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13.01.06, Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite

13.01.06, Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite

Charles Stang's monograph on the apophatism of Pseudo-Dionysius describes how Dionysius relies upon the figure of Paul, particularly his speech to the Areopagus, to explain why Dionysius chose his pseudonymous epithet and how the theology of Paul influences the Corpus Dionysiacum (CD). Stang contends that the pseudonym, Dionysius the Areopagite, is an important lens for understanding the CD as a whole. This book is refreshing in its approach to Dionysius's Christian mysticism, which Stang argues, must be understood within the sacramental life of the church, as exhibited in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, in addition to Mystical Theology and Divine Names. The book takes a particular interest in Dionysian mysticism and negative theology broadly understood in its analysis of the Pauline influence on the CD and, as such, this book will be noteworthy to those interested in the phenomenon of mysticism. Stang's argument is at its strongest when Stang conducts a close reading of Paul, particularly Pauline technical language, and draws comparisons between Pauline and Dionysian language. This creative book is recommended to those studying early Christian literature, as Stang draws frequent parallels between Paul and Dionysius based on a comparison between Dionysius and other Christian literature from the first five centuries of Christianity.

Chapter one treats the reception of the CD from the sixth century to modern scholarship, especially on the question of the authorship of the CD. The first section focuses on Severus of Antioch, John of Scythopolis, and the reception in the Syriac tradition. Discussion of modern reception enters in Hugo Koch and Josef Stiglmayrs' demonstration that the CD was not a first- century document, but a pseudonymous late fifth- or early sixth- century document. Stang argues that since Stiglymayr, many scholars prioritize Dionysius' debt to Plato rather than to Paul. This chapter ends with a close look at Alexander Golitzin, Andrew Louth, and Christian Shäfer as examples of those who look to the pseudonym and Paul to understand the CD. Stang addresses scholars who claim that Dionysius took up the pseudonym merely to appeal to the ancient tradition by questioning why Dionysius uses his particular name among all other names; for this question, Stang credits Andrew Louth with showing that the pseudonym signals an interaction between pagan wisdom and Christian revelation. Shäfer also states that the pseudonym "Dionysius the Areogagite" is to be taken as a pragmatic key for understanding Dionysius.

In chapter two, Stang surveys the genre of pseudonymous writing in the late antique Christian East, especially in light of the scholarship on Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha in this period. In order to demonstrate that Dionysius selected his pseudonym to connect himself with Paul, Stang provides evidence of how, in the Christian East, the fourth-sixth centuries saw an expansion of the belief that the saints of the apostolic and sub-apostolic age exist in timeless communion with the present age. Stang uses evidence from the development of Christian biography in the late fourth and fifth centuries which reveals that late antique Christians thought that the present was just a reenactment of the past. In order to describe this phenomenon, Stang compares it to an array of material from a similar milieu, including the fifth-century life and Miracles of Thekla and its source text, the second century Acts of Thekla. Stang examines the Acts of Paul and Thekla, the late second-century apocryphal story which tells how the well-born virgin Thekla abandons her betrothed--in an ecstatic state of love, she follows Paul in his travels. In this example of Paul and Theka, Stang argues that the love of a disciple is redirected from its earthly to its divine beloved. Here, Stang draws a possible parallel between Thekla and Paul, and the author of the CD and Paul to show that the author of the CD is engaged in an ecstatic devotional practice. Stang goes so far as to suggest that Dionysius engages in a devotion to Paul where Paul served as an erotic intermediary, which is backed by a very interesting claim that this kind of writing served as a devotional practice in the manner of the late antique devotion to a particular saint. Stang also gives case evidence from John Chrysostom regarding a parallel relationship to Paul; Chrysostom claims that Paul whispered into his ears as he wrote, and that he summoned Paul in order that he may mimic him. This anecdote is meant to portray a close and almost tangible relationship between Chrysostom and Paul. Stang suggests that Dionysius likewise positions himself, in the manner of Chrysostom, to be a direct disciple of Paul.

In Chapter three, "I Rejoice to See Your Order", Stang looks at Paul and the Dionysian Hierarchies. This chapter covers Paul's relationship to the major themes in the CD, especially hierarchy and order, Jesus and the hierarchies and the purpose of hierarchy. Stang shows that Paul prefers different terminology than Dionysius to show the relationship between Christian and Church; namely, he uses the term "body" rather than Dionsyius' preferred term, "order." Stang also parallels Dionysius' use of energeia when speaking of the activity of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy with Paul's use of agape to show the activity among members of the church in 1 Cor. This reading is continued in chapter four, on Paul and mystical union, which centers on a reading of the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names. Here, Stang gives a nice comparison between Pauline and Dionsyian use of the terms agnoia for unknowing--he argues that while Paul uses the term to signify mere ignorance, Dionysius uses a cognate to indicate unknowing. This section is a nice display of Stang's overall technique in his book; after general descriptions of the Pauline and Dionysian theology of apophaticism, Stang also includes details of their use of terminology in order to relate the two thinkers and show where they differ, which makes for a compelling argument. This chapter also includes a fine discussion on Paul's speech to the Areopagus.

The final chapter arrives at Stang's primary focus of his work, on the apophatic anthropology of Dionysius the Areopagite, which argues that an apophasis is best understood as an asceticism which allows the individual to achieve union with the divine. He traces the apophatic anthropology in the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names, particularly as it is manifested in the language of divine madness in Pauline and Dionysian theology.

It seems, overall, that Stang's main point is important--that Dionysius selected his pseudonym for a particular purpose and this purpose must in some way be evident in his theology. Stang's book makes a number of interesting observations and helps to return scholarship to a Christian understanding of Dionysius, particularly in light of recent scholarship which highlights his place in the Hellenic tradition of Neoplatonism.