Nick Name: Saint John Damascene, John Damascene
Died At Age: 73
Also Known As: John Damascene
Born Country: Syrian Arab Republic
Born in: Damascus, Syria
Famous as: Saint
father: Sarjun Ibn Mansur
siblings: Cosmas of Maiuma
Died on: December 4, 749
place of death: Mar Saba
Who was John of Damascus?
Saint John of Damascus was a revered Eastern monk and theological doctor, whose works have become the principal textbook of Greek Orthodox theology. Also known for his fight against Iconoclasm, he is often referred as the last of the Church Fathers. But sadly, little is known about his life because his first biography was written almost two hundred years after his death, making it difficult to determine the chronology of his life and authenticity of many events. Nonetheless, it is certain that he was born into an influential Christian family in Damascus and was educated in the scholarly traditions of Latin Christianity. Also aware of Islamic traditions, he eventually began his career at the fiscal administration at the court of the Caliph, but gave it up to lead a monistic life at Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem, where he spent rest of his life, authoring around 150 important texts and many hymns. His feast day falls on 4 December.
Childhood & Early Years
John of Damascus was born as John Mansur in 675 AD in Damascus, Syria. His father, Sergius Mansur, also known as Sarjun ibn Mansur, served as the head of the fiscal administration at the court of the Caliph, a post he inherited from his father, Mansur ibn Sarjun.
According to some scholars, their title, Mansur, indicates that he might have belonged to the Arabian tribes such as Kalb or Taghlib. However, according to others, he was definitely of Syrian origin and his grandfather, who was highly revered both by Christians and Muslims, was given this Arabian title.
Little is known about his childhood except that he had a foster brother called Cosmas, with whom he shared close bond. Later Cosmas became known as Saint Cosmas of Maiuma. It is not known if he had any other siblings..
The boys had their education under an elderly Sicilian monk, also named Cosmas. He had brought with him the scholarly traditions of Latin Christianity, and while traveling around was captured by slave traders. On realizing his greatness, Sergius Mansur freed him from slavery and put his sons under his charge.
Under the tutelage of Cosmas the Monk, John made great progress in music, astronomy and theology. Raised in Muslim-ruled Damascus, he also became familiar with Islamic traditions and had some knowledge of Quran. He also had many Muslim friends.
Continue Reading Below
You May Like
Life at Court
After completing his education, John Mansur joined the services of the Caliph, possibly under his father. However, the timeframe of this period of his life is unknown. Although he gained respect in the court for his competence, fairness and humility, he could not continue working for long.
Initially, the court language was Greek and they were allowed to lead a Christian life without interference. Trouble started when Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ibn al-Hakam decided to Arabicize the administration, also forbidding Christians from using the Basilica of John the Baptist.
In 700 AD, John’s father, Sarjun ibn Mansur, was replaced as the head of the fiscal administration by Sulayman ibn Sa'd al-Khushani. However, it is possible that John continued to work under the new administrator until 706 AD.
In 705, on becoming the new Caliph, Abd al-Malik’s son, Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, increased the Islamization of the whole administration. In 706, John resigned from his post and on distributing his wealth among his relatives and the poor he left Damascus with his foster brother Cosmas.
Some accounts however, claim that he remained in the service of the Caliph much longer and wrote ‘Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images’ while in service. Yet others claim that he remained in service until 725 AD while the conflict over the icons began in 726.
After leaving Damascus, John and Cosmas entered Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas. It is a Greek orthodox monastery, known in Syriac as Mar Saba. Located halfway between the Old City of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, it is considered one of the oldest inhabited monasteries of the world.
At Mar Saba, the brothers took up monistic life, spending their time studying, writing and singing hymns. Shortly, many bishops and theologians began to visit them, seeking John’s advice not only for his court background, but also for his holiness and intelligence.
As John became more and more popular, the brothers caught the attention of John V, the patriarch of Jerusalem. He ordained John of Damascus to priesthood while Cosmas was appointed Bishop of Maiuma. However, it is not certain when these incidents took place.
Apologetic Treatises & Other Works
Sometime in early 720s, a movement known as Iconoclasm or war on icons started in Byzantine. Many Iconoclasts had began to destroy the venerated images inside the churches, claiming that venerating before the icons amounted to idol worshipping, something which was strictly prohibited by Moses.
In 726, the Byzantine Emperor, Leo III the Isaurian, ordered the removal of an image of Christ, placed prominently over the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople. Again in 730, he forbade the veneration of religious images through another edict, thus prohibiting a centuries old custom.
Leo’s edicts were met with immense hostility in Greece and Rome. John of Damascus also took up his pen, opposing the Iconoclasm, writing three treaties called ‘Apologetic Treatises against those decrying the Holy Images’.
Apart from writing on Iconoclasm, he had also written 150 texts, the most significant among them being 'Fount of Knowledge’. Others include 'Against the Jacobites', 'Against the Nestorians', 'Dialogue against the Manichees', 'Elementary Introduction into Dogmas', 'On Right Thinking' , 'On the Two Wills in Christ' etc.
He has also written many hymns and is now considered one of the principal hymnographers of Eastern Orthodoxy. At least eight of the Canons, celebrating the feast of the Lord, are believed to written by him. That apart, a number of hymns in the Octoechos are also believed to his.
John of Damascus is possibly best known for his work 'Fount of Knowledge’, in which he synthesized Christian philosophy and doctrine. Divided in three parts i.e. 'Philosophical Chapters', 'Concerning Heresy' and 'An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith', the book later became the principal textbook of Greek Orthodox theology.
He is equally known for his work against Iconoclasm, which became famous as ‘Apologetic Treatises against those decrying the Holy Image’. This work is also divided into three parts and in them he had spiritedly defended the Christian beliefs in icons, proclaiming that such icons were revered, not worshipped.
Death & Legacy
John of Damascus passed away on 4 December 749 at Mar Saba. By then, he had been recognized as a saint and started being revered as a Father of the Church. Today he is often referred as the last of the Church Fathers by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1890, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII and his name was inducted into the General Roman Calender. At that time, his feast day was celebrated on 27 March. But in 1969, it was moved to 4 December, the day he breathed his last.