Monday, February 1, 2010

The enigma of Abgar

The enigma of Abgar:

Within the first few pages of the venerated History of the Christian Church, by Eusebius, occurs a peculiar story, which brings up a lot of questions.

Abgar was supposedly king of the Edessa region circa 30 A.D. According to Eusebius, he somehow got word of the miracle-cures being performed by one Jesus of Nazareth and wrote Him a letter, to which Jesus responded by promising to later send a disciple.

So accustomed are we Christians to our specific picture of Christ from the Bible that it is difficult, for me at least, to picture him writing a letter or even dictating to an amanuosis. The Gospels present no hint of him ever doing such. Then again, He is never mentioned fluffing his pillow or washing His hands but surely He did at some point.

The closest that we come to such a dictation, is more of a verbal command than anything else: Tell that fox (Herod) and we are not told whether anyone dared comply with that request.

But that is a trivial issue. Writing a letter is no sin and if He did, He did.

Bigger item number one: If these are genuine words of Jesus, even if they are approximated elsewhere in the New Testament, they are scripture. And if scripture, then they are a precious fragment that belongs within the canon, not buried in an old book that apparently only scholars read anymore.

Bigger item number two: This text seems to thrust a spear into the heart of scholarship that early Christians considered themselves still under the Jewish umbrella – just sectarian rivals as it were. Jews were erring brothers, not an alien race, not Christ-killers or demon spawn to be caricatured, despised and persecuted. That attitude came later as Gentiles took over leadership of the church and misunderstood the position of the first Christians.

Abgar, however, is presented as a man full of rage against apparently the whole Jewish nation for purportedly holding the still-living Christ in contempt. If his letter is genuine, then Christian anti-Semitism is much older and began even while Christ was yet alive.

If Eusebius were simply presenting a hoary old legend that he heard from a friend of a friend, the enigma might not be so perplexing. But he insists that he read the Abgar story first hand, from the official files of Edessa. That alone wouldn’t prove its purported date, provenance and authorship, but it would certainly strengthen the case.

And yet in my 30-plus years of being a Christian and reading every author from C.S. Lewis to Pope John Paul, I have never heard this story before.


Michaela Stephens said...

What is the story of Adgar? I've never heard of it either. Can you give us a link of some sort?

Clifford said...


The earliest documentation of this legend is in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History of the Church, written in the 4th Century A.D.

A copy of that book belongs in every Christian's home library!

Here is part of the wikipedia entry on the subject:

"The 4th century church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, records a tradition concerning a correspondence on this occasion, exchanged between Abgar of Edessa and Jesus.

Eusebius was convinced that the original letters, written in Syriac, were kept in the archives of Edessa.

Eusebius also states that in due course, after Christ's ascension, Thaddeus, namely Addai (called Addaï), or one of the seventy-two Disciples, called Thaddeus of Edessa, was sent by Thomas the Apostle in AD 29. Eusebius copies the two letters into the text of his history.

The correspondence consisted of Abgar's letter and the answer dictated by Jesus. As the legend later expanded, a portrait of Jesus painted from life began to be mentioned.

This portrait, purportedly painted by the court archivist Hannan during his visit to Jesus, is first mentioned in the Syriac text called the "Doctrine of Addai" (or Doctrina Addai; the name Addaei or Addaeus = Thaddaeus or Thaddeus), from the second half of the 4th century.

Here it is said that the reply of Jesus was given not in writing, but orally, and that the event took place in 32 AD. This Teaching of Addai is also the earliest account of an image of Jesus painted from life, enshrined by the ailing King Abgar V in one of his palaces. Greek forms of the legend are found in the Acta Thaddaei, the "Acts of Thaddaeus".