(Investigator 164, 2015 September)

Just as it [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves… (Colossians 1:6)


How far did Christianity's first-century preaching extend?

Jesus said: "the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all the nations". (Luke 24:47) One expects this to include the Roman Empire and countries named in the Old Testament such as India and Sudan. (Esther 1:1)

Does "the whole world" also include Australia and America?

At Pentecost, 33 CE the Apostle Peter addressed a gathering of:

…Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem … [from] Persia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. (Acts 2:1-14)

Peter's preaching that day resulted in 3000 baptisms. (Acts 2:41) These converts accepted Jesus as the prophesied Messiah, saviour, and world-ruler. Many would have returned home to foreign lands and informed relatives and neighbours. Paul on his missionary journeys encountered Jews who knew about Jesus which means the message preceded him.


Jesus' Twelve Apostles were:

•    Simon also known as Peter and Cephas
•    Andrew his brother
•    James son of Zebedee
•    John his  brother
•    Philip
•    Bartholomew (= Nathanael)
•    Thomas
•    Matthew the tax collector
•    James son of Alphaeus, also  called James the Less
•    Thaddaeus also called Judas Lebbaeus and Jude
•    Simon the Canaanite "the zealot"
•    Judas Iscariot
(Matthew 10:2-4)

Judas Iscariot was replaced by Matthias. An important criterion for Matthias' selection was his support during the entire ministry of Jesus. (Acts 1:21-22)

The Bible mentions other apostles who were not of the Twelve. These include Paul, Timothy and Sylvanus. (I Thessalonians 2:6; 1:1) Possibly Andronicus and Junia. (Romans 16:7). The Church at Corinth had apostles (I Corinthians 12:28) — the phrase "us as apostles" (4:9) may include Sosthenes (1:1) and Apollos (1:12). At Philippi, Apaphroditus was an apostle. (Philippians 2:25)

Evangelists — persons effective at preaching to the unconverted — were a separate office to apostle (Ephesians 4:11) but some men had both positions. (II Timothy 4:5) Mark may have been an evangelist — he travelled with Paul to Antioch. Tradition has him later in Venice and Egypt where he founded a congregation and was martyred.

Apostles and evangelists followed the trade routes and established congregations in cities. Acts focuses on Paul and his missionary journeys around Palestine, Turkey, Greece and finally to Rome. Paul established more than 20 congregations.

Biblical information on the Twelve Apostles after Pentecost is sparse but supplemented by tradition:


Thomas, it is believed, went to India in 52 CE. He could have travelled via Persia with traders using overland trade routes, or gone by ship across the Indian Ocean.

The sea route has a long history. Alexander the Great returned part of his army from India to Babylon on ships in 325 BCE. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt tried to escape to India by sea after her defeat by Rome in 31 BCE but was thwarted by Arabs who burned her ships.

Rome annexed Egypt in 30 BCE and soon 120 Roman vessels annually sailed to India and returned with spices, fabrics, gemstones, and exotic animals. Pushed by Monsoons the trip took 70 days one way.

John Keay (2000) writes:

The emperor Augustus claims to have received 'frequent' Indian embassies … and it was during his reign (31BC – 14AD) that Europe's first concerted bid for the exotic produce of the East saw fleets making annual sailings from the Red Sea. Crewed by Greeks and Egyptians, they were familiar with the monsoon trade winds and headed straight for the steamy ports of India's Konkan and Malabar coasts. (p. 121)

McLaughlin (2010) writes: "At the height of the Roman Empire hundreds of merchant ships left Egypt every year to voyage through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean…"

A Roman temple has been found at Muziris in Kerala. Emperor Trajan who ruled 98-117 CE established a Roman fort and naval units at the Farasan Islands near the southern end of the Red Sea to protect trading vessels from pirates.

In the 2nd century Roman ships sailed to Sri Lanka, eastern India, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Sumatra, Vietnam and Chinese territory. Roman trade voyages also headed along Africa's coast to an outpost called Rhapta near Zanzibar.

Sethuraman (2011) reports on thousands of Roman coins found in numerous locations in India. One discovery in 1946 amounted to 1407 coins of which 368 were minted in the reign of Augustus and 1039 during the reign of Tiberius. 

Keay (2000) writes of India:

There, numerous examples of Roman pottery, including wine-impregnated amphorae, have been found … and hoards of Roman coins have been unearthed in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and elsewhere… (p. 121)

Seventeen trading stations handling trade with Rome are known in 1st century India — four on the west coast, six on the east, seven inland.

