John of Damascus

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John of Damascus
Ioann Damaskin ikona.jpg
Greek icon (14th century)
Doctor of the Church,
Monk, Teacher of the Faith
Bornc. 675 or 676
Damascus, Bilad al-Sham, Umayyad Caliphate
DiedApril 30 749
Mar Saba, Jerusalem, Bilad al-Sham, Umayyad Caliphate
Venerated in Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Catholic Churches
Anglican Communion
Commemorated in Lutheranism
Canonized Pre-congregation
Feast April 30
March 27 (General Roman Calendar 1890–1969)
Attributes Severed hand, icon
Patronage Pharmacists, icon painters, theology students
Philosophy career
Notable work
Philosophical Chapters
An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
Concerning Heresy
Era Medieval philosophy
Byzantine philosophy
School Neoplatonism [1]
Main interests
Law, Christian theology, Philosophy, Apologetics, Criticism of Islam, Geometry, Mariology, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music
Notable ideas
Icon, Dormition/Assumption of Mary, Theotokos, Perpetual virginity of Mary, Mediatrix [2]

John of Damascus (or John Damascene, Greek : Ἰωάννης ὁ Δαμασκηνός, romanized: Ioánnēs ho Damaskēnós, IPA:  [ioˈanis o ðamasciˈnos] ; Latin : Ioannes Damascenus) was a Christian monk, priest, and apologist. Born and raised in Damascus c. 675 or 676; the precise date and place of his death is not at his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem on 4 December 749, as tradition also confirms, with his cell being a venerated and magnificently maintained place of pilgrimage ever since. [5]


A polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music, he was given the by-name of Chrysorrhoas (Χρυσορρόας, literally "streaming with gold", i.e. "the golden speaker"). He wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still used both liturgically in practice throughout the world including in the west Lutheranism at Easter. [6]

He is one of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church and is best known for his strong defence of icons. [7] 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. [8] John is at the end of the Patristic period of dogmatic development, and his contribution less that of theological innovation than that of a summary of the developments of the centuries before him. In Roman Catholic theology, he is therefore known as the "last of the Greek Fathers". [9]

The main 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. [10] 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, who 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 century. [10] 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. [11] The hagiographic novel Barlaam and Josaphat , traditionally attributed to John, is in fact a work of the 10th century. [12]

Family background

John was born in Damascus, in 675 or 676, to a prominent Damascene Christian family. [13] His father, Sarjun ibn Mansur, served as an official of the early Umayyad Caliphate. Sarjun (Sergius) was himself the son of a prominent Byzantine official of Damascus, Mansur ibn Sarjun, who had been responsible for the taxes of the region during the reign of Emperor Heraclius. [14] [15] Mansur seems to have played a role in the capitulation of Damascus to the troops of Khalid ibn al-Walid in 635 after securing favorable conditions of surrender. [14] [15] Eutychius, a 10th-century Melkite patriarch, mentions him as one high-ranking official involved in the surrender of the city to the Muslims. [16]

The tribal background of Mansur ibn Sarjun, Johns grandfather, is unknown, but biographer Daniel Sahas has speculated that the name Mansur could have implied descent from the Arab Christian tribes of Kalb or Taghlib. [17] The name was common among Syrian Christians of Arab origins, and Eutychius noted that the governor of Damascus, who was likely Mansur ibn Sarjun, was an Arab. [17] However, Sahas also asserts that the name does not necessarily imply an Arab background and could have been used by non-Arab, Semitic Syrians. [17] While Sahas and biographers F. H. Chase and Andrew Louth assert that Mansūr was an Arabic name, Raymond le Coz asserts that the "family was without doubt of Syrian origin"; [18] indeed, according to historian Daniel J. Janosik, "Both aspects could be true, for if his family ancestry were indeed Syrian, his grandfather [Mansur] could have been given an Arabic name when the Arabs took over the government." [19] When Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the 630s, the court at Damascus retained its large complement of Christian civil servants, John's grandfather among them. [14] [16] John's father, Sarjun (Sergius), went on to serve the Umayyad caliphs. [14] 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. [20] 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. [14] [21]


19th-century icon (Arabic inscription) John Damascus (arabic icon).gif
19th-century icon (Arabic inscription)
Depiction of John Damascene in the Nuremberg Chronicle Nuremberg chronicles f 138r 3.jpg
Depiction of John Damascene in the Nuremberg Chronicle

John was raised in Damascus, and Arab Christian folklore holds that during his adolescence, John associated with the future Umayyad caliph Yazid I and the Taghlibi Christian court poet al-Akhtal. [22]

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. [23] John does indeed show some knowledge of the Quran, which he criticizes harshly. [24] (See Christianity and Islam.)

Other sources describe 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. [25] [26] 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, Cosmas of Maiuma, John is said to have made great advances[ clarification needed ] in music, astronomy and theology, soon rivalling Pythagoras in arithmetic and Euclid in geometry. [26] As a refugee from Italy, Cosmas brought with him the scholarly traditions of Latin Christianity.

