Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
(5th–6th century AD)
(5th–6th century AD)
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Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (or Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite) was a Greek author, Christian theologian and Neoplatonic philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century, who wrote a set of works known as the Corpus Areopagiticum or Corpus Dionysiacum.
The author pseudepigraphically identifies himself in the corpus as "Dionysios", portraying himself as Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of Paul the Apostle mentioned in Acts 17:34.[note 1] This attribution to the earliest decades of Christianity resulted in the work being given great authority in subsequent theological writing in both the East and the West.
The Dionysian writings and their mystical teaching were universally accepted throughout the East, amongst both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, and also had a strong impact in later medieval western mysticism, most notably Meister Eckhart. Its influence decreased in the West with the fifteenth-century demonstration of its later dating, but in recent decades, interest has increased again in the Corpus Areopagiticum.
In the early sixth century, a series of writings of a mystical nature, employing Neoplatonic language to elucidate Christian theological and mystical ideas, was ascribed to the Areopagite. They have long been recognized as pseudepigrapha, and their author is now called "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite".
The Corpus is today composed of:
Seven other works are mentioned repeatedly by pseudo-Dionysius in his surviving works, and are presumed either to be lost or to be fictional works mentioned by the Areopagite as a literary device to give the impression to his sixth-century readers of engaging with the surviving fragments of a much larger first-century corpus of writings. These seven other works are:
In attempts to identify a date after which the corpus must have been composed, a number of features have been identified in Dionysius' writing, though the latter two are subject to scholarly debate.
In terms of the latest date for the composition of the Corpus, the earliest datable reference to Dionysius' writing comes in 528, the year in which the treatise of Severus of Antioch entitled Adversus apologiam Juliani was translated into Syriac — though it is possible the treatise may originally have been composed up to nine years earlier.
Another widely cited latest date for Dionysius' writing comes in 532, when, in a report on a colloquy held between two groups (orthodox and monophysite) debating the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, Severus of Antioch and his monophysite supporters cited Dionysius' Fourth Letter in defence of their view. It is possible that pseudo-Dionysius was himself a member of this group, though debate continues over whether his writings do in fact reveal a monophysite understanding of Christ. It seems likely that the writer was located in Syria, as revealed, for example, by the accounts of the sacramental rites he gives in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which seem only to bear resemblance to Syriac rites.
The author pseudonymously identifies himself in the corpus as "Dionysios", portraying himself as the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of Paul the Apostle mentioned in Acts 17:34.[note 1]
Various legends existed surrounding the figure of Dionysius, who became emblematic of the spread of the gospel to the Greek world. A tradition quickly arose that he became the first bishop of Cyprus or of Milan, or that he was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews; according to Eusebius, he was also said to be the first bishop of Athens. It is therefore not surprising that that author of these works would have chosen to adopt the name of this otherwise briefly mentioned figure.
The authorship of the Dionysian Corpus was initially disputed; Severus and his party affirmed its apostolic dating, largely because it seemed to agree with their Christology. This dating was disputed by Hypatius of Ephesus, who met the monophysite party during the 532 meeting with Emperor Justinian I; Hypatius denied its authenticity on the ground that none of the Fathers or Councils ever cited or referred to it. Hypatius condemned it along with the Apollinarian texts, distributed during the Nestorian controversy under the names of Pope Julius and Athanasius, which the monophysites entered as evidence supporting their position.
The first defense of its authenticity is undertaken by John of Scythopolis, whose commentary, the Scholia (ca. 540), on the Dionysian Corpus constitutes the first defense of its apostolic dating, wherein he specifically argues that the work is neither Apollinarian nor a forgery, probably in response both to monophysites and Hypatius—although even he, given his unattributed citations of Plotinus in interpreting Dionysius, might have known better. Dionysius' authenticity is criticized later in the century, and defended by Theodore of Raithu; and by the 7th century, it is taken as demonstrated, affirmed by both Maximus the Confessor and the Lateran Council of 649. From that point until the Renaissance, the authorship was less questioned, though Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard and Nicholas of Cusa expressed suspicions about its authenticity; their concerns were generally ignored.
