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Barlaam And Ioasaph by St. John Of Damascus

‘BY the providence of God, O king, came I into the world; and when I contemplated heaven and earth and sea, the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies, I was led to marvel at their fair order. And, when I beheld the world and all that therein is, how it is moved by law, I understood that he who moveth and sustaineth it is God. That which moveth is ever stronger than that which is moved, and that which sustaineth is stronger than that which is sustained. Him therefore I call God, who constructed all things and sustaineth them, without beginning, without end, immortal, without want, above all passions, and failings, such as anger, forgetfulness, ignorance, and the like. By him all things consist. He hath no need of sacrifice, or drink offering, or of any of the things that we see, but all men have need of him.

‘Now that I have said thus much concerning God, according as he hath granted me to speak concerning himself, come we now to the human race, that we may know which of them partake of truth, and which of error. It is manifest to us, O king, that there are three races of men in this world: those that are worshippers of them whom ye call gods, and Jews, and Christians. And again those who serve many gods are divided into three races, Chaldeans, Greeks and Egyptians, for these are to the other nations the leaders and teachers of the service and worship of the gods whose name is legion. Let us therefore see which of these hold the truth, and which error.

‘The Chaldeans, which knew not God, went astray after the elements and began to worship the creature rather than their Creator, and they made figures of these creatures and called them likenesses of heaven, and earth and sea, of sun and moon, and of the other elements or luminaries. And they enclosed them in temples, and worship them under the title of gods, and guard them in safety lest they be stolen by robbers. They have not understood how that which guardeth is ever greater than that which is guarded, and that the maker is greater than the thing that is made; for, if the gods be unable to take care of themselves, how can they take care of others? Great then is the error that the Chaldeans have erred in worshipping lifeless and useless images. And I am moved to wonder, O king, how they, who are called philosophers among them, fail to understand that even the very elements are corruptible. But if the elements are corruptible and subject to law, how are they gods? And if the elements are not gods, how are the images, created to their honour, gods?

‘Come we then, O king, to the elements themselves, that we may prove, concerning them, that they are not gods, but corruptible and changeable things, brought out of non-existence by the command of the existent God, who is incorruptible, and unchangeable, and invisible, but yet himself seeth all things, and, as he willeth, changeth and altereth the same. What then must I say about the elements?

‘They, who ween that the Heaven is a god, are in error. For we see it turning and moving by law, and consisting of many parts, whence also it is called Cosmos! Now a “Cosmos” is the handiwork of some artificer: and that which is wrought by handiwork hath beginning and end. And the firmament is moved by law together with its luminaries. The stars are borne from Sign to Sign, each in his order and place: some rise, while others set: and they run their journey according to fixed seasons, to fulfil summer and winter, as it hath been ordained for them by God, nor do they transgress their proper bounds, according to the inexorable law of nature, in common with the heavenly firmament. Whence it is evident that the heaven is not a god, but only a work of God.

‘They again that think that the Earth is a goddess have gone astray. We behold it dishonoured, mastered, defiled and rendered useless by mankind. If it be baked by the sun, it becometh dead; for nothing groweth from a potsherd. And again, if it be soaked overmuch, it rotteth, fruit and all. It is trodden under foot of men and the residue of the beasts: it is polluted with the blood of the murdered, it is digged and made a grave for dead bodies. This being so, Earth can in no wise be a goddess, but only the work of God for the use of men.

‘They that think that Water is a god have gone astray. It also hath been made for the use of men. It is under their lordship: it is polluted, and perisheth: it is altered by boiling, by dyeing, by congealment, or by being brought to the cleansing of defilement. Wherefore Water cannot be a god, but only the work of God.

‘They that think that Fire is a god are in error. It too was made for the use of men. It is subject to their lordship, being carried about from place to place, for the seething and roasting of all manner of meats, yea, and for the burning of dead corpses. Moreover it perisheth in divers ways, when it is quenched by mankind. Wherefore Fire cannot be a god, but only the work of God.

‘They that think that the breath of the Winds is god are in error. This, as is evident, is subject to another, and hath been prepared by God,’ for the sake of mankind, for the carriage of ships, and the conveyance of victuals, and for other uses of men; and it riseth and falleth according to the ordinance of God. Wherefore it is not to be supposed that the breath of the Winds is a god, but only the work of God.

