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John of Damascus

John of Damascus

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Saint John of Damascus (Arabic: يوحنا الدمشقي Yuḥannā Al Demashqi; Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

: Ιωάννης Δαμασκήνος Iōannēs Damaskēnos; Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

: Iohannes Damascenus; also known as John Damascene, Χρυσορρόας/Chrysorrhoas, "streaming with gold"—i.e., "the golden speaker") (c. 645 or 676 – 4 December 749) was a Syrian monk
Monk
A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose...

 and priest
Priesthood (Catholic Church)
The ministerial orders of the Catholic Church include the orders of bishops, deacons and presbyters, which in Latin is sacerdos. The ordained priesthood and common priesthood are different in function and essence....

. Born and raised in Damascus
Damascus
Damascus , commonly known in Syria as Al Sham , and as the City of Jasmine , is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo, both are part of the country's 14 governorates. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major...

, he died at his monastery, Mar Saba
Mar Saba
The Great Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, known in Arabic as Mar Saba , is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem. The traditional date for the founding of the monastery by Saint Sabas of Cappadocia is the year 483 and today houses around 20...

, near Jerusalem.

A polymath
Polymath
A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable...

 whose fields of interest and contribution included law
Law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

, theology
Theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

, philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

, and music
Music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

, before being ordained, he served as a Chief Administrator to the Muslim
Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

 caliph
Caliph
The Caliph is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the ruler of the Islamic Ummah, an Islamic community ruled by the Shari'ah. It is a transcribed version of the Arabic word   which means "successor" or "representative"...

 of Damascus, wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still in everyday use in Eastern Christian
Eastern Christianity
Eastern Christianity comprises the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa, India and parts of the Far East over several centuries of religious antiquity. The term is generally used in Western Christianity to...

 monasteries throughout the world. He is considered "the last of the Fathers" of the Eastern Orthodox church and is best known for his stong defense of icons. The Catholic Church regards him as a Doctor of the Church
Doctor of the Church
Doctor of the Church is a title given by a variety of Christian churches to individuals whom they recognize as having been of particular importance, particularly regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine.-Catholic Church:In the Catholic Church, this name is given to a saint from whose...

, often referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption due to his writings on the Assumption of Mary
Assumption of Mary
According to the belief of Christians of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and parts of the Anglican Communion and Continuing Anglicanism, the Assumption of Mary was the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life...

.

Biography



The most commonly used source for information on the life of John of Damascus is a work attributed to one John of Jerusalem, identified therein as the Patriarch of Jerusalem
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the head bishop of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, ranking fourth of nine Patriarchs in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Since 2005, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem has been Theophilos III...

. It is actually an excerpted translation into Greek of an earlier Arabic text. The Arabic original contains a prologue not found in most other translations that was written by an Arabic monk named Michael who relates his decision to write a biography of John of Damascus in 1084, noting that none was available in either Greek or Arabic at the time. The main text that follows in the original Arabic version seems to have been written by another, even earlier author, sometime between the early 9th and late 10th centuries AD. Written from a hagiographical point of view and prone to exaggeration, it is not the best historical source for his life, but is widely reproduced and considered to be of some value nonetheless. The hagiographic novel Barlaam and Josaphat, traditionally attributed to John, is in fact a work of the 10th century.

Family background


John was born into a prominent family known as Mansour ( al-Mansǔr, "the victorious one") in Damascus
Damascus
Damascus , commonly known in Syria as Al Sham , and as the City of Jasmine , is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo, both are part of the country's 14 governorates. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major...

 in the 7th century AD. He was named Mansur ibn Sarjun after his grandfather Mansur, who had been responsible for the taxes of the region under the Emperor Heraclius
Heraclius
Heraclius was Byzantine Emperor from 610 to 641.He was responsible for introducing Greek as the empire's official language. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, Heraclius the Elder, the exarch of Africa, successfully led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.Heraclius'...

. The lack of a document attesting to his specific tribal lineage has scholars attributing him either to the Taghlib
Taghlib
Banu Taghlib or Taghlib ibn Wa'il were a large and powerful Arabian tribe of Mesopotamia and northern Arabia. The tribe traces its lineage to the large branch of North Arabian tribes known as Rabi'ah, which also included Bakr, 'Anizzah, Banu Hanifa and Anz bin Wa'il .The tribe's ancestral...

 or the Kalb
Banu Kalb
The Banu Kalb was one of the tribes of Arabia during Muhammad's era. The Banu Kalb claimed descent from the Yemenites. According to the hadith of the Islamic prophet Muhammad they will be among the first people to follow the Sufyani....

, two prominent Christian Arab tribes in the Syrian desert
Syrian Desert
The Syrian Desert , also known as the Syro-Arabian desert is a combination of steppe and true desert that is located in the northern Arabian Peninsula covering 200,000 square miles . also the desert is very rocky and flat...

