Monday, March 1, 2010

Asad Rustum on St. John of Damascus

Now this is a first for me, but David, a loyal reader of this blog and author of the blog Flow of Consciousness, has posted this with the express wishes that I re-post it. What follows is a translation from Arabic by Fr. Charles Baz of a piece by Dr. Asad Rustum about St. John of Damascus. Dr. Rustum, the official historian of the Church of Antioch in his day, also wrote a book entitled كنيسة مدينة الله انطاكية العظمى that is still the best (and almost only) scholarly history of the Church of Antioch in all periods. Someone should really organize a translation of it!

Saint John of Damascus the Gold-Streaming
Ο Αγιος Ιωάννης του Δαμασκηνου Ο Χρυσορρόας

القديس يوحنا الدمشقي دفـّاق الذهب

Translator’s Note:

The present historical work is an analysis prepared by the official historian of the Apostolic Church of Antioch, Dr. Asad Rustum (1879-1965) of blessed memory. The analysis presented—to whom all credit is due—is entirely the work and copyright of Dr. Rustum, published in Lebanon in Arabic over half a century ago. Due to its rare existence, the need for presenting it in English for Western readers cannot be undermined, especially to students of history and theology who may find it beneficial. Since there are several extant Vitae/Synaxaria concerning our Saint, consequently, some of these disagree among themselves on certain historical facts. A vita belongs to the field of hagiology which can be influenced by local customs and traditions, hence the probable cause of some variations among the different Vitae. Our Saint lived during a tumultuous period in Church history, a period which experienced the early rise of Islam, and, Iconoclasm. Only a solid historical presentation of our Saint, such as the one rendered by Dr. Rustum, can vilify the errors and speak plainly to us, especially today, when these two issues are again confronting Christianity. The defense of Orthodoxy, as rendered by Saint John of Damascus, was valid in the Eighth Century, and due to the current circumstances, it should be valid today as well. Any errors in translation are strictly mine, and I beg the reader’s forgiveness. It is to God that we owe our knowledge and our existence.

The Suffering of the Melkites (
الملكيّين) under the Umayyads (الأمويين)

This is a difficult epoch during which the Jacobites (اليعاقبة) took advantage of the ongoing wars between the Byzantines and the Umayyads (Muslims, as they were called at the time), in that they pointed to Muslims that the Byzantine Christians of the Middle East were indeed Melkites—King=Melek in Semitic, hence, Melekites/Melkites=Subjects of the Emperor—and they charged them with spying on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. As a result, the Umayyads persecuted the so-called Byzantine Melkites and prevented them from appointing Patriarchs in the Apostolic Thrones of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Previously, it was stated that the following Patriarchs of Antioch (Macedonius, Georgios I, and Makarios) ruled the Apostolic Throne of Antioch from as far as Constantinople. This preventive measure which was imposed by the Umayyads affected four Patriarchs of Antioch, namely: Theophanes I (681-687), Stephanos III (687-690), Georgios II (690-695), and Alexandros II (695-702). It is probable, although not concretely evident, that the last two of these Patriarchs returned to Antioch (1). Ironically, during this period as well, the Jacobite Patriarchs also ruled their throne while they were placed far from Antioch, in places like Diar Bekir and Malatia. Interestingly, one of the Jacobite Patriarchs, namely, Elias, won the favor of the Umayyads and was granted their permission to build a church in Antioch, yet nonetheless he was prevented from dwelling in that city.

The Umayyads and Christians

The Umayyads were in a thirsty pursuit of money for three reasons: First, in order to invent factions [i.e. through bribery]; second, like any dynasty, in order to enjoy the earthly life; and third, in order to fund their ongoing wars. They increased their existing taxation on non-Muslims which came in two forms: Al-Jizya and Al-Khirraj (2). Their pursuit for revenue was so dire that they even enforced Al-Jizya on already converted Muslims. Some of the Christians, seeing that conversion to Islam would neither spare them Al-Jizya nor violence, they resorted to Monasticism. Having noticed that such actions were a possible aversion to taxation, the Umayyads consequently enforced Al-Jizya on monks. The Umayyads’ thirst for tax money was so great that they even imposed it on the dead, by making survivors pay on behalf of their departed relatives (3). Yet in spite of these documented and strange attempts—which, according to Dr. Rustum, ought not to be used as grounds for generalizations—the Umayyads nonetheless were sympathetic to certain Christians of the Imperial Church. Among those who saw favor in the eyes of the Umayyads was Mansour the son of Sargon/Sergius who the father of Saint John of Damascus. It is also documented that the Umayyads favored some Christian physicians as well. It has been said that the Umayyad Khalif Abd El-Melek Ibn Marwan (الخليفة عبد الملك ابن مروان) entrusted a Nestorian Christian physician, named Sarhon, to look after him, and, he also entrusted Athanasius of Al-Raha (الرّها) to be the mentor of his nephew Abd El-Aziz. It has been also said that Abd El-Melek peacefully attempted to invite Christians to be converted to Islam, without imposing on them any pressure or compulsion (4).

