St. John of Damascus

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John of Damascus (675-749), or John Damascene, was a monk, priest, hymnographer, apologist, and polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music.  He was given the by-name of Chrysorrhoas, meaning the “golden speaker”.  He is one of the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is best known for his strong defense of icons. 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. He was also a prominent exponent of perichoresis, and 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. 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 Catholic theology, he is therefore known as the “last of the Greek Fathers”.

John was born in Damascus, in 675 or 676, to a prominent Damascene Christian Arab family. His father, Sarjun ibn Mansur, served as an official of the early Umayyad Caliphate, which was the second of the four major caliphates, or territories, established after the death of Muhammad. 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. John’s father, Sarjun (Sergius), went on to serve the Umayyad caliphs.  It is believed that John became a monk at Mar Saba, and that he was ordained as a priest in 735.

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 issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places.  John of Damascus undertook a spirited defense 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.

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