The Ascetic Subculture of the Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin

In: Vigiliae Christianae
Carl Johan Berglund Faculty of Arts, Psychology and Theology, Åbo Akademi University Turku Finland

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In a fourth- or fifth-century narrative known as the Acts of Thomas and his Wonderworking Skin, Jesus sells the apostle Thomas as a slave to the governor of India. When the governor’s wife converts to Christianity, dumps all her earthly riches outside her front door, and turns celibate, the governor has the apostle tortured and his skin flayed off, but Thomas survives, and uses his peeled-off skin to raise the dead. This paper uses Kathryn Tanner’s concept of culture to compare the ideals advocated by this story – servitude to Christ, voluntary poverty, sexual abstinence, readiness to suffer, and zeal for evangelization – to ideals expressed in first-century Christian literature. The subculture expressed by the narrative is found to consist entirely of ideals also expressed in the New Testament, which are updated, recontextualized, and radicalized in order to reach an audience of fourth- or fifth-century Christians.

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