In A.D. 683, the Umayad Khalif Yazid Ibn Mouawiya (يزيد ابن معاوية) died, and his immediate successors were weak. Meanwhile, due to the military victories of the Byzantines under Emperor Constantine IV, the Byzantines eventually succeeded in imposing annual monetary dues/taxation on the Umayyads. On 7 July 685, Abd El-Melek Ibn Marwan, the third successor of Yazid, agreed to this system in a treaty (5). On 1 September 685, Emperor Constantine IV died, and was succeeded by Justinian II who later objected to this treaty, due to the following development of events:

A disagreement arose between Abd El-Melek and Justinian II regarding a certain imprint on paper money. At the time, the Byzantines imported paper from Egypt which was later processed as currency. The Copts had a custom of imprinting either the name of Christ or a symbol of the Trinity on any paper originating from Egypt. During this period, still, the currency exchanged in Muslim territories was either Byzantine Dinarii or Persian coins. That being the case, this custom upset Abd El-Melek who demanded to replace the Coptic Christian symbols with the following Islamic quote: “Say there is but one God” (قل هو الله الأحد). Further, he flagrantly entitled every correspondence with the Byzantines by adding this quote, and finally, he demanded from the Byzantines to include the name of the Prophet (Mohammed) to be imprinted on the currency that was used. The response of Justinian II to Abd El-Melek’s demands was reflective of the Emperor’s young age [he was only sixteen when crowned emperor], who said: “You have committed countless abominations, and yet, you expect us to acquiesce? It would be more expedient to keep the current imprints on money unchanged, or else, should we mention your Prophet, we will not spare you from any humiliation.” The response of Justinian II angered Abd El-Melek who saw it as a threat against Muslims. Acting upon the recommendation of one of his advisors, Abd El-Melek printed Islamic money which made its debut in A.D. 692. In order to further aggravate the Byzantines, he sent his annual dues in the newly printed Islamic money. Having noticed that this money was void of the usual depictions of Byzantine Emperors, Justinian II was angered exceedingly, especially when he noticed Islamic statements imprinted on the money, such as: “He [i.e. God] sent him [i.e. Mohammed] with deliverance and the true religion in order to manifest him to all religions” (أرسله بالهدى ودين الحق ليظهره على الدين كله). Justinian II saw this act as a challenge by the Muslims, and naturally, he rejected this currency, and in A.D. 693 he sent his armies to the borders of Muslim territories (6). Thus, Abd El-Melek brought down the crosses (7) and Patriarch Alexandros II of Antioch was circumstantially martyred along with a company of the faithful. This atrocity resulted in the vacancy of the Throne of Antioch for forty years (8).

In A.D. 705 Abd El-Melek died and was succeeded by his son Al-Waleed (705-715), a cunning and ruthless leader, who followed in the violent footsteps of his father and killed all of the Byzantine war prisoners. Further, and unlike his father, he pressured the Christians to convert to Islam. His personal ambition reached the Damascus Cathedral: “He gathered the Christians and offered them money for the Cathedral, and when they objected, he converted it into a mosque” (9). Whereas Al-Waleed’s brother and successor, Suleiman (715-717), continued in the footsteps of his predecessor and brother, yet Suleiman’s successor, Umar ibn Abd El-Aziz (717-720) sought to establish what was right. Instead, he offered promises and assurances to Christians to return the Cathedral to them. The Muslims of Damascus hated this motive, and remarked: “Ought we to turn back our mosque after we had worshipped and prayed in it?” And so, they approached the Christians and asked them to surrender all of the churches of Al-Ghouta (الغوطة) [a large fertile region surrounding the city of Damascus] if the Christians desired to have the Cathedral of Saint John [the Forerunner] returned to them, but the Christians rejected (10). Finally, Umar resorted to enforce the treaty of his mother’s grandfather, Khalif Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (الخليفة عمر ابن الخطاب).

The Family of Saint John of Damascus

Regarding the background of our Saint’s family, not a whole lot is solidly known or well-documented. According to primary sources, the notion that the family was Byzantine [i.e. Greek, ethnically], as stated by the German scholar Von Kremer, cannot be fully supported (11). Furthermore, while we may partially conclude with Father Isaac Al-Armali that the family was probably Arab or Aramaic, living in their country, yet, we cannot agree that the family shared much of the culture of the Jacobites, for Saint John distanced himself from the Jacobite monasteries and chose to be a monk, along with some of his relatives, in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Sabba in Palestine. The argument postulated by Ibn Al-Batriq Eutychius (ابن البطريق أفتيخيوس) through John’s father’s request to Khaled to grant safety “to him, to his family, to those with them, and, to the people of Damascus except the Byzantines” cannot establish as grounds that Mansour (John’s grandfather) was a Jacobite Syriac based on this request (12). It is more likely that the term “Byzantines” in this quote more referred to race and not religion (13). Finally, according to Al-Talamhari (التلمحري), who died in 845, Sergius the son of Mansour the famous Damascene scribe, was Chalcedonian and not Jacobite (14)—Clarification: John’s secular name was Mansour, and his grandfather was also named Mansour, thus, our Saint’s secular name in Arabic was Mansour, the son of Sergius, the son of Mansour.

