St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church
of Boston, MA

December 2009 - St. John of Damascus

Mansur Bin Sarjun [St. John] was born in Damascus about 676 AD into a prominent Arab Christian family known as Mansour.  He was named Mansur Bin Sarjun ("Mansur, son of Sarjun") after his grandfather who had been responsible for the taxes of the region under the Roman Emperor Heraclius.  When the region came under Arab Muslim rule in the late 7th century, the Christian civil servants, including Mansur's grandfather, continued to serve the new Muslim court at Damascus.  Mansur's father, Sarjun or Bin Mansur, went on to serve the Umayyad caliphs, supervising taxes for the entire Middle East. Mansur also served as a high official to the Muslim court.

As a youth, Mansur bin Sarjun received a classical secular education in Damascus under the tutelage of the monk philosopher, Cosmos the Sicilian. Mansur made great advances in music, astronomy and theology, soon rivaling Pythagoras in arithmetic and Euclid in geometry.

In the 8th century, Iconoclasm, a movement seeking to prohibit the veneration of the Icons, gained acceptance in the Byzantine Empire.  Emperor Leo III issued an edict against the veneration of Icons and their exhibition in public places.  As a scholar, philosopher, historian and a talented writer secure in the surroundings of the Muslim Caliph's court, Mansur bin Sarjun initiated a defense of Icons.  He published three essays defending the veneration of Holy Images in his work, "Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images".  Not only did he attack the Byzantine Emperor and Church leaders who supported him, but his use of a simple literary style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian faith. His writings later played an important role in the Second Council of Nicaea which met to settle the Icon dispute. Mansur bin Sarjun asked the Caliph to resign his post and enter the Monastery of Mar Saba.

As a monk, Mansur bin Sarjun took the name John. He was ordained as a priest in 735. Known as John of Damascus, he wrote poetry and music, including the hymns that form the core of the Orthodox funeral service, in addition to numerous philosophical and theological works that contributed greatly to the propagation of the Christian Faith.  His major work, entitled "Fountain of Knowledge" or "The Fountain of Wisdom", is a systematic summery of Christian teaching and doctrine of the Faith.  It served as the basis for the "Summa Theologica" by the medieval philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas.  John of Damascus died in 749 as a revered theologian and was soon recognized as a Saint. St. John of Damascus is sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers.

 

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