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.