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Introductory Notice to Memoirs of Edessa and Other Syriac Documents

Introductory Notice to Memoirs of Edessa and Other Syriac Documents


The Syriac Documents here subjoined are to be regarded as interesting relics of the primitive ages, but neither wholly genuine nor in details authentic. They have been interpolated and corrupted so as to reflect, in some particulars, ideas wholly repugnant to those of Christian antiquity, and which first received currency in the period of the Iconoclastic controversy.1 Yet the pages of Eusebius bear witness to the Edessene legends as of very early origin, and it is reasonable to suppose that they rest on some inquiries made by the contemporary Abgar concerning the great Prophet who had appeared in Galilee. The visit of the Wise Men from the East, and the history of Naaman the Syrian, lend antecedent probability to the idea that such inquiries may have been made. The mission of Thaddaeus seems a historical fact; and if he found Abgar predisposed to believe, and familiar with the story of the Christ, the growth of the whole fable is sufficiently accounted for. Let me quote Wake in the Preliminary Discourse to his Apostolic Fathers. He says:2 "That both the intercourse reported by Eusebius between our Saviour and this prince (Abgarus), and the report of the picture being brought to him, have been received as a matter of unquestionable truth in those parts, the authority of Gregorius Abulpharagius3 will not suffer us to doubt.... But Gelasius4 pronounced the epistle of our Saviour to be apocryphal.... Natalis Alexander judges both it and the reply of Abgar supposititious; and Dupin, after him, yet more solidly convicts it of such manifest errors as may satisfy all considering persons that Eusebius and Ephraem were too easy of belief in this particular, and did not sufficiently examine into it."5

But I cannot do better than refer the inquirer to Jones' work On the Canon,6 where, even in early youth, I found the whole matter, and the story of the portrait of our Saviour, attractive reading. I owe to that work my initiation into the study of what I am now endeavouring to elucidate, in some degree, for others. I subjoin the words of Lardner,7 in concluding his candid examination of the matter, as follows: "The whole history is the fiction of some Christian at Edessa, in the time of Eusebius or not long before. The people of Edessa were then generally Christians; and they valued themselves upon it, and were willing to do themselves the honour of a very early conversion to the Christian faith. By some one of them, or more united together, this history was formed, and was so far received by Eusebius as to be thought by him not improper to be inserted in his Ecclesiastical History."

I conclude that Eusebius was led to put some confidence in it by the antecedent probability to which I have referred, favouring the idea that some knowledge of Christ had penetrated the mind and heart of Abgar even in our Saviour's lifetime. This idea receives some countenance from the fact recorded by St. Matthew:8 "His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought unto Him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases," etc.

The remarks I have quoted from the learned will sufficiently prepare the reader for the other Syriac Documents which follow these Edessene Memoirs, as I find it convenient to call them.

Here follows the Introductory Notice by the translator:-

These Documents were selected by the late Dr. Cureton, from manuscripts acquired by the British Museum from the Nitrian Monastery in Lower Egypt, of which the first portion arrived in 1841, the second in 1843, and a third in 1847. The preparation of them for publication occupied the closing days of his life. It is to be regretted that his death occurred before he was able to write a preface: the more so because, to use the words of Dr. W. Wright, the editor of the posthumous work, "he had studied the questions connected with this volume for years and from every point of view." In a note occurring in the preface to his Festal Letters of Athanasius,9 he says: "I have found among the Syriac the British Museum a considerable portion of the original Aramaic document which Eusebius cites as preserved in the archives of Edessa, and various passages from it quoted by several authors, with other testimonies which seem to be sufficient to establish the fact of the early conversion of the inhabitants of that city, and among them of the king himself, although his successors afterwards relapsed into paganism. These, together with accounts of the martyrdom of some of the first bishops of that city, forming a most interesting accession to our knowledge of the early propagation of Christianity in the East down to about a.d.300, I have already transcribed, and hope to publish." "He was himself firmly persuaded," adds Dr. Wright, "of the genuineness of the Epistles attributed to Abgar, king of Edessa, and our Lord: an opinion which he shared with such illustrious scholars as Baronius, Tillemont, Cave, R. Mountague (Bishop of Norwich), and Grabe."

