The Twelve Apostles, Part 5 – Matthew, Thomas, James

We continue our historical survey of the lives of the twelve apostles. In this post, we discuss the apostles Matthew, Thomas, and James.


            The Greek word, Matthaios, from which we derive Matthew, comes from the Semitic Mattiyah meaning “gift of Yahweh.”  Beyond that, and the appearance of his name in the lists of the twelve apostles, the New Testament tells us nothing of this individual.  We could stretch our knowledge a bit if we could confirm that the tax collector, referred to in the Gospel of Mark (2:14) as Levi, son of Alphaeus, was the same individual as the “Matthew” of the Gospel of Matthew (9:9).  It is only in the Gospel of Matthew that the name of this publican is changed and it is only in this gospel that Matthew the tax collector appears in the list of the Twelve.  Like Mark, Luke calls this apostle Levi (5:27). So, too, the second-century Gospel of Peter, who perhaps follows Mark naming him “Levi, son of Alphaeus” (60).  Did this man have two Hebrew names, Levi and Matthew? Or was there another reason the Gospel of Matthew substituted Matthew for Levi?

            The Gospel of Matthew rarely names any of Jesus’ disciples other than the Twelve.  The author likes to feature call stories in which Jesus calls his disciples, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, to follow him.  Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, the writer has taken the tax collector call story and used it in support of the discipleship of one of the Twelve.  If so, why did he choose Matthew?  Perhaps he is making a play on words due to the similarity of the Greek form of the name to other Greek words like mathētai (disciples) and mathete (learning). Along with the Hebrew form of the name meaning “gift of Yahweh,” he has, perhaps, characterized the perfect disciple.

            If the disciple Matthew was, in fact, a tax collector, it would help us to understand what kind of businessman he was.  While the government, whether under direct or indirect Roman control, collected taxes on individuals and land, other taxes, like tolls on goods passing from one territory to another, were collected by businessmen who bid on contracts in order to collect them.  These entrepreneurs offered the government a certain annual amount of revenue and then tried to collect as much as they could from the public, keeping any excess for themselves.  Of course, the practice led to extortionate tax rates, anything the market could bear.  And naturally the people participating in this scheme were despised.  Jewish outrage over taxes and tax collectors is evident in the New Testament and in other ancient texts.[1]  They were so despised that they, along with prostitutes and gentiles, were referred to as “sinners” (Matt 9:10, 11:19, 18:17, 21:31, etc.). Contrary to the perception of many general readers of the New Testament, sinners here does not refer to the average Jewish person who occasionally sins but to those outside, or on the fringes of, a covenantal relationship with God. They were the damned. Obviously, it would have been considered questionable at the very least for Jesus to invite such a man to be his disciple.

            “Mattai” is also one of the five disciples of Jesus named in the second-century Mishnah (Sanhedrin 43a).  According to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215 CE), Matthew (as well as Philip, Thomas, and Levi [sic]) died a natural death (Miscellanies 4.9).  Contradicting Clement is the (likely medieval) Apostolic History of pseudo-Abdias which gives an account of Matthew’s martyrdom in Naddaver, in Ethiopia.[2]  Offering no resolution to this conundrum, the relatively late Martyrdom of Matthew confuses him with Matthias, supposedly a traveling partner of Andrew, who was said to have died in Myrmidonia, in the city of the “man-eaters.” This may refer to the Crimea on the north side of the Black Sea, or it may be entirely imaginary.


            In three passages from the fourth gospel (John 11:16, 20:24, 21:2), Thomas is called by the Greek didymos, meaning “the twin”. The name “Thomas” likewise derives from the Aramaic word for twin, tĕ’omâ.  There is little evidence for the use of tĕ’omâ as a proper name among Semitic-speaking people.  However, the Greek didymos was used as a name and may have been the one by which the apostle was known to Greek-speakers.  Some Old Syriac manuscripts of the Gospel of John refer to Judas Thomas rather than simply Judas (not Iscariot).  We can trace the association of those two names in ancient Christian literature at least as far back as the second-century Gospel of Thomas (1:1). 

             One of the oldest and strongest traditions in the history of the Christian church is that Thomas conducted a mission to India.  An equally old tradition is that Thomas preached in Parthia.  Since the claims for Thomas’s mission territory are so old and well-attested, it is appropriate that we spend some time examining them in further detail.

            The oldest account of Thomas in India comes from the third-century Acts of Thomas, the most popular apostolic romance novel of all the apocryphal Acts.  The Acts of Thomas was composed in Edessa (modern Urfa, or Şanliurfa, in eastern Turkey) and is the oldest narrative account from any Christian church outside the borders of the Roman Empire.  Bardesanes (aka Bardaisan, ca. 154-223 CE), a Syrian Christian Gnostic from Edessa and a student of Indian religion, has been credited with writing all or part of the Acts of Thomas.

The basic narrative tells of Thomas’s missionary work in northern India, a territory ruled by King Gundaphorus. This potentate was otherwise unknown until coins bearing his name were discovered in 1834 in the Kabul Valley of Afghanistan.  Since then, many such coins, as well as a stone tablet, have been found attesting to this first-century king.  Historians have determined that the reign of Gundaphorus began in 19 CE and that his territory stretched from Kandahar in eastern Persia (in modern Afghanistan) to the Punjab (an area straddling Pakistan and India) and north probably as far as Kabul (also in Afghanistan).

            Historians have also demonstrated that travel between the Roman Empire and India was not all that uncommon.  The Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE – ca. 24 CE), while visiting Egypt, noted 120 ships in the harbor that were bound for India (Geographica 2.5.12).  Jewish colonies are also known to have existed in India from at least the time of Christ. 