Keay (2000) continues:

Thomas had landed at … Kerala's coconut coast. From converts made there, some sections of Kerala's still thriving Syrian Christian community claim descent. Thence the apostle had proceeded overland to the east coast. A trail of Roman finds extends across the peninsula from Cranganore, otherwise the Roman port of 'Musiris' (near Cochin), to Arikamedu and the mouth of the Kaveri … (p. 122)

Sethuraman (2010) writes:

Thousands of Roman traders, and their Egyptian and Arabian representatives, came to India, occasionally accompanied by artisans and craftsmen from Mediterranean lands. Many of these merchants and craftsmen even settled in India…

Sethuraman includes a map showing trading cites in Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

Reema Islam (2013) suggests a Roman trading station existed in Bangladesh 60km NE of today's capital, Dhaka.


Acts of Thomas, a third-century Syriac book, tells of the conversion of King Gondophares in India by Thomas. Archaeology indicates that a "Gondophares" first reigned in 20-10 BCE and other kings of same name after him in NW India. (Wikipedia)

Leaving NW India Thomas travelled by ship to Malabar (SW India). He established seven congregations in Kerala, the first in 52 CE. Probably his first converts were Jewish proselytes and descendants of Jews who went to India after Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE.

Thomas was killed in Mylapore, now a suburb of Chennai (formerly Madras), after living 20 years in India. In Madras, Christians still venerate the cave in which they believe Thomas lived, the hill on which he died, and his grave.

Confirmation of Christianity in ancient India is indirect:

Some stories about the Indian deity Krishna show similarity to Jesus. The relevant Indian literature is estimated to be 2nd or 3rd century in origin but the Gospels 1st century. This suggests Christianity reached India in the 1st century and opponents countered Christian influence by attributing details about Jesus to Krishna.

Many websites mention a "Bar-Daisan" (154-223 CE) who wrote of Christians living in north India but don’t supply references or details.

Christianity existed in 2nd-century Persia since the Persian prophet Mani reworked New Testament material for the religion he founded — Manichaeism. When Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 CE suppression of Christianity followed in Persia — which suggests Christianity was widespread enough to be considered a threat. Persia and the Middle East in turn had contacts with India. Bishop David of Basra undertook a preaching mission to India around 300 CE. In 345 CE Thomas of Cana, a Mesopotamian merchant, brought 400 Christians to India to escape persecution by King Shapur II of Persia.

Maritime trade, Christ-Krishna parallels, Persian Christianity, Christian tradition, and the Acts of Thomas make plausible that Thomas preached in India.


French friar Jordanus Catalani arrived in India in 1321; various Portuguese missionaries by 1500; and Francis Xavier in 1542. They encountered "Thomas Christians" who believed Thomas founded their Church.

The first Protestant missionaries came in the 18th century.

Indian Census Statistics

Census 2001 Census 2011
Population 1,028,000,000 (100%) 1,210,000,000 (100%)
Hindu 827,000,000 (80.5%) 948,000,000 (78.4%)
Muslim 138,000,000 (13.4%) 172,000,000 (14.2%)
Christian 24,000,000 (2.3%)


Jesus' words "I am sending you out just like sheep into the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16) are confirmed by the grizzly deaths of the Apostles and extensive martyrdoms of Christian civilians and missionaries ever since. 

Tippu Sultan (1750-1799), ruler of Mysore (in India), destroyed the Catholic community in Mangalore starting in 1784 by property-seizures, demolishing churches, and deportation. About 70,000 were forced to walk 300km over the Western Ghat Mountains from Mangalore to Tippu Sultan's capital, Seringapatam. About 20,000 died during the march. Afterwards 30,000 were forcibly converted, the girls compelled to marry Muslim men. Catholic males who resisted had noses, ears and upper lips cut off, and those who escaped and were caught forfeited ears, nose, feet and one hand.

In 2008 Hindu nationalists murdered sixty Christians in Orissa State and 60,000 were displaced. Randeep Ramesh reported in the Guardian:

The persecution of Christians shames India

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh today made a heartfelt plea over the spread of anti-Christian violence in India. The sight of Hindu mobs smashing churches and prayer halls while Christians in the country are killed or left cowering under tarpaulin sheets in refugee camps is, as Dr Singh rightly described, a "national shame". There are calls from within the ruling Congress party, which relies on the votes of Christians and Muslims in India, to ban Hindu extremist organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, which uses force…

Contemporary Hindu anger centres on the idea that India's rise will see an explosion of Christians in the country – a takeover by a foreign ideology…
(29 September, 2008)

If “takeover” is feared the danger is Islam — in 1951 Muslims numbered 9.8%, Hindus 84.1%; in 2011 Muslims 14.2%, Hindus 78.4%.

India needs to remember that God promised to "bless all the nations of the earth" through the descendants of Abraham — Genesis 18:18.

The New Testament identifies the descendants of Abraham as Jesus and Christianity, and the blessing involves teaching people to leave their "wicked ways". (Acts 3:25-26)

In India Christianity opposed the standards that promoted poverty such as the caste system, widow burning, infanticide, child mutilation, illiteracy, and self mutilation in the name of religion. Christianity helped bring modern medicine to India, hospitals, modern education, science, British law, democracy, and principles of business practice and economics. Christian churches today run thousands of schools and hospitals in India.

