John Chrysostom (in Greek: Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος) Born 349 – Died 14 September 407), Archbishop of Constantinople, was an important Early Church Father. He is known for his preaching and public speaking, his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, and his ascetic sensibilities. The epithet Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos, anglicized as Chrysostom) means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and denotes his celebrated eloquence. Chrysostom was among the most prolific authors in the early Christian Church, exceeded only by Augustine of Hippo in the quantity of his surviving writings.
He is honored as a Saint in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, as well as in some others. The Eastern Orthodox, together with the Byzantine Catholics, hold him in special regard as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs (alongside Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus). The feast days of John Chrysostom in the Eastern Orthodox Church are 13 November and 27 January. In the Roman Catholic Church he is recognized as a Doctor of the Church and commemorated on 13 September in the current General Roman Calendar and on 27 January in the older calendar. Other churches of the Western tradition, including some Anglican provinces and some Lutheran churches, also commemorate him on 13 September. However, certain Lutheran churches and Anglican provinces commemorate him on the traditional feast day of 27 January. The Coptic Church also recognizes him as a saint (with feast days on 16 Thout and 17 Hathor).
Table of Contents
Early life and education
John was born in Antioch in 349 to Greek parents from Syria. Different scholars describe his mother Anthusa as a pagan or as a Christian, and his father was a high-ranking military officer. John’s father died soon after his birth and he was raised by his mother. He was baptised in 368 or 373 and tonsured as a reader (one of the minor orders of the Church).
As a result of his mother’s influential connections in the city, John began his education under the pagan teacher Libanius. From Libanius, John acquired the skills for a career in rhetoric, as well as a love of the Greek language and literature.
As he grew older, however, John became more deeply committed to Christianity and went on to study theology under Diodore of Tarsus, founder of the re-constituted School of Antioch. According to the Christian historian Sozomen, Libanius was supposed to have said on his deathbed that John would have been his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us”.
John lived in extreme asceticism and became a hermit in about 375; he spent the next two years continually standing, scarcely sleeping, and committing the Bible to memory. As a consequence of these practices, his stomach and kidneys were permanently damaged and poor health forced him to return to Antioch.
Diaconate and service in Antioch
John was ordained as a deacon in 381 by Saint Meletius of Antioch who was not then in communion with Alexandria and Rome. After the death of Meletius, John separated himself from the followers of Meletius, without joining Paulinus, the rival of Meletius for the bishopric of Antioch. But after the death of Paulinus he was ordained a presbyter (priest) in 386 by Evagrius, the successor of Paulinus. He was destined later to bring about reconciliation between Flavian I of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, thus bringing those three sees into communion for the first time in nearly seventy years.
In Antioch, over the course of twelve years (386–397), John gained popularity because of the eloquence of his public speaking at the Golden Church, Antioch’s cathedral, especially his insightful expositions of Bible passages and moral teaching. The most valuable of his works from this period are his Homilies on various books of the Bible. He emphasised charitable giving and was concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. He spoke against abuse of wealth and personal property:
Do you wish to honour the body of the Messiah ?Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.
His straightforward understanding of the Scriptures – in contrast to the Alexandrian tendency towards allegorical interpretation – meant that the themes of his talks were practical, explaining the Bible’s application to everyday life. Such straightforward preaching helped Chrysostom to garner popular support. He founded a series of hospitals in Constantinople to care for the poor.
One incident that happened during his service in Antioch illustrates the influence of his homilies. When Chrysostom arrived in Antioch, Flavian, the bishop of the city, had to intervene with Emperor Theodosius I on behalf of citizens who had gone on a rampage mutilating statues of the Emperor and his family. During the weeks of Lent in 387, John preached more than twenty homilies in which he entreated the people to see the error of their ways. These made a lasting impression on the general population of the city: many pagans converted to Christianity as a result of the homilies. As a result, Theodosius’ vengeance was not as severe as it might have been.
Archbishop of Constantinople
In the autumn of 397, John was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople, after having been nominated without his knowledge by the eunuch Eutropius. He had to leave Antioch in secret due to fears that the departure of such a popular figure would cause civil unrest.
During his time as Archbishop he adamantly refused to host lavish social gatherings, which made him popular with the common people, but unpopular with wealthy citizens and the clergy. His reforms of the clergy were also unpopular. He told visiting regional preachers to return to the churches they were meant to be serving—without any payout.
Not to give the poor part of our goods is to steal from the poor, it is to deprive them of their own life; and what we possess is not ours, but theirs”.
(De Lazaro, II, 6: PG 48, 992D)
His time in Constantinople was more tumultuous than his time in Antioch. Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wanted to bring Constantinople under his sway and opposed John’s appointment to Constantinople. Theophilus had disciplined four Egyptian monks (known as “the Tall Brothers”) over their support of Origen’s teachings. They fled to John and were welcomed by him. Theophilus therefore accused John of being too partial to the teaching of Origen. He made another enemy in Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Arcadius, who assumed that John’s denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress were aimed at her. Eudoxia, Theophilus and other of his enemies held a synod in 403 (the Synod of the Oak) to charge John, in which his connection to Origen was used against him. It resulted in his deposition and banishment. He was called back by Arcadius almost immediately, as the people became “tumultuous” over his departure, even threatening to burn the royal palace. There was an earthquake the night of his arrest, which Eudoxia took for a sign of GOD‘s anger, prompting her to ask Arcadius for John’s reinstatement.
