King Abgar and the Mandylion
King Abgar and the Mandylion
In 2009, the Central Bank of the Republic of Armenia introduced a banknote depicting King Abgar and the Mandylion. The front of the note shows Abgar, described as the King of Armenian Mesopotamia, looking at a flag bearing the image of the Mandylion; the back shows Thaddeus of Edessa handing the Mandylion to Abgar.
Who is Abgar and what exactly is the Mandylion? While Abgar is venerated in Eastern churches—including the May 11 feast dedicated to him in the Eastern Orthodox Church—many Western Christians are unaware of his story. The historical Abgar V was this: the ruler of Osroene, a kingdom located in Upper Mesopotamia, in what is present-day Turkey. Abgar ruled from AD 13 to 50, and his capital city of Edessa became an early center for Syriac Christianity.
What history most remembers about Abgar, however, is his correspondence with Jesus and his association with the Mandylion, a piece of cloth bearing the image of Jesus’ face that healed Abgar of an “incurable” illness.
The Long-Distance Correspondence
According to Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, Jesus’ healing powers were “noised abroad everywhere, and myriads even in foreign lands remote from Judea came to him in the hope of healing from diseases of every kind.” We do not know from which disease Abgar suffered—some scholars speculate gout and others leprosy—but it was serious enough to compel him to write to Jesus.
Eusebius found Abgar’s letter in the Edessan archives and translated it from Syriac (the language closest to the Aramaic of Jesus). It read as follows:
Abgar Uchama, the Toparch, to Jesus the excellent Savior who has appeared in the region of Jerusalem, greeting.
I have heard about you and the cures you accomplish without drugs or herbs. Word has it that you make the blind see and the lame walk, that you heal lepers and cast out unclean spirits and demons, and that you cure those tortured by chronic disease and raise the dead. When I heard all these things about you, I decided that one of two things is true: either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things or you God’s son for doing them. For this reason I am writing to beg you to take the trouble to come to me and heal my suffering. I have also heard that the Jews are murmuring against you and plot to harm you. Now, my city-state is very small but highly regarded and adequate for both of us.
The letter was sent by courier to Jesus, who replied as follows:
Blessed are you who believed in me without seeing me! For it is written that those who have seen me will not believe in me and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. Now regarding your request that I come to you, I must first complete all that I was sent to do here, and, once that is completed, must be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up, I will send one of my disciples to heal your suffering and bring life to you and yours.
The Image of Edessa
Who was the disciple sent to Abgar? Early literature of Syriac Christianity includes the Doctrine of Addai, written about AD 400, which tells of the works of Addai as well as the legend of the Mandylion. Addai is the Syriac name for Thaddeus, as in the Thaddeus of Edessa depicted on the banknote. According to Eusebius, the apostle Thomas sent the apostle Jude Thaddeus to Abgar after Jesus’ death. When Abgar professed his faith and Thaddeus touched him in Jesus’ name, Abgar was immediately cured.
Nowhere in his history of the Church does Eusebius mention the Mandylion, also known as the Image of Edessa. Yet the story of Thaddeus bringing a cloth bearing the image of Jesus and its miraculous healing power on Abgar has persisted through the centuries. Some scholars have argued that the story is a complete fabrication; others, that it occurred hundreds of years after Abgar V but was re-set to apostolic times to secure Edessa’s position as the first foreign city to embrace Christianity. Armenia does claim to be the first country to fully adopt Christianity—doing so in AD 301 when Tiridates III proclaimed it the state religion—but many scholars and historians believe Christianity had been embraced as early as AD 40, and that would have set it right in Abgar V’s time.
So, whence did the story of the Mandylion arise? Consider this: What if the piece of cloth bearing the image of Jesus’s face was a larger piece of cloth than that depicted in paintings? And what if the cloth was imprinted with not just Jesus’s face on it, but his entire body?
If that sounds familiar, then you know you only need to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, to see the Mandylion. Research conducted during the last thirty years and surviving documents prove that the Image of Edessa, which disappeared during the sack of Constantinople, is, in fact, the Shroud of Turin. The Mandylion was, in fact, folded to show only the face due to the teaching of the day regarding the bodies of the day, and it was deemed unhelpful to show the tortured body of Jesus. The Shroud of Turin, in fact, shows fold marks from being long-folded to show only the face.
How is this possible? Quite frankly, very possible. The gospels tell us that Peter and John found Jesus’ linen burial cloth in the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection; and that James the Greater, son of Zebedee, was the first apostle martyred, killed during the Christian persecution by Herod Agrippa in AD 41–44. It is reasonable to believe then, that the remaining apostles sent the shroud out of Jerusalem and to safety in a Christian city. By AD 41–44, Abgar would have converted to Christianity, and Edessa, which would have embraced the Christian faith, would have been a haven for the holiest of Christian relics.
Therefore, Eusebius’ retelling of the events surrounding Abgar’s correspondence with Jesus and subsequent healing through Thaddeus, minus any mention of the Mandylion, make sense: Over time, Thaddeus’ healing of Abgar and the arrival of the Mandylion in Edessa were conflated into one story.
After Abgar’s death, a successor reverted to paganism, and around AD 57, Christians began to be persecuted. It appears the Mandylion was hidden during the persecution and whoever had stowed it safely away had been unable to return to retrieve it. It lay hidden for nearly 500 years. Then, in 525, a catastrophic flood swept through Edessa. During repairs to a city gate near the upper Euphrates River, a plain tile was removed for reparation. Workers found a portrait of Jesus on the opposite side of the tile. Inside the recess the tile covered was the Mandylion.
It would be another 800 years before the Holy Image of Edessa would appear to the Western world. In the tenth century, the Mandylion had been moved to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), then a Christian capital (after Constantine the Great’s conversion). It was lost, however, when mutinous Crusaders attacked the city in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade. In 1357, the first documented exhibition in the West of the image—known now as the Shroud of Jesus—was held in France by the widow and young son of the French knight, Geoffrey de Charny. Also, a Geoffrey de Charny was the Master Templar of Normandy who was burned at the stake with the Templar’s last Grand Master in 1314. The two Geoffrey de Charnys were obviously connected but in a way that is not yet known. The Shroud had been in the possession of the Templars since the sack of Constantinople.
Was the shroud in the possession of the de Charny family in 1357 the same linen cloth given to King Abgar? While we do not have definitive proof that the two are one in the same, it seems very probable that they are—and that the original Abgar story, related by Eusebius, was later embellished when Jesus’ burial cloth was sent to Edessa for safety; and that the Mandylion was lost not once but three because of hostilities, and reemerged in 1357 as the Shroud of Turin that we know today.