Was St. Thomas the Apostle in China?

I found an interesting archived article about a book by a French researcher (Pierre Perrier) arguing that Christianity was founded in China by St. Thomas in the first century.

The author argues that Buddhists have misappropriated and “hijacked” Christianity’s origins in China - even reinterpreting the famous legend that the Emperor Mingdi dreamed of a “golden man” from the West to refer to Buddha, rather than Christ.

A Chinese petroglyph that was studied in the 1980s (along with other archaeological evidence elsewhere in China), dated to the first century, shows crosses and what look like reliefs of the Blessed Mother and Child. Also an ancient Buddhist temple was apparently built on the foundations of an older building with an East-West orientation, arguably the remains of an ancient Christian church.

Others have commented on the findings, but there isn’t much out there on the web that I could find.

The petroglyph appears to have been defaced in the 4th century, when Buddhism became more widely adopted.

Apparently the Chinese Orthodox Church believes that St. Thomas brought Christianity to China in AD 68. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Orthodox_Church#cite_note-2.

It’s the first I’ve read that St. Thomas was in China. Is this credible?
What I thought was particularly interesting is that the Chaldean breviary contains this verse:
By St. Thomas, the Kingdom of Heaven took wings and flew all the way to the Chinese.

Well, what is historically credible is that Christianity (or a form thereof) was brought to China by Nestorian missionaries from around the 6th-7th century. There is a sort of indirect connection to St. Thomas, in that Thomas is traditionally connected with Syria, but AFAIK to claim that Thomas went personally to China is a claim that we can’t prove for certain, because there’s no strong evidence.

As for the author’s supposed ‘proofs’, meanwhile, I’m still researching 'em, but the ones that I can answer off the top of my head don’t really hold water.

First off, I personally don’t put much stock in the claims, because IMO the datings for the supposed ‘Christian’ artifacts (depictions of Mary, the Chi-Rho) and buildings are way too early (late 1st century).

Here’s from one site.

« The “Holy of Holies” is called gawaia dal gou in Aramaic. Combined with the word for mercy, ‘hnan, for the world here below, it becomes gaouaia ‘hnan that the Chinese hear as guan: “to perceive from afar”. To perceive what? Shiyin, news from here below. Here is Guanshiyin, commonly pronounced Guanyin, so often represented as a Virgin with the Child. »

Erm, no. Guanshiyin (觀世音) “Perceiving the Sounds of the World” is one perfectfly fine Chinese translation of the Sanskrit name Avalokiteśvara or rather, Avalokitasvara (avalokita ‘[he who] looks down’ + svara ‘sound’).

I should add: Guānshìyīn is the Mandarin reading of 觀世音. Other Chinese languages would read the same characters slightly differently: for example in Cantonese it would be Gūnsaiyām. In Middle Chinese (a variety of Chinese spoken during the 5th-11th century and the ancestor of most modern Chinese languages), it would have been read as something like kwan-ɕiᴇi-ʔim (kwan-shay-'im).

Besides, the Aramaic (Syriac) term for “Holy of Holies,” going by the Peshitta, is qḏūsh qūḏshe (ܩܕ݂ܽܘܫ ܩܽܘܕ݂ܫܶܐ). “Gawaia dal gou” or gawāyā dalgaw (ܓ݁ܰܘܳܝܳܐ ܕ݁ܰܠܓ݂ܰܘ) I guess is taken from Hebrews 9:3’s reference to the ‘inner tabernacle’, but if that’s the case, then the author picked the wrong words: the phrase for “inner tabernacle” is mashkənā gawāyā (if you know Hebrew, you would notice that the Syriac word for ‘tabernacle’, mashkənā, is cognate with the Hebrew word for it, mishkan).

Maškənā dēn gawāyā dalgaw men 'appay tar’ā daṯrēn meṯqəre wā qəḏūš qūḏše.
“But the inner tabernacle (maškənā gawāyā), which is within (dalgaw) the veil of the second door, was called the Holy of Holies.”

Also, Perrier suggests that “sûtra” is said to come from the Aramaic souartha(o), which means “good news” made up of the words and deeds of a given person.

