World  Spiritual  Heritage

history of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings

Dionysius the Areopagite : history of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings

We may now turn to the history of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings. This embraces a period of almost fifteen hundred years, and three distinct turning points in its course have divided it into as many distinct periods: first, the period of the gradual rise and settlement of the writings in Christian literature, dating from the latter part of the fifth century to the Lateran Council, 649; second, the period of their highest and universally acknowledged authority, both in the Western and Eastern Church, lasting till the beginning of the fifteenth century; third, the period of sharp conflict waged about their authenticity, begun by Laurentius Valla, and closing only within recent years.

The Areopagitica were formerly were supposed to have made their first appearance, or rather to have been first noticed by Christian writers, in a few pseudo-epigraphical works which have now been proved to be the products of a much later period; as, for instance, in the following: Pseudo-Origenes, "Homilia in diversos secunda"; Pseudo-Athanasius, "Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem", Q. viii; Pseudo-Hippolytus, against the heretic Beron; Pseudo-Chrysostom, "sermo de pseudo-prophetis." Until more recently more credit was given to other lines of evidence on which Franz Hipler endeavoured to support his entirely new thesis, to the effect that the author of the writings lived about the year 375 in Egypt, as Abbot of Rhinokorura. Hipler's attempts, however, at removing the textual difficulties, ekleipsis, adelphotheos, soma, proved to be unsuccessful. In fact, those very passages in which Hipler thought that the Fathers had made use of the Areopagite (e.g., in Gregory of Nazianzus and Jerome) do not tell in favor of this hypothesis; on the contrary, they are much better explained if the converse be assumed, namely, that Pseudo-Dionysius drew from them. Hipler himself, convinced by the results of recent research, has abandoned his opinion. Other events also, both historical and literary, evidently exerted a marked influence on the Areopagite: (1) the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Christological terminology of which was studiously followed by the Dionysius; (2) the writings of the neo-Platonist Proclus (411-485), from whom Dionysius borrowed to a surprising extent; (3) the introduction (c. 476) of the Credo into the liturgy of the Mass, which is alluded to in the "Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" [iii, 2, in P.G., III, 425 C, and iii, (3), 7 in P.G., III, 436 C; cf. the explanation of Maximus in P.G., IV, 144 B]; (4) the Henoticon of the Emperor Zeno (482), a formula of union designed for the bishops, clerics, monks, and faithful of the Orient, as a compromise between Monophystism and Orthodoxy. Both in spirit and tendency the Areopagitica correspond fully to the sense of the Henoticon; and one might easily infer that they were made to further the purpose of the Henoticon.

The result of the foregoing data is that the first appearance of the pseuodo-epigraphical writings cannot be placed earlier than the latter half, in fact at the close, of the fifth century.