Mansour’s family lived in Damascus, it was a highly regarded family at the time, and it busied itself with administrative positions during the reign of Mauricius (582-602). According to Eutychius (previously mentioned), Mansour held an important and high position in the treasury administration of Mauricius, and he may have been Mauricius’ minister in this task over the province of Lebanon’s Phoenicia, knowing that at the time Damascus was the most important city of the region. Emperor Heraclius kept Mansour in this position even after the Persians’ conquest of Syria (15). It was Mansour (John’s grandfather) who negotiated with the Muslims, on behalf of the Christians of Damascus, who assumed the rule of the city after the Byzantines had deserted it, and the Muslims agreed to his request. Thus, Mansour succeeded in keeping his administrative position under the Muslims, the same position he had had under the Byzantines. The claim that “Sergius son of Mansour” converted to Islam, as postulated by Ibn Asaker and Ibn Shaker (ابن عساكر وابن شاكر) is false, because their statements are unsubstantiated, and their theories are concocted (16). According to Theophanes the Monk, who wrote between 810 and 814, Sergius’ attachment to the Christian faith was unshaken, and he described him as “a Perfect Christian” (17).

In 644, as Uthman Ben Affan (عثمان بن عفان) became Khalif, Mouawiya (معاوية) entered the scene of history as a powerful leader, and desired to take over the entire of Syria. Once Mouawiya became an Umayyad Khalif in Damascus, he sought the assistance of Christians in times of peace and war in order to accomplish his goal. Thus, he maintained the important political and administrative position of the Mansour family in Damascus (18). He probably had done so due to the services already rendered by Mansour (John’s grandfather) during the early days of Islamic conquests and the successive need of the conquerors for trustworthy administrators, and probably also, due to the fact that Mouawiya feared the possible greed on the part of new Muslim administrators and their lack of honesty when it came to fulfilling their tax obligations (19). In all cases, Sergius proved trustworthy with Mouawiya, in that he was a loyal and diligent financial advisor, and he excelled in his services. When Mouawiya was on his deathbed, he beseeched Sergius to carry on his duties until the former’s son, Yazid, had returned from his military conquest in Asia Minor (20). The historical record shows that Yazid maintained Sergius’ post, and so did Mouawiya II (21). Later on, as Abd El-Melek wanted to do away with the Greek financial record system, and exchange them with a new Arabic system of records, Sergius objected. Thus, Abd El-Melek appointed Abd El-Melek Suleiman Ibn Saad (عبد الملك سليمان ابن سعد) to undertake this responsibility who eventually became “the first Muslim charged with the financial records” (22).

Sergius had two sons, one of them was John the Gold-Streaming, who is also known as Mansour by Muslim historians, and another son unknown by name who was the father of Stephen the Seba’ite. Stephen was also a monk in the Monastery of Saint Sabba. Stephen also had a cousin, Gregorios, who also became a monk in the same monastery and was known as a hymnologist. In the ninth century, two Patriarchs of Jerusalem ascended the Throne from this family, namely, Sergius (842-858) and Elia III (879-907) (23).

The Birth and Development of Saint John of Damascus

Our Saint was born in the city of Damascus, and to this city he was traced in belonging, hence his name. Whereas his title of Gold-Streaming is from the Greek Χρυσορρόας, yet this title was first applied to the Damascus River which watered Al-Ghouta region surrounding the city. It was Theophanes who was first in calling our Saint the Gold-Streaming (24). Historically, John was known by different names among different sources in cultures: In Greek sources, he is known as John; in Coptic sources, he is known as John the son of Mansour; in the history of Ibn Al-Ibri (ابن العبري) he is called Quraini son Mansour (قوريني ابن منصور); and in the Arabic “Book of Songs” (كتاب الأغاني) he is called Son of Sargon (ابن سرجون) (25). As far as the date of his birth is concerned, its accuracy is highly debated. According to the composers of the different Vitae, two general dates are assumed, and they are A.D. 670 and 680. Father Nasrallah dates our Saint’s birth at 655, and probably his is the most accurate (26).

John had the luxury of growing up in a house well-known for its wealth, nobility, and education. Damascus, like any other city in the region of the time, enjoyed the privilege of having elite schools. Yet Sergius, instead of placing his sons in an elite school, preferred entrusting them to a private mentor for education. He thus searched for a worthy mentor who would instruct his sons, John and Cosmas his half-brother—Cosmas was adopted by Sergius. It happened that there was a certain Sicilian monk who was previously captured by Muslim pirates and arrived in Damascus. When Sergius observed that other monks, also captives from the same ship as this Cosmas, venerated him and asked for his blessing, Sergius had compassion on him. As Sergius approached him and conversed with him, he saw in Cosmas the mentor candidate he had been searching for. Thus, Sergius took Cosmas to the Khalif and beseeched the latter to have him released, and his wish was granted. Then Sergius took Cosmas the monk to be the mentor of his two sons. Cosmas the Monk was intelligent in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. He educated Sergius’ two sons in the Greek language and literature, as well as in science, philosophy, and music. Upon observing in his protégés a zeal for theology, he took upon himself instructing them in the field. Once the two sons of Sergius completed their instruction, the monk left them and headed for Saint Sabba Monastery. He was later elevated and consecrated the Bishop of Maiuma on the coast of Gaza (27). There is one modern source (28) which disputes the validity of this story; yet, Dr. Rustum sees in this objection nothing but a devious smear tactic. The author concurs, instead, with the findings of Father Nasrallah since the manner of the events depicted are very familiar with some of the recorded histories of the seventh and eighth centuries (29).