Seriously? A Sanskrit word that predates Jesus comes from an Aramaic term for a Christian concept? :rolleyes:

The Sanskrit word sutra (सूत्र) originally meant ‘yarn’, ‘thread’ or ‘string’. (It’s probably a distant cousin of the English word suture.) In the context of literature, sutra means a distilled collection or anthology of ‘threads’ of words - sayings or aphorisms. Indian religions - Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism - each have their own sutras, although the Buddhist use is the most widely-known.

To be blunt, I think Perrier’s a bad linguist with an axe to grind against Buddhists. Never mind that during its early history in China, Buddhism was itself still in competition with local Chinese religions and philosophies like Confucianism or Daoism. It wasn’t the state religion or anything.

There is some questionable etymology there; thanks for pointing that out so lucidly, Patrick. I would agree with the blogger that Perrier’s linguistic interpretations seem like just “pious imagination.” Or zealous imagination.

Some of the archeological studies in Luoyang might be more likely to reveal some Christian presence there in the first century.

To be frank, if you ask me, this is just as bad as that supposed claim that Chinese characters supposedly point to the ancient Chinese being some sort of semi-Jewish monotheists with a knowledge of the Old Testament. :shrug:

In Luoyang there is nowadays a Buddhist temple called Baima Si, which means “Temple of the White Horse”, presented in all the official guides as the cradle of Chinese Buddhism because it marks the site of the arrival of the « two foreigners who came from India » to the court of Emperor Mingdi in 65. Originally, however, it was a Christian church, as Pierre Perrier discovered by remarking the west-east orientation of the underlying ruins, while all the other Chinese pagodas are oriented south-north.

While it’s true that many Chinese temples are oriented facing north or south, it’s not as if White Horse Temple is the only east-west temple in China, if it was. There are a number of other such temples in China, such as Daqin Pagoda (which incidentally is also claimed to originally be a Nestorian church), Foguang Temple (where the east-west orientation is dictated by the local geography - mountains surround the temple on its north, east and south sides - and feng shui - having mountains behind a building was considered good luck), or Dajue Temple or even Jietai Temple. So the temple’s orientation is not necessarily a sure indicator.

In the legend of Buddhist origins in China, we read that the two alleged monks who came from India brought with them a “sûtra”, a sort of popular Buddhist catechism presenting the sermons or moral counsels of Buddha. It happens that this “sûtra” was composed of… forty-two texts, not one more, not one less. This is the number of scrolls of the Christian missionaries!

The reference here is to the Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters, supposedly the first Buddhist scripture translated into Chinese. As the name implies, the sutra is composed of forty-two short sections or chapters (not forty-two texts), mostly quotes attributed to the Buddha.

The copying is obvious, right to the very word, because “sûtra” is said to come from the Aramaic souartha, which means “good news” made up of the words and deeds of a given person.

I addressed the etymology of the Sanskrit word sutra in the last post. It’s not related to .b’sar(tha) Now I don’t really know why Perrier even invokes the Sanskrit word here, because in Chinese, the word sutra is not transliterated, but translated: 經 (Modern Chinese: jīng).

The “Holy of Holies” is called gawaia dal gou in Aramaic. Combined with the word for mercy, ‘hnan, for the world here below, it becomes gaouaia ‘hnan that the Chinese hear as guan: “to perceive from afar”.

Again, my last post. Gawaia dal gou is not ‘Holy of Holies’. It’s not even ‘inner tabernacle’. (maškənā gawāyā) I’m really in the dark as to how Perrier could think the Chinese could ever simplify such a complex phrase into a mere monosyllable: kwan. (Besides, gaouaia ‘hnan is just bad Aramaic/Syriac. You don’t have to be an Aramaic scholar or expert to tell this IMO.)

I highly doubt that. While China (the Han dynasty) and the Roman Empire already sort of knew each other, they didn’t really have much direct contact with one another and mutual awareness remained fuzzy, mostly because powerful empires (the Parthians, the Kushans) stood in between them.