‘They that think that the Sun is a god are in error. We see him moving and turning by law, and passing from Sign to Sign, setting and rising, to warm herbs and trees for the use of men, sharing power with the other stars, being much less than the heaven, and falling into eclipse and possessed of no sovranty of his own. Wherefore we do not consider that the Sun is a god, but only the work of God.

‘They that think that the Moon is a goddess are in error. We behold her moving and turning by law, and passing from Sign to Sign, setting and rising for the use of men, lesser than the sun, waxing and waning, suffering eclipse. Wherefore we do not consider that the Moon is a goddess, but only the work of God.

‘They that think that Man is a god are in error. We see man moving by law, growing up, and waxing old, even against his will. Now he rejoiceth, now he grieveth, requiring meat and drink and raiment. Besides he is passionate, envious, lustful, fickle, and full of failings: and he perisheth in many a way, by the elements, by wild beasts, and by the death that ever awaiteth him. So man cannot be a god, but only the work of God. Great then is the error that the Chaldeans have erred in following their own lusts; for they worship corruptible elements and dead images, neither do they perceive that they are making gods of these.

‘Now come we to the Greeks that we may see whether they have any understanding concerning God. The Greeks, then, professing themselves to be wise, fell into greater folly than the Chaldeans, alleging the existence of many gods, some male, others female, creators of all passions and sins of every kind. Wherefore the Greeks, O king, introduced an absurd, foolish and ungodly fashion of talk, calling them gods that were not, according to their own evil passions; that, having these gods for advocates of their wickedness, they might commit adultery, theft, murder and all manner of iniquity. For if their gods did so, how should they not themselves do the like? Therefore from these practices of error it came to pass that men suffered frequent wars and slaughters and cruel captivities. But if now we choose to pass in review each one of these gods, what a strange sight shalt thou see!

‘First and foremost they introduce the god whom they call Kronos, and to him they sacrifice their own children, to him who had many sons by Rhea, and in a fit of madness ate his own children. And they say that Zeus cut off his privy parts, and cast them into the sea, whence, as fable telleth, was born Aphrodite. So Zeus bound his own father, and cast him into Tartarus. Dost thou mark the delusion of lasciviousness that they allege against their gods? Is it possible then that one who was prisoner and mutilated should be a god? What folly? What man in his senses could admit it?

‘Next they introduce Zeus, who, they say, is the king of the gods, and took the shape of animals, that he might defile mortal women. They show him transformed into a bull, for Europa; into gold, for Danae; into a swan, for Leda; into a satyr, for Antiope; and into a thunder-bolt, for Semele. Then of these were born many children, Dionysus, Zethus, Amphion, Herakles, Apollo, Artemis, Perseus, Castor, Helen, Polydeukes, Minos, Rhadamanthos, Sarpedon, and the nine daughters whom they call the Muses.

‘In like manner they introduce the story of Ganymede. And so befel it, O king, that men imitated them in many ways, and became adulterers, and defilers of themselves with mankind, and doers of other monstrous deeds, in imitation of their gods. How then can an adulterer, one that defileth himself by unnatural lust, a slayer of his father be a god?

‘With Zeus also they represent one Hephaestus as a god, and him lame, holding hammer and fire-tongs, and working as a copper-smith for hire. So it appeareth that he is needy. But it is impossible for one who is lame and wanteth men’s aid to be a God.

‘After him, they represent as a god Hermes, a lusty fellow, a thief, and a covetous, a sorcerer, bow-legged, and an interpreter of speech. It is impossible for such an one to be a God.

‘They also exhibit Asklepius as god, a physician, a maker of medicines, a compounder of plasters for his livelihood (for he is a needy wight), and in the end, they say that he was struck by Zeus with a thunder-bolt, because of Tyndareus, son of Lakedaemon, and thus perished. Now if Asklepius, though a god, when struck by a thunder-bolt, could not help himself, how can he help others?

‘Ares is represented as a warlike god, emulous, and covetous of sheep and other things. But in the end they say he was taken in adultery with Aphrodite by the child Eros and Hephaestus and was bound by them. How then can the covetous, the warrior, the bondman and adulterer be a god?

