John Damascene, St.
JOHN DAMASCENE, ST.
Surnamed Chrysorrhoas or the Golden Speaker, Oriental monk, Father of the Church; b. Damascus, c. 645; d. near Jerusalem, c. 750.
Life. John's family was the well-to-do Manṣūr family; his grandfather and father had occupied ministerial posts, first under the Byzantine and, after 636, under the Arab rulers of Damascus. Under the care of Cosmas, a ransomed Sicilian prisoner, he received a well-rounded Greek education and a knowledge of Arabic as well as of the Islamic religion. He achieved a position of trust in the Muslim court, but because of the Caliph Abd almalik's (685–705) hostility toward Christians he resigned his post (c. 700). With Cosmas he became a monk at Mar Saba near Jerusalem, and was ordained by Patriarch John V of Jerusalem (705–735) before the outbreak of the controversy over iconoclasm. John taught in the monastery, preached in Jerusalem, and counseled various bishops on questions of faith, devoting himself in particular to the composition of theological tracts. According to information in the vita he reedited his writings toward the end of his life; this statement is supported by evidence in MSS tradition.
Iconoclasm. John's career is inseparably connected with the controversy over iconoclasm in which he supported the veneration of images with theological arguments, and because he lived outside the Byzantine realm he was able to oppose the iconoclastic-minded emperor with vehemence. The story that his hand was cut off and miraculously healed by the Mother of God is legendary. He was dead before the Iconoclastic Synod of 754, which condemned him with a fourfold anathema. His orthodoxy was vindicated by the seventh general council (Nicaea II) in 787; and he has been considered a saint since the end of the 8th century.
John was buried in the monastery of Mar Saba, where the body seems to have been located until the 12th century, when, apparently, it was removed to Constantinople and venerated there from the 13th to the 15th century. Despite evidence provided by several vitae, one of which was written by the Patriarch John of Jerusalem (d.966), and all of which depend upon an Arabic source, as well as other information supplied in ecclesiastical and profane documents, the chronology of his life and particularly the date of his death is uncertain. The latter is usually ascribed to 749, following S. Vailhé. The Acts of the synod of 754 record John as already dead (Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 13:356) and an Arabic menologion says that at his death he was 104 years old (Patrologia Graeca, 94:501). Other Arabic sources describe him and the poet al Aḫṭal (b. c. 640) as friends and table companions of Prince Yazīd I (b. c. 642). Hence it is assumed that he was of a similar age and his dates are given as 645 to 750.
Dogmatic Writings. John left a literary heritage of which J. Hoeck has claimed 150 titles as authentic works. His principal dogmatic work is Πηγὴ γνώσεως (Source of knowledge), which is usually considered to include a trilogy, although the title refers properly only to the first part. In its present form this work is prefaced with a dedicatory letter to Cosmas, John's adopted brother who became bishop of Maiuma near Gaza c. 743. Part one, called the Dialectica, is a philosophical propaedeutic, or preparation for the faith, in 68 chapters, depending largely on patristic citations and strongly influenced by the Isagoge of the Neoplatonist Porphyry. Part two is a history of heresies that recapitulates the 80 chapters of the Panarion of epiphanius of constantia (salamis) and adds 20 further chapters taken bodily from other sources. The chapters dealing with Islam (100), iconoclasm (102), and
the Aposchites (103) do not seem to be authentic. This entire section is also found as chapter 34 of the Doctrina patrum. Part three is the Ekthesis, or Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in 100 chapters and treats of God, creation, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology, with an appendix that deals with ascetical questions.
This Exposition was translated into Latin in the 12th century and divided into four books modeled on the scholastic structure of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The principal sources of the first and third sections are the Epitome of theodoret of cyr, gregory of nazian zus, eulogius of alexandria, nemesius of emesa pseudo-dionysius, leontius of byzantium, maximus the confessor, and anastasius sinaita. Originally this work seems to have consisted of the Dialectica and the Exposition and only in the second redaction was it made into a trilogy by Damascene himself. His other dogmatic writings include an Institutio elementaris, or elementary introduction to dogma, written for Bp. John of Laodicea, several Professiones fidei, tracts against the Nestorians, Jacobites, Monothelites, Manichees, and Islamites, and three celebrated Discourses against the Iconoclasts (726–730) in which he defends classical doctrine in favor of the veneration of images, but demonstrates his own independent thinking.
Ascetical and Exegetical Works. Among Damascene's moral and ascetic writings are treatises on sacred fasting, the eight spirits of evil, and the virtues and vices, as well as a number of prayers. It is probable that he had a hand in structuring the collection of maxims and devotional texts known as the Sacra Parallela. In his exegetical writings Damascene prepared a commentary on the Pauline Epistles borrowing freely from St. John Chrysostom. But the authenticity of the homilies on the Hexaemeron attributed to him is doubtful.