In AD 97, a Chinese envoy named Gan Ying made his way from the Tarim Basin to Parthia and reached the Persian Gulf, recording detailed information about the western countries. He never went to Rome itself, being told that the trip was highly risky and could take up to two years. He was the first Chinese to go as far as he did. The first time the two countries had any sort of direct contact with one another was when a Roman ambassadorial mission came to China from the south (therefore likely by sea via modern Vietnam) in AD 166.

By contrast, China and the more geographically closer India already had contact with one another since the 2nd century BC, with Indians already being aware of China as far as a couple of centuries before that.

Our earliest undisputed recorded instance of Christians entering China was when two missionaries in India (likely Syrians / Nestorians) went to China around AD 551 and learned how silk was made there. Their knowledge proved to be very valuable for the Byzantine Empire, because at this point, no one outside China knew how silk was made or even from exactly where it came from (some people even thought that it was an Indian product), because the Chinese kept it a closely guarded secret. And while there was a high demand for silk (hence the Silk Road), the rise of the Sassanids and their conflicts with the Byzantines disrupted the trade route. So these two missionaries reported to the Emperor Justinian, who arranged for silkworm eggs to be smuggled out of China. They were ultimately successful in their attempt, and the Byzantines developed their own silk industry, which allowed them to have a monopoly in Europe.

The very first recorded missionary who entered China with the express purpose of bringing the gospel there was a Nestorian missionary called Alopen (which is actually the Chinese rendition of his name), who arrived in Chang’an (the capital of Tang dynasty China) in 635.

If St. Thomas did in fact reach India, it could be possible he went on to China? There are those figures with crosses in Luoyang, that apparently are dated to ~AD 65. (The “chi rho” if it is a chi rho, is dated later). Or in a reported tomb from AD 86. Then there is that interesting reference among the Chaldeans.

I think the problem I have with these supposed findings is how IMHO improbably early they are supposed to be. I mean, since these crosses and these carvings are even earlier than the earliest verifiable samples of Christian art (2nd-3rd century), it should have been big news.

BTW there was supposedly this giant iron cross dating from the mid-3rd century that was discovered in 14th-century Ming China. That is more credible.

Another thing is that this finding wasn’t really reported in an academic journal (as should have been the case with important stuff like this), to be peer-reviewed. Seriously, apparently it came out once on a Chinese newspaper, the People’s Daily back in 2002. And AFAIK nothing has really come out of it since. Seems the “Christian” designs vanished before scholars could examine them - or maybe the designs were all just in Mr. Wang’s head. I don’t know. To be frank, to me it kinda just sounds like those sensationalist Christian-related headlines you sometimes see on the news every now and then (“Jesus’ crucifixion nails found,” “lost gospel claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene”).

Re. the Chaldean breviary: yes, there is that reference to Thomas preaching among the Indians, Ethiopians and even to Chinese: “By St. Thomas the error of idolatry was subdued in the Indies; by St. Thomas the Chinese and Ethiopians were converted to the knowledge of the truth (…) by St. Thomas the kingdom of heaven has taken wing and penetrated as far as China.” But then again, this detail is not necessarily historical or accurate, any more than the supposed number of the Holy Innocents found in later Church calendars and liturgical sources (which could be as high as 64,000!) is historical.

I think maybe we should take this language as being figurative rather than literal. After all, as mentioned, St. Thomas is connected with Syria, and it is Syrian Christianity that entered China (as well as India). Not to mention that Sts. Frumentius and Edesius, the first missionaries to Ethiopia we know of, were 4th-century Syrians (born in Tyre), as are the Nine Saints that came to Ethiopia in the 5th century.

You might say that Thomas touched these places in the sense that Syrian Christians (among whom he seems to have had a special significance) helped spread the word in these lands, but not necessarily that he literally came there in the 1st century.

Just to add.

I think what raised the warning signals for me is/are the carving(s) that supposedly depicted the Nativity.

The only way you could identify this as a Nativity scene is if you claim that the house structure seen on the carving represents the manger. Which is where we run into a problem: it is only in medieval Western Europe that Jesus came to be depicted as being born in a freestanding barn (which is the closest thing you can get from the house seen here). The older tradition (and earlier artworks), already attested in the 2nd century, has Jesus being born in a cave.

