The Apostle Thomas is most commonly known as doubting Thomas. One of the 12 disciples, Thomas said he wouldn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he saw the nail marks in Christ’s hands (John 20:24–29). Eight days later, the risen Christ appeared to the disciples again, and he invited Thomas to feel the nail marks in his hands. Thomas responded: “My Lord and my God!”
What happened to Thomas after this famous encounter with Jesus? A less well-known story about the apostle suggests he may have been the first Christian to bring the gospel to India.
Did Thomas Bring the Gospel to India?
For centuries, communities have been claiming that Thomas came freely as a missionary to the Malabar Coast, traveling and preaching in India.
The story of Thomas bringing the gospel to India has been believed and told by many Christians, mostly in southern India. Multiple historical records and traditions claim that Thomas arrived in 52 AD on the Malabar coast in Kerala. Tradition holds he was martyred by spear in India in 72 AD and buried in a tomb in a cathedral in either Chennai, India or Ortona, Italy.
For centuries, communities have been claiming that Thomas came freely as a missionary to the Malabar Coast, traveling and preaching in India. Later, the Acts of Thomas, a third-century Syriac text, told another account of his ministry in India. The writing claims the resurrected Jesus sold Thomas to a merchant, who then brought Thomas to India. The story says Thomas was imprisoned by King Gundaphor after refusing to build him a palace. Later, the king had a vision, heard the gospel, and was led to Christ by Thomas. After he was freed from prison, Thomas went on to share the gospel with others in India.
The early church rejected the Acts of Thomas, and the text is not included in the Bible. It largely contains legendary material and Gnostic influences. However, some of its stories do align with other evidence, like the arrival and death of Thomas in India. Also, King Gundaphor was a real king in northern India during the first century, but there is no evidence to support that he was a Christian.
Today, Thomas Christians say the apostle started congregations in seven southwest Indian villages. While there is not enough historical evidence to claim this for certain, an estimated six Indian denominations trace their origins back to Thomas, according to A Brief History of Christianity in Asia. It’s certainly possible that Thomas did share the gospel in India.
An estimated six Indian denominations trace their origins back to Thomas.
Who Else is Believed to Have Brought the Gospel to India?
Others trace gospel roots back to early Christians like David of Basra, John the Persian, and Thomas from Cana. Whoever the messenger, we do know the gospel had come to India by the 2nd century. Pantaenus testifies to pre-existing communities of Christians by the late 2nd century, since they already had copies of the Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic before his arrival. Whether it was Thomas or another Christian, there was certainly one or more missionaries from Palestine who came and established communities of Christians by the late 2nd century.
What matters most is the gospel spreading in India—the world’s most populated country with an estimated 2% Christian population. We can be thankful for those who planted the first gospel seeds in India, and pray for more disciples to share the good news of Christ to Indians today.