John of Damascus and the Umayyad Dynasty

As was previously mentioned, the Muslim authorities commenced in translating the financial records into Arabic, in Damascus as well as in many of the surrounding states. Yet while doing this, they maintained the positions of some the Christian scribes and administrators as previously stated (30). Hence, the famous saying of Suleiman Ibn Abd El-Melek, which hints at some peaceful exchange of cultures: “At every hour we were in need of them, and not for even an hour they needed us for their political necessities” (31). Thus, John succeeded his ancestors in administration, and “became a scribe well-respected in the sight of the prince of the land, to the point that he was the prince’s most essential secretary” (32). But, as far as our Patriarch John’s statement, that, Saint John was “the first Counsel of the Khalif” (33), this statement cannot be verified beyond a reasonable doubt and may be an exaggeration after all. Yet, in all, our Saint excelled in his role in his task with utmost diligence, thus putting to work his talents, his education, and his noble Christian principles. Finally, when it was time for him to decide between maintaining his important secular position and preserving his faith, our Saint did not hesitate for one moment to leave the world without having any regrets (34).

The epoch of Iconoclasm I (i.e. the war within the Church caused by people resisting Icons, the First Phase) took place during the life of our Saint. Michael the Monk records that as our Saint observed the dangerous level to which this controversy had evolved, that is, to the point of warfare and persecution, and Saint John exerted all his efforts to defend the Orthodox faith. He adopted the method of dogmatic affirmation and refutation: By substantiating his argument with theological and logical reasoning, having done so with a solid Greek language. Emperor Leo, who was an Iconoclast, was terrified by John’s solid argumentation, and he resorted to rid the empire of John through treachery and deceit. He devised a devious tactic whereby he would have a forged letter, claiming that it was written by our Saint, sent to the Emperor (i.e. to him), in which John would describe the lamenting condition of Christians living under the Umayyads, thereby detailing the daily scorn of Christians and ridiculing the protective status the Umayyads had promised them. Then, in a deceitful and false pretense, Emperor Leo approached Khalif Umar Ibn Abd El-Aziz with a friendly gesture, and wrote to him warning the sedition of John. Not surprisingly, the Khalif fell into this trap, and was agitated. Thus, in an effort to forbid our Saint from writing, the Khalif ordered the cutting of John’s hand and his subsequent expulsion from civil service.

Michael the Monk adds that Saint John went home, with blood flowing from his cut and pure hand, and dragging from the shame with which he was falsely accused. Then, falling in front of the Icon of the All-Holy Theotokos, our Saint wept sorely, prayed, beseeched, and slept. The All-Holy Virgin appeared to him in a dream that night, and she approached him and restored to him his hand, after he had already received his cut hand in order to bury it—the tradition of the three-hands Icon of Saint Sabba Monastery, in Palestine, and much later in Serbia due to the pilgrimage of Saint Savva, has its origins in this story. As John woke up from sleep, and noticed both of his hands complete, he immediately went to Umar and showed him his restored hand. The Khalif was amazed, and he offered John his old civil service occupation by compromise. But instead, John sold his possessions, distributed it to the poor, the monasteries, and the churches, and headed for Saint Sabba Monastery. He pleaded with the Fathers of the monastery to welcome him among the young novices (35). It is important to mention here that the Seventh Ecumenical Council failed to mention the cutting of John’s hand and its miraculous restoration; likewise, certain historians were also silent in discussing these two events (i.e. Cedrenus, Ephraemus, Zonoras, and Nicephoros) (36).

John the Monk

Our Saint departed from his people and deserted the secular world along with its falsehood, and transported himself from the palaces and gardens to the desert and wilderness. While yet a young man, his fame had already spread abroad, and the monks of Saint Sabba worried if his zeal for the monastic life was artificial, and they feared that he would hastily return to the world and his former life. In order to examine him rigorously, they appointed a strict Elder who was both, austere towards others and himself, to be his monastic mentor. The Elder commanded John never to do anything without his permission, and in addition, he directed John to undertake a strict penitential posture exhibited with daily lament over his former life, so as to prevent him from being elated by his knowledge and education. He explicitly charged John, “never to undertake any task without the elder’s permission, and never to write letters to anyone” (37). John was fully obedient to the Elder’s directives, and never disobeyed him. Thus, John the Monk exhibited perfect loyalty and great humility, to the extent that he had fulfilled the same during his previous and secular life. Yet, on one occasion, as John discovered that one of his monastic friends lost his father, John consoled his friend and lamented the death of his father by quoting a famous Greek poem. Having discovered it, the Elder rebuked him for displaying his knowledge in literature, and ordered him to be confined to his cell. John obeyed and carried out that order without hesitation (38).

