The First Letter of Jesus to the Syrians would be a pretty big deal, if it existed. Some thought it did, and judging from messages I received when wrote it about it a few years ago, some still seem think it’s genuine. It isn’t, but the story is interesting nonetheless.
Jesus left no writings. That wasn’t an oversight or something on his to-do list that he just didn’t get around to. Christianity is not nor has it ever been a “religion of the book.” Jesus left the Church, and the Church in turn gives us the scripture.
Christianity produced a massive body of written literature, some becoming canon, some entering the patristic tradition, some condemned as heretical, and some which early Christians thought were real or contained elements of truth, but which subsequently fell into disfavor, such as the document traditionally called The Abgar Letter.
Although a fake, the Abgar Letter letter not only reveals something about an early Christian community, but was believed to be real by many in the early Church, and even found its way into liturgical use. Dismissing the entire story as mere legend is not only unhelpful but foolish. As historian Steven Runcimen sharply observes in “Some Remarks on the Image of Edessa”:
“Historians should not be so much victims to their skepticism as to dismiss a legend as false, unless they can suggest how it was that the false legend arose; for legends are seldom born like Pallas Athene full-grown and fully accoutered from one inventive brain.”
Eusebius Finds a Letter
The earliest complete version of the letter and the accompanying story was discovered by Eusebius among a cache of Syriac documents in the archives of Edessa, now known as Şanlıurfa in Turkey. Some have suggested that Eusebius manufactured either document or quote, but this is not credible at all. Eusebius may have been overly credulous at times, and certainly eager to please his patrons, but he was neither fraud nor fool.
The story goes like this:
Abgar V, king of Edessa, was suffering a grievous illness for which there was no cure. Word of the miracles of Jesus reached his ear, and he wrote the following letter to Him by Ananias the Tabularius (something like an official envoy):
“Abgar Uchama (the Black), to Jesus the good Savior who has appeared in the region of Jerusalem, greeting. The reports about you and your cures have reached me, how they are effected by you without drugs and herbs. For, as the story goes, you make the blind to see, the lame to walk, and you cleanse lepers, and you cast out unclean spirits and demons, and you cure those who are tortured in lingering disease, and you raise the dead. When I heard all this about you, I decided that either one of two things is true, either that you are God, and having come down from heaven are doing these things, or you are a Son of God, who does these things. On this account, then, I have written to beg you to hasten to me and to cure me of the suffering which I have. For I have heard also that the Jews murmur against you and wish to harm you. But I have a very small and venerable city which is enough for us both.”
Jesus, impressed by the faith displayed in this letter, replied, either by his own hand or through words dictated to Ananais (stories vary).
“Blessed are you who have believed although you have not seen me. For it is written concerning me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, and that those who have not seen me will themselves believe and shall be saved. But regarding what you wrote me, to come to you, I must fulfill all things for which I was sent, and, after thus fulfilling them, be taken up to Him who sent me. And when I have been taken up, I shall send you one of my disciples to heal your suffering and to give life to you and those with you.”
In a key version of the story, Jesus either posed for a portrait, or pressed a cloth to his face, thus creating a miraculous image that would become known as the Portrait of Edessa, or simply the Mandylion
Christianity Comes to Syria
A document appended to these two extraordinary letters explains what happened next, in the “340th year of Edessa.” (Probably about 30 AD.)
Following the crucifixion, St. Thomas sent Thaddeus (also called Addai) to Edessa. Addai is called “one of the Seventy,” meaning the seventy disciples sent on missionary work by Jesus. (Luke 10:1-24.) In some Eastern traditions, Addai is a Jew from Edessa who was in Jerusalem for a festival. He heard the preaching of John and was baptized, then became a follower of Jesus who was commissioned to spread the word. This Thaddeus/Addai is not the same as St. Jude the Apostle, also called Thaddeus. Some even doubt that St. Addai and Thaddeus of Edessa are the same person, but the tradition clearly points to a single person.
Addai returned to his home of Edessa, where he is said to have stayed with Tobias, son of Tobias. Tobias is a Jewish name, so the implication is that he came back to the Jewish community of Edessa to preach. Addai began to heal people in the name of Christ. When word of this reached Abgar, he suspected this was the follower Jesus had promised him. Abgar summoned Tobias and Addai.
When Addai came before the king, Abgar saw a “great vision” on his face. He asked, “Are you in truth a disciple of Jesus, the Son of God, who said to me, ‘I will send you one of my disciples who will heal you and give you life’?”
