The Letters of Abgar V

An Arab by ethnicity, known as Abgar in Greek (and Acbarus or Agbarus in Latin), Abgar V was the king of a small Syriac kingdom called Osroene, with his capital at Edessa.[1] Osroene was generally a pawn in power struggles between Rome, Armenia and Parthia, surviving by aligning itself with whatever faction was most powerful at the moment. Abgar II had been a Roman client before switching to the Parthians just before the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. Abgar V first came to power in 4 BC, became a Roman client, lost his throne in 7 AD and regained it five years later. He would hold onto power for the next 37 years, an impressive feat for a monarch caught between two sparring great powers. He also found time to meddle in Parthian dynastic succession, and instigate a proxy war by the kingdom of Petra against his personal rival Herod the Tetrarch.[2]

Yet, what concerns us here is not Abgar’s political maneuvering but another event of his reign. Abgar is alleged by several ancient authors to have corresponded by letter with Jesus Christ. Later, he is reported to have converted to Christianity, becoming the first ruling monarch in the world to do so.

The first mention of this is in Eusebius’ History of the Church, written 300 years after the events described. According to Eusebius, Abgar V had contracted a chronic illness which had turned life-threatening. Having heard from travelers about this man called Jesus who could perform miraculous healings, he contacted Jesus via courier. Eusebius reports that he personally examined both Abgar’s letter and Jesus’ response which were preserved in the Record Office in Edessa. He translated them from Syriac to Greek and published both of them in full in his History. Abgar’s letter reads:

Abgar Uchama the Toparch to Jesus, who has appeared as a gracious savior in the region of Jerusalem – greeting.

I have heard about you and the cures which you perform without drugs or herbs. If report is true, you make the blind see again and the lame walk about; you cleanse lepers, expel unclean spirits and demons, cure those suffering from chronic and painful diseases, and raise the dead. When I heard all of this about you, I concluded that one of two things must be true – either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things, or you are God’s son doing them. Accordingly I am writing to you to come to me, whatever the inconvenience, and cure the disorder from which I suffer. I may add that I understand the Jews are treating you with contempt and desire to injure you; my city is very small, but highly esteemed, adequate for both of us.

In Jesus’ alleged response dictated to Abgar’s courier, he politely declined the offer to relocate to Edessa but promised to send a disciple there in the future:

Happy are you who believed me without having seen me! For it is written of me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. As to your request that I should come to you, I must complete all that I was sent to do here, and on completing it must at once be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up I will send you one of my disciples to cure your disorder and bring life to you and those with you.[3]

At about 30 AD, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Thomas dispatched Thaddeus to visit Edessa. Thaddeus had been one of the 72 disciples commissioned by Jesus in the middle of his ministry mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Thaddeus’ visit to Edessa is recorded in another document Eusebius reported finding in the Edessa archives.

After arriving and preaching in Edessa, Thaddeus was quickly summoned before Abgar, who was convinced that Jesus’ promise to him was being fulfilled. Thaddeus told Abgar that if he believed in the message of Jesus his prayers would be answered. Abgar then created an undoubtedly awkward moment by responding that he believed so much that he had wanted to take his army and “destroy the Jews” for having Jesus killed, and only restrained himself due to fear of Rome. Thaddeus responded that what had happened to Jesus was the will of God and had to happen that way. He then laid hands upon Abgar and the king was miraculously cured of his illness. Thaddeus then preached in Edessa, winning some converts which formed the beginnings of the church in that city.[4]

The fish ponds at the palace of Edessa still exist today, with added Islamic architecture.

Our next mention of the letters of Abgar comes from the travel writing of a female Christian pilgrim named Egeria, who visited Biblical sites in Judea, Egypt and the Levant in the 380′s. She visited Edessa to see the tomb of the Apostle Thomas. Egeria was guided through the area by a local bishop, who showed her the preserved letters, a marble bust of Abgar, and gave her a tour of his palace. The palace was notable for its ornamental fish ponds, full of fish that Egeria described as large and brightly colored, before somewhat strangely noting that they also “tasted so good.”[5] (Note: this palace was actually built in the 2nd century, under a different one of the nine Edessan kings who shared the name Abgar).