In time, the elders of the monastery decided to elevate John, but his mentor the Elder rejected, contending that John must be put to another rigorous test in order to prove his virtue. He commanded John to go to Damascus, and take along with him some baskets woven by the monks, and sell them there. The Elder set a higher price for the baskets and commanded John not to return unless all of the baskets were sold! So John mounted a large number of baskets on a donkey, and set his way to Damascus. Having arrived at his birthplace, he traveled among the capital of the Umayyads only to find that no one would purchase his expensive baskets, and soon enough, the people recognized him. They gazed upon their son, and saw that giant personality reduced to a lowly monk selling baskets. They asked him questions, mocked him, and humiliated him, yet John’s candor was calm and responded with silence. Then one of his former servants met him and purchased all the baskets from him, and John returned to the monastery having conquered the demon of vainglory (39), and meditating on these words, which later became one of the Clergy Prayers of the Church:

“I stood at of the gates of Thy Temple, and yet I refrained not from my evil thoughts. But do Thou, O Christ God, who didst justify the Publican and, show mercy upon the Canaanite woman, and open the gates of Paradise to the Thief, open unto me the compassions of Thy mercy toward mankind, and accept me as I draw near, and vouchsafe unto me to touch Thee, as Thou didst accept the woman with issue of blood and the harlot.”

John the Priest and Preacher

Our Saint, having withstood the final test of the Elder, resumed his studies and submerged himself in theology under John IV, Patriarch of Jerusalem (706-764) [This probably refers to John V. According to the Orthodox Research Institute and the Jerusalem Patriarchate, John IV served from 575 – 594 while John V is identified as serving 706 - 735 - David Schneider]. He was ordained a Priest and was appointed as Preacher, whereby he would ascend from the monastery to the Holy City in order to teach and preach in the Church of the Resurrection and elsewhere (40). During this period of his life his skills manifested their highest level, when his sermons and lectures were rich in expression, gentle in style, and strong in apology. It was during this period that the Umayyad Khalif Yazid II ordered the destruction of all icons in Christian Churches in A.D. 723 (41), and this order was likewise commenced by his counterpart, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III. Our Saint committed himself to defending the Orthodox faith, whereby he lectured and composed, and he also threatened with excommunication (726-730). As Germanos ceased to be Patriarch of Constantinople (730), John took part in the Jerusalem Synod and warned the Bishops not to uphold the heresy of the Emperor, and he also called for his excommunication (42). Some sources add that John even went out throughout the cities of Palestine and Syria, and even reached as far as Constantinople, debating and defending his principles (43). Yet, these sources in specific are weak in substantiation, and most specialists do no concur with them, since it is more likely for John to have spent his life commuting between Saint Sabba Monastery and the Holy City (44), having never left that locale except once in 734 when he visited Damascus in order to deal with a controversy mounted by the Umayyad Khalif Hisham against John’s unnamed brother, the father of Stephen the Seba’ite (45).

John the Gold-Streaming

Saint John of Damascus was by all standards a prolific writer, having composed a host of works in theology, philosophy, argumentative essays, monastic instruction, biblical exegesis, and liturgical hymns. Be it as it may, our Saint remains a Theologian par excellence, for all “what he wrote, what he composed, and all what he argued for were but to affirm the truth of the inspired and holy writ, to introduce it, to make an apology for it, and, to reveal its inherent mystical element” (46). He is most known for the following works: The Fountain of Knowledge (47); An Introduction to Dogmas (48); The True Faith (49); The Holy Trinity (50); and, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (51). Foremost among these is The Fountain of Knowledge, which is composed in three volumes: “The Philosophical Chapters”, the “Book against Heretics”, and, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. In his Introduction to this title, Saint John writes: “First, I will relate the best that the wise can offer, for that is a gift from God, then, I will discuss the madness of heretics, so that we may clinch to the Truth, and then, with God’s help, I will discuss the Truth which corrects errors and drives away madness.”

Saint John also strove to establish a link between philosophy and faith, such as when he said: “Since the Apostle charges us to ‘examine all things; and, hold to what is good,’ let us therefore examine the teachings of the wise among pagans, in hope that we may find in them something fruitful for the soul. Every craftsman needs his tools in order to accomplish his task, and likewise, every queen is in need for her maidens. Let us therefore gather those teachings which serve the Truth, after pruning from them the errors of falsehood blasphemy; let us not fail to be good, and likewise, let us not make use of the science of argumentation to mislead the simple ones. Even though the Truth has no need for different proofs, let us nonetheless make use of reason to expel madness and bring down the enemies of faith. In the end, it should suffice us to uphold what God has provided us, through His Son, His Prophets, and His Apostles, and we must be established in these, without changing or abandoning their eternal limitations” (52).

According to the Gold-Streaming John, the foundation of faith lies in the divine inspiration and not in human intelligence, for the soul is always in need of a teacher, and the Only Teacher who is free from error is Christ. Let us hear Him in the Scriptures. The soul which diligently knocks on the door on the garden of the Scriptures is like the singing of the Tree planted by the waters (53). John of Damascus was strict in upholding the Apostolic Tradition, since the Holy Scriptures affirm the same (54).

