piece of cloth

Abgar V of Edessa

For the other historical kings Abgar of Osroene, see Osroene.

Abgar V or Abgarus V of Edessa (4 BC - AD 7 and AD 13 - 50) was a Syriac historical ruler of the kingdom of Osroene, holding his capital at Edessa. (Compare the Syrian region that was earlier called Aram-Naharaim in the Old Testament). According to an ancient legend, he was converted to Christianity by Addai, one of the Seventy-two Disciples.

The legend of King Abgar

In Christian mythology, the story of king Abgar of Edessa was an early tale of a wonder-working icon, set in the heart of the region where iconoclast tradition disapproved strongly of images in general, but which this icon-legitimizing legend connected directly with Jesus.

The legend tells that Abgar, king of Edessa, afflicted with an incurable sickness, 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 declining to go, but promising that after his ascension, he would send one of his disciples, endowed with his power.

The 4th century church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, records a tradition, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, I, xiii, ca AD 325, 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, 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".

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.

The story was later elaborated further by the church historian Evagrius, Bishop of Edessa (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.

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.

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).

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 imaginary occurrence, with scholars disputing whether Abgar suffered from gout or from leprosy, whether the correspondence was on parchment or papyrus, and so forth.

Many scholars considered the letters spurious. 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). 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.)

The Nuttall Encyclopaedia attributes the legend to a king Ab'gar XIV of Edessa.

Liturgical use of the letter of Abgar

The quotations paraphrasing the Gospels are actually from the famous concordance of Tatian, the Diatessaron, itself compiled in the 2nd century. The legend could not be older than the 3rd century.

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 Syrian 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.

True images

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 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

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.

See also


  • Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1934, (in English 1971): On-line text
  • Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus 1997 (Viking Penguin), especially ch. 24 "Judas the brother of Jesus" and the section "Thaddeus, Judas Thomas and the conversion of the Osrhoeans", pp 189ff.
  • Ian Wilson, Holy faces, secret places 1991
  • Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus 1997, especially ch. 24 "Judas the brother of James and the conversion of King Agbar"
  • Holweck, F. G., A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1924.

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