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Creating a Theology of Icons in Umayyad Palestine: John of Damascus’ ‘Three Treatises on the Divine Images’

  • ANNA CHRYSOSTOMIDES (a1)

Abstract

John of Damascus (c. 655–745) is a striking figure in church history as a defender of icon veneration and as a Church Father who maintained Byzantine Orthodoxy despite living under Muslim rule. His life amongst Muslims and his association with the Umayyad Melkite Christian community, the Christian Church which attempted to maintain an adherence to Byzantine Orthodoxy after the Arab conquest, is often associated with his defence of icons. However, most scholarship claims that his Three treatises on the divine images were written solely against Byzantine iconoclasm. This article provides a close reading of his Treatises focusing on themes which overlap with contemporary Jewish and Muslim debates on figurative images, arguing that John wrote his Treatises in an attempt to create a seminal Melkite theology on icons for both Byzantine and Umayyad Christians faced with iconoclastic arguments from all three Abrahamic faiths.

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1 An exception is the work of Sidney Griffith, who associates John of Damascus’ Three treatises on the divine images far more with Umayyad policy and a Muslim milieu: Images, Islam and Christian icons: a moment in the Christian/Muslim encounter in early Islamic times’, in Canivet, Pierre and Rey-Coquais, Jean-Paul (eds), La Syrie de Byzance a l'Islam VIIe–VIIIe siècles, Damascus 1992, 121–38; Christians, Muslims, and the image of one God’, in Groneberg, Brigitte, Spieckermann, Hermann and Weiershäuser, Frauke (eds), Die welt der götterbilder, New York 2007, 347–80; and John of Damascus and the Church in Syria in the Umayyad era: the intellectual and cultural milieu of Orthodox Christians in the world of Islam’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies xi/2 (2011), 207–37.

2 Vasiliev, A. A., ‘The iconoclastic edict of the Caliph Yazid ii, ad 721’, DOP ix (1956), 26–7.

3 For discussion on late antique Byzantine use of icons in the Christianisation of space in competition with Jewish communities see Dilley, Paul, ‘Christian icon practice in apocryphal literature: consecration and the conversion of synagogues into churches’, Journal of Roman Archaeology xxiii (2010), 285302.

4 While imperial iconoclasm did not explicitly consider cross veneration problematic, the pieces of the ‘True Cross’ which served as a relic for veneration, particularly during the ‘Lenten feast of the Veneration of the Cross’ and the ‘September Exaltation of the Cross’, were kept hidden by the Byzantine emperors throughout the Byzantine iconoclastic period: Averil Cameron, ‘Intervention de Averil Cameron sur la communication de Sidney Griffith’, in Canivet and Rey-Coquais, La Syrie de Byzance à l'Islam, 138, and Blaming the Jews: the seventh-century invasions of Palestine in context’, Travaux et mémoires xiv (2002), 71–2.

5 Sahner, Christian, ‘The first iconoclasm in Islam: a new history of the edict of Yazīd ii (ah 104/ad 723)’, Der Islam xciv/1 (2017), 556; Reynolds, Daniel, ‘Rethinking Palestinian iconoclasm’, DOP lxxi (2018), 164. Reynold's ‘idoloclasm’ argument can be found throughout, but is introduced at p. 4.

6 John was, of course, writing other works to perform this same identity consolidating and constructing mission in other theological contexts. For a general introduction to John as a creator of Melkite norms see Griffith, ‘John of Damascus and the Church in Syria’, esp. pp. 219–20, 223–4, 233–7.

7 Sean Anthony has convincingly argued for a re-evaluation of John's original name, claiming that previous academics had conflated John with his father and even occasionally grandfather: Fixing John Damascene's biography: historical notes on his family background’, Journal of Early Christian Studies xxiii/4 (2015), 625–6. I am grateful to Christian Sahner for this reference.