The heretics, on the other hand, attempted to uphold their false opinions through the philosophy of Aristotle, which caused John to shout at them: “Are you making a saint, or worse yet a thirteenth apostle, out of Aristotle? Do you dare consider the heathen one more important than the inspired writers?” (55). Then our Saint utilized the same method which the heretics adopted but instead reformed it with a Christian ethos, that is, he argued with them through the same philosophy of Aristotle. This task was not easy for John, in that the Aristotelian philosophy regarding supernatural powers stands at odds with the Church’s inspired doctrines, in matters such as the Mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Divine Incarnation. This led the Damascene to reform certain Aristotelian ideas such as those pertaining to natural theology, ethics, and the immortality of the soul. He drew a lot from Aristotelian definitions, and went farther by adding to them “distinctions” among nature, essence, and hypostasis. This reform by our Saint laid the foundation of theological definitions as distinct from philosophical doctrines, and at once delineated the field of theology from philosophy, which ultimately set theology free from previous episodes of arguments, factions, and schisms. Having succeeded in his reformation, our Saint, while cognizant of the might of Aristotle’s philosophy, yet at the same time, he was capable of snatching it from the heretics, thereby subduing it and baptizing it to be of service for later theologians, in the examples of Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. Thus, Saint John of Damascus became worthy of the title of founder of Scholastic Theology (56).

Within the History of Christian Thought, Saint John of Damascus is essentially considered a Theologian of the Mystery of the Divine Incarnation. We see this topic recurring constantly in most of his theological treatises. He succeeded in finalizing the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union and laying the foundation of all successive theological thought. He also substantiated his treatises with solid Scriptural references and previous Patristic teachings, thereby leaving no room for doubt in his writings.

Within the field of Apologetics, from an argumentative literary standpoint, our Saint wrote a host of letters which were solid in content to the point that contemporary heretics were left powerless. Most outstanding in this field were his composition of the Three Letters in defense of Icons (57). It is very likely that he composed these letters between the years 726 and 730. To date, these letters stand out as authoritative in the Church’s teaching regarding the Veneration of the Saints and of their Icons.

The decrees of the Fifth Ecumenical Council under Emperor Justinian I ultimately failed in silencing those who insisted in speaking and believing in “One Nature” of Christ (i.e. Miaphysites &/or Monophysites). Here, our Saint undertook a new task by resuming the former works of Evlogius of Antioch, Timotheos of Constantinople, Anastasios of Antioch, and Anastasios of Sinai. Saint John composed a famous letter, On the Trisagion, which he directed to Archimandrite Jordaus, in which he maintained that traditionally the Trisagion (i.e. the Thrice Holy) hymn is directed to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and not exclusively to the Son. This position of the Damascene was a refutation of the one held by Peter the Fuller, the Non-Chalcedonian Patriarch of Antioch (471-488), who inserted the formula “Thou who wast crucified for us” in the Trisagion Hymn (58). The Damascene wrote a letter, on behalf of Peter the Metropolitan of Damascus, addressed to the Jacobite Bishop of Dara, in which he disputed the same position held by the Jacobitesm doing so by upholding the teachings of the Fathers (59).

The Damascene was a contemporary of the Jacobite Patriarch Elia I (+723). Elia was formerly Orthodox, but when he studied the works of Severus of Antioch, he soon started confessing the One Nature, at which cause the Jacobites consecrated him as Bishop over Ophemia and later elevated him as their Patriarch. When Leo, the Orthodox Bishop of Harran, directed a letter to Elia condemning him of his abandonment of sound Orthodox doctrine, Elia responded with an apology regarding his new position in which he pointed to two communiqués with the Damascene which cannot be traced (60).

As far as the Nestorians are concerned, our Saint composed two letters in which he affirmed the Divinity of the Savior and the Unity of His Hypostasis (61). The Damascene, also, followed in the footsteps of Saints Sophronios and Maximos (62), such as when he refuted those who confessed in monothelitism (i.e. One Will of the Savior).

The heresy of Mani revived in the seventh century, under the disguise of Paulinism, and it affected the regions of Armenia and Syria. The followers of this new heresy armed themselves with the following verse: “The true worshippers are those who worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth,” whereby in it they saw a justification in bringing down the Icons and forbidding the veneration of the True Cross, and they also forbade the veneration of the Theotokos and the Saints (63). Here again, our Saint reached for his pen and wrote extensively in the true doctrine, specifically in the field of Christology, and he composed two letters refuting this new heresy (64).

The Muslims poised a theological threat to the Church, by forcibly upholding the Quran and Al-Hadith (the tradition), and here also our Saint defended the Mysteries, one by one. His One Hundredth and First Chapter of the Fountain of Knowledge is a direct response, an apology, against the Muslim doctrine (65). The Damascene confirmed his disciples in the method of question-and-response, and thus appeared his First and Second Dialogue with the Muslims (66). In fact, his greatest title, the Fountain of Knowledge, is loaded with refutations to Muslims, in his discussions on the “Oneness of the One,” the “Holy Trinity,” and the “Divine Incarnation” which are considered by many as his apologies against the Argumentative Party (أهل الجدل) of Islam (67).

Our Saint is known to have composed literary works in the field of monasticism. His greatest composition was the Book of Parallelism (Parallyla). The book is comprised of three sections: Section I deals with the Holy Trinity and the Unity [of God]; Section II deals with the Damascene’s view of the human person; and, Section III deals with the Virtues and Vices, in which our Saint “paralleled” every vice with a specific virtue, hence the title of the book.

According to Church Tradition, our Saint is credited with composing the Paraklitiki the Greek Oktoechos, and it is highly likely that he organized, compiled, and added to previous extant portions of it. Tradition also ascribes to the Damascene the composition of many Canons/Katavasiae, and that he also contributed generously to the Typikon of Saint Sabba Monastery. The Damascene composed the music of a great number of hymns of the Church, and modified the melody of most of the extant Byzantine hymns of his day (68). Finally, Tradition also deems the Damascene the first who composed the Byzantine Synaxarion.

