Born at Damascus, about 676; died some time between 754 and 787. The only extant life of the saint is that by John, Patriarch of Jerusalem, which dates from the tenth century. This life is the single source from which have been drawn the materials of all his biographical notices. It is extremely unsatisfactory from the standpoint of historical criticism. An exasperating lack of detail, a pronounced legendary tendency, and a turgid style are its chief characteristics. Mansur was probably the name of John’s father. What little is known of him indicates that he was a sterling Christian whose infidel environment made no impression on his religious fervour. Apparently his adhesion to Christian truth constituted no offence in the eyes of his Saracen countrymen, for he seems to have enjoyed their esteem in an eminent degree, and discharged the duties of chief financial officer for the caliph, Abdul Malek. The author of the life records the names of but two of his children, John and his half-brother Cosmas. When the future apologist had reached the age of twenty-three his father cast about for a Christian tutor capable of giving his sons the best education the age afforded. In this he was singularly fortunate. Standing one day in the market-place he discovered among the captives taken in a recent raid on the shores of Italy a Sicilian monk named Cosmas. Investigation proved him to be a man of deep and broad erudition. Through the influence of the caliph, Mansur secured the captive’s liberty and appointed him tutor to his sons. Under the tutelage of Cosmas, John made such rapid progress that, in the enthusiastic language of his biographer, he soon equalled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry. Equal progress was made in music, astronomy, and theology.
On the death of his father, John Damascene was made protosymbulus, or chief councillor, of Damascus. It was during his incumbency of this office that the Church in the East began to be agitated by the first mutterings of the Iconoclast heresy. In 726, despite the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against the veneration of images. From his secure refuge in the caliph’s court, John Damascene immediately entered the lists against him, in defence of this ancient usage of the Christians. Not only did he himself oppose the Byzantine monarch, but he also stirred the people to resistance. In 730 the Isaurian issued a second edict, in which he not only forbade the veneration of images, but even inhibited their exhibition in public places. To this royal decree the Damascene replied with even greater vigour than before, and by the adoption of a simpler style brought the Christian side of the controversy within the grasp of the common people. A third letter emphasized what he had already said and warned the emperor to beware of the consequences of this unlawful action. Naturally, these powerful apologies aroused the anger of the Byzantine emperor. Unable to reach the writer with physical force, he sought to encompass his destruction by strategy. Having secured an autograph letter written by John Damascene, he forged a letter, exactly similar in chirography, purporting to have been written by John to the Isaurian, and offering to betray into his hands the city of Damascus. The letter he sent to the caliph. Notwithstanding his councillor’s earnest avowal of innocence, the latter accepted it as genuine and ordered that the hand that wrote it be severed at the wrist. The sentence was executed, but, according to his biographer, through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin, the amputated hand was miraculously restored.
The caliph, now convinced of John’s innocence, would fain have reinstated him in his former office, but the Damascene had heard a call to a higher life, and with his foster-brother entered the monastery of Saint Sabas, some eighteen miles south-east of Jerusalem. After the usual probation, John V, Patriarch of Jerusalem, conferred on him the office of the priesthood. In 754 the pseudo-Synod of Constantinople, convened at the command of Constantine Copronymus, the successor of Leo, confirmed the principles of the Iconoclasts and anathematized by name those who had conspicuously opposed them. But the largest measure of the council’s spleen was reserved for John of Damascus. He was called a “cursed favourer of Saracens”, a “traitorous worshipper of images”, a “wronger of Jesus Christ”, a “teacher of impiety”, and a “bad interpreter of the Scriptures”. At the emperor’s command his name was written “Manzer” (Manzeros, a bastard). But the Seventh General Council of Nicea (787) made ample amends for the insults of his enemies, and Theophanes, writing in 813, tells us that he was surnamed Chrysorrhoas (golden stream) by his friends on account of his oratorical gifts. In the pontificate of Leo XIII he was enrolled among the doctors of the Church. His feast is celebrated on 27 March.
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. Some consider him the precursor of the Scholastics, whilst others regard him as the first Scholastic, and his “De fide orthodoxa” as the first work of Scholasticism. The Arabians too, owe not a little of the fame of their philosophy to his inspiration. The most important and best known of all his works is that to which the author himself gave the name of “Fountain of Wisdom” (pege gnoseos). This work has always been held in the highest esteem in both the Catholic and Greek Churches. Its merit is not that of originality, for the author asserts, at the end of the second chapter of the “Dialectic”, that it is not his purpose to set forth his own views, but rather to collate and epitomize in a single work the opinions of the great ecclesiastical writers who have gone before him. A special interest attaches to it for the reason that it is the first attempt at a summa theologica that has come down to us.