John possibly had a career as a civil servant for the Caliph in Damascus before his ordination. [27]

He then became a priest and monk at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem. One source suggests John left Damascus to become a monk around 706, when al-Walid I increased the Islamicisation of the Caliphate's administration. [28] This is uncertain, as Muslim sources only mention that his father Sarjun (Sergius) left the administration around this time, and fail to name John at all. [20] During the next two decades, culminating in the Siege of Constantinople (717-718), the Umayyad Caliphate progressively occupied the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire. An editor of John's works, Father Le Quien, has shown that John was already a monk at Mar Saba before the dispute over iconoclasm, explained below. [29]

In the early 8th century, iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons, gained acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, despite the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III (who had forced his predecessor, Theodosius III, to abdicate and himself assumed the throne in 717 immediately before the great siege) issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. [30]

All agree that 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 Byzantine emperor, but adopted a simplified style that allowed the controversy to be followed by the common people, stirring rebellion among the iconoclasts. Decades after his death, John's writings would play an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which convened to settle the icon dispute. [31]

John's biography recounts at least one episode deemed improbable or legendary. [29] [32] Leo III reportedly 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. [29] In gratitude for this miraculous healing, he attached a silver hand to the icon, which thereafter became known as the "Three-handed", or Tricheirousa. [33] That icon is now located in the Hilandar monastery of the Holy Mountain.


John of Damascus was a prominent exponent of perichoresis . He employed the concept as a technical term to describe both the interpenetration of the divine and human natures of Christ and the relationship between the hypostases of the Trinity. [34]


When the name of 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 John's death, 4 December, the day on which his feast day is celebrated also in the Byzantine Rite calendar, [35] Lutheran Commemorations, [36] and the Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church. [37]

John of Damascus is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 4 December. [38]

The 1884 choral work John of Damascus ("A Russian Requiem"), Op. 1, for four-part mixed chorus and orchestra, by Russian composer Sergei Taneyev, is dedicated to Saint John. [39]

In 1890, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII.

List of works

Ioannis Damasceni Opera (1603) Ioannis Damasceni Opera.tif
Ioannis Damasceni Opera (1603)

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 Byzantine Rite liturgies. [40]

Early works

Teachings and dogmatic works

Teaching on Islam

As stated above, in the final chapter of Concerning Heresy, John mentions Islam as the Heresy of the Ishmaelites. He is one of the first known Christian critics of Islam. John claims that Muslims were once worshipers of Aphrodite who followed after Mohammad because of his "seeming show of piety," and that Mohammad himself read the Bible and, "likewise, it seems," spoke to an Arian monk that taught him Arianism instead of Christianity. John also claims to have read the Quran, or at least parts of it, as he criticizes the Quran for saying that the Virgin Mary was the sister of Moses and Aaron and that Jesus was not crucified but brought alive into heaven. John further claims to have spoken to Muslims about Mohammad. He uses the plural "we", whether in reference to himself, or to a group of Christians that he belonged to who spoke to the Muslims, or in reference to Christians in general. [45]

Regardless, John claims that he asked the Muslims what witnesses can testify that Mohammad received the Quran from God – since, John says, Moses received the Torah from God in the presence of the Israelites, and since Islamic law mandates that a Muslim can only marry and do trade in the presence of witnesses – and what biblical prophets and verses foretold Mohammad's coming – since, John says, Jesus was foretold by the prophets and whole Old Testament. John claims that the Muslims answered that Mohammad received the Quran in his sleep. John claims that he jokingly answered, "You're spinning my dreams." [45]

Some of the Muslims, John says, claimed that the Old Testament that Christians believe foretells Jesus' coming is misinterpreted, while other Muslims claimed that the Jews edited the Old Testament so as to deceive Christians (possibly into believing Jesus is God, but John does not say). [45]

While recounting his alleged dialogue with Muslims, John claims that they have accused him of idol worship for venerating the Cross and worshipping Jesus. John claims that he told the Muslims that the black stone in Mecca was the head of a statue of Aphrodite. Moreover, he claims, the Muslims were wrong not to associate Jesus with God if Jesus is the Word of God. John claims that, if Jesus is the Word of God, and the Word of God has always existed with God, then the Word must be a part of God, and therefore be God himself, whereby, John says, it would be wrong for Muslims to call Jesus the Word of God but not God himself. [45]

John ends the chapter quickly by claiming that Islam permits polygamy, that Mohammad committed adultery with a companion's wife before outlawing adultery, and that the Quran is filled with ridiculous stories, such as the She-Camel of God and God giving Jesus an "incorruptible table." [45]

Arabic translation

Icon by Michael Anagnostou Chomatzas (1734) John of Damascus.jpg
Icon by Michael Anagnostou Chomatzas (1734)

It is believed that the homily on the Annunciation was the first work to be translated into Arabic. Much of this text is found in Manuscript 4226 of the Library of Strasbourg (France), dating to 885 AD. [46]

Later in the 10th century, Antony, superior of the monastery of St. Simon (near Antioch) translated a corpus of 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. [47]

Most manuscripts give the text of the letter to Cosmas, [48] the philosophical chapters, [49] the theological chapters and five other small works. [50]

In 1085, Mikhael, a monk from Antioch, wrote the Arabic life of the Chrysorrhoas. [51] This work was first edited by Bacha in 1912 and then translated into many languages (German, Russian and English).

