Sources - Western

Pilgrim's Progress: The Acts of Thomas and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana

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The Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Two-way religious exchange

Extracts from the Acts of St Thomas

Extracts from the Life of Apollonius


These two works have been paired as they have similar subjects, the visits of western holy figures to India; were composed in the same period, the third century AD; and have drawn attention for similar reasons, the meetings with historical kings of the Indo-Parthian dynasty. But the historicity of both has been seriously challenged, so while neither will ever be a central part of Kushan studies the question needs to be asked: do these stories contain a kernel of historical reality that can be uncovered or are they pure fictions, the products of imaginative western minds projecting hopes, desires and fantasies onto a mythologised east?

The Acts of St. Thomas

The Acts of St Thomas was a popular medieval text, which consists of a typical pilgrims progress involving travel, imprisonment, miracles and conversion. It has survived in a large number of different linguistic traditions but only two really matter, the Syrian and the Greek. The earliest Greek texts are from the ninth century and a number consist only of the episode involving the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. By contrast the earliest Syrian text is from the seventh century and there exist sufficient fragments from the fifth century to show that the whole text was known by that time.

Despite the later date the Greek tradition is generally thought to preserve the earlier incarnation of the story. The suspicion being that the Syrian texts were subject to an orthodox redaction at some point intended to remove Manichee and Gnostic elements. The original text is believed to have been composed in the third century AD within the Syrian tradition, possibly at the city of Edessa (though for little better reason than that Edessa was an important city). The date is based partly on the text itself, partly by comparison with other apocryphal texts, and also on references to the Acts in Ancient writers. Give or take half a century it is a fairly certain date, though of course there is no way to know if, or for how long, elements of the story may have been current before they were incorporated in this work.

The use of the Acts has been marred by a lack of communication between two widely divided fields (historians, mostly numismatists and epigraphers, of Northern India, and scholars of Biblical and Medieval literature). On the Indian side the Acts reference to Gondophares have been used to date that king against a figure of known date (The Apostle Thomas). Bob Senior puts the point simply 'The evidence for dating Gondophares I to c.19 AD rests solely on his being equated with the Gondophares of the 'Apocryphal Acts of St Thomas' and identified as the Gondophares of the Takht-i-Bahi inscription' (2001: 125). Yet few Kushan scholars base their knowledge of Thomas on anything more recent than the early 20's. While the situation is no better on the other side. Those scholars interested in Thomas who wish to advocate a historical core (Huxley, 1983) base this upon the apparently accurate knowledge of Indo-Parthian politics but their references to the chronology of India is both dated and very badly skewed. For example, the most recent work (Klijn, 2003: 18, 21) has no reference more recent than 1938 (Lohuizen's work on Kushan Chronology), and arrives at a bizarre dating of 30 to 15BC which flies in the face of all available evidence. Historians of India use the Acts of Thomas to date Gondophares because they believe their to be a historical core to the legend, while biblical historians believe there is a historical core to the legend because it appears to correctly record the dates of Gondophares. The argument is circular and if the two fields had kept abreast of each others developments its fragility  would have been clear a long time ago.

As it happens the date of Gondophares has been established with some reasonable certainty by the Takht-i-Bahi inscription (no. 353) to the period 23 to 46AD. This corresponds well with the date of Thomas' mythical visit and can be established quite independently of the Thomas tradition due to an increasingly large number of inscriptions. It is also clear that crafts people from the Mediterranean did influence Indian buildings during this period (Shoshin, 1997). So the event is plausible, but it is also clear from study of the text itself that the actual story is a fabrication.

Vita Apollonii

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana was also written in the third century, by the sophist Philostratus. Philostratus claims to be working from a memoir composed by Damis, Apollonius companion in his philosophical journey. It differs from the Acts of Thomas because there is a great deal of contextual detail about the journey into India which might initially inspire some confidence (it certainly did for John Marshall, the excavator of Taxila), and because, unlike Thomas, Apollonius is probably a historical figure. That judgment is based on the prior existence of other works, such as that y Moeragenes, which have not survived.