So for that petroglyph in Luoyang - is that not a cross on the “monk’s” head, or is the dating wrong?

I haven’t seen any other photos from the reported tomb dated AD 86 with supposed Christian symbols and scenes from the gospels. But you’re right, that would be huge news and you’d think it would have been better publicized and reviewed.

The Kongwangshan / Mt. Kongwang (孔望山) petroglyphs are not located in Luoyang - it is located in Lianyungang (連雲港 / 连云港) in Jiangsu Province. (To put things in perspective, Luoyang is in the neighboring Henan Province. Just in between them is Anhui. This particular part of Lianyungang is already quite near the sea.) The cliff is around 9 meters high and 117 meters wide; some 110 Daoist and Buddhist images are carved onto the rock-face.

(Kongwangshan was actually more of a Daoist site, so many of the images are explained as being Daoist in nature. The presence of what looks like depictions of the Buddha there can be attributed to syncretism. In fact, a few scholars dispute whether the supposed Buddha images there are really Buddhist - maybe they were actually depictions of Daoist / folk deities as well?)

This is that part of the mountain where a chi-rho is supposedly carved.


Personally, I don’t really see anything. Well, I do see what vaguely looks like an X, but at the same time, I have a hunch that what we’re dealing here with is a case of pareidolia - where you ‘recognize’ patterns, shapes, and familiar objects where none may actually exist. It’s the same thing you have with those ‘apparitions’ of Jesus and Mary on such objects as burnt toast or wall stains. Especially considering the third picture above. I think the ‘chi-rho’ is probably just a crack or line on the cliff. Here’s another, larger pic. And this one.

(As an aside, the mountain takes its name from Confucius (孔子), who according to a local legend supposedly visited the area once - the name Kongwang pretty much means “Confucius looks (into the distance).”)

As for the supposed image of Mary holding the infant Jesus:


No, just a figure with its hands on its sleeves. (Another picture.) I don’t know if it’s even a woman that’s depicted in the first place.

As for the dating of the carvings, while they might date from the Eastern Han period (AD 25–220) at the earliest, other scholars argue that they could have also been made later. A safe guess is probably somewhere around the end of the Han dynasty (the 220s AD). Some even put it as late as the Western Jin (265-317), based on the peculiar mix of diverse motifs.

I haven’t seen any other photos from the reported tomb dated AD 86 with supposed Christian symbols and scenes from the gospels. But you’re right, that would be huge news and you’d think it would have been better publicized and reviewed.

It’s not particularly difficult to look for pictures of Han-era stone carvings on the internet (just look for something like “Han dynasty stone reliefs” or “东汉墓出土 画” / “東漢墓出土 畫”). The difficulty is in tracking down precisely which examples show these supposed Christian symbols, from exactly where they came from. Because, if we go by the report, Mr. Wang Wei-fang was just looking at such reliefs that were part of a museum exhibit when he thought that some of these images might be Christian.

Hmm, yes - maybe just another demonstration of the power of suggestion. Thanks for weighing in on this, Patrick. :thumbsup:

If we go by the early traditions and legends, St. Thomas is identified with both Parthia (modern Iran, Iraq, Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and India.

There is some historical basis for this, since Edessa (the Osroene Kingdom, rather) - a place which boasted a sort of connection with Thomas (what was claimed to be his tomb was located there - one of two such places) - is also known as the ‘daughter of Parthia’, being connected to it culturally and for a time, even politically. Cultural and trade relations also existed between Osroene and northern India, particularly in the 3rd century. It’s not inconceivable that Thomas or at least some other Christian from that area went to either place.

Out of the two, Parthia has the more older claim chronologically; Origen and Clement of Alexandria already both link Thomas with it. The Indian connection became popular thanks in part to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. However, some scholars have recently gone so far as to question the Indian tradition, noting that it appeared later than the one which places Thomas in Parthia. They think that the Acts of Thomas’ placing Thomas in India is informed by the particularly intensive east Syrian-north Indian trade relations of the 3rd century.