Addai replied, “Since you have had a great faith in Him who sent me, on this account have I been sent to you. And again, if you believe in Him, in so far as you believe, the requests of your heart shall be yours.”
At this, Abgar testified to his faith in Jesus, and Addai healed him of this unknown ailment. Others were healed at the same time, and Addai continued to preach and heal in Edessa with the support of Abgar.
Who Was Abgar?
Abgar V was the king of Edessa, from perhaps 13 to 50 AD. Already in these dates we see an important part of Abgar’s role in the evolution of the legend: he ruled during the lifetime of Jesus. A long dynasty of nomadic Nabateans ruled the region after the Seleucids. These twenty-four kings, most of them named either Abgar or Ma’nu, saw their region gradually absorbed by Rome beginning in 114AD, first as a vassal state, then as a province. The Abgar dynasty continued in power for almost 400 years, with fluctuations in influence among Armenians, Romans, and Parthians, until 244AD when it was finally ended by Roman control.
These dates and kings are important because they give us a clue about just where and when the Abgar legend arose. We know that Christianity came to the region no later than about 190AD, and possibly much earlier. The bishop of Edessa, Palut, who was in his see by 200, was probably not the first bishop. There’s speculation that an itinerant Palestinian preacher named Addai evangelized the city and became its first bishop some time in the middle of he second century, followed by Aggai and then Palut.
Edessa was the main hub of the Christian faith across the Euphrates, and this brought with it a problem. Every rival to Nicean Christianity eventually set up shop there and began preaching, including numerous heretics. As Edessa grew in importance, it became crucial to establish its orthodox bona fides with an impeccable Christian origin story. It’s more likely that the first king who converted to Christianity was not Abgar V during the lifetime of Jesus, but rather Abgar X in the early 3rd century. One theory suggests that Abgar X’s conversion was accomplished by Bardaisin, a Valentinian contemporary of the king. To overcome this gnostic connection, later Syriac writers adapted the legend to an earlier Abgar to provide apostolic credibility for the Edessan church.
Did Abgar and Jesus Exchange Letters?
The phrasing of the Jesus letter is similar to Tatian’s Diatessaron, a gospel harmony of the 2nd century. This makes sense since Tatian was Assyrian and his harmony was used in Syrian worship up to at least the 5th century. The similarity suggests the letter is derived from Tatian, which would be unlikely if the letter was genuine.
As noted, the documents first enter the western consciousness through Eusebius, and are later incorporated into the Syriac Doctrine of Addai (4th century) with some key additions. The most notable changes for this version was the addition of a blessing promising protection of the city and the creation of the Mandylion. The addition of the image to the Abgar story may have been etiological, to explain the origin of a famous or miraculous icon.
The Decretum Gelasianum, composed some time between the 4th and 6th century depending on who you believe, lists the Epistula Iesu ad Abgarum (“Letter of Jesus to Abgar”) as apocrypha “to be avoided by catholics.” It was never regarded as canon in the western church. This didn’t stop the spread of the document and the tradition, however. For example, Jacobus de Voragine retells the story in The Golden Legend(12th century) and attaches it to St. Jude Thaddeus.
The pilgrim known as Etheria, who left us a detailed account of her pilgrimage in the 380s AD, discusses her visit to Edessa in the company of the city’s bishop. She describes the great church dedicated to St. Thomas, as well a thriving Christian community of memorial sites, monks, and great faith. She sees a statue of King Abgar, and although we cannot be certain which Abgar it was, the bishop presents it as Abgar V and tells her the story of the letter and its miraculous qualities. He never mentions the Mandylion, so it’s possible the story of the icon had not yet been attached to the letter, or perhaps been forgotten. Mentions of the image and legend surface in the works of Procopius and Evagrius Scholasticus (6th century), and the promise of the letter or the miraculous power of the image are credited with saving the city at different times. The image itself has a rich history, and author Ian Wilson argues that the Mandylion is really the Shroud of Turin folded to display only the face.
The connection of letter, legend, and Mandylion became important in the early Eastern church, and was given further credibility by John Damascene in his defense of icons. Abgar (who was certainly a genuine figure and a convert to Christianity) is regarded as a saint the Eastern Orthodox, Syrian, and Armenian Churches. He’s even shown on Armenian money with a flag bearing the Mandylion. The letter was used in liturgy, with mentions in collects as far away as Ireland in the 11th century. The letter doesn’t represent a genuine letter of Jesus Christ, but it has a rich and fascinating history all its own.