The Life of Apollonius is our only surviving biography of the philosopher, though it is not the only one that was written. It covers his entire life, incorporating many fantastic or magical encounters, and his attempts at temple reform within the Graeco-Roman world. This is important because it provides context for the section in which Indian scholars are interested, the journey to India in Books two and three. Within the context of the biography as a whole it serves several purposes ; a metaphor for Philostratus wide learning; an opportunity to show the greatness of Greek culture by showing its acceptance amongst the most far flung of barbarians; a vision of an uncontaminated philosophy in the Brahmins (this is not an uncommon use of barbarians in Roman literature, Tacitus employs Germans in a similar manner to highlight corruption in the political life of Rome); a comparison, favorable to Apollonius, with temporal authorities, both Alexander and the Indian Kings. As the section clearly serves a strong narrative purpose it must be used with care.

Narrative drive is a problem, because it penetrates right the way through the work; even into details such as the humble nature of the palace, or the Indian King's knowledge of Greek (which while it is probably true is a happy accident on Philostratus' part). And the one other independent source for Apollonius, the collection of letters in his name, transmitted independently of Philostratus' work, is silent on Damis or a trip to India. However, while everyone distrusts Philostratus, opinion is divided on the life itself. Philostratus does on occasision simply use narrative to display his own wide reading, often pulling together a variety of legends in an eliptic and obtuse manner, and everyone agrees that Philostratus is capable of having concocted the entire story, and even of having invented Damis entirely, not everyone agrees that he did. In short, there is a difference between saying it could all be a lie and it is all a lie.  The problem is this: in many places Philostratus' fabrication can be demonstrated; in those places it cannot it is at least suspect. So, the source is only useful when its statements can be verified, ie when what it says something which is already known. A source like that is of pretty limited value for telling us about India. 

Two-way religious exchange

Having established that neither work will serve the purposes to which it is put, namely that the Acts are of no value as a chronological tool and that the Life will tell us nothing about the North West of India in any period, and certainly not under the Indo-Parthians, it is left to ask if either of these sources has any use for historians of India. The answer is that perhaps they are indicative of the flow of ideas in the times in which they were written. They tell us that the amount a third century Syrian Christian or Roman Sophist knew about India was pretty limited, but that they did know something - enough to give the occasional plausible detail, even enough to place that plausible detail correctly in a first century historical context.


Plutarch, Alexander (61.4) After thus speaking, he lay down and covered his head, nor did he move as the fire approached him, but continued to lie in the same posture as at first, and so sacrificed himself acceptably, as the wise men of his country had done from of old. The same thing was done many years afterwards by another Indian who was in the following of Caesar, at Athens; and the “Indian's Tomb” is shown there to this day.

They also tell us that both these authors expected their audiences to find the idea of a religious pilgrimage to India plausible. Obviously the audience was familiar with Alexander, and will have known that ivory, silk, and other goods came from India to Rome, so no-one thought India was off the edge of the map. It is clear that travel to India was possible, what is interesting is that these texts tell us it was plausible - that people might expect religious figures to travel in this way (Elsner, 1997:26). And in fact we know of examples in the other direction, of Indian religious figures who traveled to Rome: the side box contains a fragment from Plutarch, who preserves details of an Indian holy man who came as part of an embassy to the Emperor Augustus. This is important because while there is evidence of Indian religious men traveling (Inscription 742 records the success of a monastery in Southern India in religious missions to Kashmir, Gandhara, and possibly even Bactria), there is no equivalent of the travel genre in Indian literature and thus nothing specific like these two tales from the west or the accounts of Chinese pilgrims in the East.

There are examples of parallels in Buddhist and Christian texts, which while some may be co-incidental, indicate that at some level information was being passed between the region of the Kushan Empire and the eastern end of the Mediterranean world.. J Duncan M. Derrett (1999, 2002, 2004) has highlighted such cases, both cases where the borrowing was from Indian thought to the Gospels and from the Gospels to Buddhist scripture. Given the vagaries of dates for both sides it is difficult to establish when these borrowings were made or how. It is possible that texts were carried from India to the West and vice versa, but we have no evidence for it. In fact our evidence is very much that ideas moved with people, we know that in the first century Indian ascetics visited Rome, and we know that two separate sources speaking to two distinct religious groups in the third century thought it plausible to suggest western holy men had visited India in the first century. Ideas are valuable commodities and by weight far more valuable than gold or silk.