Having ascertained a terminus post quem, it is possible by means of evidence taken from Dionysius himself to fix a terminus ante quem, thus narrowing to about thirty years the period within which these writings must have originated. The earliest reliable citations of the writings of Dionysius are from the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century. The first is by Severus, the head of a party of moderate Monophysites named after him, and Patriarch of Antioch (512-518). In a letter addressed to a certain abbot, John (Mai, Script. Vett. Nov. Coll., VII, I, 71), he quotes in proof of his doctrine of the mia synthetos physis in Christ the Dionysian Ep. Iv (P.G., III, 1072 C), where a kaine theandrike energeia is mentioned. Again, in the treatise "Adversus anathem. Juliani Halicarn" (Cod. Syr. Vat. 140, fol. 100 b), Severus cites a passage from D.D.N., ii, 9, P.G., III, 648A (abba kai to pases -- thesmo dieplatteto), and returns once more to Ep. Iv. In the Syrian "History of the Church" of Zacharias (e. Ahrens-Kruger, 134-5) it is related that Severus, a man well-versed in the writings of Dionysius (Areop.), was present at the Synod in Tyre (513). Andreas, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappodocia, wrote (about 520) a commentary on the Apocalypse wherein he quotes the Areopagite four times and makes use of at least three of his works (Migne, P.G., CVI, 257, 305, 356, 780; cf. Diekamp in "Hist. Jahrb", XVIII, 1897, pp. 1-36). Like Severus, Zacharias Rhetor and, in all probability, also Andreas of Cappodocia,. Inclined to Monophysitism (Diekamp, a "Book of Hierotheus"---Hierotheus had come to be regarded as the teacher of Dionysius---existed in the Syrian literature of that time and exerted considerable influence in the spread of Dionysian doctrines. Frothingham (Stephen Bar Sudaili, p. 63 sq.) considers the pantheist Stephen Bar Sudaili as its author. Jobius Monachus, a contemporary of the writers just mentioned, published against Severus a polemical treatise which has since been lost, but claims the Areopagite as authority for the orthodox teaching (P.G., CIII, 765). So also Ephraem, Archbishop of Antioch (527-545), interprets in a right sense the well-known passage from D.D.N., I, 4, P.G., III, , 529 A: ho haplous Iesous synetethe, by distinguishing between synthetos hypostasis and synthetos ousia. Between the years 532-548, if not earlier, John of Scythopolis in Palestine wrote an interpretation of Dionysius (Pitra, "Analect. Sacr.", IV, Proleg., p. xxiii; cf. Loof's, "Leontius of Byzantium" (p. 270 sq.) from an anti-Severan standpoint. In Leontius of Byzantium (485-543) we have another important witness. This eminent champion of Catholic doctrine in at least four passages of his works builds on the megas Dionysios (P.G., LXXXVI, 1213 A; 1288 C; 1304 D; Canisius-Basnage, "Thesaur. Monum. Eccles.", Antwerp, 1725, I, 571). Sergius of Resaina in Mesopotamia, archiater and presbyter (d. 536), at an early date translated the works of Dionysius into Syriac. He admitted their genuineness, and for their defence also translated into Syriac the already current "Apologies" (Brit. Mus. Cod. Add. 1251 and 22370; cf. Zacharias Rhetor in Ahrens-Kruger, p. 208). He himself was a Monophysite.

By far the most important document in the case is the report given by Bishop Innocent of Maronia of the religious debate held at Constantinople in 533 between seven orthodox and seven Severian spaekers (Hardouin, II, 1159 sq.). The former had as leader and spokesman, Hypatius, Bishop of Ephesus, who was thoroughly versed in the literature of the subject. On the second day the "Orientals" (Severians) alleged against the Council of Chalcedon, that it had by a novel and erroneous expression decreed two natures in Christ. Besides Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Felix and Julius of Rome, they also quoted Dionysius the Areopagite as an exponent of the doctrine of one nature. Hypatius rejected as spurious all these citations, and showed that Cyril never made the slightest use of them, though on various occasions they would have served his purpose admirably. He suspects that these falsifiers are Apollinarists. When the Severians rejoined that they could point out in the polemical writings of Cyril against Diodorus and Theodore the use made of such evidence, Hypatius persisted in the stand he had taken: "sed nunc videtur quoniam et in illis libris [Cyrilli] haeretici falsantes addiderunt ea". The references to the archives of Alexandria had just as little weight with him, since Alexandria, with its libraries, had long been in the hands of the heretics. How could an interested party of the opposition be introduced as a witness? Hypatius refers again especially to Dionysius and successfully puts down the opposition: "Illa enim testimonia quae vos Dionysii Areopagitae dicitis, unde potestis ostendere vera esse, sicut suspicamini? Si enim eius erant, non potuissent latere beatum Cyrillum. Quis autem de beato Cyrillo dico, quando et beatus Athanasius, si pro certo scisset eius fuisse, ante omnia in Nicaeno concilio de consubstantiali Trinitate eadem testimonia protulisset adversus Arii diversae substantiae blasphemias". Indeed, as to the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son the Areopagite has statements that leave no room for misinterpretation; and had these come from a disciple of the Apostles, they would have been all the more valuable. Hereupon the Severians dropped this objection and turned to another.

