Abgar V

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"Abgar" redirects here. For other kings named "Abgar", see Abgar (disambiguation).
Icon of Abgar holding the mandylion, the image of Christ (encaustic, 10th century, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai).

Abgar V the Black or Abgarus V of Edessa (Syriac: ܐܒܓܪ ܚܡܝܫܝܐ ܐܘܟܡܐ‎; ʾAḇgar Ḥəmīšāyā ʾUkkāmā, Armenian: Աբգար Ե Եդեսացի; Abgar Ye Yedesatsi, Ancient Greek: Ἄβγαρος Abgaros) BC 4 – AD 7 and AD 13–50) was an historical Armenian ruler of the kingdom of Osroene, holding his capital at Edessa.[1] (Compare to the region that was referred to as Armenian Mesopotamia by the Greeks and Aram in the Old Testament).

According to an ancient Christian legend, first documented by Eusebius, he was converted to Christianity by Addai,[2] one of the Seventy-two Disciples. According to Armenian historian Moses of Khorene, writing 400 years after his death, he was Sanatruk's relative.

The legend of King Abgar[edit]

Abgar V was, according to Syriac tradition, one of the first Christian kings in history, having been converted to the faith by the Apostle Thaddeus of Edessa.[3] Other accounts regard this as mere legend,[1] equating the Abgar in the story with the Syrian Abgar IX, a late 2nd-century convert to Christianity. 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 Syrians, unable to articulate his name correctly, called him Abgar."[4]

King Abgar illustration in 1898 book Illustrated Armenia and Armenians [5]

Moses of Khoren also says that the chief wife of King Abgar V was Queen Helena of Adiabene, the wife of King Monobazus I of Adiabene, and thus the kingdoms of Edessa and Adiabene were linked in some manner. Professor Robert Eisenman suggests that Queen Helena was the sister-wife of King Abgar V who was given the lands of Adiabene by her brother-husband, the king.[6] Professor Eisenman derived this association from Moses of Chorene mentioning the same famine relief to Judaea as does Flavius Josephus:[7]

"The chief of King Abgar’s wives, who was named Helena ... Helena went away to Jerusalem in the time of Claudius, during the famine which Agabus had predicted. Spending all her treasures she bought an immense amount of grain in Egypt, which she distributed to the poor, to which Josephus bears witness. Her famous mausoleum stands before the gate at Jerusalem to this very day.:[8]

Professor Eisenman goes on to equate King Abgarus with the Agabus in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 11:27-30), because Agabus was identified with the same famine relief as Queen Helena. By necessity Eisenman then equates the biblical Antioch Orontes with Antioch Edessa, indicating that Saul-Paul and Barnabas went to Edessa.[7][9]

The legend of King Abgar tells that Abgar, king of Edessa, afflicted with an incurable sickness, probably leprosy,[10] had heard the fame of the power and miracles of Jesus and wrote to him, acknowledging his divinity, craving his help, and offering him asylum in his own residence; the tradition states that Jesus wrote a letter, commending Abgar on his faith, but declining to go, but promising that after his ascension, he would send one of his disciples, endowed with his power.[10]

The 4th-century church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, records a tradition[11] concerning a correspondence on this occasion, exchanged between Abgar of Edessa and Jesus. Eusebius was convinced that the original letters, written in Syriac (Aramaic), 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),[10] 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.[12] 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".[12]

The story of the "letter to Abgar", including the portrait made by the court painter Hannan, is repeated, with some additions, in the mid-5th century History of the Armenians of Moses of Chorene, who remarked that the portrait was preserved in Edessa.[13]

The story was later elaborated further by the church historian Evagrius, (c. 536-600), who declared for the first time (as far as is known) that the image of Jesus was "divinely wrought," and "not made by human hands." In sum, the documented legend developed from no image in Eusebius, to an image painted by Hannan in "Addai" and Moses of Chorene, to a miraculously-appearing image not made by human hands in Evagrius.[13]

Fresco from Varaga St. Gevorg church chapel showing king Abgar with image of Christ

On August 15, 944, the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae in Constantinople received the letter and the Mandylion. Both relics were then moved to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos.[14]

This latter concept of an "image not made by hands" (acheiropoietos) formed the foundation on which the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of icons was later created in the 8th century. This doctrine held that Jesus made the first icon of himself by pressing a wet towel to his face, miraculously imprinting the cloth with his features — thus creating the prototype for all icons of Jesus, and an implied divine approval for their creation.[13]

John of Damascus, the leading architect of the church dogma favoring icons, specifically mentioned that Jesus "is said to have taken a piece of cloth and pressed it to his face, impressing on it the image of his face, which it keeps to this day" (On the Divine Images I).[13]

The Abgar legend enjoyed great popularity in the East, and also in the West, during the Middle Ages: Jesus' letter was copied on parchment, inscribed in marble and metal, and used as a talisman or an amulet. Of this pseudepigraphical correspondence, there survive not only a Syriac text, but an Armenian translation as well, two independent Greek versions, shorter than the Syriac, and several inscriptions on stone.

