Jesus and the King of Edessa

Eusebius wrote his church history sometime in the early 4th century. Towards the beginning of his work, there is an excerpt from some curious correspondence which purports to be between Jesus and the King of Edessa, a city in present-day southeastern Turkey.1 It’s unknown whether this correspondence is authentic, but Eusebius claimed to have translated the text from Syriac himself. Even if it isn’t original, it’s a curious piece of work captured in the earliest history of the Christian church ever written outside the Holy Scriptures:

The divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ being noised abroad among all men on account of his wonder-working power, he attracted countless numbers from foreign countries lying far away from Judea, who had the hope of being cured of their diseases and of all kinds of sufferings.

For instance the King Abgarus, who ruled with great glory the nations beyond the Euphrates, being afflicted with a terrible disease which it was beyond the power of human skill to cure, when he heard of the name of Jesus, and of his miracles, which were attested by all with one accord sent a message to him by a courier and begged him to heal his disease.

But he did not at that time comply with his request; yet he deemed him worthy of a personal letter in which he said that he would send one of his disciples to cure his disease, and at the same time promised salvation to himself and all his house.

Not long afterward his promise was fulfilled. For after his resurrection from the dead and his ascent into heaven, Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, under divine impulse sent Thaddeus, who was also numbered among the seventy disciples of Christ, to Edessa, as a preacher and evangelist of the teaching of Christ.

And all that our Saviour had promised received through him its fulfillment. You have written evidence of these things taken from the archives of Edessa, which was at that time a royal city. For in the public registers there, which contain accounts of ancient times and the acts of Abgarus, these things have been found preserved down to the present time. But there is no better way than to hear the epistles themselves which we have taken from the archives and have literally translated from the Syriac language in the following manner.

Copy of an epistle written by Abgarus the ruler to Jesus, and sent to him at Jerusalem by Ananias the swift courier

Abgarus, ruler Of Edessa, to Jesus the excellent Saviour who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard the reports of thee and of thy cures as performed by thee without medicines or herbs. For it is said that thou makest the blind to see and the lame to walk, that thou cleansest lepers and castest out impure spirits and demons, and that thou healest those afflicted with lingering disease, and raisest the dead.

And having heard all these things concerning thee, I have concluded that one of two things must be true: either thou art God, and having come down from heaven thou doest these things, or else thou, who doest these things, art the Son of God.

I have therefore written to thee to ask thee that thou wouldest take the trouble to come to me and heal the disease which I have. For I have heard that the Jews are murmuring against thee and are plotting to injure thee. But I have a very small yet noble city which is great enough for us both.

The answer of Jesus to the ruler Abgarus by the courier Ananias

Blessed art thou 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 thou hast written me, that I should come to thee, 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 thee one of my disciples, that he may heal thy disease and give life to thee and thine.

To these epistles there was added the following account in the Syriac language

After the ascension of Jesus, Judas, who was also called Thomas, sent to him Thaddeus, an apostle, one of the Seventy. When he was come he lodged with Tobias, the son of Tobias. When the report of him got abroad, it was told Abgarus that an apostle of Jesus was come, as he had written him.

Thaddeus began then in the power of God to heal every disease and infirmity, insomuch that all wondered. And when Abgarus heard of the great and wonderful things which he did and of the cures which he performed, he began to suspect that he was the one of whom Jesus had written him, saying, ‘After I have been taken up I will send to thee one of my disciples who will heal thee.’

Therefore, summoning Tobias, with whom Thaddeus lodged, he said, I have heard that a certain man of power has come and is lodging in thy house. Bring him to me. And Tobias coming to Thaddeus said to him, The ruler Abgarus summoned me and told me to bring thee to him that thou mightst heal him. And Thaddeus said, I will go, for I have been sent to him with power.

Tobias therefore arose early on the following day, and taking Thaddeus came to Abgarus. And when he came, the nobles were present and stood about Abgarus. And immediately upon his entrance a great vision appeared to Abgarus in the countenance of the apostle Thaddeus. When Abgarus saw it he prostrated himself before Thaddeus, while all those who stood about were astonished; for they did not see the vision, which appeared to Abgarus alone.