Nor are ideas restricted to religion. We know that other sorts of ideas traveled from India to Rome and from Rome to India. Political ideas, a third century inscription shows the Kushan kings borrowing the title of Caesar; the design of coins (third and fourth century Roman emperors share strong elements of design with the Kushan kings, as pointed out on many occasions by Robert Gobl, though he is wrong to see the transmission from Rome to India, it is almost certainly from India to Rome). Elements of architecture can be show to have moved between the two locations and this ignores the most obvious area in which ideas are expressed, art. The huge corpus of synthetic Gandharan art shows clearly that the Kushan Empire lay at the heart of a trade, not just in luxury goods but in ideas.

Derrett (2006) lists many of these in his typically elliptic fashion. However there is notable absence in the parallels. No case, not a single one, of an extensive, lengthy borrowing or critique in either tradition. All that is ever found are snippets. Little pieces, disjointed and un-fashioned - the occasional incongruous idea or interesting story, often greatly transformed. These are not the products of holy men making regular trips back and forth between India and the Mediterranean to converse. The are the gradual filtering of ideas which is natural amongst any two populations that share a permeable boundary. And this is compatible with both our works which are concerned mostly with projection, preserving only a few scattered factual elements. Interestingly our works may imply a reason for this in that they both show India through a Parthian lens, in that the supposedly Indian kings encountered are in fact Parthian, or at least Indo-Parthian. If the exchange of ideas was taking place via another cultural zone, such as the Parthian Empire - rather than directly by sea, it would explain both the widespread nature of parallels and the their relative subtelty.

The Acts of St Thomas

The Life of Thomas is often divided into about 170 chapters (except that the last section varies a great deal between versions and that many Greek versions contain only the first 29 with the episode involving Gondophares). This summary, and sections below, are based primarily on that of Elliott with additions where appropriate from Klijn..

Summary of Contents

I. Judas Thomas is sold to the merchant Abban and taken to India. The royal wedding party. Thomas succeeds in urging celibacy on the bridle couple (chapters 1 to 16).
II. Thomas meets King Gondophares, who commissions him to build a royal palace. Thomas then spends the money on the poor before being imprisoned by the King. The king releases Thomas after his brother Gad dies and returns to tell him of a palace in heaven (chapters 17 to 29).
III. Raising of a man killed by a serpent (chapters 30 to 38)
IV. The speaking colt (chapters 39 to 41) [Klijn includes this episode within section 5]
V. Exorcism of the woman possessed by a demon (chapters 42 to 50)
VI. Raising the woman murdered by her lover. Her vision of hell (chapters 51 to 61)
VII. Siphor the captain of King Misdaeus finds Thomas to ask him to exorcize his wife and daughter. Thomas agrees to visit them (chapters 62 to 67).
VIII The wild asses deliver Thomas and the captain to his family. Thomas addresses and exorcizes the demon(s) (chapters 68 to 81)
IX Mygdonia, the wife of Charisius a kinsman of the king, is converted by Thomas. Charisius reacts by having the king agree to kill Thomas. Siphor testifies on Thomas' behalf to the king. The Hymn of the Pearl is sung by Thomas in prison (chapters 82-118).
X Mygdonia is baptized after Thomas is released from prison (chapters 119 to 133).
XI King Misdaeus' wife, Tertia, is also converted. Misdaeus has Thomas arrested again and threatens to kill him (chapters 134 to 138).
XII Misdaeus's son Vazan is converted by Thomas when he visits him in prison (chapters 139 to 149).
XIII Vazan and his wife, and Tertia are baptised by Thomas (chapters 150 to 158).
XIV Thomas is martyred. A vision of Thomas appears and the king's son is cured of an illness. Misdaues then converts.

Though the Acts of Thomas are very lengthy only the first two sections concerning the story of Gondophares are relevant. The later section contains some names, of which Xanthippus/Xenophon is clearly Greek and others such as Mygdonia, Karis/Chariius, Mazdai/Misdaeus, Tertia, Virzan show more or less Persian influence. What none of them are is even remotely Indian, and though the modern Indian Church takes the latter half of the Acts as foundational for its mission in southern India it is clear that the text is really based upon a familiarity with Persia, not India, and in fact this tallies well with the earliest traditions which record Thomas' lot as being Parthia.

