An Agenda for the Study of the Jesus Letter

In: Iran and the Caucasus
Garry W. Trompf University of Sydney Sydney Australia

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The ancient correspondence allegedly between the Toparch Abgar V of Edessa and Jesus of Nazareth is usually treated in modern scholarship as legendary, though possession of it was important for the legitimation of Armenia as the first Christian kingdom in ca. 314 A.D. (prior to Constantine’s ‘Christian’ rule of a united Roman Empire from 324, and well before Theodosius I’s Edict of Thessalonica in 380). This paper attempts to create a demythologized space in which to reconsider the historical probability that Jesus, widely reputed as a healer in the chief (Near Eastern) Jewish centre of influence, was asked for help by an ailing eminent and replied to his request. Along the way, questions will be raised for further research (italicized) and so in this sense the article takes the form of an Agenda.

The two most precious treasures outside the Bible in the culturo-religious history of Armenia are the 95 dolorous prayers of St Grigor Narekatsi (1002 A.D.) (The Book of Lamentations or ‘Narek’) and the alleged Correspondence between Jesus of Nazareth (d. 33 A.D.) and Abgar [Avag-ayr] (V) (d. 52 A.D.), son of Arsham, also called ‘the Great Man’ (Avag-ayr), ‘the Black’ (Ukkāmā) and ruling as Toparch of Edessa or Osr[h]oene. The eminent David Russell has devoted a good part of his opus to Narekatsi’s poetry, while here I consider the other most holy possession: the so-called ‘Jesus Letter.’ The ancient correspondence allegedly between Abgar V and Jesus of Nazareth is usually treated in modern scholarship as legendary, though acquisition of the epistles was important for the legitimation of Armenia as the first Christian kingdom under Tiridates III (Trdat Mec) in ca. 314 A.D. (traditionally 301) (Ormanian 1955: 9–10). Tiridates’s conversion and political turn were prior to Constantine’s ‘Christian’ rule of a united Roman Empire reign from 324, after his defeat of the last “Tyrant”, Licinius, and well before the formal Establishment of Christianity in Theodosius I’s Edict of Thessalonica of 380. What follows is an Agenda for the critical (if admittedly daring) reconsideration of the two treasured letters of the Abgar/Jesus correspondence to be given back something of its old credence: the Toparch writes for help from Jesus, famed as healer, to come to his domain and rid him of his (unspecified) ailment (pathos); and Jesus’s reply that his work constrains him from coming, but after passing (or being “taken up”) he will send a disciple to cure him.

The earliest known representation of this correspondence appears in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia ecclesiastica I,13,6–10 in Greek (in three editions between ca. 290 to ca. 325) (Trompf 2007:134), with the two epistles significantly singled out as extremely special, each under two distinct headings (of a kind found nowhere else in this work) (5b; 9). These letters are said to be kept in the registry (anagrapton) of the royal city of Edessa from “this precise time” (tēnikade), and translated “verbally/literally” (rhēmasin) by Eusebius from the Syriac (5), with the narrative from the same records following these epistles, on the foundation ministry of [Judas] Thaddeus in Edessa, said only to be “subjoined” or appended (sunēpto) (11a) to the prime documents, in Syriac (22b). In Abgar’s letter, he self-designates as Toparch (toparchēs) (6a), we are left asking (Query 1), what was his actual status? To enhance his importance Eusebius has him a king (Basileus), even among “illustrious potentates (dunasteu[ontes]) beyond the Euphrates” (2), but in the reign of the Tiberius, toparchēs would normally denote only Governorship, not royal rule in its own right (Bagnall 2009: 527; yet cf. Tacitus, Annales xii.11), and Osroene was the southernmost one of eight minor overlordships (Hewson 1997: [sect. 2]; Van Wijlick 2021:10–24) stretched along the Euphrates basin (including two discrete entities of Armenia and ‘Lesser’ Armenia), most client polities of Rome if and when they were inside her shifting borders with Parthia. Can we assume (Query 2) that Eusebius enhanced Abgar’s status in terms of his readers’ awareness of emergent Constantinian-Byzantine arrangements (Kazhdan 1991: 2095), clearly granting royal status? By his time of writing, mind you, Armenia was the only one of two minor polities left (on the Roman/Persian border), and though appealing to the Abgar letters to bolster its new Christian status, the Kingdom of [Greater] Armenia was by then territorially removed from Edessa and its archives (Der Nersessian 1945: 2–6), despite a short period (132–214) of its imperial control over most of the other minor states (until being temporarily conquered by the Parthians) (Payaslian 2007: 32–50).