He then asked Thaddeus if he were in truth a disciple of Jesus the Son of God, who had said to him, ‘I will send thee one of my disciples, who shall heal thee and give thee life.’ And Thaddeus said, Because thou hast mightily believed in him that sent me, therefore have I been sent unto thee. And still further, if thou believed in him, the petitions of thy heart shall be granted thee as thou believest.

And Abgarus said to him, So much have I believed in him that I wished to take an army and destroy those Jews who crucified him, had I not been deterred from it by reason of the dominion of the Romans. And Thaddeus said, Our Lord has fulfilled the will of his Father, and having fulfilled it has been taken up to his Father. And Abgarus said to him, I too have believed in him and in his Father.

And Thaddeus said to him, Therefore I place my hand upon thee in his name. And when he had done it, immediately Abgarus was cured of the disease and of the suffering which he had.

And Abgarus marvelled, that as he had heard concerning Jesus, so he had received in very deed through his disciple Thaddeus, who healed him without medicines and herbs, and not only him, but also Abdus6 the son of Abdus, who was afflicted with the gout; for he too came to him and fell at his feet, and having received a benediction by the imposition of his hands, he was healed. The same Thaddeus cured also many other inhabitants of the city, and did wonders and marvelous works, and preached the word of God.

And afterward Abgarus said, Thou, O Thaddeus, doest these things with the power of God, and we marvel. But, in addition to these things, I pray thee to inform me in regard to the coming of Jesus, how he was born; and in regard to his power, by what power he performed those deeds of which I have heard.

And Thaddeus said, Now indeed will I keep silence, since I have been sent to proclaim the word publicly. But to-morrow assemble for me all thy citizens, and I will preach in their presence and sow among them the word of God, concerning the coming of Jesus, how he was born; and concerning his mission, for what purpose he was sent by the Father; and concerning the power of his works, and the mysteries which he proclaimed in the world, and by what power he did these things; and concerning his new preaching, and his abasement and humiliation, and how he humbled himself, and died and debased his divinity and was crucified, and descended into Hades, and burst the bars which from eternity had not been broken, and raised the dead; for he descended alone, but rose with many, and thus ascended to his Father.

Abgarus therefore commanded the citizens to assemble early in the morning to hear the preaching of Thaddeus, and afterward he ordered gold and silver to be given him. But he refused to take it, saying, If we have forsaken that which was our own, how shall we take that which is another’s? These things were done in the three hundred and fortieth year.

I have inserted them here in their proper place, translated from the Syriac literally, and I hope to good purpose.

Notes

1 Eusebius of Caesaria, “Church History,” in NPNF2, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 1:100–102.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Quite an interesting read.  Hard to believe those letters were accurate, etc., but if Eusebius mentions that Thaddeus healed the ruler and that it was recorded, that could be the case.

"The Midrash Detective"

Darrell Post's picture

"And Abgarus said to him, So much have I believed in him that I wished to take an army and destroy those Jews who crucified him"

That line suggests Abgarus had an intimate knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Christ's crucifixion. Possible? Sure. Likely? Not so sure. 

Maybe its a story that is generally a true event in history, but with some later embellishments. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Of Eusebius’ many writings the most celebrated is his ‘Ecclesiastical History’, the principal source for the history of Christianity from the Apostolic Age till his own day. As with all Eusebius’ writings, its literary style is poor. But it contains an immense range of material on the E. Church (he has little to say about the W.), largely in the form of long extracts taken over bodily from earlier writers. If Eusebius’ interpretation of these documents was sometimes in error, this is to be explained by his want of critical judgement and not by conscious perversion of the facts. The ‘History’ consists of ten books, of which the last three deal in great detail with the events of his own time. Indeed, it is widely (though not universally) held that the ‘History’ had originally ended before 303 with book 7, and that the later books were added in successive editions, the final edition with book 10 being revised as late as c. 325. Besides the original Greek, it survives in *Latin, *Syriac, and *Armenian versions.

Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church 2005 : 577. Print.

Read also that he was a big fan of Origen, and got tangled up on the wrong side of the Arian controversy.

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