A curious legendary growth has arisen from this supposed event, with scholars disputing whether Abgar suffered from gout or from leprosy, whether the correspondence was on parchment or papyrus, and so forth.

Albany James Christie, a nineteenth-century writer on Greek and Roman legend questions the authenticity of the letters.[15] Most testimony of the 5th century, for instance Augustine and Jerome, is to the effect that Jesus wrote nothing. The correspondence was rejected as apocryphal by Pope Gelasius I and a Roman synod (c. 495).[12] Biblical scholars now generally believe that the letters were fabricated, probably in the 3rd century AD, and "planted" where Eusebius eventually found them. Another theory is that the story was fabricated by Abgar IX of Osroene, during whose reign the kingdom became Christianized, as a way of legitimizing its religious conversion.

The text of the letter varies. The less available variant, transcribed from the Doctrina Addaei, and printed in the Catholic Encyclopedia 1908, is:

"Abgar Ouchama to Jesus, the Good Physician Who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting:
"I have heard of Thee, and of Thy healing; that Thou dost not use medicines or roots, but by Thy word openest (the eyes) of the blind, makest the lame to walk, cleansest the lepers, makest the deaf to hear; how by Thy word (also) Thou healest (sick) spirits and those who are tormented with lunatic demons, and how, again, Thou raisest the dead to life. And, learning the wonders that Thou doest, it was borne in upon me that (of two things, one): either Thou hast come down from heaven, or else Thou art the Son of God, who bringest all these things to pass. Wherefore I write to Thee, and pray that thou wilt come to me, who adore Thee, and heal all the ill that I suffer, according to the faith I have in Thee. I also learn that the Jews murmur against Thee, and persecute Thee, that they seek to crucify Thee, and to destroy Thee. I possess but one small city, but it is beautiful, and large enough for us two to live in peace."

The Doctrina then continues:

When Jesus had received the letter, in the house of the high priest of the Jews, He said to Hannan, the secretary, "Go thou, and say to thy master, who hath sent thee to Me: 'Happy art thou who hast believed in Me, not having seen Me, for it is written of Me that those who shall see Me shall not believe in Me, and that those who shall not see Me shall believe in Me. As to that which thou hast written, that I should come to thee, (behold) all that for which I was sent here below is finished, and I ascend again to My Father who sent Me, and when I shall have ascended to Him I will send thee one of My disciples, who shall heal all thy sufferings, and shall give (thee) health again, and shall convert all who are with thee unto life eternal. And thy city shall be blessed forever, and the enemy shall never overcome it.'"

(†According to Eusebius, Jesus himself wrote the letter; nothing is mentioned of his having dictated it to Hannan.)

Liturgical use of the letter of Abgar[edit]

The quotations paraphrasing the Gospels are actually from the famous gospel harmony by Tatian, the Diatessaron, itself compiled in the 2nd century.[16]

In addition to the importance it attained in the apocryphal cycle, the correspondence of King Abgar also gained a place in liturgy for some time. The decree, De libris non recipiendis ("Books not to be received"), traditionally attributed to Pope Gelasius I, places the letter among the apocrypha. That in itself may be an indication of its having been interpolated among the officially sanctioned lessons of the liturgy of some churches. The Syriac liturgies commemorate the correspondence of Abgar during Lent. The Celtic liturgy appears to have attached importance to the legend; the Liber Hymnorum, a manuscript preserved at Trinity College, Dublin (E. 4, 2), gives two collects on the lines of the letter to Abgar. It is even possible that this letter, followed by various prayers, may have formed a minor liturgical office in some Catholic churches.[17]

True images[edit]

The account given by Thaddeus/Addai contains a detail that may be briefly referred to. Hannan, who wrote at Jesus' dictation, was archivist at Edessa and painter to King Abgar. He had been charged to paint a portrait of Jesus Christ, and brought to Edessa an icon that became an object of general veneration, and that was eventually said to have been painted (or created miraculously) by Jesus himself. Like the letter, the iconic portrait was destined to be the nucleus of a legendary growth; the "Holy Face of Edessa" was chiefly famous in the Byzantine world, where the legend of the Edessa portrait forms part of the subject of the iconography of Christ, and also of the pictures of miraculous origin called acheiropoietoe ("made without hands") both in the Eastern Orthodox Church and, in the West where the tradition is associated with St. Veronica and Veronica's Veil and the Shroud of Turin.