Now, at the time Eusebius reported the Abgar/Jesus exchange in Syraic, Edessa had become the pioneer city of Syriac-Aramaic literature, largely Christian (Brock 1998), in fact the spark for this linguistic emergence could lie as much in the epistolary evidence of Jesus’s attention to this city’s ruler as anything else. However (Query 3), just because Eusebius clearly knows a Syriac copy (antigraphon) of the letters (Hist. eccles. I,xiii,5), presumably relayed or made available to him by informants, does that mean that all or others like this were from the first in the form of standardized ‘classic’ Syriac script as we know it from Eastern Christian texts (especially from the Peshitta or Syriac Bible [in development from the second to the fifth centuries])? When the intrepid female pilgrim Egeria/Etheria arrived in Edessa in ca. 490, many copies had been made and used from the ‘officially registered’ parchment in the city (Peregrinato [McClure/Feltoe 1925]: 30–36), even though this did not necessarily correspond the ‘very first epistles’, the two of interest to us that were written before the Syriac script was standardized. If we can assume there were originals, surely they would be in the old Osroenian dialect (Old Syrian or Old-Edessan Aramaic) and either (Query 4) in cursive [Nabataean-]Aramaic script or in an Hebraic script accessible to Jews and Semitic cultures in the Near Eastern vicinity, and to Jesus in his sphere of influence. Jesus, on this assumption, would not communicate back in what we would recognize as Syriac, but in a first-century Palestinian-grounded dialect of Aramaic (only a few specimens of which are now accessible, as in the Targum of [Pseudo-]Jonathan ben ‘Uz[z]iel on Genesis (esp. British Museum Ms. add 27031 (ed. Rieder), cf. Etheridge [1862] 1968), probably Qumran’s so-named Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20) (Fitzmyer 2004: 25–26) and from other scattered sources (cf., e.g., El Badawi 2013: Tbl. 1.1). Traditionally, Abgar’s messenger Hannan was Jesus’s amanuensis (Doctrina Addai [Syr.] 12 [Phillips 1876: 4–5), who conveyed back the response to the Toparch in a way mutually intelligible to both exchangees. In this light we need to ask about the linguistico-ethnological and religional ambience in which such a correspondence could conceivably occur (Query 5), as well as ponder whether the official antigraphon used by Eusebius and translated into Greek was already ‘ecclesiastically dressed’ for the further proclamation of the Gospel in Eastern Diocesan Christianities extolling it (whether Syrian, Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldaean) and for the enhancement of Christian nationhood of Armenia in the fourth century (Mirkovic 2004) (Query 6).

Now, we learn that Abgar was an Arab (Tacitus, Annal. xii,12) (as the epithet Avag-ayr indicates) and that he married into the royal family of Adiabene, the neighbouring pretty kingdom. This leads us to ask (Query 7) about the ethno-linguistic profile of the region in which a possible original correspondence occurred, because, of all the proximate territorial entities nearest first-century Israel, Adiabene would be the one with the strongest Jewish connections, sometimes even with Jewish rulership (on Izate II, Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae XX,5 and 34–35; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 46: 10; cf. Trompf 2013: 325). When the followers of John the Baptist (Mandaeans) escaped the Roman ravages around Jerusalem in the 60s A.D., it was because a Jewish princess named Miriai arranged for them to escape to Adiabene (Johannesbuch der Mandäer [Lidzbarski], sects. 131–142), at a time when Christians fled to Pella (Eusebius, Hist. eccles. III,v,3), and for Mandaeans, who saw remnants of Median culture there, came to honour it as their spiritual home (cf. Nasoraia/Trompf 2022: 412). If the work of Jesus was rumoured abroad outside the ‘standard Jewish’ sphere, we would need to ask (Query 7) where it was heard about first, and Adiabene seems most likely (but also in nearby Idumaean and Arabian lands). In my on fieldwork experience of reactions to the (short-lived) appearance of a ‘miracle-healing’ girl in southern coastal Papua (Papua New Guinea), grassroots excitement spread within days along trade and traditional marriage linkages right across the mountains to northern Papua, wherefrom some brought stricken hopeful relatives on pallets for over a hundred miles along slippery tracks (Trompf 1985). The anthropology of rumour needs serious consideration, and the importance of the busy route of the Via regia’s trade route between near Jerusalem, through Galilee(!), to Har[r]an in Adiabene’s recognized domain (Donnan 1994). And while particular details remains problematic (Query 8) (because Abgar’s “chief wife”, Helena, is elsewhere known only as the consort to Adiabene’s king Monobazus I [Josephus, Antiq, xx,18]; yet see Topchyan 2007: 473), we owe the information about Edessan/Adiabene marriage connections to the first historian of Armenia, Moses Khorenatsi (ca. 410–ca. 490s), writing in Armenian (its distinctive alphabet originating ca. 400).