‘Dionysus they show as a god, who leadeth nightly orgies, and teacheth drunkenness, and carrieth off his neighbours’ wives, a madman and an exile, finally slain by the Titans. If then Dionysus was slain and unable to help himself, nay, further was a madman, a drunkard, and vagabond, how could he be a god?

‘Herakles, too, is represented as drunken and mad, as slaying his own children, then consuming with fire and thus dying. How then could a drunkard and slayer of his own children, burnt to death by fire, be a god?

‘Apollo they represent as an emulous god, holding bow and quiver, and, at times, harp and flute, and prophesying to men for pay. Soothly he is needy: but one that is needy and emulous, and a minstrel cannot be a god.

‘Artemis, his sister, they represent as an huntress, with bow and quiver, ranging the mountains alone, with her hounds, in chase of stag or boar. How can such an one, that is an huntress and a ranger with hounds, be a goddess?

‘Of Aphrodite, adulteress though she be, they say that she is herself a goddess. Once she had for leman Ares, once Anchises, once Adonis, whose death she lamenteth, seeking her lost lover. They say that she even descended into Hades to ransom Adonis from Persephone. Didst thou, O king, ever see madness greater than this? They represent this weeping and wailing adulteress as a goddess.

‘Adonis they show as an hunter god, violently killed by a boar tusk, and unable to help his own distress. How then shall he take thought for mankind, he the adulterer, the hunter who died a violent death?

‘All such tales, and many like them, and many wicked tales more shameful still, have the Greeks introduced, O king, concerning their gods; tales, whereof it is unlawful to speak, or even to have them in remembrance. Hence men, taking occasion from their gods, wrought all lawlessness, lasciviousness and ungodliness, polluting earth and air with their horrible deeds.

‘But the Egyptians, more fatuous and foolish than they, have erred worse than any other nation. They were not satisfied with the idols worshipped by the Chaldeans and Greeks, but further introduced as gods brute beasts of land and water, and herbs and trees, and were defiled in all madness and lasciviousness worse than all people upon earth. From the beginning they worshipped Isis, which had for her brother and husband that Osiris which was slain by his brother Typhon. And for this reason Isis fled with Horus her son to Byblos in Syria, seeking Osiris and bitterly wailing, until Horus was grown up and killed Typhon. Isis then was not able to help her own brother and husband; nor had Osiris, who was slain by Typhon, power to succour himself; nor had Typhon, who killed his brother and was himself destroyed by Horus and Isis, any resource to save himself from death. And yet, although famous for all these misadventures, these be they that were considered gods by the senseless Egyptians.

‘The same people, not content therewith, nor with the rest of the idols of the heathen, also introduced brute beasts as gods. Some of them worshipped the sheep, some the goat, and others the calf and the hog; while certain of them worshipped the raven, the kite, the vulture, and the eagle. Others again worshipped the crocodile, and some the cat and dog, the wolf and ape, the dragon and serpent, and others the onion, garlic and thorns, and every other creature. And the poor fools do not perceive, concerning these things, that they have no power at all. Though they see their gods being devoured, burnt and killed by other men, and rotting away, they cannot grasp the fact that they are no gods.

‘Great, then, is the error that the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, and the Greeks have erred in introducing such gods as these, and making images thereof, and deifying dumb and senseless idols. I marvel how, when they behold their gods being sawn and chiselled by workmen’s axes, growing old and dissolving through lapse of time, and molten in the pot, they never reflected concerning them that they are no gods. For when these skill not to work their own salvation, how can they take care of mankind? Nay, even the poets and philosophers among the Chaldeans, Greeks and Egyptians, although by their poems and histories they desired to glorify their people’s gods, yet they rather revealed and exposed their shame before all men, If the body of a man, consisting of many parts, loseth not any of its proper members, but, having an unbroken union with all its members, is in harmony with itself, how in the nature of God shall there be such warfare and discord? For if the nature of the gods were one, then ought not one god to persecute, slay or injure another? But if the gods were persecuted by other gods, and slain and plundered and killed with thunder-stones, then is their nature no longer one, but their wills are divided, and are all mischievous, so that not one among them is God. So it is manifest, O king, that all this history of the nature of the gods is error.

