Saint John of Damascus
Ἰωάννης ὁ Δαμασκηνός (Greek)
Iohannes Damascenus (Latin)
يوحنا الدمشقي (Arabic)
Saint John Damascene (Arabic icon)
c. 675 or 676
March 27 (General Roman Calendar 1890–1969)
Saint John of Damascus (Greek: Ἰωάννης ὁ Δαμασκηνός / Iōannēs ho Damaskēnos; Latin: Iohannes Damascenus; Arabic: يوحنا الدمشقي / ALA-LC: Yūḥannā ad-Dimashqī; also known as John Damascene, and as Χρυσορρόας / Chrysorrhoas, literally "streaming with gold"—i.e., "the golden speaker"; c. 675 or 676 – 4 December 749) was a Syrian monk and priest. Born and raised in Damascus, he died at his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem.
A polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music, he is said by some sources to have served as a Chief Administrator to the Muslim caliph of Damascus before his ordination. He wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still used both liturgically in Eastern Christian practice throughout the world as well as in western Lutheranism at Easter. He is considered "the last of the Fathers" of the Eastern Orthodox church and is best known for his strong defense of icons. The Catholic Church regards him as a Doctor of the Church, often referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption due to his writings on the Assumption of Mary.
The most common source of information for the life of John of Damascus is a work attributed to one John of Jerusalem, identified therein as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. This is an excerpted translation into Greek of an earlier Arabic text. The Arabic original contains a prologue not found in most other translations, and was written by an Arab monk, Michael. Michael explained that he decided to write his biography in 1084 because none was available in his day. However, the main Arabic text seems to have been written by an earlier author sometime between the early 9th and late 10th centuries AD. Written from a hagiographical point of view and prone to exaggeration and some legendary details, it is not the best historical source for his life, but is widely reproduced and considered to contain elements of some value. The hagiographic novel Barlaam and Josaphat, traditionally attributed to John, is in fact a work of the 10th century.
- 1 Family background
- 2 Education
- 3 Defence of holy images
- 4 Last days
- 5 Veneration
- 6 List of works
- 7 The Arabic translation
- 8 Modern English translations
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
John was born into a prominent family known as Mansour (Arabic: المنصور / al-Manṣūr, "the victorious one") in Damascus in the 7th century AD. His full name was Yuhanna (or Yanah) ibn Mansur ibn Sarjun (Arabic: منصور بن سرجون), named for his grandfather Mansur, who had been responsible for the taxes of the region under the Emperor Heraclius. The lack of documentation attesting to his specific tribal lineage has led a number of scholars to assign him either to the Taghlib or the Kalb, two prominent Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert. Others suggest that he may have been of Syrian non-Arab origin. Whatever the case, John of Damascus had two names: John, his Christian name, and his Arabic name, given as Qurein or Yana or Iyanis.
Eutychius, a 10th-century Melkite patriarch mentions a certain Arab governor of the city who surrendered the city to the Muslims, probably John's grandfather Mansur Bin Sargun. When the region came under Arab Muslim rule in the late 7th century AD, the court at Damascus retained its large complement of Christian civil servants, John's grandfather among them. John's father, Sarjun (Sergius) or Ibn Mansur, went on to serve the Umayyad caliphs. According to John of Jerusalem and some later versions of his life, after his father's death John also served as an official to the caliphal court before leaving to become a monk. This claim, that John actually served in a Muslim court, has been questioned since he is never mentioned in Muslim sources, which however do refer to his father Sarjun (Sergius) as a secretary in the caliphal administration. In addition, John's own writings never refer to any experience in a Muslim court. It is believed that John became a monk at Mar Saba, and that he was ordained as a priest in 735.
One of the vitae describes his father's desire for him to "learn not only the books of the Muslims, but those of the Greeks as well." From this it has been suggested that John may have grown up bilingual. John does indeed show some knowledge of the Quran, which he criticizes harshly.
Other sources describes his education in Damascus as having been conducted in accordance with the principles of Hellenic education, termed "secular" by one source and "Classical Christian" by another. One account identifies his tutor as a monk by the name of Cosmas, who had been kidnapped by Arabs from his home in Sicily, and for whom John's father paid a great price. Under the instruction of Cosmas, who also taught John's orphan friend (the future St. Cosmas of Maiuma), John is said to have made great advances in music, astronomy and theology, soon rivalling Pythagoras in arithmetic and Euclid in geometry. As a refugee from Italy, Cosmas brought with him the scholarly traditions of Western Christianity.
Defence of holy images
In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons, gained some acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, despite the protests of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer in the secure surroundings of the caliph's court, John of Damascus undertook a spirited defence of holy images in three separate publications. The earliest of these works, his "Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images", secured his reputation. He not only attacked the emperor, but adopted a simplified style that allowed the controversy to be followed by the common people, stirring rebellion among those of Christian faith. Later, his writings would play an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea, which convened to settle the icon dispute.
The biography of John of Damascus recounts at least one episode deemed to be improbable or legendary. It reports that Leo III sent forged documents to the caliph which implicated John in a plot to attack Damascus. The caliph then ordered John's right hand be cut off and hung up in public view. Some days afterwards, John asked for the restitution of his hand, and prayed fervently to the Theotokos before her icon: thereupon, his hand is said to have been miraculously restored. In gratitude for this miraculous healing, he attached a silver hand to the icon, which thereafter became known as the "Three-handed", or Tricheirousa. The biography adds that after this event John retired to the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem; however, an editor of his works, Father Le Quien, has shown that John was already a monk at Mar Saba before the dispute over iconoclasm, which renders the story all the more improbable. It has been argued that John left Damascus to become a monk around 706, when al-Walid I increased the Islamicisation of the Caliphate's administration. Muslim sources only mention that his father Sarjun (Sergius) left the administration around this time, and fail to name John at all.