. Others suggest that while it was possible he was Arab, he may have been of non-Arab Semitic origin. Whatever the case, John of Damascus had two names: Mansur ibn Sarjun, his Arabic name, and John of Damascus, his Christian name. His full name is given by Agapius as Iyanis (or Yuhanna) b. Mansur al-Dimashqi.

Eutychius
Eutychius
Eutychius was the last Exarch of Ravenna .The exarchate had risen in revolt in 727 at the imposition of iconoclasm; the Exarch Paul lost his life attempting to quash the revolt. In response, Emperor Leo III sent the patrician Eutychius to take control of the situation. Eutychius landed in Naples,...

, a 10th century Melkite
Melkite
The term Melkite, also written Melchite, refers to various Byzantine Rite Christian churches and their members originating in the Middle East. The word comes from the Syriac word malkāyā , and the Arabic word Malakī...

 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
Muslim
A Muslim, also spelled Moslem, is an adherent of Islam, a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion based on the Quran, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God as revealed to prophet Muhammad. "Muslim" is the Arabic term for "submitter" .Muslims believe that God is one and incomparable...

 rule in the late 7th century AD, the court at Damascus remained full of Christian civil servants, John's grandfather among them. John's father, Sarjun (Sergius) or Ibn Mansur, went on to serve the Umayyad
Umayyad
The Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. It was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, whose name derives from Umayya ibn Abd Shams, the great-grandfather of the first Umayyad caliph. Although the Umayyad family originally came from the...

 caliph
Caliph
The Caliph is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the ruler of the Islamic Ummah, an Islamic community ruled by the Shari'ah. It is a transcribed version of the Arabic word   which means "successor" or "representative"...

s, supervising taxes for the entire Middle East
Middle East
The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and Northern Africa. It is often used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East...

. After his father's death, John also served as a high official to the caliphate court before leaving to become a monk and adopting the monastic name John at Mar Saba
Mar Saba
The Great Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, known in Arabic as Mar Saba , is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem. The traditional date for the founding of the monastery by Saint Sabas of Cappadocia is the year 483 and today houses around 20...

, where he was ordained as a priest in 735.

Education


Until the age of 12, John apparently undertook a traditional Muslim education. 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." John grew up bilingual and bicultural, living as he did at a time of transition from Late Antiquity to Early Islam.

Other sources describes his education in Damascus as having been conducted in a traditional Hellenic
Hellenic
Hellenic is a synonym for Greek and may refer to:* Hellenic languages* Hellenic Airlines* Hellenic College, a liberal arts college in Brookline, Massachusetts* Hellenic College of London* Hellenic FC, a football club in South Africa...

 way, 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 captured by Arabs from his home in Sicily
Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

, 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
Astronomy
Astronomy is a natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth...

 and theology, soon rivaling Pythagoras
Pythagoras
Pythagoras of Samos was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism. Most of the information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, so very little reliable information is known about him...

 in arithmetic and Euclid
Euclid
Euclid , fl. 300 BC, also known as Euclid of Alexandria, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the "Father of Geometry". He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I...

 in geometry
Geometry
Geometry arose as the field of knowledge dealing with spatial relationships. Geometry was one of the two fields of pre-modern mathematics, the other being the study of numbers ....

. The monk Cosmas was a refugee from Italy, and brought with him influences of Western
Western Christianity
Western Christianity is a term used to include the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and groups historically derivative thereof, including the churches of the Anglican and Protestant traditions, which share common attributes that can be traced back to their medieval heritage...

 scholarship and Scholastic thought
Scholasticism
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

 which informed John's later writings.

Defense of holy images


In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm
Iconoclasm (Byzantine)
The Byzantine Iconoclasm encompasses two periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire when Emperors, backed by imperially-appointed leaders and councils of the Orthodox Church imposed a ban on religious images or icons. The "First Iconoclasm", as it is sometimes called, lasted between about 730...

, a movement seeking to prohibit the veneration of the icons, gained some acceptance in the Byzantine
Byzantine
Byzantine usually refers to the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.Byzantine may also refer to:* A citizen of the Byzantine Empire, or native Greek during the Middle Ages...

 court. In 726, despite the protests of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III
Leo III the Isaurian
Leo III the Isaurian or the Syrian , was Byzantine emperor from 717 until his death in 741...

 issued his first edict against the veneration
Veneration
Veneration , or veneration of saints, is a special act of honoring a saint: an angel, or a dead person who has been identified by a church committee as singular in the traditions of the religion. It is practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic, and Eastern Catholic Churches...

 of images and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer in the secure surroundings of the caliph's court, John of Damascus initiated a defense of holy images in three separate publications. "Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images", the earliest of these works gained him a reputation. Not only did he attack the emperor, but the use of a simpler literary style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 faith. His writings later played an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea
Second Council of Nicaea
The Second Council of Nicaea is regarded as the Seventh Ecumenical Council by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic Churches and various other Western Christian groups...

 which met to settle the icon dispute.

