Gallery of Philologists
Dionysius of Alexandria
c190 - 17 Nov 265


Dionyusius was a pupil of Origen. Following the banishment of Origen in 231, he himself became head of the school. He escaped the persecution of 249 in Alexandria, and survived the following civil war. With two followers, he hid out in the Libyian desert from the Decian persecution of 250, returning at its end the following year. He supported Pope Cornelius in the controversy of 251, arising when Novatian, the Archdeacon of Rome, refused to accept Cornelius and proclaimed himself a rival Pope. By the end of 251, the controversy had ended with the victory of the Cornelian party. After a show trial in the persecution of 257, Dionysius and a few of his followers were banished to Kephro by Emperor Valerian; this was rescinded only by Gallienus in 260. A Trinitarian doctrinal dispute within the church greatly occupied him in the next few years. He died of natural causes on 17 November 265. What with disarrangements both external and, failing those, internal, Dionysius's last years were more than eventful.

There would seem to have been some quiet time at least between 252 and 257 for quiet scholarship, but instead we find activist scholarship. The plague of 252 had caused many deaths in Alexandria, and widespread suffering had always been considered to be a Sign of the End; this appeared in official doctrine as early as Mark 13, and had been further developed in the Revelation of John. Nepos, an Egyptian bishop, basing himself on these signs, proclaimed the coming of a thousand-year reign of Christ, when the faithful would enjoy unending delights. Dionysius wrote two treatises refuting this reading of Revelation. Among other points in his argument, he attacked the authority of Revelation by denying its traditional attribution to the Apostle John. It is the basis of his denial that concerns us here.

The soul of it is the demonstration that Revelation could not have been written by the same John who is associated with the Gospel and Epistles of John. The latter were conceded to have Apostolic authority, and it was Dionysius's purpose to deny Revelation that highest level of authority. It would have been impossible at this date to challenge the inspiration and validity of Revelation, but the identity of authorship was discussible. Dionysius examines the texts in question. First he notes a difference of signature style:

After completing the whole (one might say) of his [Revelation] prophecy, the prophet calls those blessed who observe it, and indeed himself also, for he says "Blessed is he that keepth the words of the prophecy of this book, and I John, he that saw and heard these things [Rv 22:7-8]. That he was certainly named John and that this book is by one John I will not gainsay, for I fully allow that it is the work of some holy and inspired person. But I should not readily agree that he was the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, whose are the Gosple entitled "According to John" and the Catholic Epistle. For I form my judgement from the character of each and from the nature of the language and from what is known as the general construction of the book, that [the author of Revelation] is not the same. For the Evangelist nowhere adds his name, nor yet proclaims himself, throughout either the Gospel of the Epistles.

This is a useful point: the author of Revelation seems to invoke Apostolic authority for his vision, whereas the Gospel and Epistles, which are allowed to have that authority, are more reticent. Dionysius next proceeds to unravel the travels of Barnabas and Paul, the two tombs of "John" at Ephesus, and to note that in any case "John" is a common name. It is now established that there are at least in principle two Johns, one the author of Revelation, and the other the author of the Gospel and the two Epistles. Are the two to be equated? Dionysius first takes up content and usage differences:

And from the conceptions too, and from the ideas and the word order, one might naturally assume that this writer was a different person from the other. For there is indeed a mutual agreement between the Gospel and the Epistle, and they begin alike. The one says, "In the beginning was the Word;" the other, "That which was from the beginning." . . . He is consistent with himself and does not depart from what he has proposed, but proceeds throughout under the same main ideas and expressions, certain of which we shall mention briefly. But the attentive reader will find frequently in one and the other "the life," "the light," "turning from darkness;" continually "the truth," "the grace," "the joy," "the flesh and blood of the Lord," "the judgement," "the forgiveness of sins," . . . In a word, it is obvious that those who observe their character throughout will see at a glance that the Gospel and Epistle are inseparably in complete agreement. But the Apocalypse is utterly different from, and foreign to, these writings; it has no connexion, no affinity, in any way with them; it scarcely, to to speak, has even a syllable in common with them.

Finally, going beyond the content of the language to the language itself:

And further, by means of the style one can estimate the difference between the Gospel and Epistle and the Apocalypse. For the former are not only written in faultless Greek, but also show the greatest literary skill in their diction, their reasonings, and the constructions in which they are expressed. There is a complete absence of any barbarous word, or solecism, or any vulgarism whatever. Their author had, as it seems, both kinds of word by the free gift of the Lord: the the word of knowledge and the word of speech. I will not deny that the other writer had seen revelations and received knowledge and prophecy; but I observe from his style that his use of the Greek language is not accurate; he employs unculttvated idioms, in some places commits downright solecisms. These there is no need to single out now. For I have not said these things in derision (let no one think it), but merely to establish the dissimilarity of these writings.

Here we have a direct observation of the material facts of the question in hand. It would be wrong to call it modern, though many a modern discussion of the Johannine question has taken account of the same facts. It is rather that when they are approaching a problem rationally, the ancients and the moderns tend to talk in the same way, and in favorable cases, tend to converge on the same finding.

To Next

2 Oct 2006 / Contact The Project / Exit to Gallery Index Page