Saturday, 23 July 2011

Who was Dionysius? A lost comment of Kristor


Ace Christian Right blog-commenter Kristor has re-sent me a remark/ mini-essay intended for:

but lost somehow. So, belatedly, here 'tis...


Re the Areopagite, I have always reacted to such questions by remembering Schliemann’s discovery of Troy. All the experts had been saying for a few centuries that Troy was just a myth. Schliemann – not a scholar, but a businessman – just went out and found it.

And this keeps happening with stuff in the Bible that, we had all been assured for decades, was merely mythical. The Latest Findings in the last decade or so have often and often overturned the conventional, consensus opinion that the traditions are myths. This is happening right now in respect to Noah’s Flood, with Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard’s research into the intact villages at the bottom of the Black Sea, which apparently flooded quite suddenly at the end of the last Ice Age, triggering a great diaspora of the agricultural people who had settled there.

Again and again, these myths are shown to have something real at the back of them. Same thing happens over and over again with old wives’ tales and stupid superstitious witch doctor therapies like aspirin.


The way I figure it, the tradition that Dionysius met Paul at Mars Hill got started – no matter when it did get its start – among men who were a lot closer to St. Paul and the Areopagus than any of the scholars who have debunked Dionysius. Ditto for, e.g., the boy Jesus’ sojourn in Britain with his uncle of Arimathea, or, say, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Empress Helena was in a much better position than any later scholar: she could quiz much better informed scholars with much better libraries of texts from the Patristic and Apostolic eras, and for that matter she could interview folks whose families had lived in the neighbourhood for 500 years and just knew where the tomb was.

It is nuts to think we have access to more, or better, texts than did Helena and her consultants; and it is doubly nuts to suppose ourselves more careful, or rational, or educated, or knowledgeable than they.


The conventional wisdom is that Dionysius was a Syrian monk of the 5th century or so, precisely because he is not cited before then, and because his work seems to show the influence of the last few Neo-Platonists.

But it is perfectly possible that this last has it backwards. Perhaps it is Proclus and Plotinus who show the influence of Dionysius, rather than the other way round. By the time of Plotinus, Neo-Platonists had been mostly Christian for quite some time; and, presumably, all the Platonist philosophers to whom Paul praught at Athens were at least proto-neo-Platonists. If one of them were converted, he would have been one of the first Christian Neo-Platonists (albeit not necessarily the very first; for, indeed, Paul himself may have been that, or perhaps St. John Evangelist).

Plotinus has a (gorgeous) doctrine of the Trinity. Is it possible he was influenced in this by his Christian interlocutors? How not? There is, in fact, another one of those traditions-that-everyone-knows-is-just-a-myth, that says Plato was not the first Platonist, but got his Platonism, as Pythagoras before him got his Pythagoreanism, from studying in a Temple school in Syria.

It’s a stupid idea, right? Except for the fact that the Biblical type/archetype relation predates the Platonic Forms by 1500 years or so; and for the fact that Judah was an easy few days’ sail from Athens, along heavily traded routes.


Why was Dionysius not cited before the 5th century or so? Well, why were the Dead Sea Scrolls not cited before the 20th century or so? His books might have lain unread in some monastic library in Greece or Arabia for hundreds of years, until some monk with the learning to understand their significance stumbled upon them, ran to his abbot, and said, “This is amazing. We have got to publish this.” Same thing happened with the book of Deuteronomy. “Oh, they just made up that story to bolster their political agenda.” Riiiiight.

Let’s face it, scholarship since the Enlightenment is quite a different thing than it was before. Scholars of the Enlightenment said, “Never mind those old Scholars, everything they said was bogus, and all that stuff they handed down from their forefathers is nothing but tendentious myths. We are the first who have seen the light of reason, we the first to have grasped the truth.” Riiiight.



  1. 'The Screwtape Letters', XXXIII:

    "Now this idea must be used by us to encourage...a 'historical Jesus'...The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new 'historical Jesus' therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts in every publishers's autumnn list...He has to be a 'great man' in the modern sense...We thus distract men's minds from who He is and what He did...we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped."

  2. It might be true that St Helena had access to documents from the Apostolic era which modern scholars can no longer study - at least not in their original form. However, it's more likely that she relied on oral testimony.

    It might be also true that she questioned knowledgable inhabitants of Jerusalem in her inquiries concerning the Crucifixion, the remains of the true cross, etc. Since her informants would have been speaking about event which had taken place three hundred years previously, it would not have been advisable to put an implicit trust in their reliability.

    Ancient historians were not guided by the scrupulous use of primary sources to present an unvarnished picture of the facts. Herodotus, for example, often records both historical facts and fiction in the same uncritical discourse.

    For these reasons, I would be more cautious than Kristor in my assessment of the historical information collected by the Empress Helena in particular, and by ancient authorities in general.

    Evelyn Waugh wrote a short fictional biography of St Helena. It's based on (some) dependable historical research and is of course well written and well worth reading.

  3. It should be letter 'XXIII' not 'XXXIII' (There does not seem to be a way to edit commments).

  4. @SG - I don't think comments can be edited on Blogger - but you can delete your own comment containing the error, then post a corrected comment.