Peace was short-lived. A silver statue of Eudoxia was erected in the Augustaion, near his cathedral. John denounced the dedication ceremonies as pagan and spoke against the Empress in harsh terms: “Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger”, an allusion to the events surrounding the death of John the Baptist. Once again he was banished, this time to the Caucasus in Abkhazia.
Around 405, John began to lend moral and financial support to Christian monks who were enforcing the emperors’ anti-Pagan laws, by destroying temples and shrines in Phoenicia and nearby regions.
Exile and death
The causes of John’s exile are not clear, though Jennifer Barry suggests that they have to do with his connections to Arianism. Other historians, including Wendy Mayer and Geoffrey Dunn, have argued that “the surplus of evidence reveals a struggle between Johannite and anti-Johannite camps in Constantinople soon after John’s departure and for a few years after his death”. Faced with exile, John Chrysostom wrote an appeal for help to three churchmen: Pope Innocent I, Venerius the Bishop of Milan, and the third to Chromatius, the Bishop of Aquileia. In 1872, church historian William Stephens wrote:
The Patriarch of the Eastern Rome appeals to the great bishops of the West, as the champions of an ecclesiastical discipline which he confesses himself unable to enforce, or to see any prospect of establishing. No jealousy is entertained of the Patriarch of the Old Rome by the Patriarch of the New Rome. The interference of Innocent is courted, a certain primacy is accorded him, but at the same time he is not addressed as a supreme arbitrator; assistance and sympathy are solicited from him as from an elder brother, and two other prelates of Italy are joint recipients with him of the appeal.
Pope Innocent I protested John’s banishment from Constantinople to the town of Cucusus in Cappadocia, but to no avail. Innocent sent a delegation to intercede on behalf of John in 405. It was led by Gaudentius of Brescia; Gaudentius and his companions, two bishops, encountered many difficulties and never reached their goal of entering Constantinople.
John wrote letters which still held great influence in Constantinople. As a result of this, he was further exiled from Cucusus (where he stayed from 404 to 407) to Pitiunt (Pityus) (in modern Abkhazia) where his tomb is a shrine for pilgrims. He never reached this destination, as he died at Comana Pontica on 14 September 407 during the journey. His last words are said to have been “δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν” (Glory be to God for all things).
The best known of his many homilies, the Paschal Homily (Hieratikon), is rather brief. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is traditionally read in full each year at the Paschal Divine Liturgy (eucharistic) service following the midnight Orthros (or Matins).
Chrysostom’s extant homiletical works are vast, including many hundreds of exegetical homilies on both the New Testament (especially the works of Saint Paul) and the Old Testament (particularly on Genesis). Among his extant exegetical works are sixty-seven homilies on Genesis, fifty-nine on the Psalms, ninety on the Gospel of Matthew, eighty-eight on the Gospel of John, and fifty-five on the Acts of the Apostles.
The homilies were written down by stenographers and subsequently circulated, revealing a style that tended to be direct and greatly personal, but formed by the rhetorical conventions of his time and place. In general, his homiletical theology displays much characteristic of the Antiochian school (i.e., somewhat more literal in interpreting Biblical events), but he also uses a good deal of the allegorical interpretation more associated with the Alexandrian school.
John’s social and religious world was formed by the continuing and pervasive presence of paganism in the life of the city. One of his regular topics was the paganism in the culture of Constantinople, and in his homilies he thunders against popular pagan amusements: the theatre, horseraces, and the revelry surrounding holidays. In particular, he criticizes Christians for taking part in such activities:
If you ask [Christians] who is Amos or Obadiah, how many apostles there were or prophets, they stand mute; but if you ask them about the horses or drivers, they answer with more solemnity than sophists or rhetors.
One of the recurring features of John’s homilies is his emphasis on care for the needy. Echoing themes found in the Gospel of Matthew, he calls upon the rich to lay aside materialism in favor of helping the poor, often employing all of his rhetorical skills to shame wealthy people to abandon conspicuous consumption:
Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of GOD is perishing in the cold?
Homilies against Jews and Judaizing Christians
During his first two years as a presbyter in Antioch (386–387), John denounced Jews and Judaizing Christians in a series of eight homilies delivered to Christians in his congregation who were taking part in Jewish festivals and other Jewish observances. It is disputed whether the main target were specifically Judaizers or Jews in general. His homilies were expressed in the conventional manner, utilizing the uncompromising rhetorical form known as the psogos (Adversus Judaeos).
One of the purposes of these homilies was to prevent Christians from participating in Jewish customs, and thus prevent the perceived erosion of Chrysostom’s flock. In his homilies, John criticized those “Judaizing Christians”, who were participating in Jewish festivals and taking part in other Jewish observances, such as the shabbat, submitted to circumcision and made pilgrimage to Jewish holy places.