Christian legacy[edit]

Abgar V on an Armenian 100,000 Dram banknote

Abgar is counted as saint, with feasts on May 11 and October 28 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, August 1 in the Syrian Church, and daily in the Mass of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian Apostolic Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, is named after Saint Abgar (known also as Saint Apkar).

On August 24, 2009, the board of the Central Bank of Armenia adopted a decision on introducing a new banknote with a nominal value of AMD 100,000. The new banknote depicts King Abgar V (King of Armenian Mesopotamia as described). The front of the banknote depicts Abgar pointing at the royal flag bearing an image of the Mandylion. The reverse of the banknote depicts disciple Thaddaeus handing the canvas to King Abgar V and his consequent miraculous healing.[18]

The historicity of the Abgar legend[edit]

The Abgar legend has played an important part in the self-definition of several Eastern churches, but its historicity is extremely doubtful. Two recent histories of the Church of the East, Baum and Winkler's The Church of the East and David Wilmshurst's The Martyred Church, have addressed this issue and have discussed the growth and development of the legend.[19] Alexander Mirkovic also argued against the historicity of the legend, pointing out at that the legend is not the only one of its genre. There were many conversion stories coming out of the Middle East in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In many ways these stories represent a model for the conversion of Constantine.[20] (Notice the similarity between the Book of Abgar and the conversion of Helena of Adiabene and her son Ezad II in Flavius Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, XX 2. In the story told by Josephus there is a Jewish merchant by the name Ananias and the question is of circumcision of Ezad.)

In the Book of Abgar, Ananias is the messenger sent by King Abgar to Jesus. Ezad’s son was Abgar VII of Edessa (Ostroene). The origin of the story may be that Ezad, the father of Abgar VII, had exchanged letters with somebody in Jerusalem, but more probably with the Nasi Gamaliel than with Jesus.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Vailhé, Siméon. "Edessa." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 19 Dec. 2012
  2. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Doctrine of Addai". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ Fortescue, Adrian (December 2001). "Lesser Eastern Churches". ISBN 978-0-9715986-2-1. 
  4. ^ "Abgar, in Armenian History glossary". ArmenianHistory.info. Retrieved 23 January 2009. 
  5. ^ King Abgar illustration in 1898 book Illustrated Armenia and Armenians [1]
  6. ^ The Sociology of MMT and the Conversions of King Abgarus and Queen Helena of Adiabene, Professor Robert Eisenman. p8.
  7. ^ a b Jesus, King of Edessa. Ralph Ellis. Edfu Books, 2012.
  8. ^ Moses of Chorene, History of the Armenians 2:35
  9. ^ The Sociology of MMT and the Conversions of King Abgarus and Queen Helena of Adiabene, Professor Robert Eisenman. p1.
  10. ^ a b c Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abgar legend". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A-ak Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8. 
  11. ^ In his Historia Ecclesiastica, I, xiii, ca AD 325.
  12. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abgar". Encyclopædia Britannica 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 61–62. 
  13. ^ a b c d citation required
  14. ^ Janin, Raymond (1953). La Géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin. 1. Part: Le Siège de Constantinople et le Patriarcat Oecuménique. 3rd Vol. : Les Églises et les Monastères (in French). Paris: Institut Français d'Etudes Byzantines. p. 172. 
  15. ^ Albany James, Christie (1867). "Abgarus". In Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology 1. p. 2. 
  16. ^ Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  17. ^ Leclercq, Henri. "The Legend of Abgar." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 24 Dec. 2012
  18. ^ "CBA issues 100,000 Dram banknotes". PanArmenian News. Retrieved 2009-08-24. 
  19. ^ Wilmshurst, The Martyred Church, 7-9
  20. ^ Alexander Mirkovic, Prelude to Constantine: The Abgar Tradition in Early Christianity. Berlin and New York: Peter Land, 2004
  21. ^ Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard Mercer Dictionary of the Bible 1990 p. 2 "Abgar Legend, [ab'gahr] The Abgar legend concerns a supposed exchange of letters between King Abgar V of Edessa (9—46 c.e.) and Jesus, and the subsequent evangelization of Edessa by the apostle Thaddeus"


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