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