The Damascene and Arabic Literature

We cannot establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that our Saint truly composed anything material in the Arabic language, due to the lack of evidence of the same. Yet, the style which the Damascene utilized in his writing did indeed influence later Muslim writers, especially among those who used Oratory (علم الكلام) and the Style of Argumentation (فن الجدل). The plot that the Damascene laid down in his Fountain of Knowledge is the same plot which was later adopted by Muslim orators. Like the Damascene, they begin with a philosophical introduction, then, they embark on a lengthy discussion before arriving at the main topic. Like the Damascene, who preceded them, when they discuss a doctrine, they begin by describing the qualities of God, then, they discuss what was said of God formerly, and finally, instead of proving Christ—which would be the final destination of the Damascene—they dwell instead on the teachings of their Prophet (69).

Our Saint’s Death and his Veneration

The sources disagree among themselves in pinpointing the exact date of the death of Saint John of Damascus. Most of the extant sources place the year of his death between 750 and 780. Father Vailhé calculates the death of the Damascene and places it before A.D. 754, due to a certain extant phrase of the (heretic) Council of Hieria of the same year. The phrase states, that, the Holy Trinity “put to death” the following three: Germanos of Constantinople, George of Cyprus, and John of Damascus. Then Father Vailhé deduces from certain words of Leontius of Damascus concerning Stephen the Seba’ite and pinpoints the exact date as A.D. 749. He calculates it thusly:

At the age of nine, Stephen followed his uncle, John of Damascus, and became likewise monk of Saint Sabba Monastery in Palestine. Stephen remained with John for fifteen years in the same monastery, and finally, Stephen died at the age of sixty-nine in A.D. 794. Thus, if we subtract 69 from 794, we arrive at 725 which would be the year Stephen was born. If we add 9 to 725, we arrive at 734, the year Stephen became a monk in the same monastery. Finally, if we add another 15 to 734, the amount of years shared by John and Stephen at the monastery, we arrive at A.D. 749, which must have been the year Saint John of Damascus fell asleep in the Lord (70).

In the year of our Lord 749, our Saint gave up the spirit at the Holy Monastery of Saint Sabba and was buried in it. Between the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth, his relics were transferred to Constantinople and deposited in the Church of All Saints near the Church of the Holy Apostles. The Crusaders robbed these two churches from the relics deposited therein. Finally, the Turks destroyed the Church of All Saints in order to erect the Mosque of Sultan Mehmet II (71).

Saint John of Damascus filled the Church with the aroma of his virtues and teachings, and the faithful honored him both during his life and after his repose. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (A.D. 787) echoed the veneration of the faithful when during its seventh session declared the sainthood of John, crying out: “May his memory be eternal!” Then Stephen the Melodist, Saint John’s nephew, at the close of the eighth century composed a hymn praising John, the very words of which we still chant on the Vespers of December 4th of every year, when we commemorate Saint John of Damascus, as we sing:

“What shall we call thee, O Saint? Shall we call thee John, who utters Theology, or the chanting David? A nightingale inspired by God, or a pastoral flute? Thou dost truly sweeten our ears and our minds, and thou dost gladden the assemblies of the Church; and with thy honey-flowing sayings, thou dost adorn the farthest reaches of the world! Wherefore, intercede for the salvation of our souls”

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us, and save us! Amen.


