John of Damascus
Our venerable and God-bearing Father John of Damascus (c. 676 - December 5, 749) was also known as John Damascene, Chrysorrhoas, "streaming with gold," (i.e., the golden speaker). He was born and raised in Damascus, in all probability at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas (Mar Saba), South East of Jerusalem. His feast day in the Orthodox Church is December 4. He is also recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
Practically all the information concerning the life of John of Damascus available to us today has been through the records of John, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Though these notes have served as the single source of biographical information, dating back to the 10th century, these writings have been noted by scholars as having an exuberant lack of detail from a historical point of view and a bloated writing style.
Although he was brought up under the Muslim rule of Damascus, this was not to affect his or his family's Christian faith or cause any grievances with the Muslim countrymen who held him in high esteem. To the extent that his father held a high hereditary public office with duties of chief financial officer for the caliph, Abdul Malekunder, apparently as head of the tax department for Syria. When John reached the age of twenty-three, his father sought out to find a Christian tutor who could provide the best education for his children available at the time. Records show that while spending some time in the market place John's father came across several captives, imprisoned as a result of a raid for prisoners of war that had taken place in the coasts of Italy. This man, a Sicilian monk by the name of Cosmas, turned out to be an erudite of great knowledge and wisdom. John's father arranged for the release of this man and appointed him tutor to his son. Under the instruction of Cosmas, John made great advances in fields of study such as music, astronomy and theology. According to his biographer, he soon equaled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry.
Succession to "Chief Councilor"
In spite of his Christian background, his family held a high hereditary public office with the Moslem rulers of Damascus, lead by caliph Abd al-Malik. He succeeded his father in his position upon his death; John de Damascene was made protosymbullus, or chief councilor of Damascus.
It was around his term in office that burst of insurgence by the iconoclasts began to appear in the form of heresy, actions which disturbed the Church of the East. In 726, in disregard of the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer and in the secure surroundings of the caliph's court, John de Damascene initiated his literary defense against the monarch in three Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images. This was the earliest of his works and the one which earned him a reputation. Not only did he attack the monarch, but his use of a simpler witting style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian faith.
Unable to punish the writer openly, Leo the Isaurian managed to get possession of a manuscript written and signed by John de Damascene, which he used to forge a letter from John to the Isaurian monarch offering to betray into his hands the city of Damascus. Despite John's earnest advocation to his innocence, the caliph dismissed his plea and discharged him from his post, ordering his right hand, which he used for writing, to be severed at the wrist.
According to the 10th-century biography, his hand was miraculously restored after fervent prayer before an icon of the Virgin Mary. At this point the caliph is said to have been convinced of his innocence and inclined to reinstate him to his former office. However, John then retired to the Monastery of Saint Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he continued to produce a stream of commentaries, hymns and apologetic writings, including the Oktoechos (the Church's service book of eight tones) and An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers.
He died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church and is now universally recognized as a saint.
List of Works
- Three "Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images" - These treatises where among his earliest expositions in response to the edict by Leo the Isaurian of Constantinople, which banned the worship or exhibition of holy images.
Teachings and Dogmatic Work
- "Fountain of Knowledge", also "The Fountain of Wisdom", this book is divided in three parts:
- "Philosophical Chapters" (Kephalaia philosophika) - Commonly called 'Dialectic', deals mostly with logic, its primary purpose being to prepare the reader for a better understanding of the rest of the book.
- "Concerning Heresy" (peri aipeseon) - In this book, in the section On Heresies, he dedicates a portion to the Heresy of the Ishmaelites, being the first apologetic work against Islam by a Christian.
- "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" (Ikdosis akribes tes orthodoxou pisteos) - This third section of the book is known to be the most important work of John de Damascene, and a treasured antiquity of Christianity.
- "Sacred Parallels"
Hymns and Minor Writings
- Oktoechos - Known as the "hymn-book for the daily service," for which he may be only responsible improving and revising.
- Canons - 8 or 9 highly complicated structure of hymns, composed of 3 or 4 strophes, each with its own individual composition and melody.
- "Tract on Right Thinking" - Minor writing consisting on an apology for the residents of Damascus.
- "Dialogue against Manicheans" - A form of dialogue aimed at answering questions proposed by his disciples.
- "Conversation between a Saracen and a Christian" - Similar form as previous work.
- "Introduction to Elementary Dogmatics" - As the name says, also aimed at his disciples.
- "St. John Damascene on Holy Images, Followed by Three Sermons on the Assumption" - Eng. transl. by Mary H. Allies, London, 1899.