The “Fountain of Wisdom” is divided into three parts, namely, “Philosophical Chapters” (Kephalaia philosophika), “Concerning Heresy” (peri aipeseon), and “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” (Ikdosis akribes tes orthodoxou pisteos). The title of the first book is somewhat too comprehensive for its contents and consequently is more commonly called “Dialectic”. With the exception of the fifteen chapters that deal exclusively with logic, it has mostly to do with the ontology of Aristotle. It is largely a summary of the Categories of Aristotle with Porphyry’s “Isagoge” (Eisagoge eis tas kategorias). It seems to have been John Damascene’s purpose to give his readers only such philosophical knowledge as was necessary for understanding the subsequent parts of the “Fountain of Wisdom”. For more than one reason the “Dialectic” is a work of unusual interest. In the first place, it is a record of the technical terminology used by the Greek Fathers, not only against the heretics, but also in the exposition of the Faith for the benefit of Christians. It is interesting, too, for the reason that it is a partial exposition of the “Organon”, and the application of its methods to Catholic theology a century before the first Arabic translation of Aristotle made its appearance. The second part, “Concerning Heresy”, is little more than a copy of a similar work by Epiphanius, brought up to date by John Damascene. The author indeed expressly disclaims originality except in the chapters devoted to Islamism, Iconoclasm, and Aposchitae. To the list of eighty heresies that constitute the “Panarion” of Epiphanius, he added twenty heresies that had sprung up since his time. In treating of Islamism he vigorously assails the immoral practices of Mohammed and the corrupt teachings inserted in the Koran to legalize the delinquencies of the prophet. Like Epiphanius, he brings the work to a close with a fervent profession of Faith. John’s authorship of this book has been challenged, for the reason that the writer, in treating of Arianism, speaks of Arius, who died four centuries before the time of Damascene, as still living and working spiritual ruin among his people. The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the fact that John of Damascene did not epitomize the contents of the “Panarion”, but copied it verbatim. Hence the passage referred to is in the exact words of Epiphanius himself, who was a contemporary of Arius.
“Concerning the Orthodox Faith”, the third book of the “Fountain of Wisdom”, is the most important of John Damascene’s writings and one of the most notable works of Christian antiquity. Its authority has always been great among the theologians of the East and West. Here, again, the author modestly disavows any claim of originality – any purpose to essay a new exposition of doctrinal truth. He assigns himself the less pretentious task of collecting in a single work the opinions of the ancient writers scattered through many volumes, and of systematizing and connecting them in a logical whole. It is no small credit to John of Damascus that he was able to give to the Church in the eighth century its first summary of connected theological opinions. At the command of Eugenius III it was rendered into Latin by Burgundio of Pisa, in 1150, shortly before Peter Lombard’s “Book of Sentences” appeared. This translation was used by Peter Lombard and Saint Thomas Aquinas, as well as by other theologians, till the Humanists rejected it for a more elegant one. The author follows the same order as does Theodoret of Cyrus in his “Epitome of Christian Doctrine”. But, while he imitates the general plan of Theodoret, he does not make use of his method. He quotes, not only form the pages of Holy Writ, but also from the writings of the Fathers. As a result, his work is an inexhaustible thesaurus of tradition which became the standard for the great Scholastics who followed. In particular, he draws generously from Gregory of Nazianzus, whose works he seems to have absorbed, from Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostum, and Epiphanius. The work is divided into four books. This division, however, is an arbitrary one neither contemplated by the author nor justified by the Greek manuscript. It is probably the work of a Latin translator seeking to accommodate it to the style of the four books of Lombard’s “Sentences”.
The first book of “The Orthodox Faith” treats of the essence and existence of God, the Divine nature, and the Trinity. As evidence of the existence of God he cites the concurrence of opinion among those enlightened by Revelation and those who have only the light of reason to guide them. To the same end he employs the argument drawn from the mutability of created things and that from design. Treating, in the second book, of the physical world, he summarizes all the views of his times, without, however, committing himself to any of them. In the same treatise he discloses a comprehensive knowledge of the astronomy of his day. Here, also, place is given to the consideration of the nature of angels and demons, the terrestrial paradise, the properties of human nature, the foreknowledge of God, and predestination. Treating of man, he gives what has been aptly called a “psychology in nuce”. Contrary to the teachings of Plotinus, the master of Porphyry, he identifies mind and soul. In the third book the personality and two-fold nature of Christ are discussed with great ability. This leads up to the consideration of the Monophysite heresy. In this connexion he deals with Peter the Fuller’s addition to the “Trisagion”, and combats Anastasius’s interpretation of this ancient hymn. The latter, who was Abbot of the monastery of Saint Euthymius in Palestine, referred the “Trisagion” only to the Second Person of the Trinity. In his letter “Concerning the Trisagion” John Damascene contends that the hymn applies not to the Son alone, but to each Person of the Blessed Trinity. This book also contains a spirited defence of the Blessed Virgin’s claim to the title of “Theotokos.” Nestorius is vigorously dealt with for trying to substitute the title of “Mother of Christ” for “Mother of God”. The Scriptures are discussed in the fourth book. In assigning twenty-two books to the Old Testament canon he is treating of the Hebrew, and not the Christian, Canon, as he finds it in a work of Epiphanius, “De ponderibus et mensuris”. His treatment in this book of the Real Presence is especially satisfactory. The nineteenth chapter contains a powerful plea for the veneration of images.