(1) Mansi, XI, Col. 988
(2) Al-Jizya (
الجزية) was a personal tax paid by each non-Muslim subject living within a Muslim territory, while Al-Khirraj (الخراج) was property tax paid by the same
(3) Barhebraeus, Chron., I, 298
(4) Lammens, H., Les Chantres de Omiades, 116
(5) Brooks, E. W., Successors of Heraclius, Cam. Med. Hist. II, 400-406
(6) Cedrenus, Historium Compendium, I, 772; Zonoras, XIV, 229-231; Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(7) Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(8) Constantius, Patriarchs of Antioch, Neale, J. M., 168
(9) Arabic—Conquest of the Nations, by Balathri, p. 125
فتوح البلدن للبلاذري
(10) Ibid. p. 125
(11) Kremer, A. Von, Culturgeschichte des Orientes, II, 408
(12) Arabic—The Melkites, by Father Isaac Al-Armali, p. 32
الملكيون للأب إسحق الأرملي
(13) Arabic—The Family of Saint John of Damascus, by Father Joseph Nasrallah, pp. 38-39
أسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب يوسف نصر الله
(14) Arabic—“Greek Literature” by Father Isaac Al-Armali in Al-Masarrah Magazine, 1921, p. 409
آداب اللغة اليونانية للأب إسحق أرملي في مجلة المسرة
(15) Eutychius, Annales, 26
(16) Arabic—History of Damascus by Ibn Asaker, Vol. 6, p. 71, and, Springs of History, by Ibn Shaker, pp.376-377
تاريخ دمشق لابن عساكر وعيون التواريخ لابن شاكر
(17) Thephanes, Chron. a. 6182
(18) Arabic—The Book of Ministers by Jahshiari, p. 24, and The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 47
كتاب الوزراء للجهشياري، وأسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(19) Lammens, H., Etudes Sur le Règne de Moawia, 11-12
(20) Lammens, H., Le Califat de Yazid, 108
(21) Arabic—Al-Tanbeeh wal Eshraf, by Al-Mas’oudy, p. 397
التنبيه والإشراف للمسعودي
(22) Arabic—History of Damascus, by Ibn Asaker, No. 21 p. 246
تاريخ دمشق لابن عساكر (الظاهرية)
(23) Arabic—The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 62
أسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(24) Theophanes, Chron., a. 6221
(25) Graf, G., Gesch. der Christ. Arab. Lit., I 377, 378
(26) Nasrallah, J., Saint Jean de Damas, 58-59
(27) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, pp. 12-15
سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل (طبعة الخوري قسطنطين باشا)
(28) Echos d’orient, 1925, 140
(29) Nasrallah. J., op. cit., 61
(30) Arabic—Manaqib, by Umar Ibn Abd El-Aziz, in, The German printing of “Bakr”, p. 64
مناقب عمر ابن عبد العزيز طبعة بكر الألمانية
(31) Arabic—Al-Mouwaffaqiyyat, by Zubeir Ibn Bakkar, No. 27, and Histories, by Ibn Asaker, Vol. III, p. 27
الموفقيات لزبير ابن بكار وتاريخ ابن عساكر
(32) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 15
سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(33) P.G., XCIV, Col. 449; Lammens, H., Califat de Yazid, 106, n 1
(34) Mansi, XIII, Col. 356
(35) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, pp. 15-20, and, Jean, Patr., Vita, P.G., XCIV, Col. 457-461
سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(36) Cedrenus, G., Synopsis Historion, I, 799; Ephraemus, Corp. Script. Hist. Byz., XII, 82; Zonoras, C.S.H.B., XXXI, 270; Nicephore, Brevarium, 74; Nasrallah, Jean de Damas, 75-81
(37) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 20
سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(38) Arabic—The Synaxarion, by Met. Michael Assaf: December 4
السنكسار للمطران ميخائيل عساف
(39) Ibid. pp. 20-21
(40) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 24, and, Nasrallah, J., Jean de Damas, 100-103
سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(41) Denis de Tell – Mahré (Chabot), II
(42) Theophanes, Chron., a. 6221
(43) Girdillo, M., Damacenica, Orient. Christ. Analecta, 1926, 64; Monologio di Basilio II, 213; Graf, G., Gesch. der Christ. Lit., I, 379
(44) Nasrallah. J., op. cit., 115-116
(45) Léonce de Damas, Acta SS., III, 184
(46) Arabic—The Damascene Theologian, by Father Chrysostomos Hallack, p. 94
الدمشقي اللاهوتي للأب خريسوستوموس حلاق (الذكرى المئوية)
(47) P.G., XCIV, Col. 525-1228
(48) P.G., XCIV, Col. 99-112
(49) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1421-1432
(50) P.G., XCIV, 8-18
(51) P.G., XCIV, Col. 417-436
(52) P.G., XCIV, Col. 532, Trad. P. Chrysostomos Hallack.
(53) P.G., XCIV, Col. 529
(54) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1173, 1256, 1301
(55) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1441
(56) Arabic—The Damascene Theologian, by Father Chrysostomos Hallack, pp. 95-105
الدمشقي اللاهوتي للأب خريسوستوموس حلاق
(57) P.G., XCIV, 1231-1420
(58) P.G., XCV, Col. 21-62
(59) P.G., XCV, Col. 111-126
(60) Arabic—Scattered Pearls, by Patriarch Ignatius Barsoum, pp. 307-358
اللؤلؤ المنثور للبطريرك إغناطيوس برصوم
(61) P.G., XCV, Col. 187-224
(62) P.G., XCV, Col. 127-186
(63) Pargoire, L., L’Eglise Byzantine, 181
(64) P.G., XCVI, Col. 1319-1336, & XCIV, Col. 1505-1584
(65) P.G., XCIV, Col. 763-773
(66) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1585-1595, & XCIV, Col. 1335-1348
(67) Becker, K., Islamstudien, 432-449
(68) Laily, A., L’Influence Liturgique et Musicale de Saint Jean de Damas (Centenaire, Harissa, 1950), 84-93; Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 150-157; Emereau, Hymnographi Byzantini, Echos d’Orient, 1923
(69) Anawati, M. M., Theologie Musulmane, 200-207
(70) Vailhé, S., Date de la Mort de Saint Jean de Damas, Echos d’Orient, 1906, 28-30; Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 127-128
(71) Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 128-129; Ebersolt, J., Sanctuaires de Byzance, 31-43


Justin said...

Thanks Samn. Your blog is the perfect home for this.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that Fr. Charles pulls random graphics from the web for his articles, so just to clarify, the icons and graphics were added by yours truly.

Also, thanks especially for your recent posts Antiochian monasticism.

Samn! said...

Well, I liked the random Umayyad graphic, so I kept it.... :-D

American Delight said...

The graphic of Umayyad infantry isn't totally random. Abu Yusuf, author of the Kitab Al Kharaj (the major tax treatise of Islamic antiquity), wrote that Muslim soldiers should accompany the collectors of jizya and kharaj...

Thank you for posting it!