Scepticism about the sceptics


If God made the earth before the sun, as Moses says, then it clearly doesn’t have to go round it.

It is commonly said by scholars that Mass was said only in Greek, not Latin, in Rome in the early centuries. I am inclined to think that this will turn out to be one of those fads that dominate the academy for a while but pass away when the prestige of their initiators has faded from people’s minds.

Fr Uwe Michael Lang, in his useful book ‘The Voice of the Church at Prayer’ summarises the reasons for believing that Greek and not Latin was used for the Mass in those early days.

1. St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek and the earliest known literary productions of the Roman Church (the Letter of Pope Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the writings of Justin Martyr) are in Greek. Therefore Greek was the ‘prevailing language’ of the Roman Church.

2. In the first two centuries there were several popes with Greek names, and Christian tomb inscriptions were written in Greek.

3. Victorinus, writing in Latin in Rome about 360, quotes some Greek words from a Eucharistic prayer.

4. ‘Ambrosiaster’, who was ‘perhaps a Roman presbyter’ writing about the same time says that some Latin-speakers prefer to chant in Greek, even without understanding the language, and that some Latins prefer the Creed in Greek.

And that seems to be it. It’s pretty weak. Suspiciously so, in fact. Are we not dealing here with an academic fad or fashion supported mainly by an aversion to Romanitas?

To look at the arguments in turn:-

1. All these examples show is that there were Greek speakers in the Church of Rome in the early centuries, but no one doubts that anyway. They hardly show that Greek was the prevailing language; but even if they did, they wouldn’t show that Latin was never used for the Mass. To come to the individual examples, if St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek, that was perhaps because of the people sufficiently educated to be able to follow his epistle, a large number would have known that language, and because he wanted to quote throughout from the Greek version of the Old Testament, which had a much higher authority than any Latin version, if any Latin one existed. St Justin Martyr was from the Eastern half of the empire and only an immigrant in Rome, so it’s hardly surprising that he wrote in Greek. St Clement’s letter was written to the Corinthians, so naturally it was in Greek. 1st century Greeks were not, I think, in the habit of reading Latin. The origins of the Shepherd of Hermas are mysterious, but whoever wrote it, and whenever it was written, all it proves is that its author knew Greek!

2. Again, all this shows is that Greek was an influence in Rome in the early centuries. Some popes had Greek names because lots of people had Greek names, even in Rome. They didn’t necessarily all speak Greek as their first language, any more than a man with a Polish name born in England today to a second-generation Polish father and an English mother necessarily speaks Polish. Even if they did speak Greek as their first language, they would also have spoken Latin fluently, so what is proved about the liturgical language? Not all epitaphs are in Greek in the catacombs; the two languages are mixed together, sometimes in the same inscription.

3. As Fr Lang points out, Victorinus quotes the same part of the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin as well, elsewhere in the same work. In any case, it corresponds to part of a Syrian rite, not to any rite that is known to have been used in Rome. Yet the argument from Victorinus is often presented as the proof that Greek was the only liturgical language in Rome even into the second half of the 4th century!

4. The fact that Ambrosiaster talks of some people liking to sing Greek only shows that there was Greek in the Roman rite in his day. But so there is in our day: Kyrie eleison, hagios ho theos, hagios ischyros, hagios athanatos.  Why might there not have been a Latin Mass with some Greek used, especially for those parts that were shared by the non-Roman rites?

No doubt plenty of Greek was spoken at dinner-parties in first century Rome. But the language of Rome was, well, Latin. It was the language of the ordinary people, but also that of the Senate. St Peter was not unaware Rome was to be the chief see of the empire of Christ on earth. Why would he and his successors have avoided the use of the Roman and imperial tongue; that language which, no less than Greek and Hebrew, had already proclaimed on the first Good Friday that God was reigning from the wood?

This comes from the 8th letter attributed to St Dionysius

Section VI: The Vision of Carpus.