The treatise, “Against the Jacobites”, was written at the request of Peter, Metropolitan of Damascus, who imposed on him the task of reconciling to the Faith the Jacobite bishop. It is a strong polemic against the Jacobites, as the Monophysites in Syria were called. He also wrote against the Manicheans and Monothelites. The “Booklet Concerning Right Judgment” is little more than a profession of Faith, confirmed by arguments setting forth the mysteries of the Faith, especially the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though John of Damascus wrote voluminously on the Scriptures, as in the case of so much of his writing, his work bears little of the stamp of originality. His “Select Passages” (Loci Selecti), as he himself admits, are taken largely from the homilies of Saint John Chrysostom and appended as commentaries to texts from the Epistles of Saint Paul. The commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians is taken from Cyril of Alexandria. The “Sacred Parallels” (Sacra parallela) is a kind of topical concordance, treating principally of God, man, virtues, and vices.
Under the general title of “Homilies” he wrote fourteen discourses. The sermon on the Transfiguration, which Lequien asserts was delivered in the church on Mt. Tabor, is of more than usual excellence. It is characterized by dramatic eloquence, vivid description, and a wealth of imagery. In it he discourses on his favorite topic, the twofold nature of Christ, quotes the classic text of Scripture in testimony of the primacy of Peter, and witnesses the Catholic doctrine of sacramental Penance. In his sermon on Holy Saturday he descants on the Easter duty and on the Real Presence. The Annunciation is the text of a sermon, now extant only in a Latin version of an Arabic text, in which he attributes various blessings to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The second of his three sermons on the Assumption is especially notable for its detailed account of the translation of the body of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, an account, he avers, that is based on the most reliable and ancient tradition. Both Liddledale and Neale regard John of Damascus as the prince of Greek hymnodists. His hymns are contained in the “Carmina” of the Lequien edition. The “canons” on the Nativity, Epiphany, and Pentecost are written in iambic trimeters. Three of his hymns have become widely known and admired in their English version – “Those eternal bowers”, “Come ye faithful raise the strain”, and “Tis the Day of Resurrection”. The most famous of the “canons” is that on Easter. It is a song of triumph and thanksgiving – the “Te Deum” of the Greek Church. It is a traditional opinion, lately controverted, that John Damascene composed the “Octoëchos”, which contains the liturgical hymns used by the Greek Church in its Sunday services. Gerbet, in his “History of Sacred Music”, credits him with doing for the East what Gregory the Great accomplished for the West – substitution of notes and other musical characters for the letters of the alphabet to indicate musical quantities. It is certain he adapted choral music to the purposes of the Liturgy.
Among the several works that are dubiously attributed to John Damascene the most important is the romance entitled “Barlaam and Josaphat”. Throughout the Middle Ages it enjoyed the widest popularity in all languages. It is not regarded as authentic by Lequien, and the discovery of a Syriac version of the “Apology of Aristides” shows that what amounts to sixteen printed pages of it was taken directly from Aristides. The panegyric of Saint Barbara, while accepted as genuine by Lequien, is rejected by many others. The treatise entitled “Concerning those who have died in the Faith” is rejected as spurious by Francisco Suárez, Bellarmine, and Lequien, not only on account of its doctrinal discrepancies, but for its fabulous character as well. The first Greek edition of any of the works of John Damascene was that of the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” brought out at Verona (1531) under the auspices of John Matthew Gibertus, Bishop of Verona. Another Greek edition of the same work was published at Moldavia (1715) by John Epnesinus. It was also printed in a Latin edition at Paris (1507), by James Faber. Henry Gravius, O.P., published a Latin edition at Cologne (1546) which contained the following works: “Dialectic”, “Elementary and Dogmatic Instruction”, “Concerning the two Wills and Operations”, and “Concerning Heresy”. A Greek-Latin edition with an introduction by Mark Hopper made its appearance at Basle (1548). A similar edition, but much more complete was published at the same place in 1575. Another Latin edition, constituting a partial collection of the author’s works is that by Michael Lequien,O.P., published at Paris (1712) and Venice (1748). To the reprint of this edition (Paris, 1864), Migne has added a supplement of works attributed by some to the authorship of John Damascene.