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John of Damascus


JOHN OF DAMASCUS , also known as John Damascene, was an eighth-century Christian saint, church father, monastic, theologian, author, and poet. Little is known with certitude about John's life. The dates of both his birth and his death are disputed, as are the number of years that he lived. A conservative assessment of the evidence indicates that he was probably born about 679 and died at the age of seventy in 749. It is generally accepted that he was born into a Greek-speaking Syrian family of Damascus, known as Mansour ("victorious," or, "redeemed"). His father, Sergius, held the high position of logothetes in the Muslim caliphate at the end of the seventh century. John enjoyed a full course of instruction as a youth, including mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, rhetoric, logic, philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and theology.

Following the death of his father, John assumed an economic administrative position (protosumboulos ) in the government of Caliph Walid (r. 705715). He left public service just before, or shortly after, the outbreak of the Iconoclastic Controversy to become a monk in the famous Monastery of Saint Sava outside Jerusalem. He was ordained a priest by John V, patriarch of Jerusalem (r. 706735). John Damascene left a rich legacy of writings reflecting the theology and religious tradition of Eastern Christianity and the spiritual tradition of the Greek fathers.

John was a prolific writer, who, though completely faithful to the Eastern church and its theological tradition, also evinced significant theological creativity. Several of his earlier writings were revised and enlarged after their original publication. John's works reflect his broad educational background and cover numerous areas of concern.

He wrote a number of exegetical works on the Old and New Testaments. Among the better known of these are a shortened version of Chrysostom's commentaries on the letters of Paul, to which he added some of his own observations. In the same manner he published an epitome of the sermons on the Hexaemeron attributed to Chrysostom but written by Severian of Gabala (c. 400).

John's major theological production was in the area of doctrinal writings: his most important work is Pege gnoseos (Fount of Knowledge). This work has been translated into many languages and is the foundation of his reputation as a theologian and dogmatician. The work, divided into three parts, appears to have been revised several times, which explains why at least two dates for its composition are recorded, 728 and 743. Each of the parts is found in three versions, of differing length, indicating that they were written independently and at different times, revised, and subsequently gathered together into the unified work.

The first part of Fount of Knowledge consists of a treatment of general knowledge (the philosophical and physical sciences of his day) as an introduction to theology. Based primarily on Aristotle, this portion of the work is theologically important because of its holistic perspective. The method used is definitional, by which major terms are defined in brief sections or chapters, in two areas: theoretical (theology, physics, and mathematics), and practical (ethics, economics, and politics).

The second part of Fount of Knowledge deals with heresies, or various false teachings, from the perspective of orthodox Christianity. In large part it is a compilation and elucidation of other antiheretical writings, but the three chapters on Islam, Iconoclasm, and the aposchistai (wandering monks who rejected all sacraments), were written as new material by John. Additional chapters were added subsequently by others.

The most important part of this work is the third, an outline of orthodox theology (Ekthesis orthodoxou pisteos ) consisting of 100 short chapters. In chapters 114 the doctrine of God is discussed; cosmology follows in chapters 1544 dealing with angelology, demonology, good and evil, the created world, and anthropology; Christology and soteriology are discussed in chapters 4573; and the last chapters deal with a variety of topics including Mariology, icons, self-determination (autexousion ), faith, and the saints. The theological tenor of this work is basically Cappadocian, with perspectives from other theological streams of thought such as those derived from Dionysius the Areopagite, Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Maximos the Confessor.

A number of John's polemical works are doctrinal in character. Among these are Concerning Faith against the Nestorians, several works against monophysitism, Against the Jacobites, and a work concerning the Trisagion Hymn, in which he opposes a purely Christological reference to this popular and liturgical hymn. In his works Concerning the Two Wills and Energies in Christ, and Against Monophysites and Monothelites, John deals with the Monothelite Controversy. Between 726 and 731 he wrote three different studies titled Concerning the Icons, reflecting various early stages of the Iconoclastic Controversy. He also concerned himself with treating other religious traditions from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, including Judaism, Manichaeism, and Islam. John also dealt with ethical topics in a three-part work titled Sacra Parallela : Concerning the Holy Fasts, The Eight Spirits of Evil, and Concerning Virtues and Vices.

It has been difficult to determine which of the many sermons attributed to John of Damascus are genuine. Among those whose authenticity is in doubt are three sermons on the Dormition of the theotokos, one of two on the annunciation, sermons on the transfiguration of Christ, the fig tree, the birth of Christ, and Christ's presentation in the Temple. In addition there are a number of sermons on saints attributed to him.

Although disputed, it is now generally accepted that John also wrote a Christian version of an ancient Buddhist tale under the title Barlaam and Joasaph. It is essentially a story of the conversion to monastic Christianity of a young profligate through the hearing of a striking parable.

John of Damascus is highly regarded as a hymnodist. He is well known for the fourteen published collections of hymns known as canons. In addition, approximately ninety canons are attributed to him in the manuscript tradition. John is primarily responsible for the hymnology of the basic weekly cycle of Eastern Orthodox services found in the liturgical book the Oktoēchos (Eight tones). The hymns are characterized by theological exactness coupled with poetic warmth and power.

Tradition attributes to John of Damascus the epithet Chrusorroas ("golden-flowing"). His memory is commemorated by the Eastern Orthodox church on December 4, the date of his death, and by the Roman Catholic church on March 27. He is considered an authoritative voice for contemporary Orthodox theology. His writings were also an important source for Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. Pope Leo XIII declared him a doctor of the Roman Catholic church in 1890.


Texts and Translations

Barlaam and Iosaph. Edited by Harold Mattingly; translated by G. R. Woodward. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 34. Cambridge, Mass., 1937.

Homélies sur la Nativité et la Dormition. Introduction, French translation, and notes by Pierre Voulet. Paris, 1961.

On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Holy Images. Translated by David Anderson. Crestwood, N.Y., 1980. A readable translation.

Opera omnia quae exstant. Edited by Michel Lequien. Paris, 1712. Reproduced in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 94. Paris, 1860. The standard received text.

Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos. 4 vols. Edited by P. Bonifatius Kotter. Berlin, 19691981. These definitive critical texts have extensive documentation and textual critical material.

Hē Theotokos: Tesseres Theomētorikes Homilies. Edited by Athanasius Gievtits. Athens, 1970. Contains the text, with an introduction and commentary by the editor. Each of the four homilies has been rendered into modern Greek by a different translator.

Writings. Translated by Frederic H. Chase, Jr. Fathers of the Church, vol. 37. Washington, D.C., 1958. Includes only Fount of Knowledge. The best existing English translation. Contains an introduction by the translator that deals with many of the unresolved historical questions.


Barnard, Leslie W. "Use of the Bible in the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy, 726 to 843 a.d." Theologische Zeitschrift 31 (MarchApril 1975): 7883. John's use of scripture is discussed as it relates to the Iconoclastic Controversy.

Chevalier, Celestin M. B. La Mariologie de saint Jean Damascène. Rome, 1936. A literary and theological examination of John of Damascus's teaching concerning the theotokos.

Sahas, Daniel J. John of Damascus on Islam: The "Heresy of the Ishmaelites." Leiden, 1972. A revision of a doctoral dissertation. The best detailed biographical treatment in English. It includes a careful treatment of the major problems regarding John of Damascus's teaching concerning Islam.

Stanley Samuel Harakas (1987)

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