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Barlaam And Ioasaph by St. John Of Damascus

THERE is no doubt that the author of Barlaam and Ioasaph himself regarded his story as a true narrative of the lives of real characters and that this view was universally held until quite recent times. The names of Saint Barlaam and Saint Ioasaph have figured in the Calendars both of the Roman and of the Greek Church and still retain their place in the latter. To-day, however, this view can be no longer held. A comparison of the story with the well-known legend of Buddha must convince every open-minded reader, that the outline of the plot is derived from the same Eastern source; in spite of all difference in detail, the general resemblance is quite undeniable. The writer himself tells us, that the story was brought to him from India, and it is highly probable, that what he heard was simply a version of the life of Buddha, adapted by Christians of the East to their own use. But we should be going too far, if we sought for traces of Buddhist influence in the doctrinal teaching of the story. No real relationship has ever yet been proved between Christian and Buddhist monasticism; in fact, in spite of certain obvious resemblances, the two differ profoundly in spirit. The aim of the Buddhist monk is mainly negative—deliverance from the evils of the flesh; that of the Christian has also a positive aspect—surrender of the semblance of happiness in this world in order to gain the reality hereafter, the “ἀπόρρητα ἀγαθά” laid up for the righteous in Heaven.

The main aim of the author was the glorification of this Christian monasticism. Marriage, the cares of social and business life, the duties of citizenship—all these, though not represented as inconsistent with Christian living, appear only as a second best. The ideal is the complete devotion of the whole personality to religious contemplation, the renunciation of wealth and pleasure and the mortification of the flesh. In his enthusiasm for the monastic life, as too in his passionate defence of the veneration of Images, our author shows himself clearly an obstinate adversary of the great Iconoclastic movement of the eighth century A.D.

Our book falls roughly into three distinct parts: the narrative—the thread on which the whole is strung: the speeches—many of them of great length—containing long expositions of Christian doctrine, confessions of Faith and hymns of praise, and frequent long quotations from early Christian writers; and the Apologues, fables or parables, introduced in the speeches to illustrate pictorially some moral truth. The whole work is steeped in the language of the Bible and of the Christian Fathers; and it is this fact that has led the translators to adopt a style modelled on that of the Authorised Version. The task is not easy or without its perils; but in no other way, we believe, could the unity of the book be maintained; the Biblical quotations, frequent as they are, would harmonise badly with a more modern style.

Books, like men, have their vicissitudes of fate. The favourite work of one generation may be the laughing-stock of the next; and the “edifying story of Barlaam and Ioasaph,” which once enjoyed a popularity comparable to that of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” and furnished material for story-books and romances, for sermons and plays, has fallen into deep oblivion. That it will ever regain this lost fame is hardly to be expected; its world of thought is far removed from ours and its controversies have in many cases ceased to concern us very deeply. But the tale has still life and vigour; it is no corpse of a book that we are dragging from its tomb: we found it, as the seekers found the bodies of the dead Saints, Barlaam and Ioasaph, “οὐδὲν τοῦ προτέρου χρωτὸς παράλλαττον, ὁλόκληρσον δὲ καὶ ἀκριβῶς ὑγιές.”

It is probable that these picturesque and effective little stories came with the main narrative from an Eastern source. The first ten are put into the mouth of Barlaam, the last into that of Theudas, and all are used to point some moral truth. The style is simple and graphic and to some readers the Apologues may form the most attractive part of the book.

The best known is, of course, the tale of the Caskets, made famous by its repetition in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

In 1889 Professor Rendel Harris discovered a Syriac version of the Apology of Aristides in St. Katharine’s Convent on Mt. Sinai. While engaged on a study of the new text Dr. Armitage Robinson was reminded of a passage in Barlaam and Ioasaph, and, on turning to the text made the interesting discovery, that the speech of Nachor (pp. 396–425) was nothing but the Apology in a Greek dress, fitted, with some deftness, into its new context. For all details we will refer to Dr. Armitage Robinson’s work. We need only remind our readers here, that, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Apology” was a defence of Christianity presented by Aristides, a philosopher of Athens, in 124 to the Emperor Hadrian, when on a visit to that city; that modern scholars have found some reasons for assigning the work to the reign of Antoninus Pius, but that beyond all question, it is an early and authentic Christian document. The tone is calm and reasonable and the appeal made is rather to common-sense and plain facts than to subtleties of logic or to exalted emotion.

