New book triggers controversy over origins of Christianity in India

Historians researching the Church, however, have questioned the findings. Philip says his study is based on archeological and linguistic studies concerning Christianity.
The book 'Unmasking The Syriacs - The Hidden Origin of Indian Christianity' by Jeevan Philip (Photo |
The book 'Unmasking The Syriacs - The Hidden Origin of Indian Christianity' by Jeevan Philip (Photo |

KOCHI: That St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, first introduced Christianity in India by establishing churches and congregations in the south is a widely-held belief, especially among community members, though there have been theories contradicting the claim.

Now, a new book, Unmasking The Syriacs - The Hidden Origin of Indian Christianity, by Kochi-based researcher Jeevan Philip, has triggered a debate on this long-held belief after it questioned the martyrdom of St Thomas in Mylapore, Chennai, and its prime evidence: the Pahlavi-inscribed (a script used to write Middle Iranian languages) crosses, which indicate the influence of the Manichaen church from Persia. 

Historians researching the Church, however, have questioned the findings. Philip says his study is based on archeological and linguistic studies concerning Christianity, especially eastern Christianity, against the usual methodology of using early writings of church leaders, writers, etc.

According to him, if these suppositions relating to the existence of an apostolic Christianity, especially in south India from the first century, are historically correct, there will be material evidence like symbols, artifacts, Christian architectural remains, etc, like in the case of any western or eastern Christianity in the rest of the world. “The migration of Christianity towards distant places, especially South Asia, happened through the Afro-Euroasian trade network. Naturally, whichever Christianity or sect spread this new faith in South Asia would have to have settlements along the ancient socio-commercial networks,” he says. The book primarily tries to understand the history of Christianity in ancient Thamizhakam based on evidence suggested by church historians since the advent of European colonisation.

The beginning of historical references concerning the Malankara Nasranis (an ancient group of followers of Jesus in India) is rarely found in Roman travelogues or ecclesiastical histories, says Philip. Though there are many references to regions like inner India, upper India, etc, these ancient narratives cannot pinpoint any particular location in the present-day Indian peninsula. In ancient times, India covered such a large geographical area, sometimes referred to as from the borders of Abyssinia to South Arabia, extending up to Sri Lanka. It will be problematic if we suggest these ancient references about India concerning Christianity to any geographical locations of present-day India, where an old Christian community exists today, he says.

Pahlavi cross, Mylapore
Pahlavi cross, Mylapore

Dr M Kurian Thomas, one of the leading Orthodox Christian historians, however, says Philip’s theory has twin motives. “First, he wants to establish that the St Thomas origin of Syrian Christians has not happened. Two, he tries to prove that Mani, the East Syriac or Persian heretic, or his disciples have founded Christianity in India. To establish it, he has tied up various facts with no obvious connections,” he says.

One of the glaring mistakes, according to Dr Thomas, is to assume that since there are no literary evidence of those periods of St Thomas, there is no possibility of the apostle’s arrival in India. 

“The apostle has not come here to write literary pieces or to make documentation. He has come to spread the word of his guru,” explains Dr Thomas. “If you look at history, there are no contemporary documents on Sree Sankaracharya, or the first references on Sri Buddha are made only after three centuries in one of Ashoka’s edicts,” he says. Dr Thomas points out that it’s an established fact that Kerala and Red Sea ports had a maritime trade going back to at least 500 BC. 

Fr Paul Thelakat, the former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, says Philip’s assumptions make it problematic for Christians in Kerala on two important aspects. 

“First, is whether St Thomas came here. The most burning issue however is the relevance of the Manichaen cross or the Pahlavi cross. According to him, that cross is definitely a Manichaen cross. There are many historians who said the same thing. But many people in the church, especially in Pala, Changanassery and Kottayam, are taking this cross and giving it so much importance in the church. I am of the opinion that such dubious things cannot be taken as a sacrosanct relic,” Fr Paul says.

Dr Thomas says Mani, the Parthian prophet who founded Manichaeism in the 3rd century AD faded away after his death. “I have spoken to two professors, one from Australia and another from Canada, who have done extensive study on Mani and Manichaeism. Both have found no evidence of any relationship by Mani or his disciples with India,” he added.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express