John died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church, and is recognized as a saint. He is sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1883 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII.
When the name of Saint John of Damascus was inserted in the General Roman Calendar in 1890, it was assigned to 27 March. The feast day was moved in 1969 to the day of the saint's death, 4 December, the day on which his feast day is celebrated also in the Byzantine Rite calendar  and the Lutheran Commemorations.
List of works
Besides his purely textual works, many of which are listed below, John of Damascus also composed hymns, perfecting the canon, a structured hymn form used in Eastern Orthodox church services.
- Three Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images – These treatises were among his earliest expositions in response to the edict by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, banning the veneration or exhibition of holy images.
Teachings and dogmatic works
- Fountain of Knowledge or The Fountain of Wisdom, is divided into three parts:
- Against the Jacobites
- Against the Nestorians
- Dialogue against the Manichees
- Elementary Introduction into Dogmas
- Letter on the Thrice-Holy Hymn
- On Right Thinking
- On the Faith, Against the Nestorians
- On the Two Wills in Christ (Against the Monothelites)
- Sacred Parallels (dubious)
- Octoechos (the Church's service book of eight tones)
- On Dragons and Ghosts
The Arabic translation
It is believed that the homily on the Annunciation was the first work to be translated into Arabic. We can find a big part of the Arabic text in the manuscript 4226 of the Library of Strasbourg (France), a copy achieved in 885 AD.
Later in the 10th century, Antony, superior of the monastery of St. Simon (near Antioch) translated a corpus of saint John Damascene. In his introduction to John's work, Sylvestre patriarch of Antioch (1724-1766) said that Antony was monk at Saint Saba. This could be a misunderstanding of the title Superior of Saint Simon probably because Saint Simon's monastery was in ruins in the 18th century.
Most manuscripts give the text of the letter to Cosmas, the philosophical chapters, the theological chapters and five other small works. Since March 2013, a first edition of this translation is available on the web.
In 1085, Mikhael, a monk from Antioch wrote the Arabic life of the Chrysorrhoas. This work was first edited by Bacha in 1912 and then translated in many languages (German, Russian and English).
Modern English translations
- On holy images; followed by three sermons on the Assumption, translated by Mary H. Allies, (London: Thomas Baker, 1898)
- Exposition of the Orthodox faith, translated by the Reverend SDF Salmond, in Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series vol 9. (Oxford: Parker, 1899) [reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963.]
- Writings, translated by Frederic H. Chase. Fathers of the Church vol 37, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1958) [ET of The fount of knowledge; On heresies; The orthodox faith]
- Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam: The "Heresy of the Ishmaelites", (Leiden: Brill, 1972)
- On the divine images: the apologies against those who attack the divine images, translated by David Anderson, (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980)
- Three treatises on the divine images, translation and introduction by Andrew Louth, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003)
2 translations exist of the 10th century hagiographic novel Barlaam and Josaphat, traditionally attributed to John:
- Barlaam and Ioasaph, with an English translation by G.R. Woodward and H. Mattingly, (London: Heinemann, 1914)
- The precious pearl: the lives of Saints Barlaam and Ioasaph, notes and comments by Augoustinos N Kantiotes; preface, introduction, and new translation by Asterios Gerostergios, et al., (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1997)
- Louth, A. (2005). St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-927527-4.
- Mike Aquilina. The Fathers of the church: an introduction to the first Christian teachers (illustrated ed.). Our Sunday Visitor Publishing year=1999. ISBN 978-0-87-973689-7.
- Hoyland, Robert (1996). Seeing Islam as Others Saw It. Darwin Press.
- Michiel Op de Coul en Marcel Poorthuis, 2011. De eerste christelijke polemiek met de islam ISBN 978-90-211-4282-1
- Brown, Peter Robert Lamont (2003). The rise of Western Christendom: triumph and diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (2nd, illustrated ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-63-122138-8.
- Butler, Alban; Jones, Kathleen; Burns, Paul (2000). Butler's lives of the saints: Volume 12 of Butler's Lives of the Saints Series (Revised ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-86012-261-1.
- Jameson (2008). Legends of the Madonna. BiblioBazaar, LLC. ISBN 0-554-33413-5.
- Louth, Andrew (2002). St. John Damascene: tradition and originality in Byzantine theology (Illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-925238-6.
- Louth, Andrew (2003). Three treatises on the divine images. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 0-88141-245-7.
- Irfan Shahîd (2009). Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century: Economic, Social, and Cultural History, Volume 2, Part 2. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-88-402347-0.
- McEnhill, Peter; Newlands, G. M. (2004). Fifty key Christian thinkers. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-17049-4.
- Sahas, Daniel J. (1972). John of Damascus on Islam. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-03495-1.
- Vila, David (2000). Richard Valantasis, ed. Religions of late antiquity in practice (Illustrated ed.). Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05751-6.
- The Works of St. John Damascene. Martis Publishing House, Moscow. 1997.
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- Works by John of Damascus at Project Gutenberg
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- Greek Opera Omnia by Migne, Patrologia Graeca with Analytical Indexes
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- Five Doctrinal Works is a 17th-century manuscript including three works by John of Damascus