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The Acts of Thomas

In some ways the Acts of Thomas may be the best known of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, for this is the text that supports the well-known tradition that the apostle Thomas was the missionary who first brought Christianity to India. Thomas is not simply one of the apostles in this account, however. He is actually the brother of Jesus, in fact, his identical twin. (The name “Thomas” is an Aramaic word that means “twin.”) Thomas and Jesus as “look alikes” serves a narrative ploy at one point in the story: when Jesus appears from heaven in a married couple’s bedroom, he is mistaken for his mortal twin—creating considerable confusion, since Tho­ mas has just been seen leaving the house (ch. 11). The narrative recounts how Thomas is compelled to go to India, despite his reluctance: his “master” Jesus sells him as a slave to work as a carpenter for the King of India (chaps. 1–3). Both en route and while there Thomas performs miraculous deeds and proclaims a message of asceticism. For him, the gospel means renouncing this world, its wealth (see chaps. 17–24), and its pleasures—especially its sexual pleasures. Even those who are married are urged to refrain from having sexual relations, as children are a distraction on the one hand and are doomed to lives of sin on the other (see chaps. 10–16). The cost of failing to adhere to this gospel message are extreme; in this account we find a graphic description of the torments of hell, reserved for those who did not lead lives of strict morality and renunciation, as told by a woman raised from the dead, who has seen the fates of the damned first hand (chaps. 51–58). As with other Apocryphal Acts, it is difficult to know when the Acts of Thomas was written; most scholars have dated it to the third century and assumed that it was written in Edessa, the major city of Eastern Syria.

Translation by J. K. Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 447–57; 468–72; used with permission.


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