2. And as he was thus speaking and considering, it happened that a merchant named Abban, who had come from India, was there, sent from King Gundaphorus, having received an order from him to buy a carpenter and bring him to him. And the Lord, having seen him walking about in the market at noon, said to him, 'Do you wish to buy a carpenter?' He replied, 'Yes.' And the Lord said to him, 'I have a slave who is a carpenter, and I wish to sell him.' And having said this he showed him Thomas from a distance and agreed with him for three pounds of uncoined silver, and wrote a bill of sale saying, 'I, Jesus, son of the carpenter Joseph, declare that I have sold my slave, Judas by name, to you, Abban, a merchant of Gundaphorus, king of the Indians.' When the purchase was completed the Saviour took Judas, also called Thomas, and led him to Abban, the merchant. When Abban saw him he said to him, 'Is this your master?' The apostle answered and said 'Yes, he is my Lord.' And he said, 'I have bought you from him.' And the apostle was silent.

The name Abban, or Habban, is mentioned in a papyri of AD166 as that of a slave from natione transfluminarum, a nation beyond the water, e.g. over the river, or over the sea. The price has clear biblical overtones, and is badly out when compared with contemporary sale documents, being far too cheap.

There is of course some doubt as to the identity of Gundaphorus (Gudnaphar in the Syrian). This has been principally raised by Bob Senior in numerous publications in which he argues that Gondophares was essentially a title (being derived from the old Persian vindapharna 'Winner of Glory') and that the name took on a dynastic role  being held by a number of the kings of the later Indo-Parthian dynasty. In particular he believes that Sasan, or Gondophares-Sases as he appears on many of his coins, is the king who would have been on the throne at the time. Senior's dating is not widely accepted, requiring as it does a date of 78AD for Kanishka. Other scholars feel that the coins are not struck by Gondophares-Sasan but by Sasan in the name of Gondophares (Bopearachchi, 1995: 204). Either way it is clear the name Gondophares was used repeatedly through the dynasty in a manner like Caesar, and since the term Caesar appears in a third century Kushan inscription (insc. 456) amongst the titles of Kanishka III, it is likely a third century author would have known of its equivalent in the Indo-Parthian kingdoms.

Thomas is then taken to the town of Sandaruk (ATh 3), which Klijn suggests might refer to Andra in Southern India (the Greek is rendered Andropolis). This is possible, but it increases the sense that the historical details are a collage of whatever mismatched details the author had available. The contextual details on dancing and architecture from this point on are meaningless, having no connection with India, and the next section of interest is the introduction of the king's brother:

21 And he sent for the merchant who had brought him, and for the apostle, and said to him, 'Have you built the palace?' And he said, 'Yes, I have built it.' The king said, 'When shall we go to inspect it?' And he answered and said, 'Now you cannot see it, but you shall see it when you depart this life.' And the king was very angry and ordered both the merchant and Judas Thomas to be bound and cast into prison, until he should find out to whom the property of the king had been given, and so destroy him and the merchant. And the apostle went to prison rejoicing and said to the merchant, 'Fear nothing, believe only in the God who is preached by me, and you shall be freed from this world and obtain life in the world to come.' And the king considered by what death he should kill them. He decided to flog them and burn them fire. On that very night Gad, the king's brother, fell ill; and through the grief and disappointment which the king had suffered he was grievously depressed. And having sent for the king he said to him, 'Brother and king, I commend to you my house and my children. For I have been grieved on account of the insult that has befallen you, and lo, I am dying, and if you do not proceed against the life of that magician you will give my soul no rest in Hades.' And the king said to his brother, 'I considered the whole night by what death I should kill him, and I have decided to flog him and burn him with fire, together with the merchant who brought him.'

22 While they were talking, the soul of Gad, his brother, departed, and the king mourned for Gad exceedingly, because he loved him, and ordered him to be prepared for burial in a royal and costly robe. While this was going on, angels received the soul of Gad, the king's brother, and took it up into heaven, showing him the palaces and mansions there, asking him, 'In what placed do you wish to dwell?' And when they came near the edifice of the apostle Thomas, which he had erected for the king, Gad, upon beholding it, said to the angels, 'I entreat you, my lords, let me dwell in one of these lower chambers. 'But' they said to him, 'In this building you cannot dwell.' And he said, 'Why not?'. They answered 'This palace is the one which that Christian has built for your brother.'