The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), in his 1457 commentaries on the New Testament, did much to establish that the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum could not have been St. Paul's convert, though he was unable to identify the actual historical author. William Grocyn pursued Valla's lines of textual criticism, and Valla's critical viewpoint of the authorship of the highly influential Corpus was accepted and publicized by Erasmus from 1504 onward, for which he was criticized by Catholic theologians. In the Leipzig disputation with Martin Luther, in 1519, Johann Eck used the Corpus, specifically the Angelic Hierarchy, as argument for the apostolic origin of papal supremacy, pressing the Platonist analogy, "as above, so below".
During the 19th century modernist Catholics too came generally to accept that the author must have lived after the time of Proclus. The author became known as 'Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite' only after the philological work of J Stiglmayr and H Koch, whose papers, published independently in 1895, demonstrated the thoroughgoing dependence of the Corpus upon Proclus. Both showed that Dionysius had used, in his treatise on evil in Chapter 4 of The Divine Names, the De malorum subsistentia of Proclus.
Dionysius' identity is still disputed. Corrigan and Harrington find Pseudo-Dionysius to be most probably
a pupil of Proclus, perhaps of Syrian origin, who knew enough of Platonism and the Christian tradition to transform them both. Since Proclus died in 485, and since the first clear citation of Dionysius' works is by Severus of Antioch between 518 and 528, then we can place Dionysius' authorship between 485 and 518-28.[note 4]
Ronald Hathaway provides a table listing most of the major identifications of Dionysius: e.g., Ammonius Saccas, Pope Dionysius of Alexandria, Peter the Fuller, Dionysius the Scholastic, Severus of Antioch, Sergius of Reshaina, unnamed Christian followers of everyone from Origen to Basil of Caesarea, Eutyches to Proclus.
In the past half-century, Alexander Golitzin, Georgian academician Shalva Nutsubidze and Belgian professor Ernest Honigmann have all proposed identifying pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite with Peter the Iberian. A more recent identification is with Damascius, the last scholarch of the Neoplatonic Academy of Athens. There is therefore no current scholarly consensus on the question of Pseudo-Dionysius' identification.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims:
It must also be recognized that 'forgery' is a modern notion. Like Plotinus and the Cappadocian Fathers before him, Dionysius does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition."[note 4]
Others scholars such as Bart D. Ehrman disagree, see for example Forged. While the Pseudo Dionysius can be seen as a communicator of tradition, he can also be seen as a polemicist, who tried to alter Neo-Platonic tradition in a novel way for the Christian world that would make notions of complicated Divine Hierarchies more of an emphasis than notions of direct relationship with the figure of Christ as Mediator.
Dionysius attributed his inspiration to pseudo-Hierotheus, professing that he was writing to popularize the teachings of his master. Pseudo-Hierotheus was the author of “The book of Hierotheus on the hidden mysteries of the house of God.” Pseudo-Hierotheus is believed to be the fifth century Syrian monk Stephen Bar Sudhaile.
The works of Dionysisus are mystical, and show strong Neoplatonic influence. For example, he uses Plotinus' well-known analogy of a sculptor cutting away that which does not enhance the desired image, and shows familiarity with Proclus. He also shows influence from Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Origen, and others.
According to pseudo-Dionysius, God is better characterized and approached by negations than by affirmations. All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, "divine silence, darkness, and unknowing" will follow.
His thought was initially used by Miaphysites to back up parts of their arguments but his writings were eventually adopted by other church theologians, primarily due to the work of John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor in producing an orthodox interpretation. Writing a single generation at most after Dionysius, perhaps between 537 and 543, John of Scythopolis composed an extensive set (around 600) of scholia (that is, marginal annotations) to the works of Dionysius.
These were in turn prefaced by a long prologue in which John set out his reasons for commenting on the corpus. All Greek manuscripts of the Corpus Areopagiticum surviving today stem from an early sixth-century manuscript containing John's Scholia and Prologue — so John of Scythopolis had an enormous influence on how Dionysius was read in the Greek-speaking world.
Theologians such as John of Damascus and Germanus I of Constantinople also made ample use of Dionysius' writing.
The Dionysian writings and their mystical teaching were universally accepted throughout the East, amongst both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. Gregory Palamas, for example, in referring to these writings, calls the author, "an unerring beholder of divine things".
The Corpus is also present in Syriac and Armenian versions, the former of which, by Sergius of Reshaina in the early sixth century, serves as a terminus ante quem for the dating of the original Greek.