Now, Moses wrote The History of Armenia (Patmut‘yun Hayoc‘) (ca. 460) half a century after there had been crystallizing the intriguing composite of Syriac materials known as the Doctrine of Addai (named after Adde, first bishop of Edessa, and surviving in the most complete form in the St Petersburg MS). This material was built up around the primary Abgar/Jesus exchange, but accrued additional narratives important for Eastern churches, about disciple Thaddaeus, apostles Bartholomew and Thomas, for instance, and about Hannan as letter-bearer and registrar either making (in a very un-Jewish way!) and taking back a picture he made of Jesus (Doctrina Addai 15–16 [ed. Phillips], 1876: 5) in the complete Syriac version, or bringing back the face of Jesus that Christ himself had impressed upon a cloth (the Mandylion or first Icon) as in Labubna bar Sennak’s fifth-century Armenian translation of another Syriac version (1868), and also about Abgar’s conversion to Christianity. Whether or not the attestations, provenances and relative veracities of these diffuse materials, including Coptic (with Sahidic Coptic) versions of the Abgar ‘legend’ (Youtie 1931; Giversen 1959), can ever be sorted out (Query 9), the accounts in Moses of Khorenatsi looks easier to fathom. Indeed, it has been keenly argued by Italo-American scholar Ilaria Ramelli (2013) that Moses relays an independent tradition about Abgar that “confirms a very ancient and well documented source” about Near Eastern power struggles during Tiberius rule (see Tacitus, Annal. xii; Josephus Antiq. xviii, xx), and “reflects the historical reality” of his age “excellently.” An exchange of letters between Abgar and Tiberius is involved, apparently not known to Eusebius, yet a version of which is nonetheless found in the unreliable mix of the Syriac Doctrina Adai (Ramelli 2013: 330–331), and presumably derives from the same source (Query 10).

In Book II of Moses’s History, there is indeed material of substance for critical historians on the conflict between Aretas (IV) the Arab (or Nabataean) and the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, appointed to rule Galilee, and Abgar’s intervention in it against Herod, as well as letters between Abgar and Tiberius in cementing their cooperation (26, 33–34; cf. 2 Cor 11:32; Luke 12:31–32). But before one rushes with careless enthusiasm over this independent-looking collection—for indeed it makes interesting attestation of the historicity of Jesus that severe sceptics are not likely to know about (e.g. Lataster 2019)—one would do well to ask (Query 11) whether its original components have been tweaked along the line by pious or apologetic hands. The fact is, the less well known letters, quoted in extenso by Moses in the manner of Eusebius as the first documentary historiograher (Adler 2008: 592), are prefaced by the early exchange between Abgar and Jesus as we found earliest presented in Eusebius’s Historia ecclesiastica, though it is now accompanied by a variant narrative. Jesus is addressed as “Saviour and Benefactor” (in Eusebius “good Saviour”) with “our Saviour (Arm. mer P‘rkič‘) said not to accept the invitation” (om. Eusebius).

We can suspect that Eusebius himself quoted from a piously touched copy, one, on my reckoning, was in an early ‘official Edessan’ form, showing off the new Syriac script (usually called Estrangelo), to celebrate the new Christian status of the city. Abgar writing to “Jesus the good healer/physician” ([Syr.] asya dawa) in Doc. Addai (10 [Phillips 4]) may well contain the original residually (Query 12), but Eusebius accepts what antigraphon he has on face value; after Abgar has recounted his version of Jesus’s doings he decides no less than that Jesus “is either God (ho theos) come down from heaven or a son of God” (Hist. eccles. I, xiii, 6–7). It is not impossible (Query 13) that the manifold adaptability of Heracles had affected Abgar’s imaginings, for these were the days when that formidable son of God was the most popular cross-cultural West/East figure in mythology, even alleged to fight beside sons of Abraham in Libya (Josephus, Antiq. I: 241; cf. Gen. 14: 15–17; Eppinger 2015; Wood 2018); and whether as angels or demigods, there were enough deities and sons of God with healing powers in old Arab and Semitic pagan pantheons (Smith 1901: 59, 446; idem 1995: 94), a reason I suspect the Qur’an and the early Muslims suppressed the epithet. But with his penchant for documenting signal “preparations of the Gospel” (Praeparatio Evangelica), Eusebius was highly likely (Query 14) to accept the pious-laden text of the secondary copy he accessed, in spite of the anachronism of confessional acclamation used before its time. After all, we see him earlier, in quoting Josephus, following a touched text that has the Jewish historian assess Jesus as “a wise man, even if indeed he was a man” and plainly “the Christ” (Hist eccles. I, xii,7–8 = Josephus Antiq. XVIII, 83), when we know from the uncontaminated Arabic version that Josephus used much more restrained language, only conceding that Jesus was “perhaps the Messiah” (Agapius, Kitab al-‘Unvan, fols 6v-7r [Patr.Orient, vol. 7/4, 471–473]; cf. Pines 1971: esp. 16–17).