When I was once in Crete, the holy Carpus [2 Tim. 4:13] entertained me,—- a man, of all others, most fitted, on account of great purity of mind, for Divine Vision. Now, he never undertook the holy celebrations of the Mysteries, unless a propitious vision were first manifested to him during his preparatory devout prayers. He said then, when some one of the unbelievers had at one time grieved him (and his grief was, that he had led astray to ungodliness a certain member of the Church, whilst the days of rejoicing were still being celebrated for him); that he ought compassionately to have prayed on behalf of both, and taking God, the Saviour, as his fellow-helper, to convert the one, and to overcome the other by goodness [Rom. 11:21], and not to have ceased warning them so long as he lived until this day; and thus to lead them to the knowledge of God, so that the things disputed by them might be clearly determined, and those, who were irrationally bold, might be compelled to be wiser by a judgment according to law.

Now, as he had never before experienced this, I do not know how he then went to bed with such a surfeit of ill-will and bitterness. In this evil condition he went to sleep, for it was evening, and at midnight (for he was accustomed at that appointed hour to rise, of his own accord, for the Divine melodies) he arose, not having enjoyed, undisturbed, his slumbers, which were many and continually broken; and, when he stood collected for the divine converse, he was guiltily vexed and displeased, saying, that it was not just that godless men, who pervert the straight ways of the Lord, should live. And, whilst saying this, he besought Almighty God, by some stroke of lightning, suddenly, without mercy, to cut short the lives of them both.

But, whilst saying this, he declared, that he seemed to see suddenly the house in which he stood, first torn asunder, and from the roof divided into two in the midst, and a sort of gleaming fire before his eyes (for the place seemed now under the open sky) borne down from the heavenly region close to him; and, the heaven itself giving way, and upon the back of the heaven, Jesus, with innumerable angels, in the form of men, standing around Him. This indeed, he saw, above, and himself marvelled; but below, when Carpus had bent down, he affirmed that he saw the very foundation ripped in two, to a sort of yawning and dark chasm, and those very men, upon whom he had invoked a curse, standing before his eyes, within the mouth of the chasm, trembling, pitiful, only just not yet carried down by the mere slipping of their feet; and from below the chasm, serpents, creeping up and gliding from underneath, around their feet, now contriving to drag them away, and weighing them down, and lifting them up, and again inflaming or irritating with their teeth or their tails, and all the time endeavouring to pull them down into the yawning gulf; and that certain men also were in the midst, co-operating with the serpents against these men, at once tearing and pushing and beating them down. And they seemed to be on the point of falling, partly against their will, partly by their will; almost overcome by the calamity, and at the same time resigned.

And Carpus said, that he himself was glad, whilst looking below, and that he was forgetful of the things above; further, that he was vexed and made light of it, because they had not already fallen, and that he often attempted to accomplish the fact, and that, when he did not succeed, he was irritated, and cursed.

And, when with difficulty he raised himself, he saw the heaven again, as he saw it before, and Jesus, moved with pity at what was taking place, standing up from His super-celestial throne, and descending to them, and stretching a helping hand, and the angels, co-operating with Him, taking hold of the two men, one from one place and another from, another, and the Lord Jesus said to Carpus, whilst His hand was yet extended, “Strike against Me in future, for I am ready, even again, to suffer for the salvation of men; and this is pleasing to Me, provided that other men do not commit sin. But see, whether it is well for thee to exchange the dwelling in the chasm, and with serpents, for that with God, and the good and philanthropic angels.”

These are the things which I heard myself, and believe to be true.

I think it is time that someone wrote a learned attack on the idea that the sacred liturgy in the early centuries was improvised. Even the great Fortescue accepts this view of things. He writes, for example, ‘in the first period (lasting perhaps till about the fourth century) there were no books except the Bible, from which lessons were read and psalms were sung. Nothing was written, because nothing was fixed’ (article on ‘Liturgical Books’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia). Of course he accepts there was a fixed structure, but apparently supposes that the celebrants felt free to ad lib during what we could call the collects, secret prayers, preface, canon and post-communions. Frequently we hear about a ‘fluid’ rite of the first few centuries, which later ‘crystallised’ into the rites of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. Yet there are no contemporary witnesses from the first centuries who tell us about improvisation in the liturgy, and I wonder if this idea, arising as it does in the 19th century, is not simply a product of the Darwinian mentality which wants complex things to arise slowly and as it were randomly over a long period of time.

