Abgar V

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Abgar V of Edessa
Ruler of the kingdom of Osroene
Icon of Abgar holding the mandylion , the image of Christ (encaustic, 10th century, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai).
Diedc. 40 - 50
Spouse Helena of Adiabene
Saint Abgar
Venerated in Armenian Apostolic Church
Roman Catholic Church
Oriental Catholicism
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Syriac Orthodox Church

Abgar V (died c. AD 40), called Ukkāmā (meaning "the Black" in Syriac and other dialects of Aramaic), [lower-alpha 1] was the King of Osroene with his capital at Edessa. [1]


Abgar V on an Armenian 100,000 Dram banknote 100,000 Armenian dram - 2009 (obverse).jpg
Abgar V on an Armenian 100,000 Dram banknote


Abgar was described as "king of the Arabs" by Tacitus, a near-contemporary source. [2] According to Movses Khorenatsi, Abgar was an Armenian. [3] Yet both Robert W.Thomson and Richard G. Hovannisian state Abgar's Armenian ethnicity was invented by Khorenatsi. [4] Modern scholarly consensus agree that the Abgarids were in fact an Arab dynasty. [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Abgar V came to power in 4 BC. He became a Roman client, lost his throne in 7 AD and regained it five years later.

Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi, or Moses of Chorene (ca. 410–490s AD), reported that the chief wife of King Abgar V was Queen Helena of Adiabene, the wife of King Monobaz I of Adiabene, and thus the kingdoms of Edessa and Adiabene were linked in some manner. Robert Eisenman suggests Queen Helena as one of the wives of King Abgar V, who allotted her the lands of Adiabene. [11] Professor Eisenman derived this association from Movses Khorenatsi mentioning the same famine relief to Judaea as does Flavius Josephus:

As to the first of Abgar’s wives, named Helena... She went away to Jerusalem in the time of Claudius, during the famine which Agabus had predicted; with all her treasures she bought in Egypt an immense quantity of corn, which she distributed amongst the poor, a fact to which Josephus testifies. Helena’s tomb, a truly remarkable one, is still to be seen before the gate of Jerusalem. [12]

Professor Eisenman goes on to equate King Abgarus V with the Agabus in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 11:27-30), because Agabus was identified with the same famine relief as Queen Helena. By necessity Eisenman then equates the biblical Antioch Orontes with Antioch Edessa, indicating that Paul the Apostle and Barnabas went to Edessa. [13]

Christian legend

Letter of Abgar to Jesus

Abgar V is claimed to be one of the first Christian kings in history, having been converted to the faith by Thaddeus of Edessa, one of the seventy disciples. [14] [15]

The church historian Eusebius records that the Edessan archives contained a copy of a correspondence exchanged between Abgar of Edessa and Jesus. [16] [17] The correspondence consisted of Abgar's letter and the answer dictated by Jesus. On August 15, 944, the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae in Constantinople received the letter and the Mandylion. Both relics were then moved to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos. [18]

Fresco from Varaga St. Gevorg church chapel showing king Abgar with image of Christ Edessa Abgar king with Christ image.jpg
Fresco from Varaga St. Gevorg church chapel showing king Abgar with image of Christ

The account of this enjoyed great popularity in the East, and also in the West, during the Middle Ages: Jesus' letter was copied on parchment, inscribed in marble and metal, and used as a talisman or an amulet. Of this correspondence, there survive not only a Syriac text, but an Armenian translation as well, two independent Greek versions, shorter than the Syriac, and several inscriptions on stone.

A curious growth has arisen from this event, with scholars disputing whether Abgar suffered from gout or from leprosy, whether the correspondence was on parchment or papyrus, and so forth. [19]

The text of the letter was:

Abgar, ruler of Edessa, to Jesus the good physician who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard the reports of you and of your cures as performed by you without medicines or herbs. For it is said that you make the blind to see and the lame to walk, that you cleanse lepers and cast out impure spirits and demons, and that you heal those afflicted with lingering disease, and raise the dead. And having heard all these things concerning you, I have concluded that one of two things must be true: either you are God, and having come down from heaven you do these things, or else you, who does these things, are the son of God. I have therefore written to you to ask you if you would take the trouble to come to me and heal all the ill which I suffer. For I have heard that the Jews are murmuring against you and are plotting to injure you. But I have a very small yet noble city which is great enough for us both. [20]

Jesus gave the messenger the reply to return to Abgar:

Blessed are you who hast believed in me without having seen me. For it is written concerning me, that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and be saved. But in regard to what you have written me, that I should come to you, it is necessary for me to fulfill all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to him that sent me. But after I have been taken up I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal your disease and give life to you and yours. [21]

Egeria wrote of the letter in her account of her pilgrimage in Edessa. She read the letter during her stay, and remarked that the copy in Edessa was fuller than the copies in her home (which was likely France). [22]

In addition to the importance it attained in the apocryphal cycle, the correspondence of King Abgar also gained a place in liturgy for some time. The Syriac liturgies commemorate the correspondence of Abgar during Lent. The Celtic liturgy appears to have attached importance to it; the Liber Hymnorum , a manuscript preserved at Trinity College, Dublin (E. 4, 2), gives two collects on the lines of the letter to Abgar. It is even possible that this letter, followed by various prayers, may have formed a minor liturgical office in some Catholic churches. [20]

This event has played an important part in the self-definition of several Eastern churches. Abgar is counted as saint, with feasts on May 11 and October 28 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, August 1 in the Syrian Church, and daily in the Mass of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian Apostolic Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, is named after Saint Abgar (also spelled as Apkar).

