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What is the Legend of Abgar?

King Abgar of Edessa receiving image of ChristAccording to an ancient legend, the legend of Abgar, a cloth with an image of Jesus was brought to King Abgar V Ouchama of Edessa who ruled the city state off and on between A.D. 13 and 50. There are various versions of the story:

  1. The earliest known version of the legend comes to us by way of Eusebius of Caesarea. He tells of the legend, as though it was historical fact, in his early 4th century Ecclesiastical History.
  2. Sister Egeria, a pilgrim, most likely from Spain, visited Edessa in about A.D. 384. Her written accounts give sufficient credence to the Eusebius though they do not confer authenticity to the the letter or the Image of Edessa.
  3. Another version is by way of a Syrian manuscript, the Doctrine of Addai, fills in some gaps. According to this document, the image of Jesus was painted “with choice paints” or "with choice pigments" depending on the translation.
  4. A later document, the Acts of the Holy Apostle Thaddeus, written in the early part of the 6th century, adds more detail. It suggests that the image was formed when Jesus wiped his face on the linen cloth and it refers to the cloth as a tetradiplon, meaning it was folded into eight equal sections.
  5. Evagrius Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical History tells us that Edessa was protected by a “divinely wrought portrait," an acheiropoieton, sent by Jesus to king Abgar.
  6. John of Damascus, a priest and monk who served as an advisor to the Muslim Caliph of Damascus, was able from the relative safety of the Caliph’s court, to criticize the emperor Leo III for imposed iconoclasm. In Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images he described the Image of Edessa as a himation, a Greek word for a long rectangular cloth worn as sleeveless garment in ancient Greece and well and the Greek Byzantine era.

The significance of the legend is not in how the images were formed. Nor is it in telling us how the cloth arrived in Edessa. The significance is that there was a cloth with an image on it. Legends often form as ways of creating explanations for some important object or phenomenon where factual history is absent.

The picture above is part of a 10th century painting. It shows Abgar receiving the picture from the disciple Thaddeus. It is significant in showing that the legend was current in the 10th century Greek-Byzantine world. See: full Painting of Abgar receiving the Image of Edessa from Thaddeus.

In summary, we learn of a document that had been in Edessa’s archives. If it ever existed, it is now lost to history.  It was a letter, we are told, written by an ailing King Abgar V and hand delivered to Jesus of Nazareth by an envoy named Ananias. The king had heard of Jesus and asked him to come to Edessa to cure him. In Eusebius’ history we learn that the Jesus’ apostle, Thomas, sent a disciple named Thaddeus sometime after Jesus’ death and that he founded a church in Edessa.

Historians are critical of this “historical account” because Eusebius’s history includes references from the Gospels which were written later. He also discussed theological concepts that were probably developed many years after the life of Abgar.

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