The original St. Dionysius the Areopagite was one of the people gathered with philosophers at the Areopagus in the first century, when St. Paul preached there, as described in Acts 17. According to Acts 17:34, some of those there gathered became Christians, including "Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus," a woman named Damaris and others.
St. Denis (Dionysius) of France was the first bishop of Paris, who was beheaded ca. 258 at Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs). Later writers confused them with each other.
About 250 years after St. Denis, an anonymous monk wrote books under the fictitious name of "Dionysius the Areopagite." In the ninth century, that author's work was translated from Greek to Latin by John Scottus Eriugena. At that time, the author was mistakenly believed to have actually been the first century St. Dionysius the Areopagite. In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas drew from his writings, believing that the author was St. Paul's convert.
The following information is drawn from what little is known about the author known as "Pseudo-Dionysius," and not about either of the two saints named "Dionysius" whose memorials fall on October 9.
The influential writer was born around the mid to late fifth century. His true name is unknown. His writings can be placed during the late fifth to early sixth century. They reflect and quote ideas from the Pagan neo-platonic philosopher Proclus, who began his work in Athens in the 430’s A.D. Dionysius’s writings are first known to have been cited at the Council of Constantinople in 532. Between those two dates, he created a series of books and writings, under the name of "Dionysius."
This writer, often called “Pseudo-Dionysius,” claimed in his writings that he was in fact the convert of the Apostle Paul, named in Acts 17:34. By that fictitious method, he fully concealed his true identity. He wrote of Paul as his mentor; he included letters addressed to Timothy, Titus and John in exile at Patmos; he mentioned the time of the crucifixion. Such means of anonymity continued afterward within a Syrian monastic tradition.
Dionysius’s writings about God’s Divine Names drew from earlier sources. Another Syrian, Ephrem the Syrian, composed Christian hymns in the fourth century considering the divine names. Part of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great also centered on a consideration of the divine names. In "The Divine Names," Dionysius undertook a study of the names used for God in the Bible, acknowledging that, as God has no true name, we must rely upon the names He gave to us in Scripture as symbols to describe Him, and yet God transcends all symbols. Dionysius’ other works include "Concerning the Mystical Theology," "Concerning the Heavenly Hierarchy," and "Concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy."
His church was a highly structured community whose members had clearly defined roles. It was an ancient hierarchical society of monks and solitaries with common values. He never mentioned the world of work and play, never mentioned political authority, and never mentioned women’s position in the Church. His worship was highly liturgical.
Syrian monasticism in the late fifth century varied from community to community, but it was very hierarchical. Late fifth century Syrian monasteries often had several hundred monks in a communal residence called a “dayra” or “umra.” They were usually close to villages and agricultural areas. In a dayra, the monks were divided into 3 or 4 classes, and further divided into various ranks within each class, based upon seniority. The dayra would be headed by a risdayra, who in turn was subordinate to the bishop, archdeacon and chorepiscopa.
In most monasteries, the monks spent part of each day in some form of manual labor, while other monasteries devoted themselves entirely to spiritual things and relied entirely upon contributions for their survival. They had a daily routine of services, reading, work, eating and rest. They met daily for common prayer. Monastic rules varied, but existed for both Monophysite and Nestorian communities.
His church seems to have sung the Creed in the middle of the liturgy, as introduced by Peter the Fuller around 476. Dionysius might have been a bishop, but he more probably was a monk writing about the notions of divine darkness and divine transcendance. The first four of his letters are addressed to a monk named Gaius. He may have also intended to influence the fifth century conflict between Monophysites (who believed that Christ had only one nature or hypostasis once His divinity was united with human form) and Nestorians (who believed the Antiochene concept that Christ had two natures, human and divine). “The Mystical Theology” related to “the inner nature of what is accomplished in the liturgy: union with God and deification.” It was ostensibly addressed to Timothy, a hierarch, or bishop.
Dionysius mentioned his teacher, called “Hierotheus.” C.E. Rolt concluded that Hierotheus actually was the Syrian mystic Stephen bar Sudaili, while Andrew Louth concluded that bar Sudaili’s “Book of Hierotheus” was written later than Dionysius’s work, and that it only purported to come from Dionysius’ teacher. As Louth saw it, Stephen bar Sudaili’s work borrowed from Dionysius, and was part of the Syrian monastic tradition of Evagrianism which carried on Dionysius’s use of pseudonyms. Stephen bar Sudaili had studied in Athens and Alexandria, but his intellectual ideas encountered stiff opposition in early sixth century Syria.
Between 509 and 512, Stephen bar Sudaili was forced to flee his Syrian city of Edessa when he was reproached for his Origenist thinking, which opposed the Monophysites. Bar Sudaili then settled in a monastery near Jerusalem, an area that then remained more tolerant toward clandestine Origenists. Dionysius was misquoted at the Council in 532 in support of the Monophysite view (which would have been at odds with the views of the Origenists). However, scholars disagree over whether Dionysius was in fact a Monophysite.
Dionysius sought to base his understanding of God entirely on the Bible, saying "Now concerning this hidden Super-Essential Godhead we must not dare, as I have said, to speak, or even to form any conception thereof, except those things which are divinely revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures" (Divine Names 1:2). However, he was also Neo-Platonic, standing “at the point where Christ and Plato meet.” (Louth at 11) His work influenced later Christians, including the eighth century's St. John of Damascus in the East and the anonymous fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing in the West, as well as St. Thomas. He probably lived at least until 522.
Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church
Louth, Andrew, Denys the Areopagite (Outstanding Christian Thinkers)
Louth, Andrew, St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology, Oxford Early Christian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Patrich, Joseph, Sabas, Leader of Palestinian Monasticism: A Comparative Study in Eastern Monasticism, Fourth to Seventh Centuries, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XXXII, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995.
Rolt, C.E., Introduction to Dionysius the Areopagite: On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology.
Image: The image shows Moses before Pharaoh from the Syriac BIble of Paris, from Wikimedia Commons, public domaine due to its age. The Syriac Bible dates to the 6th or 7th century.