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Sts. Barlaam the Hermit and Joasaph, Prince of Great India or Ethiopia

Western languages sometimes BALAAM and JEHOSAPHAT
Date unknown
According to an international best-seller of the Middle Ages, Ioasaph (also rendered Josaphat or Yudasaf) was the philosophically inclined crown-prince of "Inner Ethiopia, called India", whom the desert hermit Barlaam of Senaar or Balahvar of Serendip converted to faith in the True God. Versions of the story were written in nearly every widely-spoken European and Middle Eastern language and in the Ge'ez tongue of Ethiopia; the True Faith was variously identified as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Manichæism. The most influential retelling was the Greek version by "John the Monk", identified by tradition with St. John of Damascus but by several modern scholars with St. Euthymius the Georgian. The Greek text skillfully interweaves narrative action in exotic "Ethiopian" locales, entertaining fables (some later to re-appear as Sufi stories), and a detailed exposition of Orthodox Christianity based in part on the writings of John of Damascus and in part on an apologetical work of the second century, the original of which was rediscovered in the 1800s.

According to all versions of the story, Ioasaph's father was warned by an astrologer that his son would join an illegal religion and become a monk after experiencing sorrow; to forestall this, the king imprisoned his son from birth in a pleasure-palace. Ioasaph's quest for truth began when he managed to leave the palace briefly and observed old age, poverty, and disease in the city. A very similar story is, of course, told of Gautama Buddha, and the name "Yudasaf" bears an obvious resemblance to "Budhasaf", the standard Persian transcription of "Bodhisattva"; some scholars hear echoes of Sanskrit in other proper names as well. It is therefore frequently asserted that the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph originated as a Persian, probably Manichæan, retelling of the the life of Buddha, whom Mani numbered among the prophets. On the other hand, the most famous and central episode in Gautama's life, his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, is entirely lacking, and there is an equally complete absence of distinctively Buddhist theology or doctrine. It seems not impossible that the story may simply have been Sanskritized in the East in the same way that it was Hebræized in the Latin West where the names of the protagonists were conflated with "Balaam" and "Jehosaphat". Curiously, in spite of the existence of an Ethiopic version, the occurrence of at least one Nubian place name in the Greek, and the marked resemblance of the setting to the Axumite Empire, scholars do not seem to have suggested that the story might have roots in the African as well as the Indian "Æthiopia".

Norman Hugh Redington


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