Barlaam and Josaphat, Legendary Christian Saints

The legend of Barlaam and Josaphat is about the supposed events which led to the Christianization of India. It has inspired an incredible amount of literature and has been translated into many languages, such as but not limited to: Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Old French, Latin, Greek, Ethiopian, Georgian, Arabic, Slavic, Nordic, and English.

There are many, fuller versions, but here is a simplified and concise version of the legend:

Abenner (aka Avenier or Avennis), the Indian king, is told by his astrologers that his son, Prince Josaphat, would be converting to Christianity in the near future. Abenner hated and persecuted Christians, so in an attempt to prevent his son from becoming one, he builds a luxurious palace for his son to live in which was to shelter the prince from the dangers and miseries of life.

Eventually Josaphat explores beyond the palace gates. He sees a leper, a blind man, an old man, and a corpse. The prince has doubts as to what he’s seen and becomes agitated. God then sends Barlaam, a hermit. In one account, Barlaam is sent from Sarandip (Ceylon, Sri Lanka. In another account, he is sent from Senaar. Barlaam shows Josaphat a rare stone (which represents Christianity) and tells the prince numerous parables which always resulted in Josaphat concluded that the only way to salvation was through Christianity. Barleem then tells Josaphat that he was sent by God and that Josaphat would become a Christian, regardless of his father’s stance on it.

The king was not able to stop his son from converting, and chose to give half of the kingdom to Josaphat in a final attempt to win him away from Christianity. Soon-after, Josaphat converts his father, abdicates, and retreats to the desert wilderness to spend “his life as a pious ascetic”.[1, p.132]

The End.

“There is a great deal of speculation and controversy among scholars as to the model on which the Barlaam and Josaphat story is based.”[1, p.132]
~ Siegfried A. Schulz

Schulz (1981) commented that the core elements appear to be taken from “the detailed narrative of Buddha’s life”, the Lalitavistara, which is among the most sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Pitts (1981) also notes that Josaphat is based on Buddha. In his work, Pitts lays out the comparisons between the Christian and Buddhist legends concisely and clearly.

“The earliest Syriac and Arabic versions were responsible for the change in the names of the protagonists in the new versions. Because a scribe mistook the Pahlavi letter ‘B’ for a ‘J’, the Arabic story read, instead of ‘Budhasaf’ (from ‘Bodhisattva’), ‘Jus Asaf’, which became Joasaph’ in the earliest Greek version, and then ‘Josaphat’ in the Latin versions.”[1, p.133]
~ Siegfried A. Schulz

The origins of the legend are obscure. At some (unnamed) point, a monk Christianized the Buddhist (then Machinean) story. This Christianized story reached Jerusalem’s Sabas Monastery. It’s there where John of Damascus makes a scholarly treatise based wholly on Christian theology out of it.

Schulz makes note that it appears many Buddhist “exempla and topoi found their way into the New Testament”. He cites the parallels between the story in Matthew 18:9 and the story of the Buddhist nun in the Therigata. He also cites the parallels between Luke 2:25-32 and the Suttanipata‘s ‘Nalakasutta’.[1, p.134] Finally, he brings up the similarity between the story of Jesus questioning the Pharisees and the story found in Chapter 10 of the Lalitavistara, where the Boddhisattva questions the schoolmaster. Personally, I couldn’t help but note that the Lalitavistara has 27 chapters and the New Testament has 27 books.

“Anastasius’ full Latin translation, as well as the shorter Latin version by Vincent de Beauvais (a Dominican monk, 1190-1264), assured the Barlaam and Josaphat story a cordial reception by West European medieval writers.”[1, p.136]
~ Siegfried A. Schulz

Bishop Otto II of Freising wrote a German version of the story and published it anonymously around 1200. Rudolf von Ems, “one of the most learned and prolific writers of his time” wrote a German version around 1220 “replete with grammatical rhymes, anaphoras, alliterations, and sundry elements of ornamental style”.[1, p.137] Gui de Cambrai wrote a French version around 1240. Iacopo de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa wrote an Italian version known as ‘Golden Legends’ (Legenda Aurea) around 1290. Hilario de Lourinha wrote a Portuguese version in novel form known as Barlao e Josaphat in the 14th century. There were two French mystery plays based on it in the 15th century. There were two Italian dramas written by Socci Perretano and Benardo Pulci in the 15th century. The drama Barlan y Josafa was written by Lope de Vega in 1618. Jakob Bidermann, the German Jesuit, released a Baroque style drama in Latin titled Josaphatus, sive Drama de Josaphato et Barlaamo in 1619. Jacob Mason, another German Jesuit, staged his Baroque style drama in Latin (Josaphatus Tragicomoedia historica) “for the benefit of those Catholic delegates to the peace conference meeting at Munster in 1647”.

Although these two characters (Barlaam and Josaphat) are typically considered fictional today, people in the past (and possibly still today) did not always feel this way. Petrus de Natalibus included them in the Catalogus Sanctorum (Rome, 1380). They were also included in the official 1583 Martyrologium Romanum. They hold feast dates (Nov. 27th and Aug. 26) in the Eastern Orthodox churches.

“…in 1571, the Doge of Venice presented King Sebastian of Portugal with precious relics: a bone and part of the spine of St. Josaphat…”[1, p.138]
~ Siegfried A. Schulz

The historian Diogo do Couto, a companion of Marco Polo, in 1612 “thought that the Buddhist legend was an imitation of the Christian legend, or perhaps that Buddha was Joshua”.[2] In July 1859, in Journal des Debats, Edouard Laboulaye took the first serious steps to note the parallels between the two legends. Liebrecht, also in 1859, independently had done the same. H. Peri (Pflaum) made serious contributions to the study in 1959.

There is a non-Christian version of the story (The Prince and the Dervish) written in Hebrew by Abraham Ibn Chisdai. The abbot of the Dabra Libanos monastery completed an Ethiopian version in 1553.

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[1] – Schulz, Siegfried A. “Two Christian Saints? The Barlaam and Josaphat Legend.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, 1981, pp. 131–143. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

[2] – Pitts, Monique B. “BARLAAM AND JOSAPHAT: A LEGEND FOR ALL SEASONS.” Journal of South Asian Literature, vol. 16, no. 1, 1981, pp. 3–16. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Sept. 2020.

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