Controversy surrounded, and still surrounds St John Chrysostom (feast day 13th September). We are grateful to Canon Albert Ratcliffe, a retired canon of Manchester Cathedral, who has a particular interest in relationships between Christians and Jews, who offers this piece for our blog:
Long held to be an exemplary Christian saint, since WWII St John Chrysostom (Chrysostom means ‘Mouth of Gold’) has become one of the most controversial saints because of his Adversus Judaeos, his homilies in which he portrayed Judaism in a very negative way, and the use the Nazis made of them to justify their persecution of the Jews.
John was the only son of an imperial army officer and brought up by his widowed Christian mother. He was educated for the law but c. 373 lived as an ascetic monk for a while before, in 381, being ordained as deacon and in 386, priest.
John at first cared for the christian poor of Constantinople, but soon became famous as a preacher and teacher, his sermons and eloquence helping broker peace after the riots in 387 against the emperor’s taxes. In 397, he became archbishop and began a controversial reform of the church which led to his exile, during which, exhausted by his work and travels, he died.
The quality and quantity of John’s writing have led in our western church to his being classed with saints Athanasius, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as one of the four Greek Doctors of the faith.
The early struggles between Church and Synagogue led to many harsh things being said on both sides, but as the Church grew in strength and influence its attitude began increasingly to include insult and contempt, in which synagogues were described as places of the devil and homes of spiritual brigands and debauchees; as well as the charge that ‘the Jews’ crucified Jesus. It was these, especially in John’s voluminous writings that led to the Nazis misuse of them to justify the Holocaust.
After the war, many scholars have written to show how German Christians were persuaded and corrupted by the Nazi propaganda, but there is still a lot of work to be done in rehabilitating John Chrysostom and coming to an unbiased understanding of the man and his faith.
The image is a detail from Sebastiano del Piombo’s early sixteenth century altarpiece in the church of St John Chrysostom, Venice. The painting is based on an association of the three John’s: Chrystom, seated, showing the viewer his golden words, St John Evangelist is behind him, prompting as it were, his words. In the foreground a youthful John the Baptist looks inwards in a yearning or inquisitive manner.