Sunday, May 22, 2016


Vassa Kontouma, John of Damascus: New Studies on his Life and Works. Variorum collected studies series, CS 1053. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, Pp. 286. ISBN 9781409446378. $154.95.

Reviewed by Ken Parry, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

The English-speaking world has been relatively well served in recent years with studies relating to John of Damascus. Andrew Louth's 2002 monograph on the Damascene, as well as the important articles by Sydney Griffith placing John in his Melkite Sitz im Leben, have given him more prominence after a long period of neglect. It is therefore a welcome addition to see these studies by Vassa Kontouma in the Variorum series, some of which have been translated from the French by Augustine Cassiday. Historically John has not been given the credit he deserves, often labelled a synthesizer, encyclopaedist, or scholastic with nothing original to say. Fortunately, with better textual research and more nuanced readings this derogatory labelling is being revised, but there is still some way to go before his name is spoken in the same breath as that of Maximos the Confessor, another Byzantine theologian who was largely forgotten until recently. That John was greatly influenced by Maximos has become clearer, but as Kontouma observes, we still lack a study that brings John and his illustrious predecessor together. Unfortunately, there is also still no study of John's Nachleben in Byzantium.1 More studies have been done on his reception in the medieval West than in the Christian East.

Kontouma's collected studies contain 10 articles published between 1995 to 2011 with 4 in French and 6 in English. The articles are divided into the following sections: Article I-II: The Life of John of Damascus and It Sources; Article III: Neochalcedonian Philosophy; Article IV-VI: Systematic Theology; Article VII-X: Christian Practice under the Umayyads.

Article I deals with the sources for John's life and works, being an augmented version of a chapter that first appeared in the Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques (2000). This provides an overview of the sources, and amply illustrates the problems inherent in deciphering the legends concerning his life2 and in separating the authentic works from those wrongly attributed to him. It has been known for some time that the Tale of Barlaam and Joasaph cannot be attributed to John, while more work needs to be done on the manuscript tradition forming the basis of the florilegium known as the Sacra Parallela. There are still works in Arabic, Georgian, and Armenian attributed to him that remain unedited and critical editions of some Greek texts have yet to be published. As John is probably best known for his Three Orations Against the Iconoclasts, readers should note that these discourses were edited on separate occasions and first published together in the 18th century, and subsequently in Migne's Patrologia Graeca. Kontouma is critical of Bonifatius Kotter's synoptic presentation of these discourses in volume III (1975) of his edited edition of the Damascene's work because it destroys the coherence of each discourse.

Article II deals with the Life of John of Damascus (BHG 884), which Kontouma convincingly demonstrates should be attributed to John III of Antioch (996-1021), rather than the traditional attribution to John VII of Jerusalem (964-966). This makes sense in the context of the resurgence of Byzantine culture and the Arabic translations of John's works in the reoccupied territory of Syria in the late 10th/early 11th century.3 In Article III on Byzantine philosophy from Chalcedon to John of Damascus, Kontouma offers an overview of the principal sources of the period. In this regard she mentions the commentaries on Aristotle's Categories from the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria, which was an essential work for philosophizing in late antiquity. The definition of a homonym in particular was useful to Christian theologians, and although John is a witness to its application in his Dialectica, he does not apply it to the image question, unlike the iconophiles of the 9th century.4 In spite of the attribution of Christian-sounding names to some of these commentaries, like those of David, Elias and Stephanos, this does not in itself make them Christian. Kontouma clearly evidences parallels in texts by Anastasios I of Antioch, Theodore of Raithou, Maximos the Confessor, and Anastasios of Sinai, with John's Dialectica and De Fide Orthodox (henceforth DFO). These texts demonstrate important links that feed into John's philosophical methodology. From this she proceeds to pose the interesting question: is there a neo-Chalcedonian philosophical system?

In discussing this question Kontouma rightly points out that whereas the use of Aristotle by heretics was condemned, by John's time Aristotelian vocabulary was integral to Byzantine orthodoxy. John was to make this Aristotelianism explicit in his Dialectica as a way of preparing the ground for combating heresy. He formulated a logic that was strictly speaking patristic and Byzantine, which has not always been recognised as the culmination of a long process of absorbing non-scriptural terminology. She points to the use of Aristotelian definitions by Severus of Antioch and the necessity for Chalcedonians to engage with him at the same level of competency. This is one reason John needed to write his Dialectica and to apply these definitions in his DFO.

Article IV is concerned with a text known as Pseudo-Cyril's De SS. Trinitate, which was judged to have been written in the 7th century, hence its pseudonymous ascription, and subsequently utilised by John. However, Kontouma demonstrates that it was not composed in the 7th century, but in the 14th century by Joseph the Philosopher and therefore could not have been known to him. This puts a different complexion on the question of John's originality and adds significantly to his genuine contribution to Byzantine theology. One concept in particular, that of περιχώρησις, as developed by the Damascene, was taken from its Christological context and given a place in Trinitarian doctrine, a development that proved to be of lasting importance and which has received some attention in recent Trinitarian theological debate.5

Article V focuses on the Fount of Knowledge, John's tripartite work consisting of the Dialectica, Book of Heresies, and DFO. As Kontouma indicates, the grouping of these three works under this title and with a proem may not be the design of John himself, but an eighteenth-century reconstruction. In fact there is only one 11th century-manuscript that transmits the three parts in the familiar order under the title Fount of Knowledge. Beginning with the Dialectica, the majority of manuscripts were produced from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the exception of a single manuscript from the 10th century. The purpose of the work was to establish the Christian usage of philosophical terms as handed down by the fathers. This is contextualised by Kontouma with a quotation from Anastasios of Sinai to the effect that technical terms are inherent in scripture. In fact John himself makes a similar claim in his Third Oration Against the Iconoclasts.