Egeria was intrigued to find that the copy of Jesus’ letter to Abgar that she read in Edessa was longer than the copy she had at home (presumably from Eusebius’ work). An anonymously authored Syriac document from around 400 AD called the Doctrine of Addai contains the longer Syriac version, which adds to the end the promise that “thy city shall be blessed, and no enemy shall again become master of it forever.”[6]

The fish of the ornamental pools of Edessa, which Egeria aparently ate.

What became of Abgar after his conversion? Tacitus reports that Abgar became involved in an attempt in 49 AD by the Roman emperor Claudius to install the exiled prince Meherdates to the throne of Parthia. Abgar allied with Izates, the king of Adiabene in northern Assyria to back Meherdates, but then both rulers backed out and abandoned Meherdates. The only other information about Abgar comes from Moses of Chorene, who in the 5th century wrote the first history of Armenia written in the newly invented Armenian writing system. Moses was doing something that had not been done before, and it often shows in the chronological confusion and indecipherable place and personal names.[7]

Moses of Chorene reports that Abgar did not force his subjects to convert to his new religion, but that he did close down the Greco-pagan temples and cover up the statues of the gods. He also provides a number of other letters from the newly Christian king, which he reports were preserved in the Edessa archives. In one letter, Abgar wrote to the Roman emperor Tiberius to tell him about Jesus and invite him to convert to Christianity. Tiberius replies that he had already heard about Jesus from a letter sent by Pontius Pilate, and that he had submitted Jesus to the Roman Senate for possible addition to the recognized Roman pantheon of gods, however, the Senate rejected the claim for lack of evidence. Abgar replied that it was absurd for the Senate to select gods, since “if God does not suit man, He cannot be God, since God is to be judged and justified by man.” In a letter to another king, Abgar expresses his regrets that he is unable to send Jesus to him, but suggests that he seek out the Apostle Simon in Persia. He tells the same in a letter to the king of Parthia.[8]

10th Century encaustic painted icon of Abgar V from St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai. Abgar is holding the Image of Edessa.

After Abgar’s death, Moses reports that a power struggle took place between Abgar’s son Ananoun and his nephew Sanadroug. Both his son and nephew reverted to Greek paganism under pressure from their nobles. Sanadroug had Thaddeus murdered. Santoukhd, the daughter of Abgar, refused to renounce Christianity and was killed as well. Attaeus, a disciple of Thaddeus, was killed by Ananoun after he refused to make a gold headdress for the apostate king. Sanadroug defeated Ananoun in the resulting civil war and killed Abgar’s direct descendants. Abgar’s wife Helene fled to Jerusalem, where she organized food aid to the poor during a famine. Sanadroug later died in a hunting accident after being shot with an arrow in the bowels, a death that Moses viewed as justice for his wickedness.[9] No king of Osroene would convert to Christianity until Abgar IX converted in 201.

If things were not already muddled enough, Moses of Chorene and the Doctrine of Addai both claim that Abgar’s courier painted a portrait of Jesus while in Jerusalem and brought it back to Edessa. Neither Eusebius nor Egeria report such an image, but Moses reported that it could still be seen in Edessa in his day. Legends grew. Evagrius Scholasticus, writing at around 600, reported that the image was miraculous and “not made by human hands” and was used by the people of the city as a sort of talisman to help light a fire in a mine and defeat a Persian siege in 544.[10]

All of this brings us to the million dollar question, which is how much of this muddled mess of thirdhand history and preserved copies of documents is actually true?

Two late medieval copies of the Image of Edessa. The left image is the Holy Face of Genoa from the late 14th century, the right is the Holy Face of San Silvestro, which dates to at least 1517.

