Brent Nongbri is a post-doctoral research fellow in early Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, offers a corrective to the modern concept of religion “as a universal phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.”
Nongbri shows that the idea of religion as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world…. [He] demonstrates that in antiquity, there was no conceptual arena that could be designated as “religious” as opposed to “secular.” [publisher’s description]
There is a particularly interesting twist on this theme in Chapter 4. Nongbri writes about Pope Gregory XIII’s 1580 designation of November 27th as the feast day for a then familiar Saint Josaphat of India.
The tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph was extremely popular in many versions and languages all across the late medieval Christian world. Once attributed to the 7th century John of Damascus, it was likely transcribed from a Georgian version by the 11th century monk Euthymius and then translated into Greek.
Here is the twist in the story: Latin Josaphat > Greek Iouasaph > Georgian Iodaspah > Arabic Bodhasaf > Sanskrit Bodhisattva. The tale of the young prince Josaphat is recognizably a Christianized retelling of the early life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.
As Nongbri explains, while Josaphat’s tale was well known in late medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, it was not until the 19th century that most Christians in the West knew of the Buddha. Only when Buddhist manuscripts began to be translated and studied in the West did scholars recognize the origins of the Josaphat story.
For Nongbri, there is a special importance for this travel of the tale from Sanskrit through the classical medieval languages into the vernacular languages of Christian Europe.
The story of this complex of texts…illustrate[s] another instance of premodern people handling what modern people would designate as “another religion” in a way that does not at all invoke the idea of religion. (81-82)
An added twist is that the Christianized story was likely carried from the East back to the West by Manichaean Christians who had gone as far as China. Mani himself was known in Chinese literature as “Mani the Buddha of Light (Moni guangfo). As Nongbri writes,
Nevertheless, Jesus remained a key figure even for these [Chinese] Manichaeans, who at times seemed to fully identify Jesus with the Buddha as Jesus-Buddha (Yishu fo). (76)
And so it is.
Saint Josaphat announcing his departure. 13th century Greek manuscript. Mt. Athos, Iviron cod. 463