Critical scholarship

The scholar Bart D. Ehrman cites evidence from Han Drijvers and others for regarding the whole correspondence as forged in the third century by orthodox Christians "as an anti-Manichaean polemic", and entirely spurious. [23]

A number of contemporary scholars have suggested origins of the tradition of Abgar's conversion apart from historical record. S. K. Ross suggests the story of Abgar is in the genre of a genealogical myth which traces the origin of a community back to a mythical or divine ancestor. [24] F. C. Burkitt argues that the conversion of Edessa at the time of Abgar VIII was retrojected upon the Apostolic age. [25] William Adler suggests the origin of the story of the conversion of Abgar V was an invention of an antiquarian researcher employed by Abgar VIII, who had recently converted to Christianity, in an effort to securely root Christianity in the history of the city. [26] Walter Bauer, on the other hand, argued the legend was written without sources to reinforce group cohesiveness, orthodoxy, and apostolic succession against heretical schismatics. [27] However, several distinct sources, known to have not been in contact with one another, claimed to have seen the letters in the archives, so his claim is suspect. [28]

Significant advances in scholarship on the topic have been made [29] by Desreumaux's translation with commentary, [30] M. Illert's collection of textual witnesses to the legend, [31] and detailed studies of the ideology of the sources by Brock, [32] Griffith, [33] and Mirkovic. [34] The majority of scholars now claim the goal of the authors and editors of texts regarding the conversion of Abgar were not so much concerned with historical reconstruction of the Christianisation of Edessa as the relationships between church and state power, based on the political and ecclesiological ideas of Ephraem the Syrian. [35] [36] [34] However, the origins of the story are far still from certain, [37] although the stories as recorded seem to have been shaped by the controversies of the third century CE, especially as a response to Bardaisan. [35]

See also


  1. Arabic: أبجر الخامس أوكاما, romanized: ʾAbǧar al-Ḫāmis ʾŪkāmā,[ citation needed ] Syriac: ܐܒܓܪ ܚܡܝܫܝܐ ܐܘܟܡܐ, romanized: ʾAḇgar Ḥmīšāyā ʾUkkāmā,[ citation needed ] Armenian: Աբգար Ե Եդեսացի, romanized: Abgar Hingerord Yedesatsi,[ citation needed ] Greek: Ἄβγαρος, translit.  Abgaros,[ citation needed ] Latin: Abgarus.[ citation needed ]

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  12. Wikisource-logo.svg Movses Khorenatsi. "History of Armenia"  . In Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; Coxe, Arthur Cleveland; Schaff, Philip (eds.). Memoirs of Edessa And Other Ancient Syriac Documents. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. VIII. Translated by Pratten, Benjamin Plummer. Chapter 10..
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  16. Walsh, Michael J. (1986). The triumph of the meek: why early Christianity succeeded. Harper & Row. p. 125. ISBN   9780060692544. The story about this kingdom which Eusebius relates is as follows. King Abgar (who ruled from AD 13 to 50) was dying. Hearing of Jesus' miracles he sent for him. Jesus wrote back - this correspondence, Eusebius claims, can be found in the Edessan archives - to say that he could not come because he had been sent to the people of Israel, but he would send a disciple later. But Abgar was already blessed for having believed in him.
  17. In his Church History , I, xiii, ca AD 325.
  18. Janin, Raymond (1953). La Géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin. 1. Part: Le Siège de Constantinople et le Patriarcat Oecuménique. 3rd Vol. : Les Églises et les Monastères (in French). Paris: Institut Français d'Etudes Byzantines. p. 172.
  19. Norris, Steven Donald (2016-01-11). Unraveling the Family History of Jesus: A History of the Extended Family of Jesus from 100 Bc Through Ad 100 and the Influence They Had on Him, on the Formation of Christianity, and on the History of Judea. WestBow Press. ISBN   9781512720495.
  20. 1 2 Leclercq, Henri (1913). "The Legend of Abgar"  . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia . New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  21. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250101.htm
  22. Bernard, John. "The Pilgrimage of Egeria". University of Pennsylvania. Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society.
  23. Forgery and Counterforgery, pp455-458
  24. S.K. Ross, Roman Edessa. Politics and Culture in the Eastern Fringe of the Roman Empire, Routledge, London 2001, p. 135
  25. Burkitt, F. C., Early Eastern Christianity, John Murray, London 1904, chap. I
  26. Adler, William (2011). "Christians and the Public Archive". In Mason, E.F. (ed.). A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Brill. p. 937. ISBN   978-90-04-22408-7 . Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  27. Bauer 1971, Chapter 1.
  28. http://newadvent.org/fathers/0859.htm
  29. Camplani 2009, p. 253.
  30. Histoire du roi Abgar et de Jésus, Présentation et traduction du texte syriaque intégral de la Doctrine d’Addaï par. A. Desreumaux, Brepols, Paris 1993.
  31. M. Illert (ed.), Doctrina Addai. De imagine Edessena / Die Abgarlegende. Das Christusbild von Edessa (Fontes Christiani, 45), Brepols, Turhout 2007
  32. S.P. Brock, Eusebius and Syriac Christianity, in H.W. Attridge-G. Hata (eds.), Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, Brill, Leiden-New York-Köln 1992, pp. 212-234, republished in S. Brock, From Ephrem to Romanos. Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity (Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS644), Ashgate/Variorum, Aldershot-Brookfield-Singapore- Sydney 1999, n. II.
  33. Griffith, Sidney H. (2003). "The Doctrina Addai as a Paradigm of Christian Thought in Edessa in the Fifth Century". Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies. 6 (2): 269–292. ISSN   1097-3702. Archived from the original on 21 August 2003. Retrieved 25 January 2017.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  34. 1 2 Mirkovic 2004.
  35. 1 2 Camplani 2009.
  36. Griffith 2003, §3 and §28.
  37. Mirkovic 2004, pp. 2-4.