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The Apocryphal New Testament Easy to use collection of English translations of the New Testament Apocrypha.

Shorter Epistles

J. K. Elliott

1. The Letters of Christ and Abgar

The basic sources for the legend of the conversion of Edessa to Christianity are the Doctrina Addai (as edited by Phillips) and a shorter version found in Eusebius, HE 1. 13 (cf. 2. 1. 6–8) (Schwartz, GCS 9.1 pp. 82–97 (letters in Greek with Rufinus' Latin translation, pp. 86–9)). The latter is the earliest Greek text; Eusebius claims that it was extracted by him from the archives of Edessa and translated from Syriac word for word.

According to Eusebius, Abgar, who was king of Edessa from 4 BC to AD 7 and again from AD 13 to 50, sent a letter to Jesus asking him to come and heal his malady. Jesus did not accede to this request, but in a letter said he would send a disciple to Edessa after his resurrection. After Jesus' death Thomas sent Thaddaeus (Addai in the Syriac tradition) to visit the king. Thaddaeus healed Abgar and converted Edessa to Christianity. According to the Pilgrimage of Etheria 17.1, 19.6 (ed. P. Geyer, CSEL 39 (Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, 1898), pp. 60, 62), a letter of Christ's was preserved and copied and miraculous powers ascribed to it. Other evidence exists, stating that the letter by Christ enjoyed wide circulation as an amulet affixed to doorposts and walls.

The Syriac Doctrina Addai represents a different form of the tradition from that found in Eusebius, but the precise history and interrelationship of the two traditions are disputed. Despite the verdict of Augustine (c. Faust. 28.4 (Zycha, p. 741)) and Jerome (on Ezech. 44. 29, ed. F. Glorie, CCL 75 (Turnhout, 1964), p. 669) that Jesus left nothing in writing, a judgement that probably influenced the Gelasian Decree in branding the letters as apocryphal, the correspondence and the Thaddaeus tradition were wide‐spread, with versions in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, and Slavonic. The popularity of the tradition in the West was due to Rufinus' Latin translation of Eusebius' History.

In the Doctrina Addai is found the tradition that Ananias, who carries Abgar's letter to Jesus, paints a portrait of Jesus which he then gives to Abgar. There is no mention of Jesus' letter to Abgar in this version of the story.

The general consensus of scholarly opinion is that the original tradition developed towards the end of the second century.

The translation below is made from the Greek text of Eusebius.

Editions 1 For the Doctrina Addai see separate bibliography below (p. 541).

Greek and Latin

  • Eusebius (see introduction above).

  • Fabricius, ii. 279–321.

  • Jones (21798), ii. 1–4. [Cf. Lipsius–Bonnet, i. 279–83.]

  • L. Casson and L. E. Hettich. Excavations at Nessana, ii (Princeton, 1950), 143–7 (Greek text).

  • OP 65 (London, 1998) 122–9, plate xiv.


  • A. M. Kropp, Ausgewählte koptische Zaubertexte, ii (Brussels, 1931), 72–89 (German trans.).

  • H. C. Youtie, ‘A Gothenburg Papyrus and the Letter to Abgar’, HTR 23 (1930), 299–302.

  • ——‘Gothenburg Papyrus 21 and the Coptic Version of the Letter to Abgar’, HTR 24 (1931), 61–5.

  • [Both are reproduced with addenda and corrigenda in id., Scriptiunculae, i (1973), 455–9, 461–6.]

  • Yassa ‘abd al‐Masīh, ‘An Unedited Bohairic Letter of Abgar’, Bulletin de l'institut français d'archéologie orientale 45 (1946), 65–80, and 54 (1954), 13–43. [The second article covers texts, including the letters themselves, and allied stories in Coptic, Greek, Syriac and Arabic, with full bibliographies.]


  • S. Grébaut, ‘Les relations entre Abgar et Jésus’, Revue de l'Orient Chrétien 3 (1918–19), 73–91, 190–203, 353–60.


  • Graf, i. 237–8.


  • de Santos Otero, Altslav. Apok. i. 149–57.

Modern Translations


  • Hone, 62–3.

  • James, 476–7 (letters).

  • Cowper, 217–20.

  • J. Quasten, Patrology, i (Utrecht, Brussels, 1950), 141–3 (text of letters in Eusebius).

  • Hennecke3, i. 437–44.

  • Hennecke5, i. 492–500.

  • Cartlidge and Dungan, 91–2.


  • Amiot, 46.

  • Migne, Dictionnaire, ii. cols. 19–26.


  • Hennecke1, 76–9 (A. Stülcken); cf. Handbuch, 153–65.

  • Hennecke3, i. 325–9 (W. Bauer).

  • Hennecke5, i. 389–95 (H. J. W. Drijvers).

  • Michaelis, 452–61.


  • Erbetta, iii. 77–84.

  • Moraldi, ii. 1657–68.


  • González‐Blanco, iii. 62–5.

  • de Santos Otero, 662–9 (with Greek text).


  • M. McNamara, The Apocrypha in the Irish Church (Dublin, 1975), 58–9. [Cf. P. Considine, ‘Irish Versions of the Abgar Legend’, Celtica 10 (1973), 237–57.]


  • For a fuller bibliography see de Santos Otero, 666–7.

  • R. A. Lipsius, Die edessenische Abgarsage kritisch untersucht (Brunswick, 1880).

  • L. J. Tixeront, Les origines de l’église d’Édesse et la légende d'Abgar: Étude critique suivie de deux textes orientaux inédits (Paris, 1888).

  • J. P. Martin, Les origines de l’église d’Édesse et des églises syriennes (Paris, 1889).

  • E. von Dobschütz, Christusbilder (Leipzig, 1899), 102–96, 158*–249*, 130**–156** (= TU 18 (3)).

  • ——‘Der Briefwechsel zwischen Abgar und Jesus’, ZWT 43 (1900), 422–86.

  • E. Schwartz, ‘Zur Abgarlegende’, ZNW (1903), 61–6.

  • Bauer, 79–81.


1 For the Doctrina Addai see separate bibliography below (p. 541).

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