James Hastings Dictionary of the NT: Abgar

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James Hastings Dictionary of the NT: Abgar

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ABGAR.—Between the years b.c. 99 and a.d. 217 eight (or ten) kings or toparchs of Edessa in Osrhoëne bore this name. It is with the toparch that ruled in the time of our Saviour, Abgar Ukkâmâ (‘the Black,’ e. b.c. 13 to a.d. 50 [Gutschmid], b.c. 9 to a.d. 46 [Dionysius of Telnahar]), that we are here concerned, owing to the legendary accounts of his correspondence with Jesus, accepted as historical fact by Eusebius, and by him given wide currency. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica i. 13) relates, without any suggestion of scepticism, that ‘king Abgar, who ruled with great glory the nations beyond the Euphrates, being afflicted with a terrible disease which it was beyond the power of human skill to cure, when he heard of the name of Jesus and His miracles, … sent a message to Him by a courier and begged Him to heal the disease.’ Eusebius proceeds to impart the letter of Abgar and the answer of Jesus, which he claims to have derived directly from the archives of Edessa, and to have translated (or caused to be translated) literally from Syriac into Greek. The letter of Abgar reads as follows:—

‘Abgar, ruler of Edessa, to Jesus the excellent Saviour who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard the reports of thee and of thy cures as performed by thee without medicines or herbs. For it is said that with a word only thou makest the blind to see and the lame to walk, that thou cleansest lepers and castest out impure spirits and demons, and that thou healest those afflicted with lingering diseases, and also that thou raisest the dead. And having heard all these things concerning thee, I have concluded that one of two things must he true: either thou art God and hast come down from heaven to do these things, or else thou who doest these things art the Son of God. Wherefore I have written to thee to ask thee that thou wouldest take the trouble to come even to me and heal the disease which I have. For I have been informed that the Jews are murmuring against thee and are plotting to injure thee. But I have a city, small indeed yet honourable, which may suffice for us both.’

The answer of Jesus runs—

‘Blessed art thou who hast believed in me when thou thyself hast not seen me. For it stands written concerning me, that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and be saved. But in regard to what thou hast written me, that I should come to thee, it is necessary for me to fulfil all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to Him that sent me. But after I have been taken up I will send to thee one of my disciples, that he may heal thy disease I and give life to thee and those who are with thee.’

From an accompanying narrative in the Syriac language, giving an account of the fulfilment of Christ’s promise, Eusebius quotes at considerable length. A brief summary of the contents of this document must here suffice. Judas, also called Thomas, is said to have sent Thaddaeus, one of the Seventy, to Edessa, soon after the ascension of Jesus. Arriving in Edessa he took lodgings, and without reporting himself at the court engaged extensively in works of healing. When the king heard thereof he suspected that he was the disciple promised by Jesus, and had him brought to court. On the appearance of Thaddaeus ‘a great vision appeared to Abgar in the countenance of Thaddaeus,’ which led the former to prostrate himself before the latter, to the astonishment of the courtiers, who did not see the vision. Having become assured that his guest is the promised disciple of Jesus, and that he has come fully empowered to heal and to save on condition of his exercise of faith, Abgar assures Thaddaeus that his faith is so strong that, had it not been for the presence of the Romans, he would have sent an army to destroy the Jews that crucified Jesus. Thaddaeus assures him that in fulfilment of the Divine plan of redemption Jesus has been taken up to His Father, and, on a further profession of faith in Father and Son, Thaddaeus lays his hands upon the king and heals him. Many other healings follow, accompanied by the preaching of the gospel. At Thaddaeus’ suggestion the king summons the citizens as a body to hear the preaching of the word, and afterwards offers him a rich reward, which is magnanimously refused. According to the Syriac document from which Eusebius quotes, the visit of Thaddaeus occurred in the year 340 of the era of the Seleucidae (corresponding, according to K. Schmidt in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , sub voc., to a.d. 29; according to others, a.d. 30, 31, or 32).

From the same Edessene materials Moses of Chorene, the Armenian historian of the middle of the 5th cent., prepared independently of Euscbius an account of the intercourse between Abgar and Christ and His disciples, which attests the general correctness of Eusebius’ work. The fact that Moses was for several years a student in Edessa enhances the value of his account. He represents the reply of Jesus as having been written on His behalf by Thomas the Apostle. In Moses’ account occurs the statement that after his conversion Abgarus wrote letters to the emperor Tiberius, to Narses, king of Assyria, to Ardaches, king of Persia, and others, recommending Christianity (Hist. Arm. ii. 30–33). Here also appears the legend that Christ sent by Ananias, the courier of Abgar, a picture of Himself impressed upon a handkerchief. This part of the story was still further elaborated by Cedrenus (Hist. Comp. p. 176), who represents Ananias, the courier of Abgar, as himself an artist, and as so overcome by the splendour of the countenance of Jesus when attempting to depict it that he was obliged to desist; whereupon Christ, having washed His face, wiped it with a towel which retained His likeness. This picture was taken by Ananias to his master, and it became for the city a sort of talisman. This miraculously produced portrait, or what purported to be such, is said to have been transferred to the church of St. Sophia at Constantinople in the 10th cent., and later to have passed thence to the church of St. Sylvester in Rome, where it is still exhibited for the edification of the faithful. A church in Genoa makes a rival claim to the possession of the original handkerchief portrait.

Any suspicion that Eusebius fabricated the documents that he professes to translate was set aside by the discovery and publication of what have been accepted as the original Syriac documents (The Doct. of Addai the Apostle, with an English Translation and Notes, by G. Phillips, London, 1876). The Syriac document contains the story of the portrait, which was probably already current in the time of Eusebius. The Syriac version of the story given by Cureton in his Ancient Syriac Documents seems to be an elaborate expansion of that of Eusebius, and to have been composed considerably later.

The letter of Christ to Abgar was declared by a Roman Council in 494 or 495 to be spurious. Tillemont sought to prove the genuineness of the correspondence (Memoirs, i. pp. 362, 615), and similar attempts have been made by Welte (Tübingen Quartalschr. 1842, p. 335 ff.), Rinck (Zeitschr. f. Hist. Theol. 1843, ii. pp. 3–26), Phillips (preface to The Doct. of Addai), and Cureton (Anc. Syriac Doc.).

It may be assumed that the documents were forged some time before Eusebius used them. Christianity seems to have been introduced into Osrhoëne during the 2nd cent. a.d. The first king known to have favoured Christianity was Abgar viii. (bar-Manu), who reigned 176–213, and is said to have been on very intimate terms with Bardesanes, the scholarly Gnostic. A Christian church building modelled after the temple in Jerusalem existed in Edessa some time before 202, until, according to the Edessene Chronicle, it was destroyed (middle of the 6th cent.) by flood. As Edessa grew in importance as a Christian centre, with its theological school, its ambition for distinction may have led some not over-scrupulous ecclesiastic to fabricate these documents and to palm them off on the too credulous authorities. The forgery may have occurred early in the 3rd cent. (Zahn), but more probably early in the 4th. The only piece of real information that has come down to us regarding the Abgar of the time of Christ is a very uncomplimentary reference in Tacitus (Ann. xii. 12. 14).

Literature.—In addition to the works already mentioned, special reference should be made to Lipsius, Die edessenische Abgarsage, 1880, where the available materials are brought under review and critically tested; cf. also Matthes, Die edessenische Abgarsage auf ihre Fortbildung untersucht, 1882; Tixeron, Les origines de l’église d’Edesse et la légende d’Abgar, 1888; Farrar, Christ in Art, p. 79 f.

Albert Henry Newman.