Andrade is a welcome newcomer to the field of authors who have attempted to establish the roots of Christianity in India, a topic of interest to students of early Eastern Christianity in general and the St Thomas tradition in particular. Readers of the genre will be familiar with the closely held belief among several writers, relying on the Acts of Thomas, that it was the Apostle Thomas himself who arrived on the south-west coast of India in the first century C.E. and set about his program of preaching and conversion. Taking an altogether different approach to this tradition, Andrade's work is clearly and firmly located in the study of networks. This framework sets the scene for a work which is a useful deviation from the norm in relation to other studies on the beginnings of Christianity in India.
Andrade is insightful in his questions about the meaning of Christianity—that is, what defined “religion” and how premodern societies perceived it. He explores the distinction between Christianity and Judaism as what he calls two “stable and separate” faiths, and places religion firmly in a socio-cultural framework. He rightly notes that Christianity, even in its early iterations, was not monocultural. These observations provide early insights into his views of the timeline of Christianity's arrival and establishment in India.
The book is presented in three parts, supported by three maps and two appendices. The first part, consisting of less than 30 pages, deals with the Acts of Thomas, with detailed reflections on dating, language and location. He examines geographic and other anomalies and offers the conclusion that, in his view, the Acts of Thomas lack historical validity in regard to the arrival of Christianity in India.
The second part, comprised of two chapters, deals with communication and trade networks around the Red Sea. He notes the complexity of the sources and the many possibilities for the location of “India.” The maps he provides in chapter two, however, are more illustrative than exact; for example, the ancient town of Mylapore, referenced by Marco Polo and home to a temple dedicated to Shiva, is shown slightly inaccurately. Mylapore is now part of the metropolis of Chennai, formerly named Madras. This small inaccuracy is a minor matter, but I mention it because Mylapore is a significant location in Indian iterations of the St. Thomas legend.
The third part, consisting of three chapters, deals with networks in the Middle East, including Sasanian Persia, Central Asia, and Mesopotamia. Andrade also examines the social connectivity between the Roman Levant, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. This focus, and indeed the bulk of the book's emphasis on various networks of individuals and groups, which is made clear from the work's subtitle, gives the reader a sense of Andrade's particular contextual bias.
Early in the book he outlines a fundamental problem with the study of Christianity in India, that of toponomy; locations often bear different names in different languages. Andrade's preference is to use Greek names because of his emphasis on Greek and Latin sources. He explores the issue, not new by any means, that the word “India” in sources such as the Acts of Thomas might not have referred to the nation as we know it today. This problem of locating “India” highlights the confused naming conventions of the era, and the fact that late antique sources often conflated Africa and India.
Essentially the issue that Andrade explores in some detail is whether the legend of the Apostle Thomas' journey to and subsequent conversions in “India” actually refers to modern-day India or another place altogether, possibly in the African continent. He leans strongly to the latter view. As he notes, historians are at the mercy of their sources, and this is certainly the case in any study of the journey of Christianity to India.
Andrade takes a refreshingly objective and dispassionate view, compared with many other offerings on the topic of the journey of Christianity to India. His opinion, that the very ambiguity of the Acts of Thomas is an asset to scholars who treat it as firm evidence of the legend they wish to validate, is pertinent. In this he is generous in ascribing the word “scholar” to the plethora of commentators on the Acts of Thomas. The desire to corroborate undated oral traditions, objects and documents pertaining to St Thomas and Christianity in India often gives the impression of being based in emotion and convention, rather than in firm evidence. As Andrade notes, there is also often a lack of rigorous archaeological analysis to support what such scholars (and their readers) wish to believe. In defence of some research and scholarship on the subject, though, it must be noted that the humid climate, monsoonal floods and cyclones that have afflicted the west coast of India for centuries have not sustained the preservation of sound archaeological evidence.
Andrade is right in stating that his work, in contrast, relies as little as possible on apostolic apocrypha and late antique hagiographies. His approach is to focus on social and commercial networks that connected Afro-Eurasian communities and examine how trade and travel influenced the spread of Christianity. Textual and archaeological evidence of such networks, in his view, provide a valid alternative approach.
Such an approach is predicated on the notion that cultural change in the pre-modern world, and that includes conversion to a new religion or philosophy, could only have occurred through the physical movement of people through trade and travel. There was no other way that fresh ideas and philosophies could have been transmitted. While Andrade believes that cultural change can occur without religious conversion, he is of the view that Christian culture was transmitted mainly through conversion. He also acknowledges that conversion is not easy to define; it can be gradual or quick depending on many variables. This raises the issue of who sparked the conversions to Christianity in India. The subtext here is that it was not simply one person who was responsible; more likely there were several evangelists over a period of time.
Andrade is firmly of the view that without social and trade networks Christianity would not have spread as widely as it did. More to the point, in regard to modern-day India, he believes there is evidence to support his notion that there were significant gaps in the networks between the Mediterranean and India during a crucial period of time, leading him to locate the arrival of Christianity at a much later point in history than generally accepted.
Andrade places strong emphasis on the role of Roman trading networks in conversions to Christianity in India. Although there were trade networks in existence during the first to third century C.E., he suggests that during the late third century Roman trade was disrupted, and only revitalised during the fourth century. He asserts that Roman trade networks only re-established direct contact with India during the early sixth century. Thus, he would have us believe that Christianity did not take hold in India until perhaps the late fifth or early sixth century, a far cry from the more usual claim that St Thomas arrived in modern-day Kerala in southwest India in the latter part of the first century.
The book confronts issues beyond the exact date when Christianity was firmly established in India. The broader questions at stake are the relationship between creative literary genres and historical phenomena—the crafting of historical experiences from literary and oral inventions—and the connection or distance between social practices and their representations. Andrade is accurate in his statement that he parts way from most previous scholarship on the issue, mainly through his emphasis on the socio-commercial networks and other social factors, rather than on the Acts of Thomas.
His scholarship is sound. Andrade has made a detailed study of trade and commerce connections between the Mediterranean and India, with an exhaustive examination of the likely locations of “India.” His style, for the most part, is engaging and readable despite some repetition and reiteration of ideas. His bibliography is extensive and current. He has done well to put aside the usual approaches and traditions and take a fresh look at the issue of when and how Christianity traveled to and became established in India.
With such a stance Andrade should expect that many scholars and people who hold fast to the St Thomas tradition, especially in India, will take issue with his approach and views. However, there is no doubt that the book is very well researched. It is a dispassionate study of a topic that generates passionate belief among adherents to the St Thomas tradition. The validity of this different approach, and its objectivity, makes this volume a valuable addition to the genre.