Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
Denis Areopagite.jpg
(5th–6th century AD)
(5th–6th century AD)
Other names
  • "Dionysius"
  • "Denys"
  • "(Saint) Dionysius the Areopagite" (mistaken identification)

Denys the Areopagite

EraAncient philosophy
Medieval philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Christian theology

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (Greek: Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης), also known as Pseudo-Denys, was a Christian theologian and 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 pseudonymously identifies himself in the corpus as "Dionysios", portraying himself as Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of Acts 17:34.[note 1] This false attribution to the earliest decades of Christianity resulted in the work being given great authority in subsequent theological writing in both East and 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.



The Corpus is today composed of:[1]

  • Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων);
  • Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας);
  • Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας);
  • Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας), "a brief but powerful work that deals with negative or apophatic theology and in which theology becomes explicitly “mystical” for the first time in history;"[2]
  • Ten epistles.

Seven other works are mentioned repeatedly by pseudo-Dionysius in his surviving works, and are presumed either to be lost[3] 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.[4] These seven other works are:

  • Theological Outlines (Θεολογικαὶ ὑποτυπώσεις),
  • Symbolic Theology (Συμβολικὴ θεολογία),
  • On Angelic Properties and Orders (Περὶ ἀγγελικῶν ἰδιοτήτων καὶ τάξεων),
  • On the Just and Divine Judgement (Περὶ δικαίου καὶ θείου δικαστηρίου),
  • On the Soul (Περὶ ψυχῆς),
  • On Intelligible and Sensible Beings,[note 2]
  • On the Divine Hymns.[note 3]


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.

  • Firstly, and fairly certainly, it is clear that Dionysius adopted many of his ideas—including at times passages almost word for word—from Proclus, who died in 485, thus providing at the least a late fifth-century early limit to the dating of Dionysius.[5]
  • In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy Dionysius twice seems to allude to the recitation of the Creed in the course of the liturgy (EH 3.2 and 3.III.7). It is often asserted that Peter the Fuller first mandated the inclusion of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy in 476, thus providing an earliest date for the composition of the Corpus. However, Bernard Capelle argues that it is far more likely that Timothy, patriarch of Constantinople, was responsible for this liturgical innovation, around 515 — thus suggesting a later date for the Corpus.[6]
  • It is often suggested that because Dionysius seems to eschew divisive Christological language, he was probably writing after the Henoticon of Zeno was in effect, sometime after 482. However, it is also possible that Dionysius eschewed traditional Christological formulae in order to preserve an overall apostolic ambience for his works, rather than because of the influence of the Henoticon. Also, given that the Henoticon was rescinded in 518, if Dionysius was writing after this date, he may have been untroubled by this policy.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]


The author pseudonymously identifies himself in the corpus as "Dionysios", portraying himself as the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of 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.[11]

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. However, 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.[12]

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.[13] 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,[14] Peter Abelard and Nicholas of Cusa expressed suspicions about its authenticity; their concerns, however, were generally ignored.[15]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] A more recent identification is with Damascius, the last scholarch of the Neoplatonic Academy of Athens.[18] 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. However, 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.[20]

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