St. John Bar Aphthonia was born around the middle of the fifth century to Christian parents in the city of Edessa. His father died before John was born. His mother, Aphthonia, raised him along with his four brothers. John would later become a monk and lead his brotherhood in establishing one of the most impressive institutions of monasticism and higher learning. As his mother Aphthonia was instrumental in his upbringing, he became to be known as Bar Aphthonia ‘son of Aphthonia,’ and the Monastery that he later established was sometimes known as the Monastery of the Son of Aphthonia, and even the Monastery of Aphthonia.

Aphthonia, who bore handsome and good children, consecrated John to God by a kind of prophecy while she still carried him in the womb. She brought him up at home by herself “as in a sanctuary,” we are told by the biographer.

At the tender age of fifteen, Aphthonia sent her son John to the Monastery of St. Thomas in Seleucia-Pieria. Initially, the abbot of the Monastery refused him admission because he had not yet grown a beard. It is said that St. Thomas appeared to the abbot in a dream and told him that this boy would one day be the savior of the Monastery. The abbot then accepted John bar Aphthonia. John “became greatly admired for his profound humility, for his steadfast manner, for his seriousness, for his lowering and control of the eyes, for the disciplined measure of his speech, and for the admirable soberness of his walk.”

“How can I proclaim each of his virtues?” asks the biographer of Bar Aphthonia. “In a short time he made right what others find difficult to make right up to the end of their lives.”

After seven years, Bar Aphthonia had finally grown a beard, after which he received the monk’s eskimo ‘habit.’ Later, Bar Aphthonia became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Thomas. “For all the monks, he was a rule and a mirror, an unwritten law and a living example, and they received his commands as divine revelations.”

St. John Bar Aphthonia was given “the gifts of fore-knowledge, miracles, and healing.” He traveled and appeared before emperors to testify against heresies, and during his travels, he performed miracles of healing and purification. In all this, “he was like his Lord [Jesus]: he ordered them to keep silent about the things he had done.”

When the Byzantine emperor Justin I ascended the throne in 518, the Syriac Orthodox, who opposed the Council of Chalcedon, became under much persecution. Patriarchs and bishops were exiled from their sees, and monks were driven out of their monasteries. John bar Aphthonia was one of the many who suffered under Justin. The Syriac Orthodox monks of the Monastery of St. Thomas, who were driven out for their opposition to the Council of Chalcedon, elected Bar Aphthonia as their leader. Around 530, they settled near Europos, by the Euphrates in Syria, where Bar Aphthonia established the famous Monastery of Qenneshrin ‘Eagle Nest,’ with a school that rivaled the most illustrious institutions of learning. Within a short period of time, the Monastery of Qenneshrin became a leading educational and cultural center of Syriac and Greek learning. Luminaries like Thomas of Harkel (d. 627?), Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), Patriarch Athanasius II (d. 687), Patriarch Dionysius I of Tel Mahre (d. 845), and perhaps bishop George of the Arabs (d. 725) were some of the graduates. The great astronomer and mathematician Seveus Sebokht (d. 667) may have also been connected with the Monastery of Qenneshrin. It was such Syriac scholars who later brought the learning of the Greeks to the Arabs, and from there this civilization traveled to Europe through Spain. What John bar Aphthonia established would become a central point in the history of world civilization. The Monastery would later be known as the Monastery of Bar Aphthonia, and sometimes by the Monastery of Aphthonia. It continued to function until the 13th century.

St. John bar Aphthonia died in 537 or 538. He wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs, a considerable number of hymns, and a biography of St. Severus of Antioch, Crown of the Syriacs. His life was written by one of his disciples. The Church celebrated his commemoration on two different dates: April 26 and November 4.


Bibliographical Notes. Some sections are adapted from John W. Watt, “A Portrait of John bar Aphthonia, Founder of the Monastery of Qenneshre,” in Drijvers and Watt (eds.), Portraits of Spiritual Authority, Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium and the Christian Orient (Brill, 1999), pp. 155-169. The Syriac text of the Life of St. John bar Aphthonia was edited by F. Nau, “Histoire de Jean bar Aphtonia,” Revue de l’Orien Chrétien 7 (1902), pp. 97-135. The feast days of St. John bar Aphthonia are mentioned in a manuscript at the British Library (Add. Ms. 17134, fol.176r & 488v), edited by Nau in Patrologia Orientalis 10 (1915), see pp. 51 & 114.


Source:-  Saint John Bar Aphthonia, Syriac Orthodox Church at Cranbury, New Jersey -