The story of King Abgar (truth or fiction)

edited February 2014 in Random Issues
Recently, I think on the forums, Fr Peter Farrington alluded to a story about a king Abgar and how Christ delivered to him an imprint of His face which planted the seed of the 'Icon' tradition in the church. It apparently also motivated St Luke to write the first icon of Christ's face. King Abgar lived around the same time as our Lord..He was very ill and had heard of our Lord doing miracles in another land and sent for him, but Christ apparently sent him a hand written letter stating that he could not make the trip, instead sending him the aforementioned.

What, if any, truth does this story hold. Has it passed into christian folklore as mere myth or is there solid historical truth to it. It seemed to me a beautiful story, worthy of greater attention


  • Depends what you mean by "solid historical truth". All history is written by men with particular views and biases. If "solid historical truth" means it is corroborated by documented evidence, then many of our saints stories would be considered apocrypha.

    The Agbar story is considered apocrypha by nearly all historical and biblical scholars. The Agbar story is found Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. Chapter 8 of Eusebius' work, titled "Narrative concerning the Prince of the Edessenes", describes an apocryphal letter by a King Abgarus to Jesus concerning curing his disease. Christ states he will send Thomas after His ascension to Abgarus to heal him. 

    It is from this story that many apocryphal texts were ascribed with King Abgar. There is even a Coptic version of the apocryphal text. 

    It is noteworthy what the NPNF editors wrote about this story. "Abgarus was the name of several kings of Edessa, who reigned at various periods from b.c. 99 to a.d. 217. The Abgar contemporary with Christ was called Abgar Ucomo, or “the Black.” He was the fifteenth king, and reigned, according to Gutschmid, from a.d. 13 to a.d. 50. A great many ecclesiastical fictions have grown up around his name, the story, contained in its simplest form in the present chapter, being embellished with many marvelous additions. A starting-point for this tradition of the correspondence with Christ,—from which in turn grew all the later legends,—may be found in the fact that in the latter part of the second century there was a Christian Abgar, King of Edessa, at whose court Bardesanes, the Syrian Gnostic, enjoyed high favor, and it is certain that Christianity had found a foothold in this region at a much earlier period. Soon after the time of this Abgar the pretended correspondence was very likely forged, and foisted back upon the Abgar who was contemporary with Christ. Compare Cureton’s Anc. Syriac Documents relative go the Earliest Establishment of Christianity in Edessa,London, 1864." 

    They also comment on Eusebius historical accuracy. "We have no reason to doubt that Eusebius, who is the first to mention these apocryphal epistles, really found them in the public archives at Edessa. Moses Chorenensis, the celebrated Armenian historian of the fifth century, who studied a long time in Edessa, is an independent witness to their existence in the Edessene archives. Eusebius has been accused of forging this correspondence himself; but this unworthy suspicion has been refuted by the discovery and publication of the original Syriac (The Doct. of Addai the Apostle, with an English Translation and Notes, by G. Phillips, London, 1876; compare also Contemp. Rev., May, 1877, p. 1137). The epistles were forged probably long before his day, and were supposed by him to be genuine. His critical insight, but not his honesty, was at fault. The apocryphal character of these letters is no longer a matter of dispute, though Cave and Grabe defended their genuineness (so that Eusebius is in good company), and even in the present century Rinck (Ueber die Echtheit des Briefwechsels des Königs Abgars mit Jesu, Zeitschrift für Hist. Theol., 1843, II. p. 326) has had the hardihood to enter the lists in their defense; but we know of no one else who values his critical reputation so little as to venture upon the task." 

    As you can see, Eusebeius has many critics and opponents. The question of his historical accuracy is a long established problem, especially since he became Arian and went back to Orthodoxy. Putting Eusebius' general controversy aside, the story of Agbar is apocryphal but it still contains spiritual truth. I think it's better for us to focus on how to grow spiritually with such stories, rather than trying to use history to substantiate spirituality.

    I hope this helped. 
  • "I think it's better for us to focus on how to grow spiritually with such stories, rather than trying to use history to substantiate spirituality."

    No one was doing such a thing, my friend. But thank you for the input and information. Certainly helped.

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