Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dionysius of Alexandria on the authorship of Revelation: historical methods

In the mid-200's A.D., one of the notable figures of church leadership -- and one of the foremost Christian scholars -- was Dionysius of Alexandria. He was bishop of Alexandria, one of the leading centers of early Christianity. He had also been head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, a leading center of Christian scholarship in his day. As the head of an influential Christian school in the world of his day, and as a leader in Christian scholarship, what kind of scholar was he? What was the state of scholarship about early Christian sources in the 200's A.D.?

Eusebius preserves an example of Dionysius' scholarship in his analysis of whether the Book of Revelation was written by the same person as the Gospel of John. While Dionysius concludes that the books were written by different authors, his method is what calls for our attention here. How did Dionysius reach his conclusions? As someone at or close to the high mark of Christian scholarship in the world of his day, what example did he set for his catechetical school and for the tone of Christian scholarship in general?

Dionysius builds his argument that Revelation had a distinct author from the Gospel of John from differences in the text and information in other early sources that were observable and available to any objective reviewer.
On the character of each, on the linguistic style, and on the general tone, as it is called, of Revelation, I base my opinion that the author was not the same. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
He continues with a detailed scholarly analysis of the differences which lead to that conclusion. He examines the use of the name "John" in Revelation and its comparative absence from other writings attributed to the apostle John. He reviews earlier Christian writings and shows that there were other men and named "John" who might have been the author. He compares the Gospel of John to the Epistle of John (1 John) and shows the many similarities found; then performs the same type of analysis on the Gospel of John compared to Revelation. He reviews ideas and word usage, common phrases and themes repeated between the Gospel of John and the epistle of John, and the prevalence of the same imagery. He catalogs a number images, ideas, and commands shared between the Gospel of John and the Epistle of John which are absent from Revelation. He goes on to summarize his three-way analysis comparing the Gospel of John to the first Epistle of John and to Revelation by noting,
To sum up, anyone who examines their characteristics throughout will inevitably see that Gospel and Epistle have one and the same color. But there is no resemblance or similarity whatever between them and the Revelation; it has no connection, no relationship with them; it has hardly a syllable in common with them. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
He continues with several other arguments, including the good linguistic style of the Greek in which the Gospel and Epistle are written, contrasted with the poor style of Revelation. On the Gospel and Epistle of John, he observes of their style:
By phraseology also we can measure the difference between the Gospel and Epistle and the Revelation. The first two are written not only without any blunders in the use of Greek, but with remarkable skill as regards diction, logical thought, and orderly expression. It is impossible to find in them one barbarous word or solecism, or any kind of vulgarism. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
On Revelation, he comments:
I observed that his language and style are not really Greek: he uses barbarous idioms, and is sometimes guilty of solecisms. There is no need to pick these out now; for I have not said these things in order to pour scorn on him -- do not imagine it -- but simply to prove the dissimilarity between these books. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
Here we see an early scholarly argument about the authorship of a book in the ancient church. The question had arisen: was the "John" who wrote this book the same as John the apostle? We see that the possible attribution to an apostle did not automatically gain acceptance for the attribution, nor exempt the book from criticism and scholarly review. We see the early church with critical faculties engaged, with careful, objective, logical, and verifiable arguments advanced about authorship. We see that the early church was capable of distinguishing the question of a book's usefulness from that of a book's authorship.

Though it is common enough to hear the early church disparaged as uncritical, here we see an early church scholar using methods still used by modern scholars, and reaching basically the same conclusions. Of the different lines of scholarly argument that Revelation and the Gospel of John were written by different authors, many of these appear already well-developed and well articulated, with examples, in the works of Dionysius of Alexandria in the 200's A.D. Scholarship such as this was part of the process by which the early church evaluated books. Dionysius, as head of the catechetical school of Alexandria first, and later as Bishop of Alexandria, set the pace for scholarship in his day. He anticipated what we consider our "modern" critical methods by not only centuries, but by well over a millenium.

2 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

I have read a little about this. Thanks for expanding what I knew.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for reading. I'm slowly building a series of these. The ancient scholars were far more open-minded, methodical and astute than they are generally credited for being.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF