72 CE: Thomas the Apostle Is Murdered in India

According to common Christian tradition, 'doubting' Thomas, a practicing Jew, was killed by jealous Hindu priests of Kali. (Or a peacock hunter.)

Martyrdom of St. Thomas by Peter Paul Rubens, ~1636
Martyrdom of St. Thomas, by Peter Paul Rubens, dating to about 1636. Ophelia2, Wikimedia Commons

December 21 in the year 72 C.E., is the day of the martyrdom of Thomas the Apostle, according to the tradition of a number of Christian churches.

Like all of the 12 apostles, or disciples, of Jesus, Thomas was a practicing Jew, and was given the mission by his mentor to spread his teachings, both among the Jews and the Gentiles.

In both the Book of John, one of the Gospels of the New Testament, and in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, Thomas is described as “Thomas, who is called Didymus,” a redundancy, since “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic word teoma, meaning “twin” (in Hebrew, it’s te’om), for which the word in Greek is didymus.

It is not clear either from the Gospels, written at the end of the 1st century, or from the Acts of Thomas, from the 2nd century, just whose twin Thomas was meant to be, but there are several references in classical sources that suggest that he was the brother either of the Apostle Jude (son of James) or of Jesus himself.

None of the sources tell us about Thomas’ origins, but like the other apostles, he is presumed to come from the Galilee, like Jesus, and to have returned there to teach after Jesus’ death.

Have you believed?

Thomas was the first “doubting Thomas,” because he refused to believe the reports of sightings of a resurrected Jesus until, according to John 20:25, "I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the print of the nails, and place my hand in his side…” (Revised Standard Version).

A short time later, Jesus appears to Thomas, and the latter calls him “my Lord and my God,” and Jesus seems to mock him gently when he responds, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29).

Earlier, when told by his teacher that he will be departing soon to prepare a home in heaven for his followers, who will be joining him there one day, the practical-minded Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (John 14:5).

The assignment of December 21 as the date of Thomas’ death is derived from a tradition that anyone who fits the description of a “doubting Thomas” might have some difficulty giving credence to.

Priests of Kali

A late tradition sees Thomas as having carried the gospel of Jesus to the Indian subcontinent, first to the northwestern kingdom of Gondophorus. Then, according to the third-century Acts of Thomas, in the year 52, the apostle sailed, in the company of a Jewish traveler named Abbanes, to the southern tip of India, to the port of Muziris, present-day Pattanam, in Kerala state.

Kerala was home, even at that time, to a Jewish community. A 17th-century work called Thomma Parvam (Songs of Thomas) says that he converted 40 Jews upon his arrival, along with 3,000 Hindus of Brahmin origin.

Modern historians believe that Christianity actually arrived in India several centuries after the era of the historical Thomas, with the arrival of Christians from Syria and from Perisa.

The martyrdom of Thomas, however, took place not on western coast of India, but on the other side of the subcontinent, in the southeastern city of Mylapore, near latter-day Chennai. There, Thomas came into conflict with the Hindu priests of Kali, who killed him for insulting their deity – or simply for converting many of their followers. (Marco Polo, in the 13th century, heard that Thomas had died, more than a millennium earlier, when an archer out hunting peacocks had accidentally shot him.)

His bones were then brought into the city of Mylapore and buried inside a church he had already built there, where in the 16th century, Portuguese explorers built the San Thome Basilica, which was rebuilt by the British in 1893.

Today, December 21 is still observed as the feast day of St. Thomas in some Protestant churches, and among traditionalist Catholics. In the Roman Catholic Church, however, the feast day was moved, in 1960, to July 3, so as not to interfere with the days leading up to Christmas, on December 25.