John of Damascus (Latin: Iohannes Damascenus or Johannes Damascenus also known as John Damascene, Chrysorrhoas, “streaming with gold”—i.e., “the golden speaker”) (c.676 – December 5, 749) was a Melkite monk and presbyter. He was born and raised in Damascus but died (in all probability) at the monastery of Mar Saba, southeast of Jerusalem.
Practically all the information concerning the life of John of Damascus available to us today, has been through the records of John, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Though these notes have served as the single source of biographical information, dating back to the 10th century, these writings have been noted by scholars as having an exuberant lack of detail from a historical point of view, and a bloated writing style.
Although he was brought up under the Muslim rule of Damascus, this was not to affect his or his family’s Christian faith or cause any grievances with the Muslim countrymen who held him in high esteem. His father held a high hereditary public office with duties of chief financial officer for the caliph Abd al-Malik, apparently as head of the tax department for Syria.
When John reached the age of twenty-three, his father sought out to find a Christian tutor who could provide the best education for his children available at the time. Records show that while spending some time in the market place John’s father came across several captives, imprisoned as a result of a raid for prisoners of war that had taken place in the coasts of Italy. One of these, a Sicilian monk by the name of Cosmas, turned out to be an erudite of great knowledge and wisdom. John’s father arranged for the release of this man and appointed him tutor to his son. Under the instruction of Cosmas, John made great advances in fields of study such as music, astronomy and theology. According to his biographer, he soon equaled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry.
Succession to “Chief Councillor”
In spite of his Christian background, his family held an important hereditary public office in the court of the Muslim rulers of Damascus, the Umayyads. John of Damascus succeeded his father in his position upon his death: he was appointed protosymbullus, or chief councilor of Damascus. It was during his term in office that iconoclasm, a movement seeking to prohibit the veneration of the icons, first appeared and gained acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, in disregard of the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against the veneration of images, and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer in the secure surroundings of the caliph’s court, John of Damascus initiated his defense against the emperor in three “Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images”, the earliest of his works, and which gained him a reputation. Not only did he attack the emperor, but the use of a simpler literary style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian faith.
Unable to punish the writer openly, Leo the Isaurian managed to acquire a manuscript written and signed by John of Damascus, which he used to forge a letter from John to the Isaurian emperor offering to betray into his hands the city of Damascus. Despite John’s earnest advocation to his innocence, the caliph dismissed his plea, discharged him from his post, and ordering his right hand, which he used for writing, to be cut off by the wrist.
According to the 10th-century biography, his hand was miraculously restored after fervent prayer before an icon of the Virgin Mary. At this point the caliph is said to have been convinced of his innocence and inclined to reinstate him in his former office. However, John then retired to the monastery of Saint Sabas near Jerusalem, where he continued to produce a series of commentaries, hymns and apologetic writings, including the Octoechos (the Church’s service book of eight tones) and An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers.
He died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church, and is now widely recognized as a saint. He is sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers. In 1883 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by the Holy See.