (9.97–98). Her husband Karish weeps and seeks that the king, Mazdai, avenge the apostle (9.99–102). Mygdonia bemoans her situation to the apostle (9.103). The king has his men hunt after Thomas, they apprehend Thomas, and they put him in jail for sorcery and reviling the king (9.105–6). While in prison, Thomas prays and poetically recounts the Hymn of the Pearl (9.106–13). Mygdonia is tortured and inconsolable, and she is unmoved by her husband's pleas for her love. She confesses to her husband her commitment to Jesus and continence (9.114–17).

The Tenth Act: Mygdonia prepares for baptism and the Eucharist (10.119–20). Thomas anoints her and baptizes her, Karish makes her choose between him and Jesus, and she professes her fidelity to Christ (10.121–24). The king and Mazdai reproach Thomas again (10.125–30). Thomas preaches about the glory of baptism (10.131–32). Thomas shares in the Eucharist with the general and his daughters (10.133).

The Eleventh Act: The queen Tertia goes to comfort Mygdonia, and Mygodonia tells Tertia about the wonders of Christianity (11.136). Tertia is then equally elated about Christianity, and Mazdai is infuriated at the apostle. Both Mazdai and Karish go to the house of the general and physically assault Thomas (11.137).

The Twelfth Act: Vizan, the prince, speaks with Thomas sympathetically, and the king subjects the apostle to ordeals. God brings a flood upon the king (12.141). Judas and the community of new Christians pray together in prison (12.142–49).

The Thirteenth Act: Vizan, the prince, is baptized (13.150). Mygodonia and Tertia visit the apostle in prison, and the apostle prepares the group for baptism. They all share another Eucharist (13.157–58).

The Martyrdom of the Apostle Thomas: Thomas is imprisoned, and gives a special commissioning to Tertia and Mygdonia. He is tried, stripped, and martyred. After Thomas's death, King Mazdai is ultimately converted because of sickness from which his son is healed. (159–70).

The colorful coming of Christianity to India brings violence, chaos, abrupt interventions, scandals, and social revolt. Thomas's apostolic legitimacy comes from his kinship with Christ, and he demonstrates this through miracles and godly insight. Thomas converts people from every social stratum through miracles, exorcisms, poetic discourse, and ritual.


Just as missionaries traveled throughout the Syriac-speaking world, so did stories about them. In the third century C.E., stories about the apostle Thomas that were circulating among Syriac speakers were compiled into a composite text, the Acts of Thomas. The popularity of the Acts of Thomas among late antique audiences demonstrates that Syriac- and Greek-speaking Christians gravitated to the symbol of a reluctant missionary apostle. Circulation of the Acts of Thomas among Christian groups was broad, and subsequent Syriac hagiographers followed in its literary footsteps. As we will see, some of the main motifs in theActs of Thomas work together to form a narrative typology that is found in other missionary stories.

Genre: The Bible and Ancient Novels

The Acts of Thomas belongs to the genre of apocryphal narrative. The New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles presents a picture of Jesus's disciples establishing new societies of believers in the regions around the Mediterranean. Before his ascension to heaven, Jesus instructs his followers to be his witnesses, going out from Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and as they move from place to place, he urges them to heal and speak with boldness (Acts 4:13). Some awestruck people accept Jesus's followers, but others ridicule them and accuse them of madness, saying they are "filled with new wine" (Acts 2:13). The book of Acts exhibits literary patterns and sets precedents that subsequent stories about the apostles will use to describe individual and communal conversions. We find these stories within the Acts of Thomas. The creation of a new Christian society is accompanied by chaos and miracles, turmoil and rebirth.

The integration of biblical typologies in the Acts of Thomas is obvious. Thomas, mirroring the activities of his twin, Christ, converts through healing. The saint's wonderworking ability shows his access to the divine. Thomas resurrects dead children, who come back to life and confess Christ. The apostle uses sacraments to heal those whom demons torment. We read, for example, a variant on the story of the resurrection narratives of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. When the matron Mygdonia visits Thomas in prison, she does not recognize him: "[Mygdonia] was afraid and fell down. And he stood up [qam] before her and said, 'Don't be afraid Mydgonia!' Do not desert Jesus Christ. Do not desert your Lord to whom you have entrusted your soul." Novelistic elements are used in a paradoxical way as the text promotes asceticism and romanticized chaste relationships between men and women: Mygdonia flees her husband's bed to visit the apostle. Like the Acts of the Apostles, this text features a miraculous escape from prison, and like some of the noncanonical narratives about Jesus, including the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate, the Acts of Thomas features a tour of the underworld. H. J. W. Drijvers notes that parallels and shared motifs of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles "can be better explained from the common background of tradition and milieu shared by the two Acts." The Syriac version of the Acts of Thomas enumerates the names of the apostles along with their missionary assignments. This specificity is absent from the Greek text.

The narrative also expands on the Pauline image of Christ's kenosis. The all-powerful Lord becomes a slave to redeem humanity, and he then sells his freeborn twin into slavery to further his mission. The holy man qua slave motif, moreover, can be an allusion to the biblical patriarch Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery. Thomas distinguishes his mission: "I am imitating you my Lord Jesus Christ. It is not just that I believe, but that I endure many things! You made me worthy to be in the Lord's image."

The Acts of Thomas features the leitmotifs of exotic travel, royal characters, and mistaken identity that we find in the late antique Greek novels and in other apocryphal Acts. Greek novels also feature the motif of a hero sold to an Indian merchant. Xenophon of Ephesus, for instance, writes of the Greek heroine Anthea, who was sold as a slave to a rich Indian merchant.

Like the stories of the Greek novels, the Acts of Thomas features adventures and themes of romance. It also shares motifs with the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of John, the Acts of Andrew, and the Acts of Philip. Their similarities with the Greco-Roman novel have been demonstrated elsewhere: "There is a motley mixture of miracle stories, fantastic deeds of the apostle, conversions, nature miracles and stories of demons, which are akin to the novelistic narrative art of the ancient world." The Christianity that Thomas brings turns society upside down and undoes the laws of nature. The story reorders a pagan landscape into a Christian one with scenes of weddings overturned, Christian queens fleeing from their pagan husbands, dead women returning from the underworld, and donkeys revealing hidden knowledge.

The compiler of the Acts of Thomas, however, uses the structure of the novel and the Acts of the Apostles to promote the theological ideals and practices of the emergent communities of the Christian East. Christian mission brings chaos and upheaval to pagan society, but it transforms states of social disorder into well-arranged Christian kingdoms.

Divine Kinship and Twin Discourse

The Acts of Thomas blends discourse on twins and family with the Christian rhetoric of paradox to construct an apostolic history for the Orient. The Acts pairs images of twins and slaves, masters and apostles, to elevate its patron's lineage.

Twin discourse elevates Thomas's status by blurring distinctions between the actions of Christ and those of the apostle. Thomas heals and exorcises as Christ does, and the characters mistake Thomas and Christ for each other. The story includes themes with biblical precedents: Thomas is a carpenter like Christ, who preaches and shares meals with his disciples after he has healed them. Thomas, like Jesus, dies at the hands of a political ruler. Yet a closer look reveals the stark differences between Thomas's deeds and those of the canonical Jesus: Thomas occupies himself with kings, queens, and princesses, and the affairs of the royal bedroom. Jesus works with fishermen, sinful women, lepers, and occupies himself with the affairs of Galilean peasants. Thomas travels as a slave with merchants. The twin language and Thomas's weaving of biblical verses into the text, however, naturalize these divergences between Thomas and Christ, giving the story a biblical gloss and "India" an apostolic past.


Excerpted from Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches by Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Missionary Narratives in the Syriac Tradition
1. Saint Thomas, Missionary Apostle to India
2. The Teaching of Addai: Founding a Christian City
3. Mari as Apostle to the Church of Persia
4. John of Ephesus as Hagiographer and Missionary
5. Legends of Simeon of Beth Arsham, Missionary to Persia
6. Hagiographical Portraits of Jacob Baradaeus
7. Ahoudemmeh among the Arabs


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