As for Moses Khorensatsi, his basic following of the same copy of the Abgar/Jesus exchange as Eusebius accessed it is crucial for his (and his sources’? [Query 15]) construal of Abgar’s correspondence with other personages in his account. In other words the asseverations of Divinity, which persuade Ramelli [2013: 326; 2006] that the Abgar/Jesus exchange is disctinctly “fictitious”, become a key verbal signifier as to how Abgar’s behaviour and the letters presented by Moses hang together as a whole. When his messengers first tell him about Jesus’s work, Abgar, wracked by terrible pain contracted in Persia, can only believe the miracles are by “the Son of God” (30). After Jesus has been killed, Abgar is ready to take up arms against the Jews for crucifying him (33); he complains to the Emperor Tiberius that Jews conspired to crucify such a transgressionless man, whose miracles were “not a mere man’s but God’s” (33 [Let. 1]), Tiberius replies that although the Senate rejected punishing the killers, and was informed by Pilate about these matters, it seemed pleasing that he himself should accept Jesus “among the gods” (33 [Let. 2]) (and the emperor had good reason to take interest in the issue, because he was founding “one of the great cities Palestine”, the majority-Jewish Tiberias on the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee [Stern: 133], yet cf. Annal. xv,44!). And Abgar keeps up the appropriate claims of deification in his epistles to Governor Nerse, King of Assyria (Jesus as “another god” [33 (Let. 4)]) and to Ardasese (Ardakhshir II?) sub-King of Persia (Jesus as “son of God” [33 (Let. 5)]). And Moses makes his own pious embellishments (esp. ed. Thomson 2006), that the visit of Abgar’s messenger s[H]Anan was alluded to in John’s Gospel (12; 20–22 on Gentiles visiting Jesus) (31), that Thomas the Apostle (later considered the chief force behind the Church in the East) acted as Jesus’s amanuensis, not Hanan, but that Hanan took back to Edessa a life-like portrait of Jesus he did (32), the mandylion not mentioned as in the more popular Armenian view. And Moses’s Abgar material is set in the context of a “narrative of retribution”, common in classical and Christian historiography (Trompf 2007: om.; cf. p. 331), in which Abgar’s rival Herod the Tetrarch is “avenged by Divine Providence for what he did to John the Baptist” (29, cf. Mark 6:17–25) and his treatment of Jesus (25–26, 30, cf. Luke 23:11–12), a stress made apparently because Eusebius, who knows Tiberius finally exiled Antipas, is rather weak on this particular Herod’s ‘bad end’ (Hist. eccles. II, iv, 1). While conceding the important independence of the tradition manifest in Moses, then, his apologetic glosses can hardly be neglected, and actually work against proposing that the first Abgar/Jesus exchange, given its use as a key source of inspiration, should be abandoned so peremptorily (Query 15).

The earliest extant version of the two letters, in Eusebius, with notation of their senders especially demarcated as very special, bear the marks of a striking originality—why should such a transaction not happen, at least once, and be more likely than a striking literary invention, or be more credible, say, than an insubstantive epistolary and obviously spurious exchange between Paul and Seneca, who were both letter-writers? (Lightfoot 1892: 318–319 [Query 16]). Yes, there has been tampering, and it is perfectly understandable that the temptation was to meddle with the nature and strengths of Abgar’s beliefs. This interference probably came about with the positing of influential experiments in Christology thought best for Edessa. In the Diatessaron or synthesis of the Gospel by Tatian (flor. 160–175), for instance, emphasis on the divine Sonship of Jesus means a drastic excision of human, such as genealogical connections (e.g., Burkitt 1924). In comparison, the urbane and gnosticizing advisor to the Abgarids Bardesanes (154–222), that most formidable authority, reads Jesus’s birth-date as a superb astrological number and has Christ Lord over a diversity of nations that each express parts of the divine fullness (‘Hymn of the Pearl’ [in Acta Thomae (ed. Drijvers) 111: 58–60]; Coniunctiones astrorum [Patrolog. Syriaca vol. 2: 161–165, 614]). For Bardesanes, the letters probably clarified the specialness of Edessa, its rulers’ commitment to and political legitimation of the Bardesanian competitive version of Christianity (Query 17). In the end, the last Doctrina Addai reflects a process whereby Orthodoxy takes back Edessa againt these challengers (Drijvers 1980).

