John was born to Christian parents of the educated upper class in Antioch in Syria and as a young man, studied rhetoric under the distinguished philosopher of Neoplatonism, Libanius. Although his education and exceptional gifts prepared him for a career in law or the imperial service, John chose instead to enter the clergy.
He was baptized by Bishop Melitius of Antioch around 367 c.e., became a lector (a minor church official who read scripture in the liturgy or public worship), and devoted himself to the study of scripture and theology under Diodore of Tarsus, the leader of the Antiochene school.
Before advancing further in his ecclesiastical career, John withdrew from Antioch in order to pursue the ascetic life between 372 and 378. Under a strict ascetic regimen, however, John’s health deteriorated, forcing him to return to the city.
In 381 John was ordained deacon, and in 386, presbyter, or priest. The next decade was the most productive in his life and marked the beginning of his extraordinary career as a preacher and writer.
The vast majority of John’s work during these years consisted of sermons addressed to the people of Antioch. It was the rhetorical skill, spiritual depth, and practical applicability of his sermons that earned John the distinguished title chrysostom.
In contrast to many early Christian interpreters of scripture, who favored allegorical reading, John epitomized the Antiochene school’s emphasis on the literal sense. At the same time, however, his preaching aimed primarily to draw out the spiritual and moral implications of the biblical text and apply them to the lives of his hearers.
Against his wishes John was made bishop, or patriarch, of Constantinople in 398. He quickly became enmeshed in imperial and ecclesiastical politics, areas in which he possessed significantly less skill than in preaching.
Through a combination of his asceticism, uncompromising zeal for moral reform, and tactless disdain for the opulence of the court, John made himself the enemy of several very prominent people, including the empress Eudoxia and Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria.
In a synod held in a suburb of Chalcedon in 403, Theophilus and a number of other Egyptian bishops condemned John on 29 concocted charges, including uttering defamatory and treasonable words against the empress.
John was eventually deposed and exiled near Antioch before being banished to Comana, an isolated village of Pontus on the Black Sea. In spite of support from the people of Constantinople, Pope Innocent I, and the entire Western Latin Church, John lived out his final days in exile.
He died at Comana on September 14, 407, and his body was removed to Constantinople 30 years later. In the Western church his feast day is celebrated on September 13, and in the Eastern Church on November 13.