One of several art-forms that has been demonstrably declining across many years is that of rhetoric: the ancient art of persuasion, of combining argument and logic with a commanding and passionate style so as to win over the audience. Rhetoric was one of the ancient liberal arts and highly prized.

Until recently, it even formed an integral part of the social and political world of the West: think only of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr to see the power rhetoric has in shaping the minds and hearts of a people.

In the early years of the Church’s history, a singularly formidable character who became famous – maybe even infamous – for his rhetorical power was St John Chrysostom. Chrysostom, as is commonly known, was a posthumously given title meaning “golden-mouthed”, precisely because of his unique way with words. John was born in Antioch in the mid-fourth century, so around 344 AD, and Antioch really was one of the “epicentres” of the ancient world, rivalled only by the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Antioch was located at the centre of several major trade routes, making it a strategic and economic and intellectual hub for the Roman Empire. Antioch was also one of the two major theological schools of the early Church (the other being the Alexandrian school).

To set the historical scene even more, it should be noted that over a decade prior to John’s birth, the city of Constantinople (Byzantium at the time; modern day Istanbul) had been settled by the Emperor Constantine and declared the “new Rome”. It served as a convenient port between Europe and Asia. The declaration of Constantinople as the “new Rome” ruffled many feathers in “old Rome”, but it was also where John was appointed Archbishop in 397 AD and the place he made many enemies.

It’s almost impossible to know where to begin talking about John Chrysostom. He is considered a Doctor of the Church and one of the rare people from that period whose writings survived in large quantities. This was probably due to the fact that his homilies were copied by stenographers and circulated amongst the people. There are a couple of themes that stand out in John’s life, however, that can serve to help us understand this great figure of the Church on a deeper level.

Biblical interpretation

One of the characteristics of the Antiochan school of theology was its approach to the Scriptures. St Augustine of Hippo, who was born only a few years after John, was famously influenced by St Ambrose and the Alexandrian school of theology which expounded upon the allegorical interpretation of the Bible. The allegorical method had a good grounding in the history of Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. The famous Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC – 50 AD), for instance, argued that while there is a literal and historical meaning behind the text, there is also a deeper meaning there to be drawn out, a non-literal truth working at a different level. The point of this was to bridge the gap between Judaism and Greek philosophy.

St Clement of Alexandria and Origen of Alexandria were also famous proponents of this method in the Christian Church. The School of Antioch, on the other hand, had some differences stylistically in that they were quick to put forward more straightforward readings of the text, paying attention to grammar and clauses and the most obvious interpretation available. Now, this dichotomy between the two schools is definitely exaggerated by people today and scholars are more aware of the ways in which their methods overlapped. Still, it’s a way of finding our feet in the ancient Church.

Coming from Antioch himself, one of the hallmarks of John’s homilies were that they were immensely practical. They were designed to have direct relevance to the lives of the people he preached to, without spending much time searching for more esoteric truths. John definitely employed the allegorical interpretation of Scripture a lot and believed in it, but there was no doubt that the most literal and practical application of the Bible was a reason for his popularity.

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Service to the poor

John’s emphasis on the unique place of the poor in God’s providence is arguably his most famous theme. Even though economic inequality exists today, the West is a lot more economically fluid than the ancient world was. It would be true to say that a gulf separated the rich from the poor. Across the Graeco-Roman Empire, for instance, there was a phenomenon known as philotimia, which means “love of honour”. There was a certain public display of wealth in the ancient world that was grotesque in comparison with the reality of the poor. Antioch was, as mentioned, a city at a crossroads, a marketplace of intersecting trade routes. It was in these marketplaces that the wealthy would parade their wealth, having their servants and eunuchs follow them as they purchased goods. It was this public demonstration of wealth that cultivated one’s honour, status and reputation.

It was this that John regularly lambasted. He would compare it with the public displays of the poor, doing whatever they could to garner the attention of the wealthy:

There are other poor people … who, when their begging yields them nothing, start to do tricks, some eating leather from worn out shoes, others driving sharp nails into their heads; still others plunging their naked bodies into water frozen by the cold – or doing other even more senseless things … You stand there laughing – being entertained by the miseries of others … And in order that he may perform his tricks better, you give him money more liberally.

The relationship between clergy and their wealthy patrons was a tense one at the time. The wealthy were relied upon by clerics for their daily upkeep but they would also overstep their bounds, believing they had the right to dismiss and appoint clergy, or determine how the money they gave was used. It was this attitude, both in Antioch and Constantinople, that John resisted completely. He refused to host lavish and indulgent social gatherings and would frequently remind the wealthy of their obligation to the poor. The practice of philotimia, he would say, was merely cosmetic – a superficial display serving only to beautify something inherently ugly underneath.

Building on the New Testament’s emphasis on the relationship between Christ and the poor, he would preach that the poor had a patron in God: the poor provided the wealthy with special access to God because by serving them the wealthy serve God:

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: "This is my body" is the same who said: "You saw me hungry and you gave me no food", and "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me"... What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

Exile and death

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, John Chrysostom ended up banished from Constantinople. The Empress Eudoxia, in alliance with the Archbishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, exiled John under the pretext of heresy. It is theorised that John’s comparisons of Eudoxia to the biblical women of Jezebel and Herodias were taken to heart. He never made it to his place of exile, however, because along the way, in 407 AD, he died in Cappadocia.