A king of Edessa in the first half of the first century (it would seem between 4 B.C. and A.D. 50) and the subject of a Christian legend found for the first time in Eusebius (Historia ecclesiastica 1.13.5-22). According to this version, Abgar, being ill, writes a letter to Jesus asking him to visit and cure him. Jesus rejects the request, but promises that after his ascension he will send a disciple to heal the king and to preach the gospel. Thaddeus, a disciple of Thomas, is, in fact, sent.
Eusebius says that he is giving the translation of a Syriac text. The legend is then found with certain variation in the so-called Doctrina Addai, a Syriac text that has survived complete in only one manuscript (Phillips, 1876). This text is late, but may be derived from the one used by Eusebius. The Peregrinatio Aetheriae asserts that Christ’s original letter on parchment was conserved at Edessa.
A later addition to the legend speaks of Jesus’ portrait, claiming that it was enclosed with the letter. In the Byzantine world the portrait aspect of the legend predominated, whereas in the more properly Eastern world, the text of the letter was more important and was used as a talisman to protect health and to assure personal safety.
The text of the letter is found in Coptic in a great number of manuscripts of every type (papyrus, parchment, shards, paper, and inscriptions) and from every era. A survey up to 1915 was made by Drioton, according to whom the use of the letter spread throughout Coptic circles after having originated in monasticism during the time of the Arian persecution, when Athanasius took refuge with the monks of the south.
- Drioton, E. “Un Apocryphe antiarien: la version copte de la Correspondence d‘Abgar roi d‘Edesse avec notre Seigneur.” Revue de l‘Orient chrétien 2 (1915):306-326, 337-73.
- Giversen, S. “The Sahidic Version of the Letter of Abgar on a Wooden Tablet.” Acta Orientalia 24 (1954):71-82.
- Leclercq, H. “Abgar.” In Dictionnaire d‘archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 1, pp. 87-97. Paris, 1903.
- Lipsius, R. A. Die Edessenische Abgarsage. Brunswick, West Germany, 1880.
- Phillips, G., ed. The Doctrine of Addai. London, 1876.