I have begun to describe the Acts of Thomas, the account of the apostle Thomas’s missionary journey to take Christianity to India. After the author describes the apostle’s adventures en route to his destination, he gets to the heart of his story – which involves, among other things, an emphasis about what rich folk are supposed to do with their money if they want to be pleasing to God and have eternal life. Again, this description is taken from my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press, 2022).
When Thomas arrives in India he is introduced to King Gundaphorus, his new master, who has acquired him for his carpentry skills, which obviously run in the holy family. Gundaphorus wants a new palace in a remote site and Thomas is perfect for the job: he works in wood and stone and has experience constructing regal dwellings. This Act is all about the distinctive kind of building he can make.
The apostle draws a design for the structure, the king approves, bestows a hefty sum on him for the work, and leaves him to get on with construction. But Thomas gives all the money to the poor and the afflicted. The king later sends a messenger to check on the progress, and Thomas informs him that the building is complete, needing just the roof. The king supplies him with additional funds, and Thomas again gives it away to those in need (ch. 19).
When the king arrives to inspect the apostle’s work he is more than a little incensed to find no palace and a depleted building fund. His friends inform him that Thomas has given the money to the poor and that he spends his time preaching a “new god,” healing the sick, casting out demons, and doing other miracles – all for no charge. Moreover, he himself leads a remarkably austere life: always fasting and praying, eating only bread and salt, drinking only water, and wearing a single cloak, whatever the weather. What little surplus he has he gives to others and keeps nothing for himself (ch. 20). Thomas here certainly sounds like a Christian Cynic, but the distinction is all-important: this is rigorous asceticism driven by religious devotion demanded of him by God, not by a personal interest in securing his own happiness in this life apart from the trappings of the world.
In any event, the king is not impressed. When he confronts the apostle, Thomas tells him he has indeed built a palace, but it is one the king will not see until he enters the afterlife. Gundaphorus summarily throws him in jail (along with the merchant who had bought him to be the king’s slave in the first place) and spends the evening considering how best to torture him to death. Then comes the divine intervention expected in such texts.
In the course of the night, the king’s brother, Gad, dies and is taken up to heaven by angels. They show him the options for his eternal dwelling and ask for his preference. One of the places is so spectacular he wants to spend eternity in just one of its lower chambers. But they inform him that it won’t be possible: this is the palace “that Christian” has built for his brother. Gad, not quite grasping the point of giving one’s possessions to the poor, begs the angels to be allowed to return to life to persuade his brother to sell him the house. They give him leave, his soul re-enters his body while it is being prepared for burial, and he calls for his brother, who comes terror-stricken and unable even to speak.
But Gad has no such trouble and tries to maneuver his brother into selling the heavenly domicile. His request brings Gundaphorus to an abrupt realization. By giving the king’s money to the poor, Thomas really has built him a fantastic palace, not to last the rest of his natural life but for all eternity. On the spot Gundaphorus commits to changing his life so that he can be found worthy of his newly constructed residence. He suggests his brother follow suit by having the apostle build one for him as well. The apostle is released from his chains and brought in, and both brothers express their change of heart and purpose, committing themselves now to serve the God that Thomas proclaims. From then on they are followers of the apostle, “helping those in need, giving to all, and providing relief to all” ch. 26). The Christian emphases of this account are stark and unlike anything we have encountered in the pagan tradition. The wealthy should direct their focus away from pleasure in this world to prosperity in the world to come, and their principal objects of concern in this transient existence should be the poor.
Clearly the “problem” of wealth for the Acts of Thomas is not that it can interfere with the personal happiness of daily life, as in Hellenistic philosophy. The problem is that it can interfere with a blessed eternity. But those with material abundance can use it to secure a glorious afterlife. In its most crass form, the lesson is that glory in the world beyond can be purchased: the rich can buy treasure in heaven. They do so by giving their money away, not to municipal building projects, public entertainments, desperate family members, “deserving” peers of high-placed society, or even those of lower classes who might help them achieve personal or political objectives. The money is to be given to the desperately poor, with no hope of earthly benefit or return. The reward for this sacrifice in life comes after death, and it is worth giving everything for.
But not exactly. Remarkably, even though Judas Thomas himself practices strict asceticism, he does not enjoin it on his two regal converts. He does not tell them to sell everything and give all the money away, to eat only bread and salt, drink only water, and live like paupers. On the contrary, while they spend the rest of their lives engaging in acts of charity, they themselves continue to live with super-abundance. Their amazing palaces in heaven come not in exchange for a total, painful, irreversible divestment, but by giving some of their surplus to those in need.
This helps demonstrate the point I’ve been trying to make in these posts. We saw that in Greek and Roman thinking on ethics there was a serious tension between those who thought the best thing to do with wealth was to give it all away (that would make *you* the rich person happier, since you would then have nothing left to lose!) or to be relatively generous with it (since that makes you feel better about yourself as a good person that other people continually appreciate). So which is better: complete divestiture or long-term generosity? We know, of course, which most of *us* would choose! And our views were shared, naturally, by nearly everyone else in antiquity – though not everyone.
The same two options appear in the Christian tradition. There were, of course, advocates for the extreme view, of welcoming complete poverty for the sake of the kingdom (as Jesus himself enjoins in the Gospels!); there were others who opted for the more bourgeois ethic of keeping a good deal while giving some away. And there were numerous levels between these two.
But, predictably, what happened earlier in the Hellenistic tradition came to be reflected in the Christian as well. In a battle between a Cynic injunction to give everything away and a Stoic insistence on staying rich but (allegedly) unattached, the Stoic will win nearly every time.