First, the image. There is no doubt that an image of Jesus that originated from Edessa existed. It was long believed to have been formed miraculously, and came to be called the Mandylion or Image of Edessa. It was brought to Constantinople in 944 and put on display there. The Mandylion has made appearances in icons and religious art, including at St. Catherine’s monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. After the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Mandylion was presumably brought back to western Europe, but it is not known what happened to it since then. Two late medieval copies of the image exist today, in Genoa and San Silvestro, with many more recent imitations to be found throughout the Orthodox world.[11]

The problem is, there is no evidence of an image of Jesus being present in Edessa before 400, even though, as Egeria tells us, a miniature Abgar tourist industry had sprung up before then, where local bishops gave guided tours of important sites related to Abgar’s life and operated his palace as a museum. So if the image was known in 400, but not known in 380, either it did not exist before 400 or it was not present in Edessa. A 10th-century document titled Narrative of the Image of Edessa reported that the image was hidden away to prevent its destruction in the persecution which followed Abgar’s death. However, it seems strange that such information about the provenance of the Mandylion could resurface in the 10th century yet not be available to Eusebius. Strictly speaking, it is possible that the image really did date from the time of Jesus and was hidden and rediscovered. But it hard to see how such information would have been transmitted to the 10th century. Rather, it seems far more likely that the image was painted sometime after the 380′s, and then became the object of ever-growing accretions of legends, first being simply a painting, then a miraculous image, and then a relic.

The next puzzle concerns the letters listed by Moses of Chorene that are not found in other sources. The stories about Pilate’s report to Tiberius and Tiberius submitting Jesus to the Senate for possible addition to the Roman pantheon are attested by Eusebius and Tertullian and therefore date back to at least the late 2nd century. However, the criticism that Moses attributes to Abgar that  “if God does not suit man, He cannot be God, since God is to be judged and justified by man” is actually copied directly from Tertullian’s Defense of the Christians.[12] The letters may well have been deposited in the royal archives, but whoever wrote them seems to have been basing them (and sometimes plagiarizing them) from passages found in previous works.

Moses of Chorene also gets confused on some other points. He references Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews as backing up his story about Helena the wife of Abgar fleeing to Jerusalem and taking part in famine relief there. Josephus does relate such a story, but Helena was not the wife of Abgar king of Osroene but the wife of Monobazus king of Adiabene and the mother of Izates, Abgar’s erstwhile ally in the short-lived attempt to put Meherdates on the throne of Parthia. Rather than converting to Christianity, Helena and Izates converted to Judaism. The much more contemporary Josephus is likely a far more reliable source on the matter than Moses, who wrote at least 400 years later.[13]

What do we make of the differences between the Syriac letter in the Doctrine of Addai and the version in Eusebius? Egeria seemed to have believed that the Syriac version was a more complete version of Eusebius’ letter. The promise in the extended segment that “no enemy shall again become master” of Edessa was invoked in several situations when Edessa was besieged, during Abgar’s lifetime as well as in 544. In addition to the fact that promising temporal gains to anyone in return for following him clashes with the rest of Jesus’ recorded teachings, Evagrius Scholasticus argued that the ending was an addition after Eusebius’ time and was not in the original. Another option is that the addition was deleted by Eusebius or another editor who thought it was an addition to the original, after all, the promise that Edessa would never be ruled by a foreign power would have begun to look ridiculous after the city was conquered by Rome in 116, Parthia in 163, Rome in 165 and again by Rome in 213. After the last conquest, Osroene permanently lost its independence .[14]

So, are any parts of the letters authentic? If we can discount the letters preserved by Moses of Chorene and the Doctrine of Addai, what about those personally examined by Eusebius? They are the oldest versions that we have, could they possibly be authentic? In fact, there are good reasons to think that Jesus’ reply is not authentic. The letter reads “For it is written of me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, and that those who have not seen me will believe and live.” This is an odd statement to make, for none of the Gospels had been written during the time Jesus was alive, and the quote that Jesus says is written of him is not from the Old Testament but is very similar to John 20:29. Considering that John was almost certainly the last of the Gospels to be written, it seems highly anachronistic for Jesus to make such a reference. There is no reason to believe Eusebius was anything but sincere in his use of the letters, but he appears to have been mistaken as to their authenticity.

But could there be any truth to the story at all? There are two real options here: Either someone concocted the story of Abgar and the letters out of whole cloth, or the story has some truth and someone else concocted the letters, either as a forgery to back up the story, to show the tourists like Egeria, a sincere attempt to recreate a lost letter, or as some sort of exercise in writing “what if” historical fiction.

