It is always surprising to discover how the early Christian saints have lived on in the cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, and Saint Barbara is a perfect example of this. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, she is celebrated on 4 December as the protagonist of Eid-il-Bubara, a Hallowe’en-like festival in which children go from house to house asking to be given special foods prepared for the occasion. (The recipes seem to revolve around walnuts, raisins, and pomegranate seeds – far nicer and certainly healthier than Hallowe’en candy!) In other parts of the world, Barbara is known as the patron saint of fireworks and electricians, and since the time of the Knights Templar she has been a favourite patron saint for armies and militias. The reason for this is sobering. Like all Christian saints, Barbara is associated with miracles, but in her case, the defining miracle is quite horrific. Our earliest source tells us that Barbara’s father tried to force her to marry against her will, and when she refused, he ordered that she be imprisoned and then beheaded her himself. Soon afterward, he was struck dead by a violent miracle: “fire came from heaven and devoured him, so that his remains could not be seen or found.” The story of domestic violence here is strikingly gory, but it is not entirely unusual for the period. It is important to remember that ancient writers were used to an environment in which families were pitted against one another in civil war or religious conflict, They were also used to a family system in which fathers often exerted violent control over their dependents. This was represented as a brutal fact of life – simply how power works – for the most part, but the dependents who resisted the tyranny of an unjust father were celebrated as heroes – and heroines. (See my ‘Relationships, Resistance, and Religious Change‘ for further discussion.)
Barbara was removed from the Roman Saints’ Calendar in 1969 because her tradition is very unstable. But the earliest source for her life and martyrdom is extremely interesting in its own right. It is an early eighth-century sermon by the Syrian Christian John of Damascus. John tells us that Barbara was the daughter of Diosocouros, the pagan governor ‘of some region’ (already in the eighth century there was uncertainty!) under the emperor Maximian (AD 286-305) during the Great Persecution – so he is clearly very happy with the idea of Christians resisting the authority of an unjust government. John is known for including Islam alongside Chrisitan heresies as a teaching to be rejected by orthodox Christians in his lengthy theological compendium, The Fountain of Wisdom. But the policy of the early Muslim caliphs was to respect Jews and Christians as protected ‘People of the Book’ despite these theological disagreements.
In fact, John’s own experience of life as a protected minority under the early caliphs reflects this policy of inter-religious toleration. According to his earliest biographer, John’s father, a devout Christian, was chief financial officer under the fifth Ummayad Abd Al-Malik (reigned 685-705), the caliph who built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
John himself became Chief Councillor of Damascus. He found himself involved in bitter intra-Christian disputes during the Iconoclast controversy, and his biogapher records that the Christian Emperor in Byzantium falsely accused him of treason against the Caliph, with the result that he was severely punished. (He was eventually vindicated, and went into retirement in a monastery near Jerusalem, perhaps the Monastery of Saint Sabas, not long afterwards.)
Did John’s vision of Barbara’s evil, idol-worshipping pagan father have anything to do with his enmity toward the Emperor of Byzantium, Leo the Isaurian? It was Leo whose edicts against the veneration of images gave rise to the Iconoclast Controversy – as an Iconoclast he saw it as a form of idolatry – and John was among his fiercest opponents. Would Barbara have approved? For better or worse, she would almost certainly have approved of his ferocity.
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Source: John of Damascus, Homily on St Barbara (PG 96.781-814); the quote above is from Homily on St Barbara 17 (PG 96:705), in my own translation.