Saint John Chrysostom

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1356

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Religion and oratory Archbishop of Constantinople{$I[g]Asia Minor;Saint John Chrysostom[Chrysostom]}{$I[g]Roman Empire;Saint John Chrysostom[Chrysostom]} John Chrysostom, the greatest homiletic preacher of the Greek church, became the patron saint of preachers.

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Early Life

John Chrysostom (KRIHS-uhs-tuhm), which means “golden mouth,” was raised by a devout mother, Anthousa, who had been widowed at the age of twenty. He received a first-rate education, especially in rhetoric, and his teachers are supposed to have included the renowned orator Libanius and the philosopher Andragathius. Libanius, when asked on his deathbed who should succeed him as head of his school of rhetoric, is said to have replied: “John, if the Christians had not stolen him from us.” John’s theological studies were undertaken at the renowned exegetical school of Antioch under one of the most illustrious scholars of the period, Diodore of Tarsus. The school favored literal rather than allegorical interpretation of the Bible.

Life’s Work

According to Palladius’s Dialogus de vita S. Joannis Chrysostomi (c. 408; Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom, 1921), “when [John] was eighteen, a mere boy in years, he revolted against the sophists of word-mongering, for he had arrived at man’s estate and thirsted for living knowledge.” Like many early Christians, Chrysostom did not receive baptism until he was about twenty years old. He became a deacon in 381 under Bishop Meletius, a native of Armenia, whose protégé Chrysostom quickly became. To this period of deaconship (381-386) probably belongs his six-book De sacerdotio (On the Priesthood, 1728), a classic on the subject and one of the jewels of patristic literature. Book 5 is of particular interest because, like book 4 of Saint Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana (426; On Christian Doctrine, 1875), it constitutes a veritable monograph on the art and science of preaching. Book 6 is also of interest in that it contrasts the active with the contemplative life. Chrysostom had already been attracted to the rigors of the latter; he had spent four years in the mountains sharing ascetic life with an old hermit. This ascetic interlude is reflected in several treatises he wrote on monastic life, including two exhortations to his friend Theodore, later bishop of Mopsuestia, who was growing tired of the monastic way of life, and the three-book Adversus subintroductas, which defended monasticism. In the sixth book of On the Priesthood, however, Chrysostom spoke out in favor of the active life, arguing that saving the souls of others demands more effort and generosity than merely saving one’s own. He was ordained to the priesthood in 386 and remained in Antioch until 398; most of his great homilies belong to this period. They include more than seventy homilies on Genesis, six on Isaiah, and a particularly fine commentary on fifty-eight selected psalms. Also surviving are ninety homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, eighty-eight on the Gospel of John, fifty-five on the Acts of the Apostles, and thirty-two on Romans, this latter the finest of all his works. Almost half his surviving homilies are expositions of the Epistles of Saint Paul, his lifelong model. A series of seven homilies in praise of Paul survive among his many panegyrics on the saints of the Old and New Testaments.

Chrysostom’s reputation as a pulpit orator became so widespread during his Antioch years that he was chosen to succeed Nectarius, archbishop of Constantinople, on the latter’s death; he was consecrated on February 26, 398, by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria. According to Palladius, Theophilus disliked John, “for his custom all along was not to ordain good and shrewd men lest he make a mistake. He wished to have them all weak-willed men whom he could influence.”

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Despite this ominous installation, Chrysostom entered on a comprehensive program of reform of church officials and church revenues; he even criticized abuses in the Imperial court. He used church revenues to set up hospitals and to aid the poor, leading a life of great simplicity himself. He was particularly critical of the luxury and wealth of the upper classes. His outspokenness soon incurred the wrath of the Empress Eudoxia, to whom Chrysostom’s enemies suggested that she was the real target of his strictures.

After a synod in Ephesus in 401, when Chrysostom had six simoniac bishops deposed, some neighboring bishops made an alliance with Theophilus in a bid to unseat the archbishop. At the Oak Synod in 403, attended by thirty-six bishops, Chrysostom was deposed and sentenced to exile by order of the emperor. He was recalled the following day because of riots in his support in Constantinople, but after an uneasy peace of a few months, the emperor banished him to Cucusus in Lesser Armenia. To his three-year period there belong more than two hundred extant letters, which testify to his continuing pastoral zeal and interest in reform. This continued “meddling” proved unacceptable to his enemies, who had him transferred to the more distant Pityus, a city on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Worn out, John Chrysostom died on his way there, at Comana in Pontus, on September 14, 407.


John Chrysostom is considered one of the four great fathers of the Eastern church and one of the three ecumenical doctors of the church. He has always been regarded as the most outstanding preacher of the Greek church and one of its greatest exegetes; his eloquence had already earned for him the title “Golden Mouth” in the sixth century. He shares with Origen the reputation of being the most prolific writer of the East. His surviving works extend through eighteen volumes of J.-P. Migne’s great Patrologia Graeca (1857-1866), and there are still others, notably De inani gloria et de educandis liberis (On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Children, 1951). Chrysostom’s recently discovered baptismal homilies add to church historians’ knowledge of practices surrounding Christian rites of initiation at the end of the fourth century. His homilies are interesting more for their rhetorical brilliance than for any philosophical or theological profundity; they reflect the simple faith of his audience more than the contemporary struggles with Arianism and Apollinarianism. On the Priesthood is deservedly a classic, setting forth the most exacting standards for the clerical life. John Chrysostom’s life is eloquent proof that he practiced what he preached.

Further Reading:

Chrysostom, John. Apologist. Translated by Margaret A. Schatkin and Paul W. Harkins. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1983. Contains first translations of two works, one extolling the martyred Babylas and one upholding the divinity of Christ. These renderings by two seasoned Chrysostom scholars are generally reliable. Includes succinct notes and helpful bibliographies.

Chrysostom, John. On Marriage and Family Life. Translated by Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986. Includes two hitherto untranslated homilies, with a good introduction showing that Chrysostom, who has often been accused of misogyny, had a better theology of marriage than commonly has been thought.

Kelly, J. N. D. Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostoma: Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. Recounts the entire story of Chrysostom’s life.

Mayer, Wendy, and Pauline Allen. John Chrysostom. New York: Routledge, 2000. Evaluates the subject’s role as a preacher and his pastoral activities. A valuable introduction to the processes of early Christianization.

Palladius. Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom. Translated and edited by Robert T. Meyer. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. Though clearly partial to Chrysostom, this work has value for having been written by a contemporary who was actually present at the Synod of the Oak. Vivid descriptions of the intrigues and violence of Constantinople that led to Chrysostom’s downfall and exile.

Wilken, Robert. John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Particularly useful in its attempt to separate rhetoric from reality in Chrysostom’s Adversus Iudaeos (c. 386; Homilies Against the Jews, 1889). These were aimed at Judaizing Christians in his congregation who were still attracted to meetings in the synagogue. Chrysostom is seen as a master of invective, and Judaism emerges as a continuing social and religious force in Antioch.

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