The name Gad is of interest as Gadana, or Gadaranisa, appears on coins either with the name of Orthagnes or with the apparent double title 'Gondophares-Gadana' (Senior, 2001:114-117). However, in this case it appears fairly certain that Gadana is not a proper name but a title or appellation of some sort. In the Indo-Parthian sequence it follows after Gondophares, belonging to the early period of Kushan dominance, and certainly is not the name of Gondophares brother. It would seem that the author of the Acts was aware of the title, or had perhaps seen an Orthagnes coin and wove these elements into his tale.

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Most of the Life of Apollonius is not set in India, however the second book and majority of the third do revolve around this episode, Apolloniius travel to Northwest India, in particular the town of Taxila:

Summary of Contents

Book II, I-XI Apollonius and part travel from Babylonia to India overland.
XII - XIX Crossing of the Indus (including digressions on Elephants)
XX - XXIV The city of Taxila, and its ruler, Phroates (mistakenly believed to be a continuation of the kingdom of Porus)
XXV-XLI Meeting with the king of Taxila, who converses in Greek with Apollonius and extols the virtues of Philosophy
XLII-XLIII Apollonius travels beyond the furthest point reached by Alexander.
Book III, I-V Various fantastic stories are related.
VI-VIII A description of a dragon hunt
IX-XIV Apollonius arrives at the residence of the sages, where people speak Greek and worship Greek Gods.
XV-XXVII Meeting and discussion with the Brahmins including the recounting of various myths.
XVIII-XXXIV Apollonius debates the virtues of philosophers and Greeks with an Indian King
XXXIV-XLVII Damis is admitted for the Brahmin Iarchus' speech.
XXXVIII-XLIV Various miracles of Apollonius, including healing and foresight are discussed. 
XLV-LIII Various Indian mythical creatures are described and the party depart by ship.

The following passage is an example of the sort of promising information that appears in the Life. It gives information which various people have tried to reconcile with the excavated city of Taxila. However, the reality is that it owes more to Philostratus imagination and existing models (such as Athens) that he wishes to use for his own purposes.


While the sage was engaged in this conversation, messengers and an interpreter presented themselves from the king, to say that the king would make him his guest for three days, because the laws did not allow of strangers residing in the city for a longer time; and accordingly they conducted him into the palace. I have already described the way in which the city is walled, but they say that it was divided up into narrow streets in the same irregular manner as is Athens, and that the houses were built in such a way that if you look at them from outside they had only one storey, while if you went into one of them, you at once found subterranean chambers extending as far below the level of the earth as did the chambers above.

And they say that they saw a Temple of the Sun in which was kept a sacred elephant called Ajax, and there were images of Alexander made of gold, and others of Porus, though the latter were of a black bronze. But on the walls of the Temple there were red stones, and gold glittered underneath and gave off a sheen as bright as sunlight. But the statue was compacted of pearls arranged in the symbolive manner affected by all barbarians in their shrines.


Full translations of the Acts of St Thomas are available in Kiljn(2003) and Elliott (1993), the first based on the Syrian, the second on the Greek texts. Klijn provides a commentary and Elliott a more extensive bibliography. Readers should avoid online material relating to Thomas, his position as mythical founder of the Indian Church means that there is much that is contaminated by religious fervor and deliberately misleading. The translation used here for Philostratus work is that by Conybeare (1912), while the letters are best consulted through the excellent work of Penella (1979). The majority of scholarship around Apollonius revolves on the authenticity of the biography. Bernard (1999) has tackled this directly with relation to India, as apparently, I have not consulted it, has Swain (1995). The most recent attempt to rehabilitate the account is Anderson's (1986) in which he attempts to argue for the basic autheticity of Damis. Against this Edwards (1991) has doubted not only the equation of Damis/Dani with the narrator of the Life but also question if his existence affects our assessment at all. Increasingly modern historians are questioning the usefulness of making a firm boundary between truth and fiction for a text that clearly did not follow those boundaries, such as Francis (1998) and Elsner (1997), and the points they make about the need for a sympathetic reading are important. Reimer (2002) shows in particular what this sort of sympathetic reading can achieve when he pairs the Life with the various Acts.

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