8 Griffith, Sidney, ‘The Manṣūr family and Saint John of Damascus: Christians and Muslims in Umayyad times’, in Borrut, Antoine and Donner, Fred M. (eds), Christians and others in the Umayyad state, Chicago 2016, 30; Kontouma, Vassa, John of Damascus: new studies on his life and works, Farnham 2015, 2; Anthony, ‘Fixing John Damascene's biography’, 618. A mawlā' was a client of an Arab family, a position which allowed non-Muslims to either rise into or remain in the social class of their client family. The position was one theoretically of mutual benefit, where the Arab family supplied social status and protection while the mawlā' shared the benefits of his skills.

9 Kontouma, John of Damascus, 28–9. There are other versions of John of Damascus’ life from hagiographical literature, but Kontouma has made a strong case for the version given here. Attestations to John's life as a secretary or scribe to the Umayyads can be found in Anthony, ‘Fixing John Damascene's biography’, 624.

10 After the death in 638 ce of Patriarch Sophronius, who was present for the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, the patriarchal throne in Jerusalem remained unfilled for 67 years. For Sophronius’ writings at the time of the conquest see Booth, Philip, Crisis of empire: doctrine and dissent at the end of late antiquity, Berkeley 2014, 267–82. For context on the Chalcedonian Church in the seventh century under Muslim rule see also Jankowiak, Marek, ‘Travelling across borders: a church historian's perspective on contacts between Byzantium and Syria in the second half of the seventh century’, in Arab-Byzantine coins and history, London 2011, 1325.

11 ‘I should keep quiet at all times. Indeed, I have been amputated in speech for not having paid attention’: John of Damascus, Letter to Cometas (Greek = PG xcv.65B–68A; English = Kontouma, John of Damascus, 25).

12 Kontouma, John of Damascus, 26–7, 29–30; Flusin, Bernard, ‘I “Discorsi contro i etrattori delle immagini” di Giovanni di Damasco e l'esordio del primo iconoclasmo’, in Chialà, S. and Cremaschi, L. (eds), Giovanni di Damasco, un padre al sorgere dell'Islam: atti del XIII convegno ecumenico internazionale di spiritualità ortodossa, sezione bizantina, Bose, 11–13 settembre 2005, Bose 2006, 55–6.

13 Speck posits that, in the second Treatise, John is poorly informed about Patriarch Germanus’ fate: John of Damascus, Three treatises on the divine images, trans. Andrew Louth, Crestwood, NY 2003, 69. John thinks that Germanus was punished and beaten. The later, but Byzantine, Theophanes and Nikephoros share an earlier common source and claim that Germanus abdicated of his own volition. However, Theophanes actually states both that Germanus was ‘expelled from his throne’ and that he ‘gave up his surplice’: Theophanes the Confessor, The chronicle of Theophanes: anni mundi, 6095–6305 (A.D. 602–813), ed. and trans. Harry Turtledove, Philadelphia, Pa 2006, 408–9. Nikephoros is more convinced that Germanus abdicated willingly: ‘ὁ δὲ παρῃτεῖτο καὶ τὴν ἱερωσύνην ἀπέβαλεν᾽: Nikephoros Patriarches, ‘Ιστορία σύντομος, ed. C. de Boor, in Nicephori Archiepescopi Constantinopolitani opuscula historica, Leipzig 1880, 58.17–25. Both references originally found via Paul Speck, Artabasdos, der rechtgläubige vorkämpfer der göttlichen lehren, Ποικιλα Bυζαντινα ii, Bonn 1981, 179.

14 Vasiliev, ‘The iconoclastic edict of the Caliph Yazid ii’, 27.

15 Louth, Three treatises, ii.1, p. 59. For further discussion see Alexander Alexakis/Ioannina, ‘The modesty topos and John of Damascus as a not-so-modest author’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift xcvii/2 (2004), 523–9.

