Barlaam and Josaphat are legendary Christian martyrs and saints.

Their life story is likely to have been based on the life of the Gautama Buddha. It tells how an Indian king persecuted the Christian Church in his realm.

When astrologers predicted that his own son would someday become a Christian, the king imprisoned the young prince Josaphat, who nevertheless met the hermit Saint Barlaam and converted to Christianity.

After much tribulation, the young prince’s father accepted the Christian faith, turned over his throne to Josaphat, and retired to the desert to become a hermit. Josaphat himself later abdicated and went into seclusion with his old teacher Barlaam.

The tale derives from a second to the fourth century Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist text, via a Manichaean version, then the Arabic Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Book of Bilawhar and Yudasaf), current in Baghdad in the eighth century, from where it entered into Middle Eastern Christian circles before appearing in European versions.

Background: the Buddha

The story of Barlaam and Josaphat or Joasaph is a Christianized and later version of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.

In the Middle Ages the two were treated as Christian saints, being entered in the Greek Orthodox calendar on 26 August, and in the Roman Martyrology in the Western Church as “Barlaam and Josaphat” on the date of 27 November.

In the Slavic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, these two are commemorated on 19 November (corresponding to 2 December on the Gregorian calendar).

The first Christianized adaptation was the Georgian epic Balavariani dating back to the 10th century. A Georgian monk, Euthymius of Athos, translated the story into Greek, sometime before he died in an accident 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.

The Greek legend of “Barlaam and Ioasaph” is sometimes attributed to the 7th century John of Damascus, but Conybeare argued it was transcribed by the Georgian monk Euthymius in the 11th century.

The story of Barlaam and Josaphat was popular in the Middle Ages, appearing in such works as the Golden Legend, and a scene there involving three caskets eventually appeared, via Caxton’s English translation of a Latin version, in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”.

Two Middle High German versions were produced: one, the “Laubacher Barlaam”, by Bishop Otto II of Freising and another, Barlaam und Josaphat, a romance in verse, by Rudolf von Ems. The latter was described as “perhaps the flower of religious literary creativity in the German Middle Ages” by Heinrich Heine.

The story of Josaphat was re-told as an exploration of free will and the seeking of inner peace through meditation in the 17th century.

The legend

According to the legend, King Abenner or Avenier in India persecuted the Christian Church in his realm, founded by the Apostle Thomas.

When astrologers predicted that his own son would someday become a Christian, Abenner had the young prince Josaphat isolated from external contact.

Despite the imprisonment, Josaphat met the hermit Saint Barlaam and converted to Christianity. Josaphat kept his faith even in the face of his father’s anger and persuasion.

Eventually, Abenner converted, turned over his throne to Josaphat, and retired to the desert to become a hermit. Josaphat himself later abdicated and went into seclusion with his old teacher Barlaam.

Texts

There are a large number of different books in various languages, all dealing with the lives of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat in India.

In this hagiographic tradition, the life and teachings of Josaphat have many parallels with those of the Buddha. “But not till the mid-nineteenth century was it recognized that, in Josaphat, the Buddha had been venerated as a Christian saint for about a thousand years.

The authorship of the work is disputed. The origins of the story seem to be a Central Asian manuscript written in the Manichaean tradition. This book was translated into Georgian and Arabic.

Greek manuscripts

The best-known version in Europe comes from a separate, but not wholly independent, source, written in Greek, and, although anonymous, attributed to a monk named John.

It was only considerably later that the tradition arose that this was John of Damascus, but most scholars no longer accept this attribution. Instead, much evidence points to Euthymius of Athos, a Georgian who died in 1028.

The modern edition of the Greek text, from the 160 surviving variant manuscripts (2006), with an introduction (German, 2009) is published as Volume 6 of the works of John the Damascene by the monks of the Abbey of Scheyern, edited by Robert Volk.

It was included in the edition due to the traditional ascription, but marked “spuria” as the translator is the Georgian monk Euthymius the Hagiorite (ca. 955–1028) at Mount Athos and not John the Damascene of the monastery of Saint Sabas in the Judaean Desert. The 2009 introduction includes an overview.

English manuscripts

Among the manuscripts in English, two of the most important are the British Museum MS Egerton 876 (the basis for Ikegami’s book) and MS Peterhouse 257 (the basis for Hirsh’s book) at the University of Cambridge.

The book contains a tale similar to The Three Caskets found in the Gesta Romanorum and later in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

References:

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.