The question of the authorship of Barlaam and Ioasaph cannot be passed over in silence, but considerations of space will only allow us to sum up the arguments and conclusions as briefly as possible.

Throughout the Middle Ages down to quite recent times the book was almost universally attributed to St. John of Damascus. No other attributions need be seriously considered, and the only question for us to decide is whether we can accept the traditional authorship of the Damascene or must let the book remain anonymous. The earliest MSS. mention as author a certain “John the Monk”; but a Latin MS. of the twelfth century in the British Museum gives it to John of Damascus by name, and after that time the tradition becomes increasingly strong in his favour. But in 1886 H. Zotenberg, in an elaborate monograph, attempted to prove that St. John could not have been the author, and many writers have accepted his conclusions in simple trust. We will sum up the more important of his arguments:—

(1) He points out that the definite attribution to St. John does not occur in the earliest MSS.

(2) The importance of the questions of the two natures and the two wills of Christ suggests an earlier date than the eighth century—a date nearer to the time of the great controversies on these subtle points.

(3) There is absolutely no mention of the Mohammedan religion.

(4) The style is quite unlike that of St. John in his works of certain authenticity.

Zotenberg has a few other arguments that seem to us to carry no weight whatever; and he has also attempted, without much success, to dispose of the definite arguments in favour of the traditional attribution.

These arguments must now be stated:—

(1) Our work exhibits the most striking resemblances on points of doctrine and use to the doctrinal works of St. John; in many passages the resemblance amounts almost to verbal identity.

(2) There are frequent quotations from favourite authors of St. John, especially from St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil.

(3) The defence of Images, coupled with the denunciation of Idolatry, the enthusiasm for the monastic ideal, and the scant regard shown for the bishops and the secular clergy, almost compel us to place the work in the time of the Iconoclastic Controversy. The position, taken up and defended, is exactly that of the Icon-venerators; and we regard this fact alone as conclusive evidence for an eighth century date.

In answer to Zotenberg’s arguments we may say:—

(1) That “John the Monk,” to whom the earliest MSS. assign the work, may very well be St. John of Damascus; he seems to have been commonly known under this name.

(2) The references to the controversies over the two natures and two wills of Christ are not nearly so frequent or so pointed as are those to the Icon Controversy. This argument, in any case, does not tell seriously against the traditional date.

(3) The lack of any mention of Islam is more remarkable. But St. John had stood in friendly relations with the Mohammedans, and, as they were infidels indeed, but not idolators, they did not come within the special scope of his attack. He was actually accused by his enemies of being a “favourer of Mussulmans.” Hence his silence on this point, though striking, is not inexplicable.

(4) The question of style is rather a difficult one. Zotenberg’s treatment of the subject is not very successful, and he has made several gross blunders, which justify serious doubts of his competency to pronounce on the subject. The case seems to stand thus: parts of the speeches, dealing with points of doctrine, are strikingly like St. John’s doctrinal works; other parts of the work, particularly the narrative sections, are less similar, but are not unlike some of St. John’s homilies. On such a point certainty is hardly attainable. We think it may safely be said that the style certainly does not rule out the possibility of St. John’s authorship; some readers will go further and maintain that it actually confirms it.

Our general conclusion then is this. There is a tradition in favour of St. John of Damascus as the author of Barlaam and Ioasaph. The book was undoubtedly written during the Iconoclastic Controversy, in the eighth century, probably at a time when the Iconoclasts were in the ascendant (c. 750 A.D.?). It was written either by St. John of Damascus himself or by another monk bearing the name of John, who was intimately acquainted with the works of the Damascene, quoted freely from the same authors, held the same views on general points of doctrine and took the same side in the Iconoclastic Controversy. We have examined Zotenberg’s arguments and found them insufficient; his followers have added little or nothing to his case. Langen, after a thorough inquiry, accepts the tradition: Max Müller characterises the arguments brought against it as very weak. We think therefore that the name of St. John of Damascus has still a right to appear on the title-page.

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