St John Chrysostom’s Letter to St Maroun

St John Chrysostom’s Letter to Maroun (Letter 36)

St John Chrysostom (347-407), who was a priest in Antioch, and became Bishop of Constantinople, wrote a letter to a hermit named Maroun, and asked him for his prayers. It is more probable that this was addressed to St Maroun than to someone else of that name. That St Maroun enjoyed the confidence of St John Chrysostom tells us how significant a figure he was.

The bonds of affection and good will tie me to you and I can see you as if you were right here beside me. No distance can weaken the look of love. I would like to write to you more often, very pious Sir, but that is not easy due to all the obstacles in my way here [in exile]. Nevertheless, I send you my greetings each chance that I have and I want you to know that I never forget you and that I always carry you in my heart wherever I may be. Be gracious enough to inform me about the state of your health as often as you can. Even if we are separated in body, I always receive great consolation when I hear from you, even in my solitude. It is a delight for me each time I learn that you are doing well. But what I ask most of all, is that you pray to God on my behalf.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this letter is that we know so little else about St John Chrysostom’s relationship with St Maroun. How can it possibly be that someone so significant in Chrysostom’s life appears only here in this one short letter? It should be a reminder to us that although very many of St John’s works survive, not all do, and that these mostly deal with what he wished to say to his congregation from the pulpit. Clearly there was more in his life than we could otherwise guess at.

It also follows from this letter that if Chrysostom and Maroun had met, then they must have met in or near Antioch, for that is where Chrysostom spent all his life before he was made Bishop of Constantinople.

But, I think the most important part of this letter is the simple statement: “I always receive great consolation when I hear from you, even in my solitude”. This means that:

  1. St Maroun heard news of St John and his fate.
  2. He was able to write to him.
  3. The letters must have been in Greek.

Now although there is a possibility that St Maroun did not speak Greek, but had someone write his letters to St John, the natural way to take this is to read it as meaning that St Maroun and he could correspond in the Greek language. This is more reason, then for seeing St Maroun as having been a bridge between the Syriac speaking people of the countryside and the Greek Christianity of the city of Antioch.

Therefore, two good witnesses to St Maroun have survived: one from another saint who knew him personally, and one from an important bishop and writer who knew him from first-hand hearsay (i.e. he knew James, and perhaps others, who had personally known St Maroun).

Matti Moosa doubts the authenticity of this letter for two reasons: first, something was written by an Arabic writer who dated the letter to after Chrysostom’s death and saw in it support for the Council of Chalcedon which was held after the death of both Maroun and Chrysostom. Importantly for establishing the genre of Moosa’s book, this appears to be a debating tactic: it is as if by proving that the authenticity of the letter is supported by someone wrongheaded, then all who have the same conclusion about the letter are wrongheaded.

The next critique is Moosa’s observation that: “This letter attributed to Chrysostom could have been written to any one of several ascetics named Maroun who lived in Syria in the fifth century.” He supports this by reference to footnote 4. At this stage, the reader may well wonder: if there were several ascetics of the same name, Maroun; how can we possibly be sure that the Chrysostom wrote to (although Moosa says only that it is “attributed” to Chrysostom) was the St Maroun we consider to be the inspiration of our Church? The reader will indeed wonder until he turns to footnote 4, and learns that the statement is based upon a series of Marouns who lived after the death of Chrysostom, not in the early fourth century which is when our Maroun died, but in the sixth. Those he names are referred to by Severus of Antioch (Patriarch from 512 to 538); Jacob of Sarug (c.451-521); Philoxenus of Mabbug (who died in 523); one whom he himself says is thought to have been a sixth century historian, another who was banished by Justin I (450-527), and another who signed a document in 570.

It is necessary to make clear the weakness of Moosa’s argument, which must have been intended to be deceptive. Having correctly critiqued an Arabic-language writer precisely for chronological confusion, Moosa displays not just confusion but outright self-contradiction: in the text he says that there were several fourth-century Marouns whom Chrysostom could have written to, but in the footnote supporting this, not one of the Marouns was alive at the time of the death of St John Chrysostom on 14 September 407. In fact, Moosa’s attempts to prove that the Maroun to whom Chrysostom wrote cannot be the Maroun of our Maronite Church actually prove that it can only have been our patron, since if there were any chance at all that it could have been someone else, Moosa would have found the evidence.

Moosa has one final argument: “What really refutes the letter as evidence, however, is its language, which is so generalized and superficial that it could never have been written by Chrysostom, a distinguished Biblical scholar and orator. Chrysostom refers to Maroun as a priest, and there is no evidence that the fifth-century ascetic Maroun had ever held such a church office.”

Of course, had Moosa thought about it, he would not have advanced such weak arguments. First, the fundamental assumption is that “a distinguished Biblical scholar and orator” has to write correspondence of a certain type. But Moosa never articulates what that type of correspondence is or where the letter to Maroun falls short. Moosa literally asserts that Chrysostom could not have written such a letter without saying why it was not possible. Then, the argument that there is no evidence that Maroun held church office comes down to this: “the only evidence for X. is Y. I don’t accept that, I want more evidence than Y.” But why does he expect that there will be more evidence, or should be? What sort of evidence does he expect? Again, he does not say. And why is the evidence of Chrysostom’s letter not enough? It is quite odd.

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