Hagiography. John devoted much of his preaching to hagiographical encomiums in praise of SS. Anastasia, Barbara, John Chrysostom, and Elias (unedited) and accounts of the sufferings of the martyrs, including Artemius and Catherine (lost) ; of doubtful authenticity are the passions of Paraskeue and Meletius of Antioch. He produced a masterful story in the edifying account of the life of barlaam and joasaph, whose authenticity, though long disputed, seems now established. Of his sermons on the mysteries of the liturgy and the saints, at least 13 are authentic; some are still unedited and several have been attributed to John of Euboea.
Mariology. His Marian sermons are most famous, in particular three homilies for August 15 preached on the site of Mary's dormition at Gethsemane. In the second of these, the celebrated passage referring to the deposit of Mary's clothing in the Blachernae convent in Constantinople has long been recognized as an interpolation. The sermon on Mary's nativity was delivered in the Sanctuary of the Sheep pool, the legendary place of Mary's birth. John is renowned likewise as a hymn writer; at least eight of the Canones, or poems made of nine odes each differing in metrical structure, which celebrate the principal feasts of the Lord, are authentic, and a number of the hymns in the so-called Octoechos are of his authorship.
John is credited with an Easter Table (Paschalion ) and the composition or redaction of the monastic Typicon of Mar Saba. Under his name there are a large number of pseudoepigraphica, some of which may be the remains of lost works.
Sources. Characteristic of John's writings is a traditionally carefree plagiarizing of authors without reference to sources. Thus in his Exposition of the Faith he combined the greater part of the anthropology and psychology of Nemesius of Emesa with the pseudo-Cyrillian tract on the Trinity; in his passio of Artemius he embodied part of the lost church history of Philostorgius; in the Barlaam romance, the Apology of Aristides and a section of the Prince's Mirror of Agapetus; and in his Christmas Sermon, a religious conversation held at the Sassanid court. His use of Chrysostom's commentaries on St. Paul and his embodiment of the Panarion of Epiphanius in his history of heresies has been mentioned. G. Richter has unearthed various strata in the Dialectica; but the investigation of his sources is difficult and still in need of attention. John frequently repeated entire sentences and even paragraphs of his own writings, even within the same work.
Evaluation. John Damascene was certainly the most significant, however, not the most independent, theological thinker in an age little distinguished for creativity. Starting with the principle that he desired to say nothing of his own creation and did not wish to pass beyond traditional bounds, he tried to adapt himself to the whole patristic learning without indulging in originality. In his principal work, the Exposition, which he put together out of many diversely oriented sources, he did not achieve the closed circle of the Latin scholastic Summae. In his art of compilation by means of selection and omission together with inserted commentaries, he managed to achieve a high degree of intellectual autonomy and a compositional technique that, considering the limitations of Byzantine systematic thinking, deserve esteem. His learning and works were conditioned by an environment that was not conducive to the elaboration of the Christian faith. While his theological influence on both East and West has often been exaggerated, the mass of MSS, editions, and whole or partial translations of his works—among the oldest are Syriac (c. 800), Arabic, Armenian, and ancient Bulgarian (10th century), Georgian (11th century), and Latin (12th century)—demonstrate the high appraisal given him by posterity.
Essentially a Chalcedonian, John Damascene was considered in the West the principal witness of Greek theology. He was rated as one of the greater Byzantine dogmaticians and an Oriental writer of considerable versatility, although a critique of his accomplishment according to current standards of scholarship demands a negative evaluation.
Feast: March 27.
Bibliography: m. jugie, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 8.1:693–751, doctrine and bibliog. j. nasrallah, Saint Jean de Damas (Harissa 1950). j. m. hoeck, "Stand und Aufgaben der Damaskenos-Forschung, " Orientalia Christiana periodica 17 (1951) 5–60; Bibliotheca hagiographica Graeca, ed. f. halkin, 3 v. (Brussels 1957) 3:884–885. h. g. beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Munich 1959) 476–486. h. peri, Der Religionsdisput der Barlaam-Legende (Salamanca 1959). i. dick, Proche-Orient chrétien, 12 (1962) 209–223, 319–332; 13 (1963) 114–129. b. hemmerdinger, "La Vita arabe de saint Jean Damascène et Bibliotheca hagiographica Graeca, 884, " Orientalia Christiana periodica 28 (1962) 422–423. l. sweeney, "John Damascene's Infinite Sea of Essence, " Studia Patristica, v. 6 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 81; Berlin 1962) 248–263. b. kotter, Die Überlieferung der "Pege gnoseos" des hl. Johannes von Damaskos (Studia patristica et byzantina 5; Ettal 1959). g. richter, Die Dialektik des Johannes von Damaskos (Ettal 1964). m. gordillo, Orientalia Christiana periodica 27 (1961) 162–170. g. d. dragas, "Exchange or Communication of Properties and Deification: Antidosis or Communicatio Idiomatum and Theosis, " Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 43, no. 1–4 (Spring-Winter 1998) 377–399. k. parry, Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries (Leiden 1996). t. f. x. noble, "John Damascene and the History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, " in Religion, Culture, and Society in the Early Middle Ages, ed. t. f. x. noble and j. j. contreni (Kalamazoo, Mich.1987) 95–116. d. j. sahas, John of Damascus on Islam: The "Heresy of the Ishmaelite" (Leiden 1972).
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