The biography of John of Damascus relates at least one episode deemed to be improbable or legendary. It relates that Leo III sent forged documents implicating John of Damascus in a plot to attack Damascus
Damascus
Damascus , commonly known in Syria as Al Sham , and as the City of Jasmine , is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo, both are part of the country's 14 governorates. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major...

 to the caliph, who ordered John's right hand be cut off and hanged publicly. Some days afterwards, John asked that his hand be returned, and praying fervently to the Theotokos
Theotokos
Theotokos is the Greek title of Mary, the mother of Jesus used especially in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches. Its literal English translations include God-bearer and the one who gives birth to God. Less literal translations include Mother of God...

 in front of her icon, his hand is said to have been miraculously restored. Being grateful for this healing, he attached a silver hand on this icon, which is since then known as "Three-handed", or Tricherousa
Trojerucica
Bogorodica Trojeručica or simply Trojeručica is a famous wonderworking icon in the Serb Orthodox monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, Greece...

. The biography relates that after this event John asked to leave his post and retired to Mar Saba
Mar Saba
The Great Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, known in Arabic as Mar Saba , is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem. The traditional date for the founding of the monastery by Saint Sabas of Cappadocia is the year 483 and today houses around 20...

 monastery near Jerusalem; however, it has been proven by Father Lequien, an editor of his works, that John of Damascus was already a monk a Mar Saba before the dispute over iconoclasm took place rendering the story all the more improbable. He probably left Damascus to become a monk around 706 when al-Walid I made administration of the Caliphate more Muslim.

Last days


John died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church, and is recognized as a saint
Saint
A saint is a holy person. In various religions, saints are people who are believed to have exceptional holiness.In Christian usage, "saint" refers to any believer who is "in Christ", and in whom Christ dwells, whether in heaven or in earth...

. He is sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers
Church Fathers
The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, Christian Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were early and influential theologians, eminent Christian teachers and great bishops. Their scholarly works were used as a precedent for centuries to come...

 by the Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

. In 1883 he was declared a Doctor of the Church
Doctor of the Church
Doctor of the Church is a title given by a variety of Christian churches to individuals whom they recognize as having been of particular importance, particularly regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine.-Catholic Church:In the Catholic Church, this name is given to a saint from whose...

 by the Holy See
Holy See
The Holy See is the episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, in which its Bishop is commonly known as the Pope. It is the preeminent episcopal see of the Catholic Church, forming the central government of the Church. As such, diplomatically, and in other spheres the Holy See acts and...

.

Veneration


When the name of Saint John of Damascus was inserted in the General Roman Calendar in 1890, it was assigned to 27 March. This date always falls within Lent
Lent
In the Christian tradition, Lent is the period of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer – through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial – for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and...

, a period during which there are no obligatory Memorials. The feast day was therefore 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
Byzantine Rite
The Byzantine Rite, sometimes called the Rite of Constantinople or Constantinopolitan Rite is the liturgical rite used currently by all the Eastern Orthodox Churches, by the Greek Catholic Churches , and by the Protestant Ukrainian Lutheran Church...

 calendar.

List of works



Besides his purely textual works, many of which are listed below, John of Damascus also composed hymns, perfecting the canon
Canon (hymnography)
A canon is a structured hymn used in a number of Eastern Orthodox services. It consists of nine odes, sometimes called canticles or songs depending on the translation, based on the Biblical canticles. Most of these are found in the Old Testament, but the final ode is taken from the Magnificat and...

, a structured hymn form used in Eastern Orthodox church services.

Early works

  • 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
    Leo III the Isaurian
    Leo III the Isaurian or the Syrian , was Byzantine emperor from 717 until his death in 741...

    , 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:
    1. Philosophical Chapters (Kephalaia philosophika) – Commonly called 'Dialectic', it deals mostly with logic, its primary purpose being to prepare the reader for a better understanding of the rest of the book.
    2. Concerning Heresy (peri haireseon) – The last chapter of this part (Chapter 101) deals with the Heresy of the Ishmaelites. Differently from the previous 'chapters' on other heresies which are usually only a few lines long, this chapter occupies a few pages in his work. It is one of the first Christian polemical writings against Islam
      Islam
      Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

      , and the first one written by a Byzantine Orthodox.
    3. An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Ekdosis akribes tes orthodoxou pisteos) – a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers. This writing was the first work of Scholasticism
      Scholasticism
      Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

       in Eastern Christianity
      Eastern Christianity
      Eastern Christianity comprises the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa, India and parts of the Far East over several centuries of religious antiquity. The term is generally used in Western Christianity to...

       and an important influence on later Scholastic works.
  • 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

External links