16 Bernard Flusin posits that the first treatise must have been written before 730, as it does not mention Germanus, and the second must have been afterwards, as it mentions his abdication: ‘I “Discorsi contro i etrattori delle immagini” di Giovanni di Damasco’, 59–61. Andrew Louth makes a similar argument: St John Damascene: tradition and originality in Byzantine theology, Oxford 2002, 208. Kontouma suspects that the first two Treatises were written between 730 and 741 because of a communication delay between events in Byzantium and the Umayyad Caliphate: John of Damascus, 16, 28–30.

17 Kontouma, John of Damascus, 26.

18 Mango, Cyril, ‘Historical introduction’, in Bryar, Anthony and Herrin, Judith (eds), Iconoclasm: papers given at the ninth spring symposium of Byzantine studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975, Birmingham 1977, 1. For the Greek see PG xcviii.164 ff.

19 Reynolds, ‘Rethinking Palestinian iconoclasm’, 4.

20 Cameron, Averil, ‘Byzantines and Jews: some recent work on early Byzantium’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies xx (1996), 252–7.

21 Averil Cameron makes this point ibid. 252–4, 255–7; ‘Blaming the Jews’, 60–1; and ‘Cyprus at the time of the Arab conquests’, in her Changing cultures in early Byzantium, Aldershot 1996, 37–9.

22 Idem, ‘Cyprus at the time of the Arab conquests’, 37–9. Sidney Griffith suggests that the accusations by some Jewish communities of Christian cross veneration may have been appropriated by early Muslim communities: ‘Images, Islam and Christian icons’, 137.

23 Melkite Christians were Christians under Muslim rule who, before the Arab conquest, followed the Council of Chalcedon as opposed to the Coptic Church, Syriac Orthodox and Church of the East communities. For the development of Melkite Christianity under Muslim rule see Sidney Griffith, ‘The church of Jerusalem and the “Melkites”: the making of an “Arab Orthodox” Christian identity in the world of Islam (750–1050)’, in Ora Limor and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds), Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land: from the origins to the Latin kingdoms, Turnhout 2006, 175–204, and The Church in the shadow of the mosque: Christians and Muslims in the world of Islam, Oxford 2008, 129–55. For an in-depth discussion of these overlapping issues and their relation to John's Treatises see Anna Chrysostomides, ‘John of Damascus' theology of icons in the context of eighth-century Abrahamic iconoclasm’, forthcoming.

24 Cameron, ‘Byzantines and Jews’, 258.

25 For an in depth discussion of these overlapping issues and their relation to John's Treatises see Chrysostomides, ‘John of Damascus’ theology of icons’.

26 For debated issues in Jewish iconoclasm and idoloclasm see Walmsley, Alan, Early Islamic Syria: an archaeological assessment, London 2007, 123; Englard, Yaffa, ‘Mosaics as Midrash: the zodiacs of the ancient synagogues and the conflict between Judaism and Christianity’, Review of Rabbinic Judaism vi/2–3 (2003), 192; Schick, Robert, The Christian communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic rule, Princeton 1995, 202; and Steven Fine, ‘Iconoclasm and the art of late-antique Palestinian synagogues’, in Lee I. Levine and Zeev Weiss (eds), From Dura to Sepphoris: studies in Jewish art and society in late antiquity (Journal of Roman Archaeology supplementary series xl, 2000), 183–94. For debated issues in Muslim idoloclasm and iconoclasm see Reenen, Dan Vaan, ‘The Bilderverbot, a new survey’, Der Islam: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kulture des Islamischen Orients lxvii (1990), 2777. For specific examples see Al-Azraqī, Kitāb akhbār Makah, i, ed. Ferdinand Wüstenfeld (1858), 110–12; Abī Bakr ‘Abd al-Razzāq, al-Muṣannaf, ed. Qāsimī, Ḥabīb al–Rahḥmān, Beirut 1970–2, x. 400–1; Muslim ibn al-Ḥājjaj, English translation of Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab, ed. Huda al-Khattab, Riyadh 2007, v, bk xxxvii. 36, nos 85, 86; Muḥammad b. Ismā‘īl Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, ed. and trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Riyadh 1997, vii, bk lxxvii. 91, no. 5954; 92, no. 5957; Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, English translation of Musnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab, ed. Huda al-Khattab, Riyadh 2012, iii. 46, no. 2932.

