1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abgar

ABGAR, a name or title borne by a line of kings or toparchs, apparently twenty-nine in number, who reigned in Osrhoene and had their capital at Edessa about the time of the Christian era. According to an old tradition, one of these princes, perhaps Abgar V. (Ukkāmā or Uchomo, “the black”), being afflicted with leprosy, sent a letter to Jesus, acknowledging his divinity, craving his help and offering him an asylum in his own residence, but Jesus wrote a letter declining to go, promising, however, that after his ascension he would send one of his disciples. These letters are given by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. i. 13), who declares that the Syriac document from which he translates them had been preserved in the archives at Edessa from the time of Abgar. Eusebius also states that in due course Judas, son of Thaddaeus, was sent (in 340 = A.D. 29). In another form of the story, derived from Moses of Chorene, it is said further that Jesus sent his portrait to Abgar, and that this existed in Edessa (Hist. Armen., ed. W. Whiston, ii. 29-32). Yet another version is found in the Syriac Doctrina Addaei (Addaeus = Thaddaeus), edited by G. Phillips (1876). Here it is said that the reply of Jesus was given not in writing, but verbally, and that the event took place in 343 (A.D. 32). Greek forms of the legend are found in the Acta Thaddaei (C. Tischendorf, Acta apostolorum apocr. 261 ff.).

These stories have given rise to much discussion. The testimony of Augustine and Jerome is to the effect that Jesus wrote nothing. The correspondence was rejected as apocryphal by Pope Gelasius and a Roman Synod (c. 495), though, it is true, this view has not been shared universally by the Roman church (Tillemont, Mémoires, i. 3, pp. 990 ff.). Amongst Evangelicals the spuriousness of the letters is almost generally admitted. Lipsius (Die Edessenische Abgarsage, 1880) has pointed out anachronisms which seem to indicate that the story is quite unhistorical. The first king of Edessa of whom we have any trustworthy information is Abgar VIII., bar Maʽnu (A.D. 176–213). It is suggested that the legend arose from a desire to trace the christianizing of his kingdom to an apostolic source. Eusebius gives the legend in its oldest form; it was worked up in the Doctrina Addaei in the second half of the 4th century; and Moses of Chorene was dependent upon both these sources.

Bibliography.—R. Schmidt in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie; Lipsius, Die Edessenische Abgarsage kritisch untersucht (1880); Matthes, Die Edessenische Abgarsage auf ihre Fortbildung untersucht (1882); Tixeront, Les Origines de l’église d’Edesse et la légende d’A. (1888); A. Harnack, Geschichte d. altchristlichen Litteratur, i. 2 (1893); L. Duchesne, Bulletin critique, 1889, pp. 41-48; for the Epistles see Apocryphal Literature, sect. “New Testament” (c).