The fact must, indeed, appear remarkable that these very writings, though rejected outright by such an authority as Hypatius, were within little more than a century looked upon as genuine by Catholics, so that they could be used against the heretics during the Lateran Council in 649 (Hardouin, III, 699 sqq.). How had this reversion been brought about? As the following grouping will show, it was chiefly heterodox writers, Monophysites, Nestorians, and Monothelites, who during several decades appealed to the Areopagite. But among Catholics also there were not a few who assumed the genuineness, and as some of these were persons of consequence, the way was gradually paved for the authorization of his writings in the above-mentioned council. To the group of Monophysites belonged: Themistius, deacon in Alexandria about 537 (Hardoiun, III, 784, 893 sq., 1240 sq.); Colluthus of Alexandria (Hardouin, III, 786, 895, 898); John Piloponus, an Alexandrian grammarian, about 546-549 (W. Reichardt, "Philoponus, de opificio mundi"); Petrus Callinicus, Monophysite Patriarch of Antioch, in the latter half of the sixth century, cited Dionysius in his polemic against the Patriarch Damianus of Alexandria (II, xli, and xlvii; cf. Frothingham, op. cit., after Cod. Syr. Vat., 108, f. 282 sqq.). As examples of the Nestorian group may be mentioned Joseph Huzaja, a Syrian monk, teacher about 580 at the school of Nisibis (Assemani, Bibl. Orient., vol. III, pt. I, p.103); aloso Ischojeb, catholicos, from 580 or 581 to 594 or 595 (Braun, "Buch der Synhados", p. 229 sq.); and John of Apamea, a monk in one of the cloisters situated on the Orontes, belonging most probably to the sixth century (Cod. Syr. Vat., 93). The heads of the Monothelites, Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople (610-638), Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria (630-643), Pyrrhus, the successor of Sergius in Constantinople(639-641), took as the starting point in their heresy the fourth letter of Dionysius to Caius, wherein they altered the oft-quoted formula, theandrike energeia into mia theandrike energeia.

To glance briefly at the Catholic group we find in the "Historia Euthymiaca", written about the middle of the sixth century, a passage taken, according to a citation of John Damascene (P.G., XCVI, 748), from D.D.N., iii, 2, P.G., III, 682 D: paresan de -- epakousas. Another witness, who at the same time leads over to the Latin laiterature, is Liberatus of Carthage (Breviarium causae Nestor. Et Euthych., ch. V). Johannes Malalas, of Antioch, who died about 565, narrates, in his "Universal Chronicle", the conversion of the judge of the Areopagus through St. Paul (Acts, xvii, 34), and praises our author as a powerful philosopher and antagonist of the Greeks (P.G., XCVII, 384; cf. Krumbacher, Gesch. D. byz. Lit.", 3rd ed., p. 112 sq.). Another champion was Theodore, presbyter. Though it is difficult to locate him chronologically, he was, according to Le Nourry (P.G., III, 16), an "auctor antiquissimus" who flourished, at all events, before the Lateran Council in 649 and, as we learn from Photius (P.G., CIII, 44 sq.), undertook to defend the genuineness of the Areopagitic writings. The repute, moreover, of these writings was enhanced in a marked degree by the following eminent churchmen: Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria (580-607), knew and quoted, among others, the D.D.N., xiii, 2, verbatim (P.G., CIII, 1061; cf. Der Katholic, 1897, II, p. 95). From Eulogius we naturally pass to Pope Gregory the Great, with whom he enjoyed a close and honourable friendship. Gregory the Great (590-604), in his thirty-fourth homily on Like, xv, 1-10 (P.L.L. XXVI, 1254), distinctly refers to the Areopagite's teaching regarding the Angels: "Fertur vero Dionysius Areopagitica, antiquus videlicet et venerabilis Pater, dicere" etc. (c.f. C.H., vii, ix, xiii). As Gregory admits that he is not versed in Greek (Ewald, Reg., I,28; III, 63; X, 10, 21) he uses fertur not to express his doubt of the genuineness, but to imply that he had to rely on the testimony of others, since at the time no Latin version existed. It is, indeed, most probable that Eulogius directed his attention to the work.