John claimed that synagogues were full of Christians, especially Christian women, on the shabbats and Jewish festivals, because they loved the solemnity of the Jewish liturgy and enjoyed listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and applauded famous preachers in accordance with the contemporary custom. A more recent theory is that he instead tried to persuade Jewish Christians, who for centuries had kept connections with Jews and Judaism, to choose between Judaism and Christianity.
In Greek the homilies are called Kata Ioudaiōn (Κατὰ Ιουδαίων), which is translated as Adversus Judaeos in Latin and Against the Jews in English. The original Benedictine editor of the homilies, Bernard de Montfaucon, gives the following footnote to the title: “A discourse against the Jews; but it was delivered against those who were Judaizing and keeping the fasts with them [the Jews].”
According to Patristics scholars, opposition to any particular view during the late 4th century was conventionally expressed in a manner, utilizing the rhetorical form known as the psogos, whose literary conventions were to vilify opponents in an uncompromising manner; thus, it has been argued that to call Chrysostom an “anti-Semite” is to employ anachronistic terminology in a way incongruous with historical context and record. This does not preclude assertions that Chrysostom’s theology was a form of Anti-Jewish supersessionism.
Homily against homosexuality
Chrysostom loathed homosexuality. His most notable discourse in this regard is his fourth homily on Romans 1:26–27, where he argues that those who have sex with the same gender must do so because they are insane:
All of these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases. … [The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men.
He describes homosexuality as the worst of sins, greater than murder. He asserts that punishment will be found in hell for such transgressors, and that women can be guilty of the sin as much as men (although the former disrupt the patriarchal hierarchy through such an act). Chrysostom argues that the male passive partner has effectively renounced his manhood and become a woman – such an individual deserves to be “driven out and stoned”. Chrysostom was particularly influential in shaping early Christian thought that same-sex desire was an evil that ultimately resulted in social injustice – altering the traditional interpretation of Sodom as a place of inhospitality, to one where the sexual transgressions of the Sodomites became paramount. Allen describes the sermon as the “climax and consummation of homophobia in the late classical world”.
Apart from his homilies, a number of John’s other treatises have had a lasting influence. One such work is John’s early treatise Against Those Who Oppose the Monastic Life, written while he was a deacon (sometime before 386), which was directed to parents, pagan as well as Christian, whose sons were contemplating a monastic vocation. Chrysostom wrote that, already in his day, it was customary for Antiochenes to send their sons to be educated by monks.
Another important treatise written by John is titled On the Priesthood (written 390/391, it contains in Book 1 an account of his early years and a defence of his flight from ordination by Bishop Meletios of Antioch, and then proceeds in later books to expound on his exalted understanding of the priesthood). Two other notable books by John are Instructions to Catechumens and On the Incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature. In addition, he wrote a series of letters to the deaconess Olympias, of which seventeen are extant.
Beyond his preaching, the other lasting legacy of John is his influence on Christian liturgy. Two of his writings are particularly notable. He harmonized the liturgical life of the Church by revising the prayers and rubrics of the Divine Liturgy, or celebration of the Holy Eucharist. To this day, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite typically celebrate the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom as the normal Eucharistic liturgy, although his exact connection with it remains a matter of debate among experts.
Legacy and influence
During a time when city clergy were subject to criticism for their high lifestyle, John was determined to reform his clergy in Constantinople. These efforts were met with resistance and limited success. He was an excellent preacher whose homilies and writings are still studied and quoted. As a theologian, he has been and continues to be very important in Eastern Christianity, and is generally considered among the Three Holy Hierarchs of the Greek Church, but has been less important to Western Christianity. His writings have survived to the present day more so than any of the other Greek Fathers.
Influence on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and clergy
John’s influence on church teachings is interwoven throughout the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (revised 1992). The Catechism cites him in eighteen sections, particularly his reflections on the purpose of prayer and the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer:
Consider how [Jesus Christ] teaches us to be humble, by making us see that our virtue does not depend on our work alone but on grace from on high. He commands each of the faithful who prays to do so universally, for the whole world. For he did not say “thy will be done in me or in us”, but “on earth”, the whole earth, so that error may be banished from it, truth take root in it, all vice be destroyed on it, virtue flourish on it, and earth no longer differ from heaven.
Christian clerics, such as R. S. Storr, refer to him as “one of the most eloquent preachers who ever since apostolic times have brought to men the divine tidings of truth and love”, and the 19th-century John Henry Newman described John as a “bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart.”
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Widely used editions of Chrysostom’s works are available in Greek, Latin, English, and French. The Greek edition is edited by Sir Henry Savile (eight volumes, Eton, 1613); the most complete Greek and Latin edition is edited by Bernard de Montfaucon (thirteen volumes, Paris, 1718–38, republished in 1834–40, and reprinted in Migne’s “Patrologia Graeca”, volumes 47–64). There is an English translation in the first series of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (London and New York, 1889–90). A selection of his writings has been published more recently in the original with facing French translation in Sources Chrétiennes.