            Alternate traditions, originating with the Mar Thomar church in southern India, suggest that Thomas arrived there, rather than in the northern India of Gundaphorus.  These claim that Thomas arrived on the western Malabar Coast, around 50 or 52 CE near the port city of Muziris (modern Pattanam).  While there, he was said to have founded seven churches. He died at Mylapore near Madras, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, a tradition that incidentally agrees with the Acts of Thomas

Other ancient documents support the presence of the apostle Thomas in India. The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum (“Teaching of the Apostles”) and the writings of the fourth-century Christian theologian Ephrem are but two.

            The Egyptian tradition that claims Thomas preached in Parthia (northeastern Iran) can be traced back to the third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria.  He is supported in this regard by the Syriac translation of the Clementine Recognitions, the church historian Eusebius (4th cent.), the Christian priest Rufinus of Aquileia (4th cent.) and the church historian Socrates of Constantinople (5th cent.). 

Historians give slighter credence to the Syrian tradition of Thomas preaching in India over that of his mission to Parthia.  The presence of a surviving Christian community of ancient origin, as well as the discovery of Christian artifacts that date back to the seventh/eighth century, suggest that southern India has the stronger claim to earlier evangelization than either Parthia or northern India.  However, if Gundaphorus was a Parthian Suren, that is, a member of the noble Parthian family of Surena or one of its generals, the traditions may not be mutually exclusive.

            A better-documented Christian mission to India followed the apostolic one.  Pantaenus, a highly-regarded theologian of Alexandria, traveled to India sometime in the late second century.  Reports provided by Eusebius say that when Pantaenus arrived there, he found that the apostle Bartholomew (!) had already founded Christian communities in India and that he had left behind a copy of the Gospel of Matthew. How do scholars account for this contradiction with the Thomas legend?  If Pantaenus’s report is true, it could be that Bartholomew followed Thomas to India. It is also possible that, due to language difficulties, Pantaenus mistook Mar Thomas (“bishop Thomas”) for Bar Tolmai (“Bartholomew”).  It is also not completely impossible that Pantaenus never actually reached India at all!

            Ephrem agreed with the Acts of Thomas that the apostle was martyred in India but believed that his remains were sent back to Edessa where they were buried. The Christian woman traveler Egeria reported in her diary that she saw the remains of Thomas in Edessa on April 19, 384.  However, Marco Polo, visiting Mylapore in the thirteenth century, claimed to have seen the tomb of Thomas. The Gnostic Christian preacher Heracleon (fl. ca. 175), quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies 4.9), stated that Thomas (as well as Matthew, Philip and Levi) did not suffer martyrdom.  Unfortunately, he gives us no other details about his death.

            A school of Thomasine Christians developed in Edessa and were responsible for a number of early texts written in the apostle’s name that are still available to us.  The Acts of Thomas makes (Judas) Thomas the twin brother of Jesus (11).  Similarly, the Book of Thomas the Contender (138.19) presents Thomas as Jesus’s double.  The sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are likewise addressed to Judas “the twin.”

James, son of Alphaeus

            This James is only mentioned in the lists of the Twelve.  The Gospel of Mark (2:14; followed by Luke 6:15) names Levi, son of Alphaeus, as the tax collector called by Jesus to discipleship.  Some suggest that Levi and James were brothers. Fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome, who claimed that Mary had no children after Jesus, wrote that this was the James who was called elsewhere “the brother of the Lord.” Jerome believed (Against Helvidius) that this James was the son of Mary’s sister, also called Mary, and her husband, Clopas.  Others thought James the father of the “other” Judas, “not Iscariot,” (see our next post).  Later traditions (Nicephorus 2.40) locate James’s missionary activity in Egypt where he was said to have been crucified at Ostrakine (modern El-Felusiyat).  The thirteenth-century Nestorian Christian writer Solomon of Basra provided the following summary:

James, the son of Alphaeus (Halphai), was from the Jordan, of the tribe of Manasseh. He preached in Tadmor (Palmyra), Kirkêsion (Kirkîsiyâ), and Callinîcos (ar-Rakkah), and came to Batnân of Serûg (Sarûg), where he built a church, and died and was buried there. Sarûg, or Serugh, was a village in the eastern part of the province of Commagene, now in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border, 28 miles south-west of Edessa (modern Sanliurfa).

Sources used in this post:

Collins, Raymond F., “Thomas,” ABD

Duling, Dennis, “Matthew” ABD

Hagner, Donald A., “James,” ABD

Hymns of Ephrem, NSC Network, “Early references about the Apostolate of Saint Thomas in India, Records about the Indian tradition, Saint Thomas Christians &

 Statements by Indian Statesmen”, http:/ 16 February 2007. 24 July 2011.

Jenkins, Philip, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

Layton, Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions (New York: Doubleday, 1987).

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald, The Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Cannibals (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990)

Menzies, Gavin, The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

Moffett, Samuel Hugh, A History of Christianity in Asia Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

Sharan, Ishwar, The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, rev., (New Delhi: Voice of India, 2010).

White, David Gordon, Myths of the Dog-man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[1] JA 17.204; JW 2.287; Philo, Special Laws 3.30; Mishnah Talmud Nedarim 3.4; Matt 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 3:12; 5:29-30; 7:34; 15:1; 18:13; 19;2.

[2] ANT 530. A collection of ten books recounting the lives of the apostles attributed to Abdias, legendary first bishop of Babylon and supposedly one of the seventy (Luke 10:1-20).  The collection may have been put together in France in the 6th-7th centuries. The “Ethiopia” referred to here is likely not Africa but an area south of the Caspian Sea, i.e., Parthia. Cf. 2009. 24 July 2011.

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