Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.

I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)

Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)

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