Published: March 2012

The Apostles

Photo: Priest gazes at the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem

In the Footsteps of the Apostles

They were unlikely leaders. As the Bible tells it, most knew more about mending nets than winning converts when Jesus said he would make them "fishers of men." Yet 2,000 years later, all over the world, the Apostles are still drawing people in.

By Andrew Todhunter
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

In the town of Parur, India, in the southern state of Kerala, the polished stone floor of the old church of Kottakkavu gleams so brightly that it mirrors the crimson, pine green, and gold-upon-gold altarpiece like a reflecting pool.

Around the altarpiece, painted clouds hover in a blue sky. Small statues stand in niches backlit with brilliant aqua. On a rug near the church wall a woman in a blue sari with a purple veil covering her hair kneels motionless, elbows at her sides, hands upraised. In a larger, newer church adjacent, a shard of pale bone no bigger than a thumbnail lies in a golden reliquary. A label in English identifies the relic as belonging to St. Thomas. On this site, tradition says, Thomas founded the first Christian church in India, in A.D. 52.

In Parur and elsewhere in Kerala exotic animals and vines and mythic figures are woven into church facades and interiors: Elephants, boars, peacocks, frogs, and lions that resemble dragons—or perhaps they are dragons that resemble lions—demonstrate the rich and decidedly non-Western flavor of these Christian places. Brightly painted icons are everywhere, of Thomas and the Virgin Mary and Jesus and St. George. Even Hindus pray to St. George, the dragon slayer, believing he may offer their children protection from cobras. At Diamper Church in Thripunithura a painted white statue of the pietà—the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus—is backed by a pink metal sun radiating rectangular blades of light.

Kerala's Thomas Christians—like Christians elsewhere in Asia and in Africa and Latin America—have made the faith uniquely their own, incorporating traditional art, architecture, and natural symbolism. And so a statue depicting Mary flanked by two elephants shading her head with a bower seems at home among the palms of southern India.

Thomas, or Doubting Thomas as he is commonly known, was one of the Twelve Apostles, disciples sent out after Christ's Crucifixion to spread the newborn faith. He was joined by Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, James the Lesser, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simon—and Matthias, who replaced the former disciple and alleged traitor, Judas Iscariot. In time the terms "apostle" and "apostolic" (derived from the Greek apostolos, or messenger) were applied to others who spread the word. In the case of Paul, he claimed the title of apostle for himself, believing he had seen the Lord and received a spiritual commission from him. Mary Magdalene is known as the apostle to the Apostles for her role of announcing the resurrection to them. Although only two of the four Evangelists—Matthew and John—were among the original Apostles, Mark and Luke are considered apostolic because of the importance of their work in writing the New Testament Gospels.

In the first years after the Crucifixion, Christianity was only the seed of a new religion, lacking a developed liturgy, a method of worship, and a name—the earliest followers called it simply "the way." It was not even a formal sect of Judaism. Peter was the movement's first champion; in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of his mass conversions and miraclemaking—healing the lame, raising the dead—and in an un-Christian flourish, calling down a supernatural death upon one couple who held back a portion of their donation to the community.

In its earliest days the movement was too insignificant to attract wide-scale persecution, and Christians, as they came to be called, had more friction with neighboring Jewish sects than with the Roman Empire. The faith's first martyr, according to the Bible, was St. Stephen, a young Christian leader who enraged a Jewish community by suggesting that Christ would return and destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. After he was tried for blasphemy, around the year 35, his accusers dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death while he prayed for them. The young Saul—who would soon become Paul in his celebrated conversion on the road to Damascus— observed Stephen's execution, minding the cloaks of those who stoned him.

In the year 44 King Herod Agrippa I imprisoned and beheaded James the Greater, the first of the Apostles to die. In 64, when a great fire in Rome destroyed 10 of the city's 14 quarters, Emperor Nero, accused by detractors of setting the fire himself, pinned the catastrophe on the growing Christian movement and committed scores of believers to death in his private arena. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "An immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind … Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." In the year 110 Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested by the Romans under Trajan, shipped to Rome, and condemned to death ad bestias—by beasts—at the public games. Bloody episodes like this would recur sporadically for the next two centuries.

Tradition holds that 11 of the Twelve Apostles were martyred. Peter, Andrew, and Philip were crucified; James the Greater and Thaddaeus fell to the sword; James the Lesser was beaten to death while praying for his attackers; Bartholomew was flayed alive and then crucified; Thomas and Matthew were speared; Matthias was stoned to death; and Simon was either crucified or sawed in half. John—the last survivor of the Twelve—likely died peaceably, possibly in Ephesus, around the year 100.

In the early days, Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and historian at Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota, told me, "the organizational structure, the great institution of the church—signified for Roman Catholics today by the Vatican and its complex hierarchy—simply wasn't there. There was an apostolic band of followers. There were missionary efforts in major centers, first in Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Rome, but certainly no sense of a headquarters. Instead you had this tiny, vulnerable, poor, often persecuted group of people who were on fire with something."