Moving to the Book of Heresies she notes its relationship to Epiphanius of Salamis' Panarion, with additional chapters contributed by John, including extracts from the original text of John Philoponos' The Arbiter. It is known that in some later editions there is an additional Heresy 102 on the Iconoclasts (see below). Finally, with the DFO we learn from the manuscript tradition that the majority were produced between the 12th and 15th centuries. Before listing and briefly discussing the main themes of this work, Kontouma offers her insights into the editorial aspects of it, and reminds us that it was common in the medieval period for anonymous editors to rearrange texts and add their own headings. The synthesis that John achieves in this work is far more than the sum of its parts, being an exposition of a dogmatic process that began with the Cappadocian fathers, with Gregory of Nazianzus topping his list of patristic authors. Kontouma ends with a tabulated chart comparing the contents of the DFO with the 100 chapter titles given by Kotter (1973).

Article VI deals with Byzantine systematic theology in relation to the reception of John's DFO, which is the most important from the viewpoint of historical theology. The diffusion of the DFO throughout the Byzantine period is quite remarkable, yet only three manuscripts have been identified from the 9th century and five from the 10th century, with the momentum increasing during the 11th to 13th centuries, and reaching a peak in the 14th century. In the East translations into Slavonic, Arabic and Georgian were made between the 9th and 11th centuries. However, it does not appear that John's authority was attached to it until the late 10th century with the Life of John discussed in Article II. Kontouma traces the influence of the DFO on later authors such as Euthymios Zigabenos, Niketas Choniates, and Nilos Doxapatrios, and in doing so shows the process by which it was adopted and inserted into dogmatic confessions. Although touched upon in Article V, she does not expand on the Melkite environment in which John wrote the DFO, but this is, I would suggest, essential for understanding the task he set himself. Kontouma surmises that the lack of reference to John among iconophiles in ninth-century Constantinople may stem from the anathemas imposed upon him by the iconoclasts at their council of 754, but these were lifted by the bishops at Nicaea II in 787, plus there is some evidence that Heresy 102 on the Iconoclasts from his Book of Heresies was known to the iconophile patriarch Nikephoros in his writings.6

Articles VII to IX are interrelated as they are concerned with a genuine treatise of John's on fasting during Lent, De sacris ieiuniis, excluded by Kotter from the edited edition of his works. Article VII explains the importance of this neglected text in relation to the number of weeks for the forty-day fast in Lent that was debated at Jerusalem in John's time. Kontouma shows that John supported the eight weeks of fasting that became the norm in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Article VIII looks at the florilegium accompanying the text that was sent to John, not as an authoritative testimonial as previously thought, but for his refutation, which he undertook in the Letter to Cometas, also included with the De sacris ieiuniis. This florilegium is important for several reasons, not least for the lost fragments it preserves from Severus of Antioch. Article IX consists of French translations of the anonymous florilegium and the letter of John to Cometas.

Finally, in Article X, a wide-ranging paper concerning Byzantine Marian celebrations and the question of the Immaculate Conception, Kontouma outlines the contribution of John and Andrew of Crete in the development of Marian devotions in the Christian East. I would make two remarks apropos of this paper; first the authenticity of Heresy 100 on the Ishmaelites from the Book of Heresies may be in doubt, and second that the veneration of Mary in the Church of the East has been no less strong despite its rejection of the epithet Theotokos.

It is planned that the upcoming conference on John of Damascus being organised by Christophe Erismann and his ERC team at the University of Vienna (9 SALT) will provide an opportunity for a much needed re-evaluation of the Damascene's life and work. In the meantime Vassa Kontouma's volume provides food for thought for which I am for one most grateful. This is a stimulating collection and will become essential reading for anyone interested in the writings of John of Damascus.


1.   For an overview of his reception, see Vassilis Adrahtas, 'John of Damascus', in the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics, ed. Ken Parry. Oxford, 2015, 264-277.
2.   Sean W. Anthony, 'Fixing John Damascene's Biography: Historical Notes on His Family Background', Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, 4 (2015), 607-627.
3.   See further Alexander Treiger, 'The Fathers in Arabic', in the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics, ed. Ken Parry. Oxford, 2015, 442-455.
4.   See my 'Aristotle and the Icon: The use of the Categories by Byzantine iconophile writers', in Aristotle'sCategoriesin the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions, edited by S. Ebbesen, J. Marenbon and P. Thom, Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica, 8 vol. 5, Copenhagen, 2013, 34-58.
5.   See Charles C. Twombly, Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 216. Eugene, Oregon, 2015.
6.   M.-J. Mondzain-Baudinet, Nicéphore: Discours contre les iconoclasts. Paris, 1989, 294-296.

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