Where exactly did St. Thomas go on his journey from Jerusalem? Did he go by land or sea? Did he go east more than once? Did he indeed make it to India, or even as some believe, to China? And the specific question I’m asking in this post, did he visit the First century educational center of Taxila, located in what is now the state of Punjab in Pakistan?
These questions and many more about St. Thomas have intrigued and challenged scholars for centuries. The present trend in historical writing on St. Thomas and whether he made it to India sides strongly to the positive. A strong community in Southern India calling themselves “St. Thomas Christians” continues to hold without question to the historicity of the Apostle coming to Kerela in about 52 A.D, establishing seven churches in seven villages, and being martyred later on St. Thomas’ Mount in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
A contemporary source in the mid to late first century A.D. is the Acts of Thomas which tells the story of Apostle Thomas and his journey and work in India. Though the historicity of this document has been challenged at times, it does present a plausible background for the journey to India from West Asia of a Jewish man in the mid-first century. An interesting dimension of Thomas’ trip to India portrayed in the Acts is his joining the merchant Habban showing a trade-witness connection. (what some would call “Business and Mission”.)
What also brings plausibility to the tradition of St. Thomas coming to India, and even possibly China, is the well-traveled trade routes that went across the Indian Ocean in the first century. Called the “Maritime Silk Road” by historians later in history, using the “Silk Road” terminology dating to the 19th century, the Indian Ocean route was was a well-documented one. The Southern India coast was a normal stop on that route, and merchants would at times then go on to the Eastern China coast as well. That Thomas may have traveled that route is highly plausible.
But did St. Thomas also travel in the north of the subcontinent of India? Again it is highly plausible when the existing trade routes are considered. There were early versions of the Silk Road in use, with a route off the main one to China that went down into what is now Pakistan and across North India on to Burma. This brings us to the importance of Taxila. Located 20 miles NW of the modern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, the ruins of Taxila conjure up vistas of former greatness. I have been to the museum near the ruins, and though there are sparse remains it is still testament to the glory of what was once a key city in the first century.
Taxila was located at the meeting place of three important trade routes 1) the “King’s highway” that went all the way across North India to Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar state of India). This highway was constructed by the Mauryan Empire to connect Pataliputra, their capital, with Taxila and 2) on into Bactria in what is now Afghanistan. This second route linking Bactria with points further to the west like Persia is also important, as Bardaisan wrote in the early second century that there were Christians already in Bactria. The third route went from Taxila on into what is now Kashmir and on north to Central Asia, linking back to the main route leading east to Xian in China. (then called Chang’an).
Excavated in part by the renowned archaeologist John Marshall during the years 1913-1934, the exact origins and how Taxila became famous as a university center is not known. Marshall, in his study on the excavation of Taxila, believes that it was a thriving educational center as early as 40 A.D.. He also believes that St. Thomas did visit there, during the reign of King Gondaphorus. A coin found in the excavations at Taxila does indeed bear the likeness and name of the King, proving his historicity though not a definite link to Thomas. In some of the early Buddhist literature, Taxila is mentioned as “a university center where students could get instruction in almost any subject.” (Marshall 1960:23) Taxila’s final descent into ruins may have occurred at the end of the 5th century A.D., under the invasion of the White Huns of Central Asia.
In a previous post, The First Universities were in Asia, not Europe , I mentioned Taxila along with places like Nalanda, Gundeshapur, and Nisibis. It is interesting that both Nalanda, near Pataliputra, and Gundeshapur, were near or on the trading routes of the early centuries. Nisibis was also near as well. These were routes used not only for purposes of business, but also for the sharing of religious faith by Buddhists, Manichaeans, and also the Church of the East. For St. Thomas to have visited Taxila and its university on a northern route is highly plausible. Unlike Southern India, there is no living Christian community in the Punjab that traces its history back to Thomas. But the Empires that ruled in the North may have wiped out all remnants of the Christian faith, especially in later centuries when Taxila also ceased to exist. It is not unlikely that on further excavation in Pakistan and North India, more artifacts can be found. Almost every year now, in Central Asia and China, more discoveries are being made of buried church and monastic ruins and ancient scrolls belonging to the Church of the East in Asia.
The plausibility of St. Thomas visiting a university in Taxila is not the same as absolute proof. But like so many people and events as far back as the first century A.D., we are left with the need to reconstruct what was the larger story going on, and then continue to fit the puzzle pieces together as we can. For those of us who love to do puzzles, it is fascinating and indeed very important work.