Our direct knowledge of the early liturgy is very limited. Now, it is a good general rule to judge of unknown things by known ones. And whenever we do have clear knowledge about how conscientious Catholic priests have offered the Holy Sacrifice, we find that that they have followed a rite which was fixed before they began their work, which was not of their composition and which they did not feel at liberty to modify. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that this was also the case with a priest preparing to say Mass in Rome in, say, the year 100. He may have had a missal before him or he may have simply relied on his memory; we don’t know. But why should we suppose that he didn’t know what he was going to say, when he approached the altar of God; or again, that he had composed his own Eucharistic prayer in his study the night before? A priest by divine institution is under the authority of his bishop, and he naturally wants to recite the same words as his bishop when he offers up the Sacrifice. But this in turn supposes that the Bishop was not in the habit of improvising when he officiated at the altar, and that the priest had learned from regularly assisting at the Bishop’s throne what he in his turn was to say.

Fortescue says a bit sniffily in his book on the Mass that ‘no one today thinks that the Roman canon came to us directly from St Peter’. Well, obviously it didn’t all come from him; the lists of the saints who died in the first few centuries didn’t. But St Peter certainly said Mass somehow or other, and does anyone seriously think that the bishops and priests who assisted him at the altar didn’t treasure his way of doing so? Pope St Innocent I, who was probably born in the first half of the fourth century didn’t think so. In his letter to Decentius he writes, ‘Who could be ignorant or unaware that what was passed on to the Roman Church by Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and has been guarded until now must be preserved by all? For it is evident that in all Italy, in Gaul, in Spain, in Africa and Sicily and in the islands nearby, none of the churches has instituted anything but what the venerable apostle Peter and the priests who succeeded him have established.’ It is quite reasonable to suppose that the core of the Roman canon, even if it was originally said in Greek, came from St Peter. The more one thinks about the alternative – that St Peter was celebrating the Mysteries for week after week in Rome for many years, and it made no lasting impression upon the liturgy of the Roman Church – the more implausible it seems. In any case, this talk of a ‘fluid early liturgy’ is rather too evocative of Evangelical pastors saying ‘we just want to praise you, Lord, for…’ Much more reasonable to suppose that St Peter instituted a fixed canon, and that subsequent bishops of Rome, out of reverence for the great Fisherman, copied him; that any alterations were made by their authority, not on the spur of the moment, but with the gravity and permanence demanded by the greatness of the Action; and that their priests followed them, having from the bishop of Rome a fixed rule whenever they ascended unto the holy mountain and unto the tabernacles of God.

I have described elsewhere my scepticism about the sceptics in regard to Dionysius the Areopagite. I noted how Maurice de Gondillac, the translator of Dionysius’ works for the Bibliotheque Chretienne series in the 1940’s, considers the Dionysian references to religious life to be proof of the pseudonymous character of the writings. He says:-

The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy recounts in the detail the ceremonies of monastic profession… But, we know well that hermits appear only in the third century in the East, with Paul of Thebes and St Anthony, while the first religious communities go back to St Pachomius in the year 340.

Do we know this well? Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265-c.340), at any rate, appears not to be included in this ‘we’ . In book 2 chapter 17 of the Church History he recounts what the Jewish author Philo (c. 25 BC- c. AD 50), said of the ascetics of his time:-

First of all they renounce their property. When they begin the philosophical mode of life, they give up their goods to their relatives, and then, renouncing all the cares of life, they go forth beyond the walls and dwell in lonely fields and gardens, knowing well that intercourse with people of a different character is unprofitable and harmful… The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures…. But some, in whom a great desire for knowledge dwells, forget to take food for three days; and some are so delighted and feast so luxuriously upon wisdom, which furnishes doctrines richly and without stint, that they abstain even twice as long as this, and are accustomed, after six days, scarcely to take necessary food.

Philo also describes, says Eusebius, ‘how, while one sings regularly in time, the others listen in silence, and join in chanting only the close of the hymns; and how, on the days referred to {the vigils of feasts} they sleep on the ground on beds of straw. They taste no wine at all, nor any flesh’. He adds, ‘These statements of Philo we regard as referring clearly and indisputably to those of our communion.’ He says that Philo is describing a ‘mode of life which has been preserved to the present time by us {Christians} alone’.

In other words, Eusebius, the father of Church history, says that from the first century onwards, certain Christians have been giving up their property in order to concentrate entirely on spiritual things, separating themselves from those who have not made this resolve, and regularly praying together at fixed times with others of like mind, observing together common rules of self-denial. Pace Monsieur Gondillac, it sounds rather like the religious life.

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.