According to the Acts of Thomas, when the apostles were dividing the known world among themselves (so-and-so will evangelize to this place, etc.), Thomas received India as his lot. He refused to do so, leading Jesus to force him to do his mission by appearing in human form and selling him off to slavery (!) to a merchant named Abbanes.

Thomas eventually ends up in ‘India’, in a kingdom ruled by a king named Gondophares. Because of Thomas’ carpentry and architectural skills, the king commissions Thomas to make a palace. Thomas, however, used the funds as charity for the poor. The king, furious, throws Thomas in jail. Thomas was eventually released after the king’s recently-deceased brother Gad came back to life and told him of a palace in Heaven which Thomas built for Gondophares. Gad and Gondophares sought Thomas’ forgiveness and was converted.

The next thing we hear about Thomas in the Acts is that he is now in the realm of another king named Misdaeus, where he preaches and performs miracles. Misdaeus throws Thomas into jail for converting his wife (given the name Tertia), and eventually orders him executed under accusation of ‘sorcery’. Four armed soldiers lead Thomas to the top of a mountain and kill him with spears. Misdaeus eventually converts himself after dust from Thomas’ tomb heals one of his sons.

The thing about the kings in the Acts of Thomas is that they actually are somewhat based on real kings. ‘Gondophares’ was the name of an Indo-Parthian king that ruled over what is now modern Afghanistan and Pakistan somewhere around the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD. The name is most likely derived from the Indian or East Iranian version of an Old Persian name, Vindafarna. Gondophares’ brother Gad in the Acts might meanwhile have its origin from ‘Gadana’ or ‘Gadaranisa’, a name or title that appears in some of Gondophares’ coins.

Now the actual date of Gondophares’ reign is disputed. Whereas earlier it was common to assign him a reign of AD 20-46 or 21-47 - which might lead some plausibility to Thomas going to Indo-Parthia during the reign of this king - there were some recent attempts to push his date earlier, so that he is now said to rule somewhere during the 1st century BC.

A difficulty you have regarding the Indo-Parthian kings is that while you have coins containing what is apparently the names of kings (say, Pacores, Abdagases or Sanabares), we don’t have chronologies or lists that show clearly which followed whom, and when. Very few texts mention the Indo-Parthians, and inscriptions do not refer directly to them; the coins are the only thing we’re pretty much got.

Gondophares is often thought to be the first Indo-Parthian king, but we are still quite in the dark as to the order of his successors. What’s more confusing is that the name ‘Gondophares’ itself seems to have been used by one or more later kings as a sort of second name or title (kind of like ‘Caesar’). In other words, we aren’t exactly sure which Gondophares it was that Thomas actually met, if he did go to Indo-Parthia and if there really was more than one Gondophares.

As for King Misdaeus / Mazdai, a popular candidate for the origin of the name is the Kushan king Vasudeva (aka Vasudev or Baz(o)deo), who ruled during AD 190-1 to AD 225-232. Vasudeva was the last great Kushan king; the end of his reign coincided with an invasion of the Sassanians into Kushan territory (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, northwest India). As you might notice, Vasudeva reigned too late to have been the one who executed Thomas, although his reign coincides pretty much with the time the Acts of Thomas was probably written.

What’s interesting is that while the Acts of Thomas seems to place Thomas in the area of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India (the land of the Indo-Parthians and the Kushans), the modern-day St. Thomas Christians are located in Kerala, in the southwestern part of India.

Very interesting! :popcorn:

Since it didn’t make it into the biblical canon, it seems the church doesn’t lend much weight to the Acts of Thomas.

Well, the Acts of Thomas is somewhat gnostic in its theology, so obviously it wouldn’t be accepted.

I have very seriously read the book written by Pierre Perrier and Xavier Walter: “Thomas fonde l’Eglise en Chine (65-68 ap. J.-C.)”. The book is not written as it should be by a historian. The sources are not provided, there are too many statements without any proofs, and some of these statements are not supported by any historian.
Pierre Perrier wants to prove that Thomas went to China but he has not any proofs, so he fabricates some.
I have been in contact with Pierre Perrier by email and he never answered my questions: he was always beating around the bush.
If some members are interested by my analysis, I can provide some of these “invented” proofs.

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