COPTIC MISSIONARIES IN INDIA
The story of the first Christian missionaries in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent is associated with the apostle Thomas. According to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas (Judas-Thomas in the Syriac version), written by Bardesanes, a famous author in Edessa, Syria, in the late second or early third century, Gondophernes, king of Malabar on the south coast of India, sent messengers to Jerusalem to search for an architect to build a palace for him.
Thomas agreed to undertake this task and went to India. He had in mind a celestial, not an earthly, palace, and when he started spending the king’s money on the poor, Gondophernes seized him and put him in prison. At that time the king’s brother Gad died, but at his burial, he came to life and recounted the miraculous visions he had witnessed in heaven. Consequently, the king released Thomas and with his brother allowed Thomas to baptize him. The apostle then committed the nascent church to a deacon named Zenophus or Xanhippus and proceeded to preach Christianity in other areas of India. He was martyred, and his body was taken back to Edessa by a fellow Christian.
When a son of Gondophernes became seriously ill, the king sought the relics of the deceased saint to heal his ailing child. Though Thomas’ body was gone, the miracle of healing the prince was performed in absentia by the saint. Consequently, the royal family adopted the new religion; thus Christianity became established in the Malabar kingdom.
Though the story is apocryphal, the historicity of the introduction of Christianity in India is not without foundation. The trade routes between Syria and western India had long existed via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and there was an active trade in pepper between the two countries. A colony of Jews, Greeks, and Syrians is known to have existed at Muziris-Cranganore on the Malabar Coast, and we must assume that Thomas joined that group. The descriptions of the court of Gondophernes in the Acts of Thomas fit a maharajah’s household rather than a Parthian royal household, and the general climatic conditions are identical with those of the area under consideration. The numismatic evidence also confirms the existence of King Gondophernes around the middle of the first century.
Even if we choose to overlook the legendary and apocryphal nature of the Acts, certain other data offer testimony to the ancient and apostolic character of Malabar Christianity and its relationship with the Coptic church and its Syrian sister church. First, PANTAENUS, the first head of the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA (on the authority of the historian EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA), “was appointed as a herald for the Gospel of Christ to the heathen in the East, and was sent as far as India.” Consequently, Pantaenus must have reached the Indian subcontinent before the end of the second century and have found that other preachers of the new religion had preceded him and had left the Indians “the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters, which was preserved until the time mentioned.”
Second, the earliest reference to Indian Christianity appeared in official records of the First Council of NICEA in 325 when “Bishop John the Persian of the whole of Persia and India” appeared at that ecumenical assembly with a delegation of East Syrian bishops from Edessa and Nisibis. It is quite possible that that delegation included Theophilus the Indian.
Third, the most authoritative statements accepted by historians about Malabar Christianity occur in the records of COSMAS INDICOPLEUSTES, a famous early medieval traveler from the MOUNT SINAI MONASTERY OF SAINT CATHERINE. His seafaring adventures between 520 and 525 were recorded in his Christian Topography. He states that he found a Christian church established in interior India, with Indian clergy and a considerable congregation of believers. At its head was a bishop of “Kalliana,” which must be identified as Quilon in Travancore. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo confirmed the existence of that church when he visited the south Indian subcontinent on his way to China.
At that time a new missionary enterprise from Roman Catholicism was launched by Pope Innocent III, whose emissary to the Far East, John of Monte Corvino, spent a year (1291) in Malabar. He was followed by a Dominican friar named Jordanus, who reached India in 1319 and 1328 and was ordained Roman bishop of Quilon by the Avignonese pope John XXII. Gradually, Malabar Christianity was drawn within the pale of Roman Catholicism. In fact, Roman Catholicism in Malabar emerged in the face of preexisting Orthodox communities as well as a number of Nestorian families. The arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in the fifteenth century led to the inauguration of a new chapter in the story of Malabar Christianity.
With the advent of Islam and the Arabs in Egypt during the Middle Ages, the missionary spirit among the Copts died. The weight of Muslim persecutions deflected the church from international projects to deal with immediate problems at home.
- Browne, L. W. The Indian Christians of St. Thomas. Cambridge, 1956.
- Dahlmann, J. Die Thomas-Legende. Freiburg, 1912. Fortescue, A. The Lesser Eastern Churches. London, 1913.
- Medlycott, A. E. India and the Apostle Thomas. London, 1905. Pothan, S. G. The Syrian Christians of Kerala. New York, 1963.
- Winstedt, E. O., ed. The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Cambridge, 1909.
AZIZ S. ATIYA