About the year 620, Antiochus Monachus, a member of the Sabas monastery near Jerusalem, compiled a collection of moral "sentences" designed for the members of his order (P.G., LXXXIX, 1415 sqq.0. In the "Homilia (capitulum) LII" we discover a number of similar expressions and Biblical examples which are borrowed from the eighth letter of Dionysius "ad Demophilum" (P.G., III, 1085 sq.). In other passages frequent reference is made to the D.D.N. In the following years, two Patriarchs of Jerusalem, both from monasteries, defend Dionysius as a time-honoured witness of the true doctrines. The first is the Patriarch Modestus (631-634), formerly abbot of the Theodosius monastery in the desert of Judah. In a panegyric on the Assumptio Mariae (P.G., LXXXVI, 3277 sq.) he quotes sentences from the D.D.N., I, 4; ii,10; from the "Theologia Mystica", I, 1; and from Ep. Ii The second, a still brighter luminary in the Church, is the Patriarch Sophronius (634-638), formerly a monk of the Theodosius monastery near Jerusalem. Immediately after his installation he published an epistula synodica, "perhaps the most important document in the Monothelitic dispute". It gives, among other dogmas, a lengthy exposition of the doctrine of two energies in Christ (Hefele, Conciliengesch., 2nd ed., III, 140 sqq.). Citing from "Eph. Iv ad Caium" (theandrike energeia), he refers to our author as a man through whom God speaks and who was won over by the Divine Paul in a Divine manner (P.G., LXXXVII, 3177). Maximus Confessor evidently rests upon Sophronius, whose friendship he had gained while abbot of the monastery of Chrysopolis in Alexandria (633). In accordance with Sophronius he explains the Dionysian term theandrike energeia in an orthodox sense, and praises it as indicating both essences and natures in their distinct properties and yet in closest union (P.G., XCI, 345). Following the example of Sophronius, Maximus also distinguishes in Christ three kinds of actions (theoprepeis, anthropoprepeis and miktai) (P.G., IV, 536). Thus the Monothelites lost their strongest weapon, and the Lateran Council found the saving word (Hefele, op. cit., 2nd ed., III, 129). In other regards also Maximus plauys an important part in the authorization of the Areopagitica. A lover of theologico-mystical speculation, he showed an uncommon reverence for these writings, and by his glosses (P.G., IV), in which he explained dubious passages of Dionysius in an orthodox sense, he contributed greatly towards the recognition of Dionysius in the Middle Ages. Another equally indefatigable of Dyophysitism was Anastasias, a monk from the monastery of Sinai, who in 640 began his chequered career as a wondering preacher. Not only in his "Guide" (hodegos), but also in the "Quaestiones" and in the seventh book of the "Mediations on the Hexaemeron", he unhesitatingly makes use of different passages from Dionysius (P.G. LXXXIX). By this time a point had been reached at which the official seal, so to speak, could be put on the Dionysian writings. The Lateran Council of 649 solemnly rejected the Monothelite heresy (Hardouin, III, 699 sq.). Pope Martin I quotes from D.D.N., ii, 9; iv, 20 and 23; and the "Ep. Ad Caium"; speaks of the author as "beatae memoriae Dionysius", "Dionysius egregius, sanctus, beatus, and vigorously objects to the perversion of the text: una instead of nova Dei et viri operatio. The influence which Maximus exerted by his personal appearance at the council and by his above-mentioned explanation of theandrike energeia is easily recognized ("Dionysius duplicem [operationem] duplicis naturae compositivo sermone absus est"---Hardouin, III, 787). Two of the testimonies of the Fathers which were read in the fifth session are taken from Dionysius. Little wonder, then, that thenceforth no doubt was expressed concerning the genuineness of the Areopagitica. Pope Agatho, in a dogmatic epistle directed to the Emperor Constantine (680) cites among other passages from the Fathers also the D.D.N., ii, 6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680) followed in the footsteps of the Lateran Synod, again defended "Eph. Iv ad. Caium" against the falsification of Pyrrhus, and rejected the meaning which the Monothelite Patriarch Macarius assigned to the passage (Hardouin, III, 1099, 1346, 1066). In the second Council of Nicaea (787) we find the "Celestial Hierarchy" of the "deifer Dionysius" cited against the Iconoclasts (Hardouin, IV, 362). This finishes the first and darkest period in the history of the Areopagitica; and it may be summarized as follows. The Dionysian writings appeared in public for the first time in the Monophysite controversies. The Severians made use of them first and were followed by the orthodox. After the religious debate at Constantinople in 533 witnesses for the genuineness of the Areopagitica began to increase among the different heretics. Despite the opposition of Hypatias, Dionysius did not altogether lose his authority even among Catholics, which was due chiefly to Leontius and Ephraem of Antioch. The number of orthodox Christians who defended him grew steadily, comprising high ecclesiastical dignitaries who had come from monasteries. Finally, under the influence of Maximus, the Lateran Council (649) cited him as a competent witness against Monothelism.

