AFB B-Sides: Letters of Christ and Abgar

Apocrypha for Beginners is meant to cover many representative works, but I was only able to include so many. There are, of course, myriad more. This is part of a series of “B-sides”: posts about apocrypha that weren’t included in the book.

Letters of Christ and Abgar

Facts

Also known as: Epistles of Christ and Abgar

Author: Unknown, a Syriac Christian in Edessa

Date written: Third century CE

Language: Probably Syriac, but it survives in widespread form in Greek

Canons: None, but popular in various Christian communities

Discovery

These letters were first related in the Ecclesiastical History (I.13) by Eusebius, who claims that they come from the archives of Edessa and that he has translated them from Syriac. The letters also appear in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai, a founding document for the Edessan Christian community from the late fourth or early fifth century. The letters became widespread and well known from that time onward. The most popular form is the correspondence in Eusebius’s History, but scholars have discovered manuscripts of other versions, including translations in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Latin, and Church Slavic.

Summary

This legend revolves around King Abgar V of Edessa (died around 50 CE), who falls ill and writes to Jesus asking him to visit to heal him. In his letter to Jesus, Abgar relates that he has learned about Jesus’s miracles and concluded that he must be the son of God. Jesus sends a response, blessing Abgar for believing without seeing Jesus himself but says that he must fulfill his mission and cannot visit the king. Jesus relates that, after he is gone, he will send one of his disciples to the king to heal him.

The letters often circulate with added framing devices, including an extended narrative about the disciple Thaddeus traveling to Edessa. Thaddeus performs healing miracles, and King Abgar learns about him, recalling what Jesus had related in his letter. Abgar sends for Thaddeus, who visits the king and heals him after Abgar expresses his belief in Jesus and his Father. Thaddeus then preaches about Jesus’s life and teachings for the king and the citizens of Edessa.

Analysis

The story of Abgar and his correspondence with Jesus is primarily part of the founding legend for Christianity in Edessa. It is closely related to accounts of the conversion of Abgar and the Edessan community because of the missionary activity of Thaddeus (Addai in some documents), one of Jesus’s seventy disciples. For these reasons, the letters are central to Syriac Christianity. Scholars believe that the letters and larger framing narrative were meant to solidify an origin legend for Edessan Christianity, solidifying connections between the religion and state power at the time of composition. It is thus bound up with a particular ideological view of Christianity in Edessa, which became a major center for Syriac Christianity in late antiquity.


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