Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume I/Church History of Eusebius/Book I/Chapter 13
Chapter XIII.—Narrative concerning the Prince of the Edessenes.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 Ananiasthe swift courier.
6. “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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. “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.”
10. 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.
11. 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.’
12. 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 mightest heal him. And Thaddeus said, I will go, for I have been sent to him with power.
13. 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.
14. 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 believest in him, the petitions of thy heart shall be granted thee as thou believest.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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 Abdus 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.
18. 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.
19. And Thaddeus said, Now indeed will I keep silence, since I have been sent to proclaim the word publicly. But tomorrow 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.
20. 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.
- 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.
- On the traditions in regard to Thomas, see Bk. III. chap 1.
- See chap. 12, note 11.
- Edessa, the capital of Abgar’s dominions, was a city of Northern Mesopotamia, near the river Euphrates. History knows nothing of the city before the time of the Seleucidæ, though tradition puts its origin back into distant antiquity, and some even identify it with Abraham’s original home, Ur of the Chaldees. In the history of the Christian Church it played an important part as a centre of Syrian learning. Ephraem, the Syrian, founded a seminary there in the fourth century, which after his death fell into the hands of the Arians.
- 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.
- Eusebius does not say directly that he translated these documents himself, but this seems to be the natural conclusion to be drawn from his words. ῾Ημῖν is used only with ἀναληφθεισῶν, and not with μεταβληθεισῶν. It is impossible, therefore, to decide with certainty; but the documents must have been in Syriac in the Edessene archives, and Eusebius’ words imply that, if he did not translate them himself, he at least employed some one else to do it. At the end of this chapter he again uses an indefinite expression, where perhaps it might be expected that he would tell us directly if he had himself translated the documents.
- In the greatly embellished narrative of Cedrenus (Hist. Compendium, p. 176; according to Wright, in his article on Abgar in the Dict. of Christian Biog.) this Ananias is represented as an artist who endeavored to take the portrait of Christ, but was dazzled by the splendor of his countenance; whereupon Christ, having washed his face, wiped it with a towel, which miraculously retained an image of his features. The picture thus secured was carried back to Edessa, and acted as a charm for the preservation of the city against its enemies. The marvelous fortunes of the miraculous picture are traced by Cedrenus through some centuries (see also Evagrius, H. E. IV. 27).
- The expression “Son of God” could not be used by a heathen prince as it is used here.
- Compare John xx. 29.
- γέγραπται, as used by Christ and his disciples, always referred to the Old Testament. The passage quoted here does not occur in the Old Testament; but compare Isa. vi. 9, Jer. v. 21, and Ezek. xii. 2; and also Matt. xiii. 14, Mark iv. 12, and especially Acts xxviii. 26–28 and Rom. xi. 7 sq.
- Thomas is not commonly known by the name of Judas, and it is possible that Eusebius, or the translator of the document, made a mistake, and applied to Thomas a name which in the original was given to Thaddeus. But Thomas is called Judas Thomas in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, and in the Syriac Doctrina Apostolorum, published by Cureton.
- The word “apostle” is by no means confined to the twelve apostles of Christ. The term was used very commonly in a much wider sense, and yet the combination, “the apostle, one of the Seventy,” in this passage, does not seem natural, and we cannot avoid the conclusion that the original author of this account did not thus describe Thaddeus. The designation, “one of the Seventy,” carries the mind back to Christ’s own appointment of them, recorded by Luke, and the term “apostle,” used in the same connection, would naturally denote one of the Twelve appointed by Christ,—that is, an apostle in the narrow sense. It might be suggested as possible that the original Syriac connected the word “apostle” with Thomas, reading, “Thomas the apostle sent Judas, who is also called Thaddeus, one of the Seventy,” &c. Such a happy confusion is not beyond the power of an ancient translator, for most of whom little can be said in the way of praise. That this can have been the case in the present instance, however, is rendered extremely improbable by the fact that throughout this account Thaddeus is called an apostle, and we should therefore expect the designation upon the first mention of him. It seems to me much more probable that the words, “one of the Seventy,” are an addition of Eusebius, who has already, in two places (§4, above, and chap. 12, §3), told us that Thaddeus was one of them. It is probable that the original Syriac preserved the correct tradition of Thaddeus as one of the Twelve; while Eusebius, with his false tradition of him as one of the Seventy, takes pains to characterize him as such, when he is first introduced, but allows the word “apostle,” so common in its wider sense, to stand throughout. He does not intend to correct the Syriac original; he simply defines Thaddeus, as he understands him, more closely.