As to the second period, universal recognition of the Areopagitic writings in the Middle Ages, we need not mention the Greek Church, which is especially proud of him; but neither in the West was a voice raised in challenge down to the first half of the fifteenth century; on the contrary, his works were regarded as exceedingly valuable and even as sacred. It was believed that St. Paul, who had communicated his revelations to his disciple in Athens, spoke through these writings ((Histor.-polit. Blatter, CXXV, 1900, p. 541). As there is no doubt concerning the fact itself, a glance at the main divisions of the tradition may suffice. Rome received the original text of the Areopagitica undoubtedly through Greek monks. The oppressions on the part of Islam during the sixth and seventh centuries compelled many Greek and Oriental monks to abandon their homes and settle in italy. In Rome itself, a monastery for Greek monks was built under Stephen II and Paul I. It was also Paul I (757-767) who in 757 sent the writings of Dionysius together with other books, to Pepin in France. Adrian I (772-795) also mentioned Dionysius as a testis gravissimus in a letter accompanying the Latin translation of the Acts of the Nicaean Council (787) which he sent to Charlemagne. During the first half of the ninth century the facts concerning Dionysius are mainly grouped around the Abbot Hilduin of Saint-Denys at Paris. Through the latter the false idea that the Gallic martyr Dionysius of the third century, whose relics were preserved in the monastery of Saint-Denys, was identical with the Areopagite rose to an undoubted certainty, while the works ascribed to Dionysius gained in repute. Through a legation from Constantinople, Michael II had sent several gifts to the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious (827), and among them were the writings of the Areopagite, which gave particular joy and honour to Hilduin, the influential arch-chaplain of Louis. Hilduin took care to have them translated into Latin and he himself wrote a life of the saint (P.L., CVI, 13 sq.). About the year 858 Scotis Eriugena, who was versed in Greek, made a new Latin translation of the Areopagite, which became the main source from which the Middle Ages obtained a knowledge of Dionysius and his doctrines. The work was undertaken at the instance of Charles the Bald, at whose court Scotus enjoyed great influence (P.L., CXXII, 1026 sq.; cf. Traube, "Poet. Lat. Aev. Carol.", II, 520, 859 sq.). Compared with Hilduin's, this second translation marks a decided step in advance. Scotus, with his keen dialectical skill and his soaring speculative mind, found in the Areopagite a kindred spirit. Hence, despite many errors of translation due to the obscurity of the Greek original, he was able to grasp the connections of thought and to penetrate the problems. As he accompanied his translations with explanatory notes and as, in his philosophical and theological writings, particularly in the work "De divisione naturae", (P.L., CXXII), he recurs again and again to Dionysius, it is readily seen how much he did towards securing recognition for the Areopagite.