Is there an explanation for how the Legend of Abgar evolved?
Historian Jack Markwardt provides us with a plausible explanation for how the Abgar legend developed. From early documents he has theorized that the shroud was taken, not to Edessa, but to Antioch following the crucifixion and "Resurrection" of Christ. (This presumes that it is authentic). There it remained until late in the second century when it was taken to the city of Edessa for the baptism of King Abgar the Great. Abgar the great is Abgar the VIII and is not to be confused with Abgar V of the legendary account. Markwardt writes:
. . . Avircius Marcellus, the Bishop of Hieropolis, was summoned to Rome, where he was introduced to Abgar’s wife, Queen Shalmath, that he then travelled to Antioch, where he was joined by Palut and provided with the Shroud, identifiable as the historically-documented sacred Christ-icon which had been taken from Palestine to Syria, and that he then proceeded to Edessa, where he displayed the imaged relic to the king and baptized him into the Christian faith, thereby resulting in the Shroud’s commemoration, in legend, as the Portrait of Edessa.
This fits nicely with a widespread scholarly consensus that Edessa was evangelized and developed as a Christian community at about this time. Scholars doubt that this happened earlier. And it gives us a plausible scenario for seeing how the legend of Abgar might have developed.
Markwardt tells us that the shroud was then returned to Antioch where it remained until the 6th century. It was, he believes, concealed in a niche above the city’s Gate of the Cherubim in 362 where it remained until about 540. The Gate of the Cherubim was so named because, reportedly, according to the biographer of St. Saint Symeon Stylites, the column sitter, Titus placed the Cherubim he took from the Temple in Jerusalem above this gate.
In 540, this relic, the Christ icon, was again taken to Edessa. This time it was done so to safeguard it from advancing Persian armies. Edessa was attacked by the Persians four years later but Edessa prevailed and defeated the Persians. The Persians were repulsed. Antioch, however, was nearly destroyed by the Persians under Khosrau I.
Credence for Markwardt’s theory comes from the account of Sister Egeria’s travels to Edessa in 384.
Regardless of how the cloth arrived in Edessa, by 544 the cloth was an important part of Edessa’s history.