The result is that India is "blessed" and has become a great nation.


Paul's statement "in the whole world" (Colossians 1:6) includes the Roman world – but how much further?

Even before the 1st century merchants and sailors travelled extensively.

The Bible says:

For the king [Solomon] had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. (I Kings 10:22)

BBC History magazine says: "New evidence suggests that merchants were crossing the Indian Ocean between Africa and India some 4,000 years ago." Scientists from University College (London) found evidence of African crops being grown in India by 2000 BCE — the seeds probably brought to India by Bronze Age merchants who sailed the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, bananas — which originated in Indonesia — were grown in Pakistan by 2000 BCE which suggests trade links between these regions.

Beresford (2013) quotes Herodotus:

Pharoah Necho II [ruled 610-595 BC] sent some Phoenicians out in ships sailing down the Red Sea with orders to keep voyaging until they managed to return to Egypt through the Pillars of Heracles [Straits of Gibraltar] to our [Mediterranean] sea. The Phoenicians sailed south; every autumn they would come ashore, plant some crops wherever in Libya [Africa] they happened to be, and then reap the crops the following harvest before continuing their voyage. In this manner two years went by; but in the third year the sailors rounded the Pillars of Heracles and made their return to Egypt. (Histories 4.42)
The plausibility of this circumnavigation of Africa is supported by its recent repetition. In 2007-2008 a Phoenician-style ship was built, using as a model the recovered wreck of a ship that sank in 510 BCE. The Phoenicia set sail in 2008 from near Syria and circumnavigated Africa in 26 months. (Beale & Taylor 2012) It veered far into the India Ocean to avoid Somali pirates and far into the Atlantic to take advantage of ocean currents.

Another theory is that some Carthaginians escaped in ships when Roman legions demolished Carthage in 146 BCE. The escapees sailed to South America, up the Amazon, and settled in Peru.

David Pratt argues for Roman links with North and South America. He refers to discoveries of Roman amphorae (storage jars) off the coast of Maine, Honduras, and Rio de Janeiro. Also Roman coins, a 1st century Roman oil lamp, and other items: —

Lawler (2014) reports on "The untold story of long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean more than 2,000 years ago."  A ship-wreck discovered 3km off Sri Lanka in 2003 was 2000 years old and provided evidence for a "maritime highway … glimpsed only rarely in historical documents."

Roman coins have been discovered in Sumatra:—

The Huffington Post (June 23, 2013) reported on "Artefacts From Roman Empire" discovered in a tomb in Japan.

Maritime trade around SE Asia was dominated by Odisha a state along India's NE coast. Its trade links reached from Rome to Bali. Apparently Hindus from Odisha established a colony in Java in 75 BCE and brought Hinduism to Java:—

If Roman and Odisha ships reached Indonesia perhaps they could also reach Australia but that remains unconfirmed. During WWII 900-year-old coins from Kilwa (an island near Tanzania) were discovered in Arnhem Land (Australia). McIntosh (2014) asks: "Did the coins implicate Australia's Aboriginal peoples in the Maritime Silk Route, an ancient Indian Ocean trading network that linked … East Africa with Arabia, Persia, India, China and Indonesia?" McIntosh suggests the coins came with an Indonesian shipwreck survivor in the 19th century. Extensive trade between Makassar (Sulawesi) and Arnhem Land is known from the 16th to 19th centuries but nothing earlier.


 Jesus said:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

The Apostles believed they had the most important message on Earth — the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament had arrived and brought salvation. What is known about ancient trade routes and other travels may indicate how far the message reached, since where trade, merchants and sailors could go preachers could presumably also go.

If Paul's zeal and missionary journeys described in the Bible were typical of other evangelists, then some may have travelled even further than Paul, even "To the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)


Beale, P. & Taylor, S. 2012 Sailing Close to the Wind, Lulworth Press

Beresford, J. Sailing close to the wind, Minerva, October/September 2013, 34-37

Islam, R.A Family's Passion, Archaeology, November/December 2013, 53-58

Keay, J. 2000 India A History, Harper Perennial, pp 121-122

Keys, D. Ancient oceanic trade revealed, BBC History , March 2008, p. 9

Lawler. A. Seafaring in Ancient Sri Lanka, Archaeology, November/December 2014, 43-47

McIntosh, I. The Ancient African Coins of Arnhem Land, Australasian Science, May 2014, 19-21

McLaughlin, R. The Lure of the Orient, History Today, August 2010, pp 10-17

Sethuraman, S. Rome's sea route to India, Minerva, September/October, 2010, pp 28-31

Sethuraman, S. Symbols of an Ancient Sea Trade, Minerva, September/October, 2011, pp 22-24

Todhunter, A. In The Footsteps of the Apostles, National Geographic, March 2012, 38-65


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