Modern English translations

Two translations exist of the 10th-century hagiographic novel Barlaam and Josaphat , traditionally attributed to John:

See also


  1. Byzantine Empire The age of Iconoclasm: 717–867 in
  2. Mary's Pope: John Paul II, Mary, and the Church by Antoine Nachef (Sep 1, 2000) ISBN   1580510779 pages 179–180
  3. On the Aristotelian Heritage of John of Damascus Joseph Koterski, S .J
  4. O'Connor, J.B. (1910). St. John Damascene. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 30, 2019 from New Advent:
  5. M. Walsh, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1991), p. 403.
  6. Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2006), pp. 478, 487.
  7. Aquilina 1999 , p. 222
  8. Rengers, Christopher (2000). The 33 Doctors of the Church. Tan Books. p. 200. ISBN   978-0-89555-440-6.
  9. O'Connor, J.B. (1910) "John of Damascus was the last of the Greek Fathers. His genius was not for original theological development, but for compilation of an encyclopedic character. In fact, the state of full development to which theological thought had been brought by the great Greek writers and councils left him little else than the work of an encyclopedist; and this work he performed in such manner as to merit the gratitude of all succeeding ages". In Orthodox Christianity, the concept of "fathers of the Church" is used somewhat more loosely, with no exhaustive list or end date, with a number of theologians younger than John Damascene generally included.
  10. 1 2 Sahas 1972 , p. 32
  11. Sahas 1972 , p. 35
  12. R. Volk, ed., Historiae animae utilis de Barlaam et Ioasaph (Berlin, 2006).
  13. Griffith 2001 , p. 20
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Brown 2003 , p. 307
  15. 1 2 Janosik 2016 , p. 25
  16. 1 2 Sahas 1972 , p. 17
  17. 1 2 3 Sahas 1972 , p. 7
  18. Janosik 2016 , p. 26
  19. Janosik 2016 , pp. 26–27
  20. 1 2 Hoyland 1996 , p. 481
  21. McEnhill & Newlands 2004 , p. 154
  22. Griffith 2001 , p. 21
  23. Valantasis, p. 455
  24. Hoyland 1996 , pp. 487–489
  25. Louth 2002 , p. 284
  26. 1 2 Butler, Jones & Burns 2000 , p. 36
  27. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Idols in the East: European representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450, Cornell University Press, 2009 p. 204. David Richard Thomas, Syrian Christians under Islam: the first thousand years, Brill 2001 p. 19.
  28. Louth 2003 , p. 9
  29. 1 2 3 Catholic Online. "St. John of Damascus".
  30. O'Connor, J.B. (1910), "St. John Damascene", The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company (
  31. Cunningham, M. B. (2011). Farland, I. A.; Fergusson, D. A. S.; Kilby, K.; et al. (eds.). Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press via Credo Reference.
  32. Jameson 2008 , p. 24
  33. Louth 2002 , pp. 17, 19
  34. Cross, F.L (1974). "Cicumincession". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 ed.). Oxford University Press.
  35. Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1969), pp. 109, 119; cf. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
  36. Kinnaman, Scot A. Lutheranism 101 (Concordia Publish House, St. Louis, 2010) p. 278.
  37. Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2006 (Church Publishing, 2006), pp. 92–93.
  38. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 2021-04-08.
  39. "Russian Romantics | Brightmusic Chamber Ensemble". Retrieved 2020-09-19.
  40. Shahîd 2009 , p. 195
  41. St. John Damascene on Holy Images, Followed by Three Sermons on the Assumption – Eng. transl. by Mary H. Allies, London, 1899.
  42. "St. John of Damascus: Critique of Islam".
  43. Sbaihat, Ahlam (2015), "Stereotypes associated with real prototypes of the prophet of Islam's name till the 19th century". Jordan Journal of Modern Languages and Literature Vol. 7, No. 1, 2015, pp. 21–38.
  44. Ines, Angeli Murzaku (2009). Returning home to Rome: the Basilian monks of Grottaferrata in Albania. 00046 Grottaferrata (Roma) – Italy: Analekta Kryptoferri. p. 37. ISBN   978-88-89345-04-7.CS1 maint: location (link)
  45. 1 2 3 4 5 "St. John of Damascus: Critique of Islam". Retrieved 2020-07-21.
  46. Nasrallah, Saint Jean de Damas, son époque, sa vie, son oeuvre, Harissa, 1930, p. 180
  47. Habib Ibrahim. "Letter to Cosmas – Lettre à Cosmas de Jean Damascène (Arabe)".
  48. Nasrallah, Joseph. Histoire III, pp. 273–281
  49. Habib Ibrahim. "Arabic life of John Damascene – Vie arabe de Jean Damascène".

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