Question: "What is the Letter of King Abgar to Jesus?"
Answer: The Letter of King Abgar to Jesus, or the Abgar Letter, is a document written originally in Syriac that purports to be a letter to Jesus and Jesus’ supposed response. The church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 260—340), translated the letter into Greek for inclusion in his Historia Ecclesiastica. Through the centuries various legends have sprung up around the Abgar Letter.
The king who supposedly sent the letter to Jesus was Abgar V, king of Edessa. Edessa was the capital of Osroene and a major Mesopotamian city on the northern edge of the Syrian plateau (in what is now southeast Turkey). Edessa is called Urfa today. The letter is rather short. In it, King Abgar tells Jesus that he has heard of the miracles Jesus was performing and asks the Lord to come to Edessa and heal him of a malady. The king also invites Jesus to stay in Edessa, where He would be protected from the animosity of the Jews in Jerusalem. Abgar sent the letter to Jesus by means of a courier named Ananias.
In the reply to the letter from Abgar, Jesus supposedly wrote, “Blessed art thou that hast believed in me, not having seen me,” but then declines to visit Edessa, citing His need to finish His work in Jerusalem. Jesus promised, however, to send a disciple later to heal Abgar. According to the legend, the disciple who healed King Abgar after Jesus’ ascension was Judas Thaddeus, also called Addai, who was one of the 70 (or 72) disciples mentioned in Luke 10:1.
Later, another passage was added to the Letter of King Abgar to Jesus. In it, Jesus promised that, wherever the letter was, that place would have protection from enemies. Naturally, copies of the letter were made and distributed to various cities that wanted divine protection. Individuals even began carrying copies of the letter on their persons as good-luck charms to ward off evil.
Other superstitions began to crop up, too. One legend that became popular in the Middle Ages was that there was an image of Jesus Christ associated with the Letter of King Abgar. At first, it was said the picture was painted by Hannan, a court painter in Edessa who had actually seen Christ. Later, a story began to circulate that the portrait appeared on its own, through divine agency, and that it was the image that cured King Abgar. The monk John of Damascus provided more fantastic details, saying that Jesus had pressed His face into a cloth, causing the image to miraculously appear. This image of Jesus is called the Image of Edessa or the Holy Face of Edessa. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the image is called the Mandylion and is considered a holy relic, the first icon.
The Letter of King Abgar to Jesus claims to include a correspondence from Jesus Himself. The problem with this is that, while the Bible shows Jesus teaching orally, it never shows Him writing. The written word was not how Jesus operated. Jesus left the Church—not a body of writing. He said, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25–26). To remember what Jesus had spoken, the apostles were to rely on the Holy Spirit. There was no written text for them to consult.
The fact that the biblical record tells us nothing of Jesus’ writing makes any claim that someone has a Jesus-written document suspect. Jesus taught the disciples, and the Holy Spirit aided in remembrance and interpretation, allowing the apostles to deliver the New Testament canon.
The consensus of Bible scholars is that the Letter of King Abgar to Jesus is fraudulent. The document was probably written in the third century AD and then placed where Eusebius would eventually find it. This is not to say that some sort of letter never existed. The question concerns the authorship and date of the letter. It is thought that the basis for the legend surrounding the letter is the Syrian king Abgar IX, who converted to Christianity in the late second century.
Although a fake, the Abgar Letter was believed to be real by many in the third-century church. The letter even found its way into liturgical use. Today, King Abgar is considered a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church (with feasts in his honor on May 11 and October 28) and in the Syriac Orthodox Church (with a feast on August 1).
Biblical Christianity is defined by its authority: the sixty-six-book canon. It has no room for relics, images, or supposed letters from Jesus. The spurious Letter of King Abgar to Jesus is an argument for shunning any addendums, supplements, or additions to Scripture.