When I was 18 or 19, the Protestant clergyman who was tutoring me in the New Testament advised me to be ‘more sceptical about the sceptics’. I took this bracing advice to heart, and have been following it ever since. In this spirit I approach the question of Dionysius the Areopagite.

What are the arguments that are brought forward against the authenticity of the writings once universally accepted to be from the disciple of St Paul, disputed since the late 15th or early 16th century, and now almost universally rejected? Gandillac, a French translator in the 1940’s of the Dionysian corpus for the series ‘Bibliotheque Philosophique’, makes a list of them. He, by the way, is thoroughly convinced that the works are not from the Areopagite, and has plenty of ironic fun with the few stragglers who haven’t yet caught up. I list his objections below, with my sceptical thoughts after each one.

1. The earliest extant reference to Dionysius’ works is in the first half of the 6th century.

Bellarmine’s reply to this was that the works were lost and then found again. This is not implausible given the shortness of the corpus: less than 300 pages in my French paperback edition. It is not like imagining that the whole of St Augustine’s works, or St Jerome’s, might have been lost. Again, books, even precious one, did get lost in antiquity. Where are Aristotle’s dialogues now? Yet Cicero called them ‘a river of gold’. Even in modern times valuable works can be lost: St Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion was only discovered 125 years after his death. And the difficulty of Dionysius’ works would have militated against a wide circulation at a time when most philosophers were not Christians, and most Christians not philosophers.

{A 19th century article argues that there are testimonies to Dionysius before the 6th century. Apart from that by Origen, already rejected as spurious by Bellarmine, I haven’t found what modern scholars say of these claimed testimonies.}

2. Dionysius speaks of monks and hermits with habits and tonsures. But St Paul the first hermit lived in the 3rd century, and it would have been unwise to have worn identifying marks like religious habits in a time of persecution.

St Paul the first hermit could have been the first man to live a completely solitary life, but not a relatively solitary one. It is clear from the New Testament that some people took vows not to marry. Wherever we have clear and detailed information about the life of the Church we find religious profession, so it is reasonable to suppose that it is found even in those early years where our information is less clear and detailed. The religious life belongs, if not to the esse, at least to the bene esse, of the Church. The significance of the religious habit in the first century could have been not that it was dramatically different from what other people were wearing, but that it had been blessed by the bishop.

3. He speaks of the exclusion of catechumens during the Holy Mysteries, and the incensation of the altar, but these are practices later than the first century.

Who says? With the exception of Dionysius, we have no author purporting to be from the first century who tells us what happened to catechumens during the Holy Mysteries, as far as I know. Are we to suppose that the apostles were totally relaxed about who was there and who wasn’t? As for incense, this fits the criteria which St Augustine gives for reckoning a custom as apostolic, namely, that it is found throughout the Church and that there is no record of any council introducing it. It is in any case likely that the first Christian would have used incense, since it was used in the temple worship in Jerusalem. When St Paul’s tomb was opened recently, grains of incense were found inside.

This kind of objection stems from the tendency to suppose that complex things come into being by gradual stages from simple beginnings. This tendency seems to be another ‘Idol of the Tribe’, but it has no doubt got far worse because of Darwinism.

4. He speaks of the singing of the Creed during the liturgy, when this was not done till the year 476 according to Peter the Fuller.

In fact he does not mention the Creed, but simply a ‘universal canticle of praise’, commemorating God’s mighty deeds. From Dionysius’ description, it sounds much more like a kind of ‘Eucharistic prayer’.

5. He claims to be writing after the martyrdom of St Ignatius which happened around AD 107, yet he addresses his work to St Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, who would have been already dead.

Does he specify that the Timothy he is addressing is that to whom the two canonical letters were written? I don’t remember him doing this. But even if he does (and I haven’t read through the whole corpus for a couple of years), so what? We don’t know anything for certain about the death of that St Timothy, according to the modern Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’.

6. He calls Timothy ‘child’, even though Timothy was an old man (as well as being already dead, apparently!)

This is a silly objection. He also calls Timothy his fellow priest, so clearly ‘child’ has a special meaning here. Probably he uses it as St John uses it in 1 Jn. 2:12, as a reference to Christian innocence.

7. He is familiar with the whole canon of Scripture, even though the canon wasn’t formulated by the beginning of the second century.

There may have been no papal or episcopal decrees setting out the whole canon, but it must have been known by the beginning of the second century, or it could never have been defined. This is compatible with individual people expressing doubts about e.g. Hebrews and the Apocalpyse because of Novatianism and Millenarianism, controversies that arose after the beginning of the second century.

8. He speculates about how exactly the apostles knew that Matthias was the man chosen to replace Judas – why didn’t he ask St Paul, if he had known him?

St Paul had been dead for 40 years, and perhaps he’d never thought of asking him while he was alive. Perhaps St Paul didn’t know himself, as he wasn’t in the Cenacle when Matthias was chosen.

9. He uses expressions that belong to a later period, such as ‘Trinity of Persons’, or, when talking about Christ, the Chalcedonian term ‘unmixed’.

Someone had to be the first to use the phrase Trinity, or three persons. Why not a disciple of St Paul who was also a philosopher?  No later author claims to have been the first to use them. The word unmixed may only have been defined at Chalcedon, but again it could only be defined because it had been believed from the beginning. It is in itself an ordinary Greek word, not a technical term. On the other hand Dionysius doesn’t use some important post 2nd century terms, like ‘homoousios’ or ‘theotokos’.

10. His desire to be neutral in certain questions shows the influence of the decree Henotikon issued in AD 482.

This begs the question. If he doesn’t address certain questions about the relation of the two natures in Christ, this could equally be because they hadn’t arisen in his day.

11. His works contain close parallels to those of Proclus, who died in AD 487.

Maybe Proclus got some things from Dionysius, directly or indirectly. Or maybe both of them drew on a common source, now lost. Why should similarities between a Christian and a pagan be interpreted in favour of the pagan?

A series of poor arguments don’t add up to a convincing argument. Only argument (1) seems weighty, but against it is the fact that the 6th Century Greeks, Catholics and dissidents alike, presumably better able than anyone today to judge, concluded that these works were indeed by the Areopagite.

Again, for all the learned talk about ‘traditions of pseudepigraphy’, a fraud is a fraud. If these works were not by someone who had known the apostles, they were by a bad man, since he says he knew the apostles and he convinced people that he did.

Again, there is the esteem in which these writings have been held by Catholics for so long a time. Bellarmine, after the question had been aired for more than 100 years, was able to say that only heretics and a few dabblers (scioli) like Erasmus and Valla doubt their authenticity (presumably he means dabblers in theology.) This argument is sometimes rejected on the ground that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and so the tradition in favour of Dionysius is no more valuable than the earliest witnesses to him. But this forgets that the tradition in his favour is also a tradition in favour of the holiness of the author, based on the prayerful study of his writings. If the author was holy, he was the Areopagite, since if he was not the Areopagite he was a forger.