Eusebius’ description of Abgar’s conversion stands independently of the text of the letters, which Eusebius cites only as supporting evidence. He also quotes a lengthier document of anonymous authorship found with the letters, which he translated from Syriac to Greek. This document describes Thaddeus’ visit to Edessa. It is also important to note that Edessa was a major center of the early Christian church in Syria, where Christianity was long established before the conversion of Abgar IX in 201.[15] Christianity had to reach Edessa somehow in early Christian history, and the story of Thaddeus is our only extant explanation for how it got there. And Thaddeus’ stated reason for going to Edessa is contingent on Abgar V’s correspondence with Jesus.

Could Thaddeus have actually preached Christianity to the king of Edessa? Could the king of Edessa have been an early convert to Christianity? Could Abgar V have written a now-lost letter to Jesus and received a now-lost response? All these things could have happened. We have no evidence that they didn’t happen. We also have little corroborating evidence that they did happen. So, like many thorny problems in ancient history, we can only look on our meager sources and wonder.

Regardless, the story of Abgar has wide currency in the Orthodox churches and in Armenia (the first officially Christian nation). Abgar V is currently featured on the Armenian 100,000 Dram banknote:

References:

[1] Tacitus, Annals, LacusCurtius, trans. by J. Jackson. 1925-1937, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/home.html (accessed June 18, 2011), 12.12.

[2] Tacitus, Annals 12.12-14; Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.27-29 in Syriac Documents Attributed to the First Three Centuries, appendix to Vol. 20 of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, trans. by B.P. Pratten (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1881), 150-163.

[3] Both letters reprinted in Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin,1965), 1.13.

[4] Eusebius, The History of the Church 1.13.

[5] Egeria, Egeria’s Travels, trans. by John Wilkinson (Warminster, England : Aris & Phillips, 1999), 8.19.5-7.

[6] The Doctrine of Addai 4-5, from http://www.apostle1.com/doctrine-addai-syriac-orthodox1.htm.

[7] Tacitus, Annals 12.12-14.

[8] Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.33.

[9] Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.34-36.

[10] The Doctrine of Addai 5; Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia, 2.32;  Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, trans. by E. Walford, 1846, Tertullian.org, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Evagrius_Scholasticus (accessed June 18, 2011), 4.27.

[11]  Mark Guscin, The Image of Edessa (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 185-187; Daniel C. Scavone, “Acheiropoietos Jesus Images in Constantinople: The Documentary Evidence,” 2006, http://www.shroudstory.com/scavone/scavone1.htm (accessed June 18, 2011).

[12] Eusebius, The History of the Church 3.2; Tertullian, Defense of the Christians, trans. by S. Thewall, 1885, NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm (accessed June 18, 2011)5.

[13] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 from http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/index.htm#aoj (accessed June 18, 2011), 20.2.1-5.

[14] Egeria, Egeria’s Travels 8.19.8-14; Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, 4.27; Alexander Mirkovic, “Edessa: The Parthian Period,” The Ecole Initiative, 2007, http://ecole.evansville.edu/articles/pedessa.html (accessed June 18, 2011).

[15] Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Volume 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis, 2007), 57-61.

Picture Credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pool_Urfa_Turkey.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fish-ebrahim-turkey.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abgarwithimageofedessa10thcentury.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Face_-_Genoa.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:39bMandylion.jpg, http://www.msymboll.totalh.com/asia_armenian_dram_note.htm

Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

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2 responses

  1. Ani

    Abgar was Armenian by ethnicity, do u think Armenians would have him on their currency if he was Arab? lol

    Moses of Khoren suggests that the name of the legendary figure is a corruption of an individual’s title: “…Because of his uncommon modesty and wisdom, and his old age, this Abgaros was given the title of “Avag Hair” (Senior Father in Armenian). The Greeks and Assyrians, unable to articulate his name correctly, called him Abgar.”[

    December 29, 2011 at 7:11 AM

  2. Ralph Ellis

    Actually, King Abgar was an exiled Parthian monarch. But they were only half Parthian, because his mother was Queen Thea Muse Ourania, who was a gift from the Romans and probably of Egyptian descent.

    September 22, 2013 at 11:49 AM

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