27 Hughes, Aaron, Shared identities: medieval and modern imaginings of Judeo-Islam, New York 2017, 10–1, 6971.

28 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 65. John uses passages from Exodus xxxiv.17; xxxvii.6–7, and supplements them with passages from Deut. iv.15 NRSV, throughout his discussion of these instructions for building the tabernacle and mercy seat.

29 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 66.

31 This is discussed in detail in Chrysostomides, ‘John of Damascus' theology of icons’. For examples in English and Arabic see Muslim ibn al-Ḥājjaj, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, v, bk xxxvii.36, nos 85, 86.

32 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 69. For more on Manichaeans in late antique and early medieval Palestine see Stroumsa, Guy, ‘Gnostics and Manichaeans in Byzantine Palestine’, Studia Patristica XVIII i (1983), 273–8, and Griffith, ‘John of Damascus and the Church in Syria’, 227.

33 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 70.

34 Ibid. 71.

36 Gil, Moshe, A history of Palestine, 634–1099, trans. Broido, Ethel, New York 1992, 546.

38 King, G. R. D., ‘Islam, iconoclasm, and the declaration of doctrine’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London xlviii/2 (1985), 271.

39 Kugel, James L., The Bible as it was, Cambridge 1997, pp. xivxiv. For the golden calf story within Islam see Pregill, Michael E., ‘“A calf, a body that lows”: the golden calf from late antiquity to classical Islam’, in Mason, Eric F. and Lupieri, Edmondo F. (eds), Golden calf traditions in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Leiden 2018, 4958.

40 ‘Ἀλλ᾽ ὁ τῆς ἀληθείας ἐχθρὸς καὶ τῆς σωτηρίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων πολέμιος ,… συνταράξαι σπουδάζει διὰ χειλέων ἀδίκων καὶ γλώσσης δολίας λόγοις θείοις τὴν κακίαν παραρτύων’: John of Damascus, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos: contra imaginum calumniatores oriationes tres, iii, ed. P. Bonifatius Kotter osb, Berlin 1975, 71.

41 My addition in brackets. The Greek reads, ‘ἀνέστησαν γάρ τινες λέγοντες’: Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, 71. Louth only has the word ‘certain’ here.

42 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 61.

43 For a detailed explanation of Yazid ii's edict and its consequences see Christian Sahner, ‘The first iconoclasm in Islam’.

44 Alexander Grishin, ‘Iconoclasm’ in Eastern Christian iconographic and architectural traditions: Eastern Orthodox’, in Parry, Ken (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, Oxford 2007, 368–87.

45 English: John of Damascus, Three treatises, 63. Greek: John of Damascus, Die schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, 74.

46 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 71.

47 Ibid. 77.

48 Ibid. 21–2.

49 Ibid. 37–8.

50 Kontouma, John of Damascus, 16.

51 Weitz, Lev, Between Christ and caliph: law, marriage, and Christian community in early Islam, Philadelphia, Pa 2018.

52 John of Damascus, Three treatises, 73–4.

53 Ibid. 65–6.

54 Griffith, Sidney, ‘“Melkites”, “Jacobites” and the Christological controversies in Arabic in third/ninth-century Syria’, in Thomas, David (ed.), Syrian Christians under Islam: the first thousand years, Boston, Ma 2001, 1416.

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Creating a Theology of Icons in Umayyad Palestine: John of Damascus’ ‘Three Treatises on the Divine Images’

  • ANNA CHRYSOSTOMIDES (a1)

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