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John Chrysostom

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Saint John Chrysostom

West: Bishop and Doctor of the Church
East: Great Hierarch and Ecumenical Teacher
Born Born::347, Antioch, Asia Minor
Died Died::September 14, 407, Pontus
Venerated in Roman Catholicism
Eastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Feast Western Christianity
September 13 (transferred from September 14)
Eastern Orthodoxy
November 13 (transferred from September 14)
January 27 (Translation of Relics)
January 30 (Three Holy Hierarchs)
Attributes a beehive, a white dove, a pan
Patronage Constantinople, education, epilepsy, lecturers, orators, preachers

Saint John Chrysostom (Greek: Ιωάννης ο Χρυσόστομος, Iōannēs ho Chrysōstomos; Latin: Iohannes Chrysostomus) (c. Born::347 ADDied::407 AD) was a notable Christian bishop and preacher from the 4th and 5th centuries in Syria and Constantinople. He was known for his great oratory skills, hence the Greek surname Χρυσόστομος, Chrysōstomos meaning "golden mouthed" and is honored as a Saint and Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church also considers him a saint and counts him among the Three Holy Hierarchs, along with Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.


John Chrysostom or ‘golden-mouthed’ has been called “the greatest preacher in the early church”.[1] He was born in Syrian Antioch into a Christian family. His father Secundus, a civil servant, died when John was only a few years old. His widowed mother, Anthusa rejected any idea of a second marriage and devoted herself to raising her two children.[2] John showed great promise and studied law under the renowned pagan rhetorician Libanius.[3] According to the church historian Socrates, John became disillusioned with a career as a lawyer and decided to become a monk.[4] He was talked out of that vocation by his mother[5] and instead John enrolled in the Christian school of Diodore (d. c. 390), who later became bishop of Tarsus. In his biblical exposition Diodore placed an emphasis on the literal and historic sense of Scripture and opposed the use of allegory,[6] which he used only when it appeared that it was the author’s intention.[7] In his sermons and writings John Chrysostom followed the same Antiochene hermeneutic. The ascetic side of fourth century Christianity was very attractive to him and this, as we shall see, is also reflected in his writings on Genesis.

John was ordained as a priest in Antioch, were he served for twelve years before being made archbishop of Constantinople. His rhetorical background proved of great benefit to his ministry, even if his linguistic education was limited to Greek.[8] That being said, Chrysostom’s Greek was the best produced by any of the early Christian writers.[9] John preached 67 sermons on Genesis during year 388, 31 at Lent. We are fortunate that the published versions of these have survived and from these we learn what he taught on the early chapters of Genesis.

The Creation

In the beginning God created ex nihilo.[10] Man was formed from the ground, but John recognised that some ridiculed this idea. So, by way of answering such objections, he pointed to the critics’ ignorance of how their food was changed into various parts of their bodies: “...if they can’t tell about these things that are before our eyes day in and day out, they would hardly tell us about all the other things created by God.”[11] When Scripture says that God formed man from the ground, John understood this to mean that He made man by His power, and not with physical hands.[12] Likewise God did not physically plant the Garden of Eden.[13] John accepted that statement of Scripture that God made a ‘firmament’ to divide the waters (Gen. 1:7), but did not waste time in speculation as to what this firmament might consist of.[14] Some Christians of his time saw a contradiction between scriptural statements about God’s rest on the seventh day and Jesus’ words about God’s continuing to work (John 5:17). John answered them by saying:

You see, in saying at this point that God ceased creating and bringing from non-being on the seventh day, whereas Christ, in saying that “my father is at work until now and I am at work,” reveals his unceasing care for us: he calls “work” the maintenance of created things, bestowal of permanence on them, and governance of them through all time.[15]

Or, as one modern commentator puts it, on the seventh day God “...ended his work of creation and began his work of sustaining and watching over the world.”[16]

John took the description of the formation of Eve from one of Adam’s rib at face value.[17] He used the same argument here as he did when discussing the creation of man: those who doubted the literal meaning had no evidence for any other view.[18] The serpent was an animal used by the Devil to deceive Eve. As no animal had the power of speech, it was the Devil who spoke through it.[19] Even so, Chrysostom considered that the serpent was still deserving of punishment for its part in the deception.[20]

In common with other ascetic Christians of his day John believed that sexual intercourse was a result of the fall; before that event virginity had been the rule.[21] Like Tertullian before him, John linked Adam’s fall with a neglect of fasting.[22] When Genesis says that “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife” it means that God gave instructions that they be made, not that he made them himself.[23] The garments were made of skin, not silk, in order “to teach us to shun the soft and dissolute life...” and to remind mankind of the effects of the fall.[24]

Where Did Cain Get His Wife?

