• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

A Letter From the Lord: the Road from Abgar to Magic

The New Testament is about Christ and the consequences of his life. Yet it contains no words written directly by the Messiah. This clearly rankled many early Christians because a tradition swiftly developed c. AD 100-200 that a manuscript did in fact contain his scribblings; it was a single apocryphon – the reply of Christ to Abgar, King of Edessa – which purported to be written in Christ’s own hand. Though never credited with scriptural authority by the Church it was widely circulated and translated and was especially popular in Egypt (where Coptic versions survive).

Eusebius tells of how Abgar was afflicted by an incurable disease. The ruler apparently became so desperate that he begged Christ to visit him. The Son of God, however, was busy with his work on earth, which he felt compelled to complete before returning the Father. He responded with a letter, the promise of a visit from one of his disciples, and promised salvation to him and all his house (EH. I. 13.3). This was fulfilled when Thomas (one of the twelve) sent Thaddeus (Addai in Syriac) to evangelise Edessa.

Eusebius claimed Christ’s reply still existed in his own day and that the original Syriac was translated into Greek, Latin, Armenian, Arabic and Coptic. Here’s the letter in full:

“Blessed are you Abgar who has 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. In regard to what you have written, it is necessary for me to fulfil all things here and after I have completed them thus to be taken up to Him who sent me. But I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal thy disease, and give life to you.”

The Syriac version, known as the Doctrine of Addai, also had the messenger paint a portrait (known in Byzantine history as the “Mandylion,” which was eventually housed in Constantinople) of Christ to take back to Abgar with the letter (8:20-9:4). But what’s more interesting is that the early Christians appear to have taken the notion of Christ being an effective force against “adversaries” (demons) even after his death and run with it. The Messiah’s living presence was no longer needed to humble evil, one of his objects (such as the letter) or even just his name could prevail too. This was a Christian prerogative, however. A passage of Acts (19:13-20) warned that “Some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the name of Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.’ Seven sons of the Jewish priest named Sceva were doing this. But the demon answered ‘Jesus I know. Paul I know. But who are you?” And then they were all overpowered by the spirit and naked fled the house.”

This is the era that paves a way directly to the Testament of Solomon, the pseudepigraphical text ascribed to King Solomon and associated with the Old Testament while possessing no official relation to either. An excerpt relates how “I [Solomon] asked Ephippas [a powerful demon from Arabia] by which angel was he thwarted. And he said by the one born of a virgin and crucified by the Jews.” Later exorcisms took on some of the more (relatively) harmless gnostic terminology in their appeal to Christ. A fourth-century spell, for example, went “I invoke you… fullness of the aeon, who has come to us and broken the claw of Charon, who has come through Gabriel in the womb of the virgin…” A culture happily absorbed by the citizens of Constantinople who inscribed parts of Abgar’s correspondence, as well as more dubious spells, on the lintels of their houses in order to harness their apotropaic powers.

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