Patristic Testimonies on Mar Thoma Nasranis

Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar
Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra


This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.

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All the manuscripts burned by Diamper indicate that the Church of St Thomas Christians was theologically, spiritually, liturgically, canonically an East Syrian Church. The famous library and Episcopal archives of Angamaly were systematically burned. Menezes visited and burned Syriac books in at least 59 Churches. After Angamaly library, the Syriac collections of Cheppadu and Chengannur which were also burned, were the most prominent ones. Individual collections of all parishes too underwent this or similar misfortune. Evidently this is the greatest tragedy of Saint Thomas Christians’ spiritual heritage. One can compare it only to the destruction of the Alexandrian library by the Muslim conquerors in 641 AD. Angamaly collection built up over many centuries was the most important intellectual centre of Saint Thomas Christians who had a theological University there. We do not find practically any historical record or document concerning the pre-Portuguese history of Saint Thomas Christians. So we depend on the testimony of non-Indian authors to describe the situation of this apostolic Christian community.

Herewith I give only a few sample opinions of some of the Syriac, Greek and Latin Fathers who speak of the mission of Apostle Thomas in India or an apostolic origin of Indian Christianity. An exhaustive patristic view on the issue is out of my scope.

1. Pantaenus

There are two texts associated with this scholar of the second century Alexandria. Both of them adequately attest the existence of apostolic Christianity in India in the second century. Moreover they possess a gospel text written in the spoken language of Jews popularly called Hebrew, but in fact Aramaic. Pantaenus the head of the Alexandrian school is said to have visited South Indian Christians about the year 190 AD at the invitation by the Indians. He found among them a gospel text which he brought back to Alexandria. Eusebius the Father of Church History (V, 10, 3) writes in the fourth century “Pantaenus is said to have gone among the Indians, where as is reported, He found the gospel according to Matthew among some people there who had already acquired some knowledge of Christ before his arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the Apostles, had preached to them and had left them these writing of Matthew in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language, which they had preserved till then.” Biblical scholar Jerome writes, “Pantaenus, a Stoic philosopher, renowned as an outstanding scholar, was sent to India by Demetrius, the Bishop of Alexandria to preach Christ to the Brahmans and the philosophers of that nation. And he found there that Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles, had preached the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the gospel of Matthew.” (Ep. 70).

 2. Acts of Judas Thomas (early 3rd century)

This apocryphal work speaks of Thomas’ mission in North West India (including Parthia proper) and South India. Legends and traces of history are rolled together in this work. But the kernel of the mission stories originated in South India which was reported back to Edessa. The double mission of Thomas is made into a single Indian mission.

3. Origen (c.185-254 AD)

“The holy Apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered throughout the whole world, Thomas, as tradition relates, obtained by lot Parthia,…”[1] The first mission of Thomas is what is meant here. Parthia is North West India during that period. The Mauryan Empire of India comprised also Afghanistan and parts of Iran, which was later broken up as Indo-Parthian kingdoms. The Alexandrian tradition reported by Origen does not distinguish between the first (North West Indian) and second (South Indian) missions of Thomas.[2] 

4. The Doctrine of the Apostles (3rd century) 

This 3rd century Syriac apocryphal work writes: “India and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea, received the Apostle’s hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the church which he built and ministered there.” [3] This fact is confirmed by the oral traditions of India, especially those behind Ramban Song.[4] 

5. Clementine Recognitions (3rd century) 

This third century work speaks about the first or Parthian mission of Apostle Thomas. “As Thomas wrote to us, among the Parthians to whom he preached the Gospel, polygamy is disappearing” (evidently due to Christian influence)[5]

6. Ephrem (c.306-373)

He is the greatest of Syriac authors, poets and theologians. According to him India is the mission field of Thomas who died and was buried there. The relics of Thomas were brought to Edessa by a Christian merchant. Miracles take place in India where his tomb is, and at Edessa. In his Nisibian Hymns (written between the years 360-365) hymn number 42 Ephrem writes on this in great detail. The passages are too long to be quoted. 

7. Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-c.390) 

This Greek Father writes about the apostles: “Were not the Apostles aliens among the many nations and countries entrusted to them?  … What had Paul in common with the gentiles, Luke with Achaea, Andrew with Epirus, John with Ephesus, THOMAS WITH INDIA, Mark with Italy? [6]

8. Cyrillona (late 4th century) 

This gifted Syriac poet speaks of the mission of Thomas in India: “Behold THOMAS TEACHES IN INDIA, and Simon preaches in Rome” [7]

9. Ambrose of Milan (c.335-397) 

Ambrose the Latin Father mentions India as the field of Thomas: ‘As the Lord Jesus said to the Apostles, ‘Go and teach all nations,’ even the kingdoms closed by rugged mountains were open to them, AS INDIA TO THOMAS…” [8]

10. John Chrysostom (347-407) 

This Greek Father speaks about the apostolic origin of Indian Christianity: “(The Apostles) erected altars in the land of Romans, Persians, Scythians, Moors, INDIANS”. [9] He alludes to the well-known tomb of Thomas (in India).[10] 

11. Gaudentius of Brescia (+c.410) 

“It is said that John (the Baptist) finished his course in Sebaste, a town in the province of Palestine, THOMAS AMONG THE INDIANS, Andrew and Luke in the city of Patras in Achaea”. [11] He had their relics deposited in one of his churches. He alludes to the martyrdom and burial of Thomas in India.[12] 

12. Jerome (c.345-c.419) 

The scholarly Latin Father writes: “As it is handed down to us by tradition, apostle Thomas preached the Lord’s gospel to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Carmans, Hyrcanians, Bactrians and the Magians. HE SLEPT IN THE CITY OF CALAMINA, WHICH IS IN INDIA”. [13] Jerome continues: “(Jesus) was present in all the places WITH THOMAS IN INDIA, with Peter in Rome, with Paul in Illyria, with Titus in Crete, with Andrew in Achaea, with each apostle in each and every country”. [14] 

13. Paulinus of Nola (353-431) 

This Latin poet speaks about the mission of the apostles in various countries: “Thus he gave care of  Patras to Andrew, To John that of Ephesus along with Europe and Asia, Their dire darkness to dispel with the brightest light, Parthia embraces Matthew, AS INDIA DOES THOMAS”, [15]

14. Jacob of Sarug (451-521) 

This great Syriac poet-theologian describes the mission and martyrdom of Thomas in India in three long metrical homilies. [16] Living close to Edessa he had easy access to the Edessan traditions regarding Thomas.[17] 

15. Gregory of Tours (538-594) 

“It is said in the history of his martyrdom, that the Apostle Thomas suffered martyrdom in India… His blessed body was taken out after a long time and transferred to a city called Edessa by the Syrians and was interred there. In that part of India where it first rested stands a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, well decorated and structured. Now, it is in this edifice that God shows a great miracle. The fire kept burning there before the tomb of the Apostle shines without fail day and night by divine will, without anyone supplying oil or twig… This has been narrated to me by Theodore, who personally visited the place.” [18]

16. Gregory the Great (c.540-604) 

Pope (590-604) and Latin theologian speaks of the Apostle Thomas; “At night, the Lord appeared to Thomas in a vision and told him: Don’t fear to go to India.” [19] In the second coming of Christ Peter will appear with converts from Judea, Paul with his Gentile converts, Andrew with Achaea, John with Asia, THOMAS WITH INDIA. [20]

17. Isidore of Seville (560-636) 

Last of the Latin Fathers writes: “This Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and to the INDIANS OF THE ORIENTAL REGION. He sealed his preaching by his passion.  Transfixed with a lance, he died at Calamina,  a city in India where he was buried with honour”[21] .




[1] K.Lake, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, I (London 1959), I, p.191.

[2] W.Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents (London 1864, repr. Amsterdam 1967), p.33.

[3] PG I,1415.

[4] Oratio 33, Contra  Arianos 11,  PG 36, 228.

[5] C.Vona, I Carmi di Cirillona (Rome 1963), p.151.

[6] Ennaratio in Ps 45, PL 14, 1143.

[7] Quod Christus sit Deus 6; cf.Homily 4, NPNF  XI, p.29.

[8] Sermo 17, PL 20, 963.

[9] De Vitis Apostolorum 5, PL 23, 721B.

[10] Epist.59 Ad Marcellam, CSEL 54, 546.

[11] CSEL30, 1894, carmen 19.

[12] W.Strothmann, Jakob von Sarug: Drei Gedichte ueber den Apostel Thomas in Indien (Wiesbaden 1976).

[13] Miraculorum libri.I. De gloria martyrum , I, 507-508. PL 71, 733.

[14] Liber Responsorialis, PL 78, 819C.

[15] Evang.1,17,17.

[16] De ortu et obitu patrum, 74, 132, PL 83, 152C.


This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.

Read the complete article in PDF

© Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra, Kuravilangad
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