The Apostles were the movement's cutting edge, spreading the message across the vast trade network of the ancient world and leaving small Christian communities in their paths. "To study the lives of the Apostles," Stewart said, "is a bit like what we've been doing with the Hubble telescope—getting as close as we can to seeing these earliest galaxies. This was the big bang moment for Christianity, with the Apostles blasting out of Jerusalem and scattering across the known world."

Thomas the Apostle went east, through what is now Syria and Iran and, historians believe, on down to southern India. He traveled farther than even the indefatigable Paul, whose journeys encompassed much of the Mediterranean. Of all the Apostles, Thomas represents most profoundly the missionary zeal associated with the rise of Christianity—the drive to travel to the ends of the known world to preach a new creed.

Mark the Evangelist too spread the word, bringing Christ's message to Egypt and founding the Coptic faith. But for some Catholics, Mark represents most emphatically the saint as political symbol, powerfully linked with the identity of Venice. Although a figure from the ancient past, he retains a stronger grip on the consciousness of modern-day Venetians than Washington or Lincoln holds on most Americans.

If Thomas is the iconic missionary and Mark a political cornerstone, Mary Magdalene epitomizes the mystical saint, closely associated with grace and divine intercession. Other saints, including Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, play a similar role among Catholics, but none has exerted a stronger pull on the imagination, or created more controversy, than Mary Magdalene. Once maligned as a reformed courtesan, venerated today by millions worldwide, she was a significant presence in Christ's inner circle.

Although one tradition holds that she died in Ephesus, others maintain that she traveled from the Middle East to southern France. But establishing with scientific certainty that Mary Magdalene came to the hills of Provence, or that Thomas died in India, is likely to remain outside our grasp. Scientific analysis of relics is invariably inadequate, often confirming only that the bones are of the right gender and period. Advances in testing and archaeology, together with the discovery of yet unknown manuscripts, will continue to refine our historical knowledge of the saints. But much will remain inconclusive. How best, then, to understand these individuals if the reach of science is limited? As with most of the earliest Christians, we must rely largely on legend and historical accounts, acknowledging the power these mythic figures still exert today, some 2,000 years after their deaths.

THE GREAT MISSIONARY

Many historians believe that Thomas landed on the palm-lined coast of Kerala at a site now called Cranganore. He is reported to have established seven churches in Kerala and to have been martyred 20 years later on the other side of the country, in Mylapore, now a neighborhood in Chennai. At Palayur Church in Guruvayur, Thomas is said to have raised the first cross in India and performed one of his earliest miracles: When he encountered a group of Brahmans throwing water into the air as part of a ritual, he asked why the water fell back to Earth if it was pleasing to their deity. My God, Thomas said, would accept such an offering. He then flung a great spray into the air, and the droplets hung there in the form of glistening white blossoms. Most onlookers converted on the spot; the rest fled.

My guides in Kerala were Columba Stewart and Ignatius Payyappilly, a priest from Kochi in Kerala whose connection to Thomas is personal. He and his mother nearly died during his birth, but his grandmother and mother, the latter slipping in and out of consciousness, prayed fervently to St. Thomas. "And we were spared," Payyappilly told me.

Stewart is the executive director of his abbey's Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has been preserving religious manuscripts around the world since 1965. Payyappilly and his small staff spearhead the effort in Kerala, digitizing and preserving thousands of inscribed palm leaves and other manuscripts. Theirs is a race against a humid climate, which destroys manuscripts if they're not properly cared for. Since 2006 the team has accumulated 12 terabytes of digitized data—one million images of manuscripts. The oldest document in their possession, a collection of ecclesiastical laws, dates to 1291. These extraordinary documents are important to Thomas Christians, linking them to the founder of their faith.

In India, Thomas is revered as a bold missionary. In the West, he represents the believer who wrestles with uncertainty. "The classic portrayal of Thomas," Stewart said, "is the doubting Thomas. That's a little inaccurate, because it's not so much that he doubted the resurrection but that he needed a personal encounter with Jesus to make the resurrection real. So you might think of him as the pragmatic Thomas or the forensic Thomas. The guy who's so experiential that he said, 'I need to put my finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side.' And this experience gave him the fuel he needed to do amazing things."

Thomas's moment of incredulity has proved a two-edged sword in the history of Christian thought. On the one hand, some theologians are quick to point out that his doubt is only natural, echoing the uncertainty, if not the deep skepticism, felt by millions in regard to metaphysical matters. How can we know? That Thomas challenged the risen Christ, probed the wounds, and then believed, some say, lends deeper significance to his subsequent faith. On the other hand, his crisis of doubt, shared by none of the other Apostles, is seen by many as a spiritual failure, as a need to know something literally that one simply cannot know. In the Gospel of John, 20:29, Christ himself chastises Thomas, saying, "Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

His skepticism notwithstanding, St. Thomas still stands as the direct link between his converts in Kerala and the founding Christian story on the shores of the Mediterranean, clear across the known world of the first century. Unlike later Christian groups in Asia who were converted by missionaries, Thomas Christians believe their church was founded by one of Christ's closest followers, and this is central to their spiritual identity. "They are an apostolic church," Stewart said, "and that's the ultimate seal of approval for a Christian group."

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |