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Abgarus of Edessa

From Academic Kids

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Abgarwithimageofedessa10thcentury.jpg
Tenth-century icon of Abgar with the mandylion, the image of Christ

Abgar V or Abgarus V of Edessa (4 BC - AD 7 and AD 13 - 50) is a 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.)

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 and miraculous ones in particular, but which this icon-legitimizing legend connected directly with Jesus.

The legend tells that Abgar, king of Edessa, afflicted with an incurable sickness, has heard the fame of the power and miracles of Jesus and writes 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, promising, however, that after his ascension he would send one of his disciples, endowed with his power, namely Thaddeus (called Addaï), or one of the seventy-two Disciples, called Thaddeus of Edessa.

The 4th century church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea records a tradition, in his Historia Ecclesiae, I, xii or xiii, ca AD 325, concerning a correspondence on this occasion, exchanged between Abgar of Edessa and Jesus. The correspondence consisted of Abgar's letter, the answer dictated by Jesus and a portrait of Jesus, a Veronica or "true icon" painted from life. Eusebius was convinced that the original letters, written in Syriac, were kept in the archives of Edessa. Eusebius also states that in due course Judas, son of Thaddaeus, was sent in 29 AD. Eusebius copies the two letters into the text of his History.

Another version is found in the Syriac Doctrina Addai (=Addaei, 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 verbally, and that the event took place in 32 AD. This Teaching of Addai is also the earliest full account of the icon, a painting of Jesus' face made from life by Hannan, the agent of ailing King Abgar V, who enshrines it in one of his palaces. Greek forms of the legend are found in the Acta Thaddaei, the "Acts of Thaddaeus".

In yet another form of the story, derived from Moses of Chorene's mid-5th century History of the Armenians, it is said further that Jesus sent his portrait to Abgar, and that this portrait was preserved in Edessa.

This 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 sprung up 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. 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 this religious transformation.

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

"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, it was not Hannan who wrote the answer but Jesus himself.)

Contents

Liturgical use of the letter of Abgar

The quotations paraphrasing the Gospels are actually from the famous concordance of Tatian, the Diatessarion, itself compiled in the 2nd century. The legend could not be older than the 3rd century. In addition, however, to the importance which it attained in the apocryphal cycle, the correspondence of King Abgar also gained for some time a place in liturgy. 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, possibly, be an allusion to 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. Nor is it impossible 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/Adda contains a detail which 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 back to Edessa an icon which came an object of general veneration, but which, after a while, was said to have been painted 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 developing 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 has produced Veronicas and the Shroud of Turin.

See also

Christian mythology

Reference

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