There is a distinct difference between Neoplatonism and that of Eastern Christianity. In the former, all life returns to the source to be stripped of individual identity, a process called henosis, while in orthodox Christianity the Likeness of God in man is restored by grace (by being united to God through participation in His divine energies), a process called theosis.
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The first notice of Dionysius in the West comes from Pope Gregory I, who probably brought a codex of the Corpus Areopagitum back with him on his return from his mission as papal legate to the Emperor in Constantinople in around 585. Gregory refers occasionally in his writings to Dionysius, although Gregory's Greek was probably not adequate to fully engage with Dionysius's work. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Dionysius was not widely known in the West, aside from a few scattered references.
The real influence of Dionysius in the West began with the gift in 827 of a Greek copy of his works by the Byzantine emperor Michael II to the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious. King Louis in turn gave the manuscript to the monastery of St Denys near Paris  where, in about 838, Dionysius' works were translated into Latin for the first time by Hilduin, abbot of the monastery. It may well have been Hilduin himself who promoted his work (and his abbey) by developing the legend (which would be widely accepted during subsequent centuries), that Denis was the same person as Dionysius the Areopagite of Acts 17.34, and that he had traveled to Rome and then was commissioned by the Pope to preach in Gaul, where he was martyred. Hilduin's translation is almost unintelligible.
About twenty years later, a subsequent Carolingian Emperor, Charles the Bald, requested the Irishman John Scotus Eriugena to make a fresh translation. He finished this in 862. This translation itself did not widely circulate in subsequent centuries. Moreover, although Eriugena's own works, such as the Homily on the Prologue of St John, show the influence of Dionysian ideas, these works were not widely copied or read in subsequent centuries. The Benedictine monasticism that formed the standard monasticism of the eighth to eleventh centuries, therefore, in general paid little attention to Dionysius.
In the twelfth century, greater use gradually began to be made of Dionysius among various traditions of thought:
During the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Robert Grosseteste made an important contribution by bringing out between 1240 and 1243 a translation, with commentary, of the Dionysian corpus. Soon after, the Dominican Albertus Magnus did likewise. The thirteenth-century Parisian corpus provided an important reference point by combining the "Old Translation" of John Scotus Eriugena with the "New Translation" of John Sarrazin, along with glosses and scholia by Maximus the Confessor, John of Scythopolis and others, as well as the "Extracts" by Thomas Gallus, and several commentaries such as John Scotus Eriugena, John Sarrazin and Hugh of Saint Victor on The Celestial Hierarchy. It quickly became common to make reference to Dionysius. Thomas Aquinas wrote an explanation for several works, and cites him over 1700 times. Bonaventure called him the “prince of mystics”.
It was subsequently in the area of mysticism that Dionysius, especially his portrayal of the via negativa, was particularly influential. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries his fundamental themes were hugely influential on thinkers such as Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, John of Ruusbroec, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing (who made an expanded Middle English translation of Dionysius' Mystical Theology), Jean Gerson, Nicholas of Cusa, Denis the Carthusian, Julian of Norwich, Harphius Herp and Catherine of Genoa [“The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (1908)]. His influence can also be traced in the Spanish Carmelite thought of the sixteenth century among Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.
In recent decades, interest has increased again in the Corpus Areopagiticum, for three main reasons: because of a recovery of the huge impact of Dionysian thought in later Christian thought, because of an increasing repudiation of older criticisms that Dionysius's thought represented a fundamentally Neoplatonic approach to theology, and finally because of interest in parallels between aspects of modern linguistic theory and Dionysius's reflections on language and negative theology.
Andrew Louth offers the following modern appraisal of the Areopagite;
Dionysius/Denys' vision is remarkable because, on the one hand, his understanding of hierarchy makes possible a rich symbolic system in terms of which we can understand God and the cosmos and our place within it, and, on the other, he finds room within this strictly hierarchical society for an escape from it, beyond it, by transcending symbols and realizing directly one's relationship with God as his creature, the creature of his love. There is space within the Dionysian universe for a multitude of ways of responding to God's love. That spaciousness is worth exploring: and therein, perhaps, lies the enduring value of the vision of Dionysius/Denys the Areopagite.
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Elena Ene D-Vasilescu, “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Byzantine Art”, Journal of Early Christian History, Taylor & Francis, Volume 11, Issue 2, 2021, pp. 50-75; DOI: 10.1080/2222582X.2020.1743955