Without attempting here to decide what degree of historical value belongs to these Documents, it may be proper to observe that the several matters contained in them are so far distinct from one another that they do not necessarily stand or fall together. Such matters are: the celebrated Epistles, the conversion of King Abgar Uchomo, the visit of Thaddaeus, and the early prevalence of Christianity at Edessa. With regard to the letters said to have passed between Abgar and our Lord, it seems sufficient, without referring to the internal evidence, to remark, with Lardner and Neander, that it is inconceivable how anything written by Christ should have remained down to the time of Eusebius unknown to the rest of the world.10 The conversion of Abgar is a distinct matter of inquiry. But on this again, doubt, to say the least, is cast by the statement that Abgar Bar Manu, who reigned between the years 160 and 170 a.d., is the first king of Edessa on whose coins the usual symbols of the Baal-worship of the country are wanting, these being replaced in his case by the sign of the Cross.11 If this refers to a complete series of the coins of Edessa, the evidence afforded must be considered very strong. For although, to take a parallel instance, "we seek in vain for Christian emblems on the coinage of Constantine, the first Christian emperor,"12 this may readily be accounted for by his preference of military distinction to the humbler honours conferred by his new faith, whilst it does not appear that anti-Christian emblems are found, and on the coins of his son and successor Christian emblems do make their appearance. The other two subjects referred to do not lie under the same suspicion. There is nothing in the nature of the case to disprove the visit of Thaddaeus (or Addaeus)-nothing improbable in the fact itself, whatever judgment may be formed of the details of it presented to us here. If, however, the visit of Thaddaeus also should have to be ranked among apocryphal stories, this would not affect the remaining point-that with which we are chiefly concerned in these Documents. "It is certain," says Neander, "that Christianity was early diffused in this country." How early, is not so certain. But the evidence furnished by the later portions of these Documents, which there is nothing to contradict and much to confirm, proves that early in the second century Christianity had already made many converts there. The martyrdoms of Sharbil and Barsamya are said to have occurred a.d.113,13 the year in which Trojan conquered the Parthian kingdom, of which Edessa was a part; and, whilst the pagan element was plainly predominant, we find the Christians sufficiently numerous to have a bishop and presbyters and deacons. This sufficiently falls in with the proof already adduced of the conversion of even a king of Edessa about fifty years later.

To the Documents which are presumably of the ante-Nicene age, Dr. Cureton added two Metrical Homilies by Jacob of Serug, who lived in the next century. But, as they are so closely connected with the most interesting portions of the rest, the martyrdoms, and are besides of considerable merit as compositions, the decision of the editors to insert them will, it is presumed, be approved by most readers. The two supplemental portions, one from the Latin of Simeon Metaphrastes, and the other from Le Vaillant de Florival's French translation of Moses of Chorene, have also been inserted.

The translation of the Syriac portions, although made with Dr. Cureton's version constantly in sight, may fairly be considered as independent. The only matter in which his authority has been relied on is-in the case of proper names, the supply of the necessary vowels,-for the text is vowelless. And even to this, one exception occurs, in the Martyrdom of Barsamya, where "Evaristus" has been adopted instead of his "Erastus." In regard to the sense, it has been frequently found necessary to differ from him, while a style somewhat freer, though, it is hoped, not less faithful, has been employed. The Metrical Homilies also have been arranged so as to present the appearance of poetry. The results of Dr. Wright's collation of the text with the mss.have also contributed to the greater correctness of the work.

The translator desires very thankfully to acknowledge his obligations to Dr. R. Payne Smith, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford,14 the progress of whose Thesaurus Syriacus is regarded with so much satisfaction and hope, for his kindness in furnishing much valuable information respecting matters on which the lexicons are silent.

The notes marked TR. are by the translator. The others, where the contrary is not indicated, are, at least in substance, Dr. Cureton's: though their citation does not always imply approval.15

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