‘Furthermore, how do the wise and eloquent among the Greeks fail to perceive that law givers themselves are judged by their own laws? For if their laws are just, then are their gods assuredly unjust, in that they have offended against law by murders, sorceries, adulteries, thefts and unnatural crimes. But, if they did well in so doing, then are their laws unjust, seeing that they have been framed in condemnation of the gods. But now the laws are good and just, because they encourage good and forbid evil; whereas the deeds of their gods offend against law. Their gods then are offenders against law; and all that introduce such gods as these are worthy of death and are ungodly. If the stories of the gods be myths, then are the gods mere words: but if the stories be natural, then are they that wrought or endured such things, no longer gods: if the stories be allegorical, then are the gods myths and nothing else. Therefore it hath been proven, O king, that all these idols, belonging to many gods, are works of error and destruction. So it is not meet to call those gods that are seen, but cannot see: but it is right to worship as God him who is unseen and is the Maker of all mankind.

‘Come we now, O king, to the Jews, that we may see what they also think concerning God. The Jews are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and went once to sojourn in Egypt. From thence God brought them out with a mighty hand and stretched out arm by Moses their lawgiver; and with many miracles and signs made he known unto them his power. But, like the rest, these proved ungrateful and unprofitable, and often worshipped images of the heathen, and killed the prophets and righteous men that were sent unto them. Then, when it pleased the Son of God to come on earth, they did shamefully entreat him and deliver him to Pilate the Roman governor, and condemn him to the Cross, regardless of his benefits, and the countless miracles that he had worked amongst them. Wherefore by their own lawlessness they perished. For though to this day they worship the One Omnipotent God, yet it is not according unto knowledge; for they deny Christ the Son of God, and are like the heathen, although they seem to approach the truth from which they have estranged themselves. So much for the Jews.

‘As for the Christians, they trace their line from the Lord Jesus Christ. He is confessed to be the Son of the most high God, who came down from heaven, by the Holy Ghost, for the salvation of mankind, and was born of a pure Virgin, without seed of man, and without defilement, and took flesh, and appeared among men, that he might recall them from the error of worshipping many gods. When he had accomplished his marvellous dispensation, of his own free will by a mighty dispensation he tasted of death upon the Cross. But after three days he came to life again, and ascended into the heavens,—the glory of whose coming thou mayest learn, O king, by the reading of the holy Scripture, which the Christians call the Gospel, shouldst thou meet therewith. This Jesus had twelve disciples, who, after his ascent into the heavens, went out into all the kingdoms of the world, telling of his greatness. Even so one of them visited our coasts, preaching the doctrine of truth; whence they who still serve the righteousness of his preaching are called Christians. And these are they who, above all the nations of the earth, have found the truth: for they acknowledge God the Creator and Maker of all things in the only-begotten Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and other God than him they worship none. They have the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ himself engraven on their hearts, and these they observe, looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They neither commit adultery nor fornication; nor do they bear false witness, nor covet other men’s goods: they honour father and mother, and love their neighbours: they give right judgement. They do not unto other that which they would not have done unto themselves. They comfort such as wrong them, and make friends of them: they labour to do good to their enemies: they are meek and gentle. They refrain themselves from all unlawful intercourse and all uncleanness. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit. For Christ his sake they are ready to lay down their lives: they keep his commandments faithfully, living righteous and holy lives, as the Lord commanded them, giving him thanks every hour, for meat and drink and every blessing. Verily, then, this is the way of truth which leadeth its wayfarers unto the eternal kingdom promised by Christ in the life to come.

‘And that thou mayest know, O king, that I speak nought of myself, look thou into the writings of the Christians, and thou shalt find that I speak nothing but the truth. Well, therefore, hath thy son understood it, and rightly hath he been taught to serve the living God, and to be saved for the world to come Great and marvellous are the things spoken and wrought by the Christians, because they speak not the words of men but the words of God. But all other nations are deceived, and deceive themselves. Walking in darkness they stagger one against another like drunken men. This is the end of my speech spoken unto thee, O king, prompted by the truth that is in my mind. Wherefore let thy foolish wise-acres refrain from babbling idly against the Lord; for it is profitable to you to worship God the Creator, and hearken to his incorruptible sayings, in order that ye may escape judgement and punishment, and be found partakers of deathless life.’

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