The work of Apostle Thomas in India in the early 1st century is well-recognised. However, many are unaware of Apostle Bartholomew’s work in 1st century India. In this article, I intend to focus on the historical evidence for Apostle Bartholomew and establish that the Bartholomew tradition is separate from St Thomas.
Bartholomew is one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. He is known as Nathanael in the Gospel of John (1:51). He is believed to be the only apostle with a royal lineage.
Bartholomew on the Western Coast
Apostle Bartholomew came to the Jewish colonies on the western coast of India in 55 AD through the existing trade routes between India and the Roman world. While Apostle Thomas’s work in South India can be established with the presence of churches and communities all along the Malabar coast. Apostle Bartholomew’s work is known only through oral traditions. Apostle Bartholomew’s work is often conflated with the Apostle Thomas’s work on the Malabar coast.
Let us look at the historical records that could lead us to a renewed understanding of the Bartholomew tradition.
Historical Evidence for Bartholomew tradition
i) The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius
Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, records Apostle Bartholomew’s name in his Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius in the early 4th century. He points out that Pantaenus visited India in the 2nd century and found a hand-written copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew.
The story of Pantaneus’s visit to India is of great importance. In the first place, it tells us that a Christian community existed at that time. The discovery of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew suggests that the earliest Christians in India were Jewish believers.
Further, Bartholomew’s finding of the Gospel of Matthew left with the Christians is solid evidence of the existence of a Christian community in India in the first century.
ii) Liber de Viris Illustribus
Jerome validates Eusebius’s record in his work, Liber de Viris Illustribus, through his 4th-century writing. This proves that Apostle Bartholomew worked among the Jewish locals on the western coast.
The View of Historians
Indian historian George Mark Moraes notes that Apostle Bartholomew chose Western India for his work. Many Byzantine writers also believe Apostle Bartholomew preached the Gospel in India Felix.
During Apostle Bartholomew’s time, Kalyan was a flourishing city and an important foreign trade centre (ref. “Periplus of the Erythrean Sea”). The City had one of the busiest ports and was already home to a small Jewish community.
Others believe Bartholomew worked among the Jewish trading communities settled on the Konkan and Canara coasts in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Julian Fernandes (Apostolic Christianity in India) contends that Apostle Bartholomew established Christian communities in coastal Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra.
Drawing from oral traditions, Father HO Mascarenhas, a Goan priest, affirms that Apostle Bartholomew worked on the west coast and that he impacted through his life, witness and miracles.
In light of the historical writings by eminent Church historians and the record of historical places, we can conclude that Apostle Bartholomew preached the Gospel in India in the 1st century and worked among the Jewish community on India’s western coast.
The presence of oral tradition and references in Historical writings point to Apostle Bartholomew’s work on India’s western coast in the 1st century AD. Apostle Bartholomew worked in nearly three states, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, significantly impacting the Western Coast.
It needs to be noted that Christian communities have flourished in India since the 1st century.
Fr H S J Heras, The Two Apostles of India (Catholic Truth Society of India, Tiruchirapalli, 1944).
T.V. Philip, East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia, (Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998).
A.C. Perumalil, SJ, Apostles in India
George Mark Moraes, A History of Christianity in India 52-1542),
HO Mascarenhas, Apostolic Christianity in Konkan. Julian Fernandes, Apostolic Christianity in India