  5. The case against the Pseudo-Dionysius has always rested on the combination of similarities to Proclus etc. and the fact that the work was unknown until the 500s. Kristor simply ignores this.

    It should also be noted that there have always been a few scholars and theologians who have disputed its authorship.

    Alex has a nice summary of the problems with ancient authorities.

  6. I would like people to recognize that there are innumerable theories which could account for the 'historical facts' (some of which will certainly be wrong) without challenging the traditional ascription of authorship.

    My sense of the Orthodox tradition is that they simply accept that some combination of oral transmission, plus chains of copyists (each making a somewhat inexact copy, adding and omitting bits here and there - like King Alfred the Great's translation of Boethius' C of P) under the guidance of divine inspiration with respect to preservation of the *essence* - can account for everything that might draw notice.

    Unraveling the specific chain of oral tradition and copyists is, really - and at best, nothing more than a bit of intellectual fun. It is not a genuinely significant intellectual activity - and it is fraught with innumerable hazards (personal-moral and cultural).

    I think we (as a culture) have had more than enough of this business, to be frank - and that there are much more important matters which we ought to concentrate on. But we should dump this line of enquiry not because it is too challenging or threatening - but because it is a triviality masquerading as important; and because we lack the wisdom to take such matters lightly enough.

  7. I did not think I had _ignored_ the factors that Thursday adduces; indeed, so far from ignoring them, I thought I had directly _responded_ to them (if he refers to the thread for which the comment was intended, he might better see that this is so), providing alternative ways to interpret them that buttress the notion that Dionysius might have been really, rather than pseudonymously, the first Patriarch of Athens.

    There are other alternatives than these two: perhaps the author of The Divine Names was a monk or student in a monastery or school that had been founded by Dionysius the true first Patriarch of Athens. Even back into Old Testament and Greek Heroic times, schools and monasteries were largely coterminous institutions, and not dissimilar to the schools of Renaissance painters or masters of other arts and crafts (lawyers and doctors too, for that matter), where young men would study under masters, learning their technique and their wisdom, until they too became masters (It was not uncommon for a Renaissance master to sign the works of his students, so as to trademark them, and to identify them as having come from his studio, and having been produced under his supervision, in true fulfillment of the commissions of the customers of his enterprise). Viz., Elijah the master of Elisha, or Socrates the master of Plato, or Clement the master of Origen, or Francis the master of Clare. And such schools not uncommonly took for themselves the names of their founders: viz., the Benedictines, the Dominicans, etc. Dionysius the author might even have taken the name of the revered founder of his school for his own monastic name; so that he was signing as Dionysius in just the same way that Joseph Ratzinger would sign the name Benedict to one of his works. Finally, it is possible that, prior to their publication, the manuscripts published as coming from the hand of Dionysius the Areopagite had been extensively reworked by a monastic editor of a later era, who sought to translate them into contemporaneous terms, so as to make them more accessible.

    But in any case it does not matter. Aquinas did not cite Dionysius as authoritative – which he does, repeatedly (the only authors he cites more are Aristotle, Augustine, and Paul) – because he thought Dionysius was really the Patriarch of Athens, or patron saint of France, but because Dionysius speaks with immense authority and penetrating insight. Indeed, his are perhaps the most profound and important works of mystical theology in the Occidental world (after the Bible, that is). And the “neo-Platonic” metaphysics of Dionysius was not novel in the fifth century. Indeed, it was tremendously old; the Old Testament is shot through with “neo-Platonic” notions, if one reads it with the proper spectacles. Dionysius is a direct spiritual heir of the Merkavah mystics of the Temple; of, that is to say, a tradition of mystical theology that goes back to Elijah and Elisha, and indeed to Melchisedek and Abraham.

  8. But in any case it does not matter. Aquinas did not cite Dionysius as authoritative – which he does, repeatedly (the only authors he cites more are Aristotle, Augustine, and Paul) – because he thought Dionysius was really the Patriarch of Athens, or patron saint of France, but because Dionysius speaks with immense authority and penetrating insight. Indeed, his are perhaps the most profound and important works of mystical theology in the Occidental world (after the Bible, that is).

    I agree. These questions of authorship mostly don't matter. So, there isn't any need to deny the conclusions of modern scholarship.

  9. @ Thursday: Right, _unless_ the modern scholars are using the putatively airtight conclusion that Dionysius was not the Areopagite as a way of subtly undermining his authority. Which, of course, they repeatedly do. The same thing happens with the Evangelists, with the Apostles, and indeed with the authors of the Pentateuch. _All_ of the ancient texts that support orthodoxy are constantly being belittled and undermined via ad hominem attacks against their authors. Almost all modern textual criticism bends in that direction.

    Which means that a modern scholar's ad hominem attack upon the veracity of one of those ancient authors whose writings buttress orthodoxy says more about his own biases and prejudices than theirs. Scholars whose agenda is to tear down the Church - e.g., Bart Ehrman - are ipso facto suspect, and their work is more likely to be bogus.