- Tobias was very likely a Jew, or of Jewish extraction, the name being a familiar one among the Hebrews. This might have been the reason that Thaddeus (if he went to Edessa at all) made his home with him.
- Moses Chorenensis reads instead (according to Rinck), “Potagrus, the son of Abdas.” Rinck thinks it probable that Eusebius or the translator made a mistake, confusing the Syrian name Potagrus with the Greek word ποδ€γρα, “a sort of gout,” and then inserting a second Abdas. The word “Podagra” is Greek and could not have occurred in the Armenian original, and therefore Eusebius is to be corrected at this point by Moses Chorenensis (Rinck, ibid. p. 18). The Greek reads ῎Αβδον τὸν τοῦ ῎Αβδου ποδ€γραν žχοντα.
- This is probably the earliest distinct and formal statement of the descent into Hades; but no special stress is laid upon it as a new doctrine, and it is stated so much as a matter of course as to show that it was commonly accepted at Edessa at the time of the writing of these records, that is certainly as early as the third century. Justin, Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, &c., all witness to the belief of the Church in this doctrine, though it did not form an article in any of the older creeds, and appeared in the East first in certain Arian confessions at about 360 a.d. In the West it appeared first in the Aquileian creed, from which it was transferred to the Apostles’ creed in the fifth century or later. The doctrine is stated in a very fantastic shape in the Gospel of Nicodemus, part II. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Am. ed. VIII. p. 435 sq.), which is based upon an apocryphal gospel of the second century, according to Tischendorf. In it the descent of Christ into Hades and his ascent with a great multitude are dwelt upon at length. Compare Pearson, On the Creed, p. 340 sq.; Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, I. p. 46; and especially, Plumptre’s Spirits in Prison, p. 77 sq.
- Compare the Gospel of Nicodemus, II. 5.
- καταβὰς γὰρ μόνος συνήγειρεν πολλοὺς, ειθ᾽ οὕτως ἀνέβη πρὸς τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ. Other mss. read κατέβη μόνος, ἀνέβη δὲ μετὰ πολλοῦ ὀχλοῦ πρὸς τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ. Rufinus translates Qui descendit quidem solus, ascendit autem cum grandi multitudine ad patrem suum. Compare the words of Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. IV. 11): κατῆλθεν εἰς τὰ καταχθόνια, ἱνα κακεῖθεν λυτρώσηται τοὺς δικαίους, “He descended into the depths, that he might ransom thence the just.”
- According to the Chronicle of Eusebius (ed. Schoene, II. p. 116) the Edessenes dated their era from the year of Abraham 1706 (b.c. 310), which corresponded with the second year of the one hundred and seventeenth Olympiad (or, according to the Armenian, to the third year of the same Olympiad), the time when Seleucus Nicanor began to rule in Syria. According to this reckoning the 340th year of the Edessenes would correspond with the year of Abraham 2046, the reign of Tiberius 16 (a.d. 30); that is, the second year of the two hundred and second Olympiad (or, according to the Armenian, the third year of the same). According to the Chronicle of Eusebius, Jesus was crucified in the nineteenth year of Tiberius (year of Abraham 2048 = a.d. 32), according to Jerome’s version in the eighteenth year (year of Abraham 2047 = a.d. 31). Thus, as compared with these authorities, the 340th year of the Edessenes falls too early. But Tertullian, Lactantius, Augustine, and others put Christ’s death in 783 U.C., that is in 30 a.d., and this corresponds with the Edessene reckoning as given by Eusebius.
- See note 6.