The Acts of Thomas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Although this version is known as the Acts of Thomas, the hero is oftentimes referred to as Judas. His complete name is Thomas Judas Didymus. Interestingly, both Thomas (Hebrew) and Didymus (Greek) mean "twin," which is more of a title than a name. The Acts of Thomas, then, is really about Judas, who was one of the original Apostles. Some have speculated that he became known as Thomas after Judas Iscariot's betrayal. Internal evidence found in the text indicates that he was Jesus' twin.

The Acts of Thomas are comprised of a series of episodic stories that occurred during the ministry of Judas Thomas, or "Judas, who is also Thomas." The story begins at the point where the Apostles had gathered to divide up the countries between them in order that "each may preach in the region that fell to him and to the place where the Lord sent him." This, apparently, was done by casting lots. Judas Thomas got India.

He was not at all pleased with the assignment, however, stating that he was "too weak" to undergo such an ordeal, to say nothing of the fact that he had no idea how he would even communicate with the Indians. The Lord appeared to him and promised to "be with" him, but he still refused to go. While Judas Thomas was still thinking things over, a merchant came to the city hoping to find a good carpenter. "The Lord" offered to "sell" Judas Thomas to him for twenty pieces of silver. After the sale was completed, the Lord took Judas Thomas to him. The merchant asked Judas Thomas if the Lord was his master, to which he replied in the affirmative. With that, the merchant explained that he had just bought him outright. Apparently, Judas Thomas remained silent, and they were soon aboard a ship sailing for India. The mighty works and ascetic teachings in the first story are a good representation of the major themes of his ministry.

When they disembarked, they found the city in the midst of a great festival because the king was celebrating the marriage of his only daughter. Though included in the merry-making, Judas Thomas refrained from eating or drinking anything, so one of the cup-bearers struck him. Speaking in Hebrew, he said that God would forgive him in the life to come, but in the meantime "his hand would be dragged by dogs." The only one who understood his words was a Hebrew flute-girl.

Shortly thereafter, the cup-bearer went to the well to draw water, only to be attacked by a lion. After the lion tore him from limb to limb, the city dogs joined in the fray. One notable black dog grabbed a hand and went back to the banquet hall. Upon investigation, the guests were able to figure out who was missing. The flute-girl then told them what Thomas had said about the dogs dragging the cup-bearer's hand.

The news quickly reached the ears of the king who believed Judas Thomas to be a god of some sort. He invited Judas Thomas to the palace to pray for his daughter since it was her wedding day. Judas Thomas refused because he had received no word from the Lord in that place. The king, however, forced him to go to the bridal chamber.

Before he arrived, the bridegroom had put out all the guests and went to get his bride so she could hear what Judas Thomas would say. By this time, however, "the Lord" was already with her. The Lord told him, "I am not Judas which is also called Thomas but I am his brother." Then the Lord spoke to both of them. He encouraged them to preserve themselves from this "filthy intercourse," so their bodies would become "pure temples" and they would not be burdened with the care of children.

His arguments were persuasive. They both "gave themselves" to the Lord. The next morning her parents found out and the king not only rent his clothes, but also tried to find Judas Thomas (who apparently had finished the teachings that the Lord had begun). The king hoped to pay him off, but Judas Thomas was not to be found. Eventually, however, it appears that all of them converted and actually joined him in India.

The second story is a bit more metaphysical. It involved another king and another request. The king, Gundaphorus, employed Judas Thomas to build him an enormous palace. From time to time, he sent money and provisions for Judas Thomas and all his workmen. Judas Thomas, however, went throughout the nearby villages giving all the money and supplies to the poor. Whenever Gundaphorus inquired about the progress of the palace, he was assured that everything was on schedule. When the king finally came to view the palace and realized what had happened, he was distraught and cast Judas Thomas into prison until he could give a full accounting of all the money.

Judas Thomas went into prison rejoicing and trusting in the Lord. That same night the king's brother, Gad, fell ill, and since he was about to die, he offered all that he had to the king with the caveat that he not punish Judas Thomas. (In the Syriac version, the king and his brother discuss various ways to torture Judas Thomas to death.) Then the brother died, and the angels carried his soul to heaven. Once there, the angels showed Gad all the possible dwelling places. One, in particular, stood out and when Gad inquired about staying there, they told him that that was the palace that Judas Thomas had built for his brother. Gad pleaded with them to allow him to return to his brother, the king, to see if he would sell it to him. So the angels let him go.

Gad revived on earth and tried to get his brother to grant him but one wish, "only one thing will I ask of thee." The king was so happy his brother was alive that he agreed. Then Gad asked him to give him the palace that awaited him in heaven. The king wondered what palace it could be. Gad told him "the one that that Christian built for you." Gundaphorus suddenly put it all together and decided that he would spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of occupying the palace that Judas Thomas had built for him in heaven. Both the king and his brother were baptized and became followers. (Scholars used to think these were just stories, until they discovered the name of this king in important annals in northern India.) Additional teachings in this section included several prominent themes from the Sermon on the Mount.

This is followed by the "Hymn of the Pearl," which is a song Judas Thomas prayed while he was in prison. The hymn tells about a king's son who must recover a pearl from a serpent. Along the way, however, he lost focus and forgot his mission. When he received a letter from his father reminding him of his assignment, he was able to complete it and return home. This was meant as an allegory describing those times when Gnostics would become unfocused and distracted by the world's pleasures. In the process, they would forget their true origin. Like the young lad, they would receive messages in a variety of forms that would remind them who they really were and what they were supposed to be doing.

Judas Thomas performed many other miraculous acts and preached a message of asceticism, even to those who were married. The idea was to not only keep their bodies chaste but also to prevent them from having children. Besides being a distraction, children oftentimes grew up to be "sinners." Anyone who ignored these teachings would be doomed to the punishments of hell – described in vivid detail by a woman who was called out of hell by Judas Thomas. Such ascetic teachings, however, regularly got him into trouble with the authorities, and eventually led to his martyrdom.

After converting the wives of a king and his kinsman, Judas Thomas was imprisoned with several followers. He willingly faced his possible demise, which was interpreted not as death but as a "setting free from the body." Judas Thomas was anxious to be transformed. Nonetheless, he and his followers walked out of the prison even though the seals on the doors remained intact. The king was advised to have him killed so that "the sorcerer and his sorcery would be cleansed from the land." Judas Thomas reminded the king that he had no real authority over him. With trepidation, the king ordered that armed soldiers should take him into the mountains, pierce him with spears, and put an end to him.

His disciples followed him and dressed his body in beautiful robes, burying him in a royal sepulcher. Judas Thomas spoke to his followers after his death, telling them to continue his work until they should be joined to him. This resulted in much rejoicing and many more were added to the faith – even the king that had ordered his execution. The document ends with everyone glorifying "the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, whose is power and adoration, now and for ever and world without end." In this way did Judas Thomas fulfill the commandment that he had been given.

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