Meanwhile, the minimal, unmolested parts of the early Eusebian copy of the letters retained important features of credibility. Abgar’s listing of what he has learnt of Jesus’s powers—giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, healing the long-tormented, and raising the dead (Eusebius, Hist. eccles. I, xii, 6)—carries its own originality as the most complete distillation of Jesus’s healing activities extant from New Testament times, even given the Disciples’ sermons in the Book of Acts (cf. e.g., Acts 2:23–24; Wilcox 1965). Abgar need not necessarily be quoting from Isaiah 42:7–8 in the first part of this summary In any case, Jesus apparently used the phrases “healing to the brokenhearted and sight to the blind” to introduce his ministry early on (Luke 4:18–21), and outsiders or earnest seekers wanting to learn about Jesus, and such a one was Abgar, would more likely than not come to hear the messianic proof-text that blind saw, the lame walked, etc. (cf. Matt 11:5= Lk 7:22–22). The tail-end, very pressing portion of the toparch’s letter, furthermore, seems appropriate enough (Query 18): a self-interested, pain-wracked ruler wants a healer at his court, and his worry about Jesus’s opponents “in the [general] region of Jerusalem” (cf. Hist. eccles. I,xiii,6) will do him harm squares with other anti-Jewish comments against those behind Jesus’s crucifixion and sit easily within the concave of letters we found presented by Moses Khorenatsi.

As for Jesus and his short reply in Eusebius, the statement of blessing for those believing his healing work while not seeing him (10), seems more a piece of natural ebullience than a formal anachronistic quotation from a Gospel text (John 20:29). A local leader receives attention from foreign royalty: there is a joyful response at the faith shown, as sometimes an expression of makarios erupts in the Gospel (e.g., Matt 13:1; Luke 14:16), rather than the formal “Happy are those …” as wisdom teaching (Matt. 5; Luke 6; Evang. Thom. log. 68). Yet it is hardly surprising that Jesus writes he will not be diverted away from fulfilling the things he believes God has sent to do (cf., e.g., Luke 20:13; John 20:21). Still, “after being received up (analēphthēnai) by Him who sent me”, “one of my disciples”, not specified by name, would come to heal the disorder (10). The story as to how Abgar and Thaddeus found each other and the Toparch was healed originated from this promise (12) (Query 19). The minimal and open possibilities mark the Eusebian text when compared to other, later versions, and one can detect that Jesus’s rather circumlocutive language in the proudly released antigraphon belongs to the time ‘new Syriac’ is settling down to be a distinctive theological or Biblical language being filled out with loan words (cf. Loeliger 1971) that probably blur the now lost more straightforward Aramaic of Jesus’s original reply (Query 20).

We should be wary, then, about expecting too much from early translations of Eusebius’s History, including of the letters. They are more likely to honour the meaning of the author they have chosen, and not probe for or expose an original Eusebius did not evidently possess, (Query 21), though using a Semitic language could evoke better the early Biblical cultural, atmosphere (Lawlor/Outler 1954: I/29, II/56–59). Copyist errors are all too frequent in Syriac renditions of Eusebius, though not noticeably for the passage containing our relevant letters (Wright/McLean 1898: viii–xi, 52–54), and it is interesting that an early fifth century Armenian translation of a Syriac one is fairly free of such errors (Merx 1898 [ed. Venice 1877]), though the Armenian rendition of “lifted” or “received up” seems too likely to limit possibilities to Ascension, as also with Khorenatsi (II, 32) (Query 22). For, the mystery of Jesus’s ‘lifting up’ (analēpsis, in Luke 11:53) is that he embodies in crucial fulfilments and repetitions in himself by going up to Jerusalem (Trompf 1979: 125–126, 139–141) not just in his final departure. As can be seen from this paper, the opportunities for expanding the Agenda increase and the number of questions keeps rising, but we have only limited space here (cf. Thomson 1995), and can only hope that these thoughts will stimulate measured yet more open discussion (see Corke-Webster 2017).


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