November 19, 2010

A Note Concerning Saints Barlaam and Joasaph

By John Sanidopoulos

1. In the Greek listing of Saints, Barlaam is celebrated on May 30th, and Joasaph is honored on August 26th. His title is "Saint Joasaph, Son of Abener, King of India." In Georgia they were initially honored on May 19th together. In some Slavic sources, they are honored together on November 19th.

2. Icons of the two Saints are rare, but where they are both depicted they both have halos.

3. According to Prof. Rhys Davids: "When and where they were first canonized, I have been unable, in spite of much investigation, to ascertain." The oldest list of saints in which he finds the name is that of Petrus de Natalibus, Bishop of Equilium (1370-1400).

4. Despite contrary scholarly opinion, there is actually a good case the story of Barlaam and Joasaph was authored by the highly educated St. John the Damascene. For example, we know he did not object to writing about foreign extraordinary tales, such as we see in his studies on dragons and evil fairies or ghosts. He also defined man as "a rational animal, liable to death, and capable of intelligence and knowledge," whose bodily nature consists of "four elements: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile". In the story of the Unicorn found in the tale of Barlaam and Joasaph, we find mention of dragons and these same four elements represented as serpents. Whatever the case, the tale of Barlaam and Joasaph certainly contains influence from John of Damascus.

5. The tale of Barlaam and Joasaph takes place in "the interior regions of the Ethiopians called India." Homer speaks of two Ethiopias, one towards the rising sun and one towards the setting of the sun. At the time of John of Damascus, it had this same extensive meaning, where Ethiopia could mean the majority of North Africa or even parts of Asia - it was designated by their darker skin. K.S. Macdonald writes about this and the historicity of the tale in her study The Story of Barlaam and Joasaph: Buddhism and Christianity:

"Alexander the Great expected to discover the source of the Nile in India. Shinar or Sennar figures largely in the story, as the place in whose desert Barlaam lived. Accepting Sennar as a country of which the writer had some correct idea as being around the upper reaches of the Nile and Blue Nile, we must conclude that the writer of Barlaam considered India not very far from the confines of Abyssinia which was regarded as part of Ethiopia. To this day the Abyssinians call themselves Ethiopians, thus connecting our Joasaph, prince of India, with Dr. Johnson's story of "Rasselas, or the Prince of Abyssinia". And it is here likely that we will find the truth in the story. When the Thebaid was crowded with hermits or monks, very likely a prince of Ethiopia was converted and betook himself to the desert after much persecution from his father, as described in the Barlaam story."

6. A hypothetical evolutionary explanation of the name Joasaph is as follows: The original name 'Buddha' or 'Bodhisatta' in Sanskrit, turned up as 'Bodisav' in 6-7th century Manichean literature in Ancient Persian, which in turn appeared as Budahsaf in 8th-century Arabic literature, which turned into 'Iodasaph' in 10th-century Georgian literature (perhaps by influence of John of Damascus in the 8th century, who spoke Arabic). At least from 11th-century Greek literature, it showed up as a Christian monk 'Ioasaph,' which finally became the Christian Saint 'Josaphat' in Spain. In the Latin Church, Joasaph is known as Josaphat.

7. Though there are similarities between the tale of Joasaph with that of Buddha, this does not negate the historicity of either figure, but only shows a similarity in the origin of the tales. Though it is true the early story of Joasaph is colored with imagery from the life of Buddha, the latter part of the story is similarly colored by the life of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Anthony the Great. And the theology of the story is influenced by John of Damascus, and the entirety of the "Apology" of the Athenian Philosopher Aristeides is contained within. The lives of Barlaam and Joasaph are primarily told as a literary tale with the seeming purpose of catechizing those of the Far East with a familiar tale. This was often done by ancient writers to steer a story of what may have elements of truth towards a higher didactical purpose.

8. Evidence points to the fact that the first Christianized adaptation was the Georgian epic Balavariani dating back to the 10th century. A Georgian monk, Euthymius of Athos (May 13), translated the story into Greek, not John of Damascus, some time before he was killed while visiting Constantinople in 1028. There the Greek adaptation was translated into Latin in 1048 and soon became well known in Western Europe as Barlaam and Josaphat.

9. Wilfred Cantwell Smith traced the story from a second to fourth-century Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist text, to a Manichean version, to an Arabic Muslim version, to an eleventh century Christian Georgian version, to a Christian Greek version, and from there into Western European languages. He traced Joasaph's name from the Sanskrit term bodhisattva via the Middle Persian bodasif (Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yūdhasaf or Būdhasaf.

Greek manuscript of Barlaam and Joasaph, Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos, No. 463, around 12th century. It depicts the scene where Joasaph announces the abdication of his throne to start his monastic life.