Question: What is the Letter of King Abgar to Jesus?
Answer: Greetings friend. It will be my pleasure to respond to your question today — and it’s simple enough. I can indeed tell you what the “Letter of King Abgar to Jesus” is… but I’d also like to discuss some of the issues surrounding this and similar documents.
Let’s begin by looking at the full text of the letter itself — noting that this document is a coupling (it’s a letter and its response), and that it has been translated into English… and that we will have different names for the same person (like Abgarus instead of Abgar) which is normal when we translate ancient writings.
(A copy of a letter written by Abgarus the toparch to Jesus, and sent to him by means of Ananias the runner, to Jerusalem.)
Abgarus Uchama the toparch to Jesus the good Saviour that hath appeared in the parts (place) of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard concerning thee and thy cures, that they are done of thee without drugs or herbs: for, as the report goes, thou makest blind men to see again, lame to walk, and cleansest lepers, and castest out unclean spirits and devils, and those that are afflicted with long sickness thou healest, and raisest the dead.
And having heard all this of thee, I had determined one of two things, either that thou art God come down from heaven, and so doest these things or art a Son of God that doest these things.
Therefore now have I written and entreated thee to trouble thyself to come to me and heal the affliction which I have. or indeed I have heard that the Jews even murmur against thee and wish to do thee hurt. And I have a very little city but (and) comely (reverend), which is sufficient for us both.
(The answer, written by Jesus, sent by Ananias the runner to Abgarus the toparch.)
Blessed art thou that hast believed in me, not having seen me.
For it is written concerning me that they that have seen me shall not believe in me, and that they that have not seen me shall believe and live. But concerning that which thou hast written to me, to come unto thee; it must needs be that I fulfil all things for the which I was sent here, and after fulfilling them should then be taken up unto him that sent me.
And when I am taken up, I will send thee one of my disciples, to heal thine affliction and give life to thee and them that are with thee.
Later texts add a promise that where this letter is, no enemy shall prevail: and so we find the letter copied and used as an amulet. It was regarded naturally as the palladium of Edessa, but was also thought to act as a protection to individuals.
The letters form an integral part of the story of the mission of Thaddaeus and conversion of Edessa, and part of that legend is that Jesus gave the messenger of Abgarus a handkerchief miraculously imprinted with the picture of his face. Into all this we cannot enter.
(LETTERS OF CHRIST AND ABGARUS from The Apocryphal New Testament, M.R. James-Translation and Notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)
This letter claims to be a correspondence from Jesus Christ. But there are so many reasons why this is simply not true — and one jumps right out at me: the Bible shows Jesus teaching orally… but it never shows him writing. In fact, there is active debate about whether Jesus was even literate! … which will receive no comment here. But the fact that such a debate exists among credible scholars tells us that it’s not obvious that Jesus ever wrote anything — and for me, this is the strongest argument against the letter’s veracity: this is not how the biblically-revealed Jesus operated. Jesus left no body of writings; he left the Church… and they would do the writing. Jesus 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, NIV, emphases mine)
Now, logically speaking, the absence of evidence that Jesus ever wrote anything is not in itself evidence that he never did write. But the Bible tells us that writing was not part of Jesus’ earthly ministry definitively. This makes any claim that someone has a Jesus-written document suspect. Jesus taught… the Holy Spirit aided in memory and interpretation… but it was the people of the Church who delivered the New Testament canon.
Now, some sort of letter does indeed exist — that’s not the question. Its authorship is in question… as well as its dates. But this letter belongs to a large body of ancient documents that sound like Scripture… but which never rise to canonical status. It is interesting, though, that the Eastern Orthodox church understands this letter to be crucially linked to one of its holy relics, the Image of Edessa — which the legend says was an image of Christ! So, we cannot dismiss the letter as insignificant to the Christian culture… because indeed… stories of the relic are out there.
Thomas L. McDonald discusses this in the National Catholic Register.
Is the Legend True? Did Jesus Write a Letter to King Abgar?
Was there an exchange of letters between Jesus and King Abgar?
The obvious answer to our titular question is, of course, no. Jesus left no writings, and that wasn’t an oversight or something on his to-do list that he forgot. Christianity is not nor has it ever been a “religion of the book.” Jesus left the Church, and the Church in turn gives us the scripture.
Christianity produced a massive body of written literature, some becoming canon, some entering the patristic tradition, some condemned as heretical, and some which early Christians thought were real or contained elements of truth, but which subsequently fell into disfavor, such as the document traditionally called The Abgar Letter.
Although a fake, the Abgar Letter not only reveals something about an early Christian community, but was believed to be real by many in the early Church, and even found its way into liturgical use. Dismissing the entire story as mere legend is not only unhelpful but foolish. As historian Steven Runcimen sharply observes in “Some Remarks on the Image of Edessa”: “Historians should not be so much victims to their skepticism as to dismiss a legend as false, unless they can suggest how it was that the false legend arose; for legends are seldom born like Pallas Athene full-grown and fully accoutered from one inventive brain.”
I recommend that you read McDonald’s entire article (the URL is the last line above) — because it is a very good treatment on the topic. Just be aware that this is a Roman Catholic publication… and that McDonald slid some papal propaganda into the first paragraph… but that in itself is instructive to this issue. You see, even though McDonald repudiates Jesus’ authorship, his article shows how powerfully extra-biblical entities can affect people’s thinking… and his church has invested much in things extra-biblical.
McDonald said that Christianity has never been a “religion of the book” … and that’s simply not true. The Reformation occurred to bring it back to the book. To “reform” means to restore that which had become skewed — and the Reformers were looking to do just that. They wanted to fix what was broken, not start new religions… and this is true even though new religions formed in the tumult.
Now, I would agree with the statement “Roman Catholicism is not a religion of the book” … and in McDonald’s defense, Roman Catholicism is Christianity for the congruent Catholic. But biblical Christianity is defined by biblical authority. What this means for your question is that no entity — no document, government, person or organization — can overrule the authoritative Scripture. As such, all ancient documents should be viewed critically to assess their contents’ veracity… but unless you think God missed something… they should quickly be dismissed as candidates for the canon.