John of Damascus
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Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
John’s summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers. This writing was the first work of Scholasticism in Eastern Christianity and an important influence on later Scholastic works.
John was born into a prominent Syriac family known as Mansour in Damascus in the 7th century AD. His grandfather had been responsible for the taxes of the region under the Emperor Heraclius and seems to have played a role in the capitulation of Damascus to the troops of Khalid b. al-Walid in 635. Eutychius, a 10th-century Melkite patriarch mentions him as one high-ranking official involved in the surrender of the city to the Muslims. When the region came under Arab Muslim occupation in the late 7th century AD, 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. 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. 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.
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. John does indeed show some knowledge of the Quran, which he criticizes harshly.
Other sources describes 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. 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 (the future St. Cosmas of Maiuma), John is said to have made great advances in music, astronomy and theology, soon rivalling Pythagoras in arithmetic and Euclid in geometry. As a refugee from Italy, Cosmas brought with him the scholarly traditions of Western Christianity.
John had at least one and possibly two careers: one (less well-documented) as a civil servant for the Caliph in Damascus, and the other (better-attested) as a priest and monk at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem. One source believes John left Damascus to become a monk around 706, when al-Walid I increased the Islamicisation of the Caliphate’s administration. However, Muslim sources only mention that his father Sarjun (Sergius) left the administration around this time, and fail to name John at all. 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.
In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons, gained acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, despite the protests of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III (who had forced the emperor 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.
All agree that 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 those of Christian faith. 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.
John’s biography recounts at least one episode deemed improbable or legendary. 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. In gratitude for this miraculous healing, he attached a silver hand to the icon, which thereafter became known as the “Three-handed”, or Tricheirousa.