Most of the what we consider to be the difficult texts of the Bible proved to be problems for the ancients as well. We are not the first Christians to have faced with the question of where Cain got his wife from (cf. Gen. 4:17). John Chrysostom answered the question over 1,600 years ago:

But perhaps someone will say: How is it that Cain had a wife when Sacred Scripture nowhere makes mention of another woman? Don’t be surprised at this dearly beloved: it has so far given no list of women anywhere in a precise manner; instead, Sacred Scripture while avoiding superfluous details mentions the males in turn, though not even all of them, telling us about them in rather summary fashion when it says that so-and-so had sons and daughters and then he died. So it is likely in this case too that Eve gave birth to a daughter after Cain and Abel, and Cain took her for her wife. You see, since it was in the beginning and the human race had to increase from them on, it was permissible to marry their own sisters.[25]

The Flood

John argued that the ‘sons of God’ of Genesis 6:1-4 were the descendants of Seth, arguing (incorrectly) that the Bible does not refer to angels by that name (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1).[26] The account of the Flood caused Chrysostom some problems in his sermons. He explained that the references to the ‘floodgates’ of heaven do not mean that there are actually physical sluices in the sky. Rather it was a way of expressing in human terms the promptness with which the waters responded to the divine command “...and inundated the whole world”.[27] How did all those animals manage to survive for so long in such an enclosed space? Imagine the smell! That their survival was achieved by a miracle is the only explanation that he could come up with.[28] Likewise it is pointless trying to work out how God made the flood waters subside. All such things must simply be taken on faith.[29] After the flood Noah’s drunkenness is explained away by saying that since he had never made or drunk wine before, Noah did not know of its effects![30]


See Also


  1. Robert Wilkin, “John Chrysostom,” Everett F. Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990. p.495.
  2. Chrystomus Baur, John Chrysostom and His Time, Vol. 1. trans. M. Gonzaga. London: Sands & Co., Ltd., 1959. pp.1-5; Wilkin, op.cit., p.495.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia, Vol. 3, p.291.
  4. Socrates, Church History, 6.3 (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF], 2nd series, Vol. 2, p.138).
  5. John Chrysostom, De Sacerdocio 1.5; Donald Attwater, St John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher. London: Harvill Press, 1959. p.24.
  6. Attwater, op.cit., p.25.
  7. Frances Young, Nicaea To Chalcedon. London: SCM, 1983. p.156.
  8. Frederick H. Chase, Chrysostom: A Study in the History of Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell & Co., 1887. pp.28-38.
  9. Baur, Vol. 1, op.cit., p.305.
  10. John Chrysostom, Homily on Genesis, 2.5, 10-11;. Robert C. Hill, trans, “Homilies on Genesis 11-17,” Fathers of the Church. Washington , D.C.: Catholic University Press of America, 1985. pp.32, 34-35.
  11. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 2.11 (Hill, op.cit., pp.35-36).
  12. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 13.9 (Hill, op.cit., p.173).
  13. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 13.12 (Hill, op.cit., pp.174-175).
  14. ohn Chrysostom, Genesis, 4.7 (Hill, op.cit., p.55).
  15. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 10.18 (Hill, op.cit., pp.139-140).
  16. J. Ramsey Michaels, “John,” New International Biblical Commentary. MA: Hendricksen, 1989. p.87.
  17. Chase, op.cit., p.51.
  18. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 15.10 (Hill, op.cit., pp.199-200).
  19. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 16.3-4 (Hill, op.cit., pp.208-209).
  20. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 17.24 (Hill, op.cit., pp.234-235).
  21. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 15.14; 18.12 (Hill, op.cit., pp.202-203; 10-11).
  22. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 1.6 (Hill, op.cit., pp.23-24); Tertullian, Fasting 3 (ANF, Vol. 4, 103)
  23. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 18.4 (Hill, op.cit., p.5).
  24. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 18.5 (Hill, op.cit., pp.5-6).
  25. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 20.3 (Hill, op.cit., p.37).
  26. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 22.6-8 (Hill, op.cit., p.72-74).
  27. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 25.10 (Hill, op.cit., pp.131-132).
  28. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 25.14 (Hill, op.cit., pp.134-135).
  29. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 26.11 (Hill, op.cit., p.152).
  30. John Chrysostom, Genesis, 29.9 (Hill, op.cit., pp.204-205); Chase, op.cit., p.53.

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