I was teaching a class– “Research in the History of Missions.” I noticed something strange. One of the missionaries I asked a student to research, and all to respond to, was St. Thomas. That is, the first St. Thomas— “Doubting Thomas.” I was so surprised at how uncomfortable my students were with researching Thomas. The discomfort is that so much of what we know about Thomas is speculative or apocryphal. One way around this is by studying Thomas as a character, rather than a historical living human being. Of course, I teach at an Evangelical School… where that may strike people unpleasantly close to the arguments about studying the “Jesus of Faith” versus the “Historical Jesus.”
The problem to me however, is different. Pretty much every mission figure I asked them to research had an issue of a gap between the “missionary as portrayed” versus the “missionary who is.” In the case of St. Thomas, the uncertainty was seemingly greater because some of the sources have a certain ramifications. To accept the Gospel of Thomas as actually written by Thomas means giving a certain amount of authority to a work that is commonly viewed as “Gnostic.” are problems with accepting the other works ascribed to Thomas as actually his work as well.
But such discomfort should not cause discomfort, but reflection. After all, the fact that these works were in Syraic, may be suggestive that Thomas ministered in Syria. No guarantee of course. The Spanish stories of Saint Iago doesn’t mean that St. James had come anywhere near the place. However, numerous works ascribed to Thomas from one place does seem suggestive. The early tradition of Thomas (probably not Bartholomew) founding the church of Southern India doesn’t necessarily mean he founded it, but it probably at least suggests its founding by his disciples. The fact that the last Gospel written (John) was the only one that singled out the actions of Thomas suggest, perhaps, that he was more important apostle in his later years than in his early years. Such evidences don’t tell us much with certainty, but do point to impact. It seems probable that Thomas was an important missionary/apostle in Syria, and considering how Edessa, for example, was an early center of Christianity, suggests that he has had considerable impact. Research like this does not lead to certainty, but does lead to new questions, and tentative thoughts.
This is pretty common in history in general. We never get full unambiguous answers. From the Evangelical perspective, the Bible is fully reliable, including in its historical record. However, even from that perspective, it must be remembered that the historical record in the Bible is very incomplete, and our ability to fill in those blanks is highly doubtful. Also, our ability to accurately analyze and interpret what is explicitly stated is also doubtful.
When my students researched Herman of Alaska, Francis Xavier, Betsy Stockton, and others, they should have gone in with the same reflective uncertainty. Some like a certain scientific certainty… but no such thing exists. Science can’t accurately analyze anything in history since it is unrepeatable phenomenon.
We need the illiative sense (converging probabilities)— the skills of the historian and lawyer, not the astronomer or physicist.