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Abgar, Legends of


Two letters published by Eusebius of Caesarea as part of the Acta Edessena (Histoire ecclesiastique 1.13), supposedly discovered in the archives of Edessa. They purport to be an exchange of correspondence between Jesus Christ and King Abgar V called Uchama (the "black" according to Tacitus), who reigned in Osrhoene from 4 b.c. to a.d. 7 and from a.d. 13 to 50. The first letter carried by an artist, Ananias, requests Christ to come to Osrhoene and cure the king. In His response Christ excuses Himself, but promises to send the Apostle Thaddeus (the Disciple Thomas the Younger, or Addai) after His Ascension. A version (c. 400) of the legend in the Acts of Thaddeus and the Syriac Doctrina Addaei or Thaddeus legend has Christ cure Abgar before sending Thaddeus who converts the king.

The legend is further elaborated with the story of the conversion of King Abgar IX (179216) who became a Roman tributary in 195, and whose court was visited by julius africanus and the gnostic Bardesanes [Kestoi 7, ed. J. Viellefond (Paris 1932) 49]. The so-called portrait of Christ at Edessa was supposedly painted by the messenger Ananias; and the words of Christ quoted in the second letter were used by Syrians and Eastern Egyptians as protective devices (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.12).

Recent investigation indicates that the Eusebian version that spread in the West through rufinus of aquileia's translation of his Church History antedates the Thaddeus legend. Traces of Tatian's Diatessaron in the letters point to an early third-century composition. St. Augustine denied the existence of any letter written by Christ (C. Faust. 28.4) and the Decretum Gelasianum called this correspondence apocryphal. Considerable doubt now surrounds the conversion of King Abgar IX, which until recently was accepted as historical fact.

Bibliography: h. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2 1:43. j. quasten, Patrology 1:140143. labubnĀ bar sennĀk, The Doctrine of Addai, ed. in Syriac and tr. g. phillips (London 1876). e. von dobschÜtz, "Der Briefwechsel zwischen Abgar und Jesus," Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 43 (1900) 422486; Das Christusbild von Edessa (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 18, NS 3; 1899). a. von harnack and e. von dobschÜtz, eds., Decretum Gelasianum (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 38; 1912). s. runciman, Cambridge Historical Journal 3 (192931) 238252, portraits. h. c. youtie, " the Letter to Abgar," Harvard Theological Review 23 (1930) 299302; 24 (1931) 6166. i. ortiz de urbina, "Le origini del cristianesimo in Edessa," Gregorianum 15 (1934) 8291.

[f. x. murphy]

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