Quote. Concannon. A discrepancy between Bede and Abbot Hilduin’s Historia Dionysii. 2017.
In the summer of 1121, Peter Abelard, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, could not catch a break. In March, he had been rebuked at the Council of Soissons, which required that his book On the Divine Unity and Trinity be burned and that he make a public proclamation of the faith. After this humiliation and a brief imprisonment at St. Menard, Abelard was allowed to return to St. Denys in Paris, where all of the monks hated him and his work. Then came the final straw. While perusing the Venerable Bede’s commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Abelard noticed a discrepancy between Bede and Abbot Hilduin’s Historia Dionysii. Shortly thereafter he let slip his observation in a casual conversation, perhaps in some jest, with a few of his fellow monks. The outcry that ensued resulted in a disciplinary hearing convened by the monastery’s abbot, Adam. Abelard soon fled from the kingdom of France and found temporary exile in Champagne under the protection of Count Thibaud.
What was this observation that so incensed the monks of St. Denys? Abelard had noticed that Bede, by then an established authority on the history of the church, claimed that St. Denys (Dionysios in Greek), the patron saint of the abbey and of the kingdom of France, had been bishop of Corinth. This contradicted the ninth-century work of Abbot Hilduin (814–880), an earlier abbot of St. Denys, whose research had “confirmed” that the saint interred in the monastery was none other than Dionysios the Areopagite, first bishop of Athens and later a martyr in Paris.
Why was this observation so incendiary? Hilduin’s research conflated a number of Dionysii that appear in early Christian texts: Dionysios the Areopagite, who was a convert of Paul in Acts 17:34 and later said to be the first bishop of Athens; St. Denys, a third-century Gallic martyr and bishop of Paris; and Pseudo-Dionysios, the pseudonymous fifth- or sixthcentury author of theological texts that had been an important conduit for Platonic and apophatic thought in the medieval church. By contrast, Bede’s reading of Acts conflated the Areopagite of Acts 17 with Dionysios of Corinth, an influential but little-known bishop from the late second century. To follow Bede’s opinion was to suggest that the martyr interred in the monastery may have been a little-known bishop of Corinth or even some other unknown Dionysios/Denys rather than the famous convert of St. Paul, bishop, and theologian. Abelard had suggested, consciously or not, that the martyr around whom the prestige of the monastery was built was not who the monks thought he was. By driving a wedge between Dionysios the Areopagite, convert of St. Paul, famed theologian, martyr, and patron of France, and the Dionysios interred at St. Denys, Abelard’s joke rightly struck a nerve.
This incident might well be the only time since the second century CE that bishop Dionysios of Corinth (ca. 166–174 CE) has been the subject of any controversy worthy of the name. In fact, Dionysios is rarely mentioned or discussed in the history of second-century Christianity. This absence is due largely to the fact that Dionysios’ corpus of writings has been lost and is known to us now only through summaries and fragments in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Though much about Dionysios has been lost, what remains suggests that the bishop of Corinth was an influential and controversial figure in the late second century. In his own day, Dionysios was famous enough that his advice was requested from as far as the Black Sea and his letters were tampered with by those seeking to lend his authority to their theological positions. He worked against the spread of Marcion’s influence, encouraged a moderate view on celibacy and the readmission of lapsed sinners, argued with bishops in other regions, and negotiated economic assistance from Christians in Rome. He was, in other words, very well connected to the broader politics of second-century Christianity.
Cavan W. Concannon. Assembling Early Christianity. Trade, Networks, and the Letters of Dionysios of Corinth. Introduction, pp. 1-3. Cambridge University Press. 2017.