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Dionysius Areopagite as Peter Iberian: M. van Esbroeck’s thesis more than dix ans après



In two papers published in 1993 and 1997 Michel van Esbroeck explained his reasons to “revisit” the idea of Shalva Nutsubidze (1942) and Ernst Honigmann (1952) that it is Peter Iberian who was the main author of the Corpus Areopagiticum in the 460s, after about 464 (the Corpus being expanded, especially by short letters, and reattributed to Dionysius after Peter’s death in 491). Since then, van Esbroeck’s study has been mostly ignored, with rare exceptions such as A. M. Ritter (1994, critically) and myself (Lourié 2001, additional proofs). However, some other relevant publications did appear, while without referring to van Esbroeck. It seems that it is now the time to reopen the discussion.

Honigmann’s thesis

Nutsubidze’s hypothesis, as it appeared in 1942, was a rather vague intuition than a scholarly hypothesis in proper sense. Thus, van Esbroeck starts from Honigmann who put forward the same hypothesis independently a bit later (1952) but with a scholarly grounding. Honigmann based his demonstration on two elements:

1. vision of John the Eunuch (close friend and spiritual companion of Peter Iberian),
2. memory days of Dionysius Areopagite and Hierotheos of Athens in the calendars.

His reasoning was the following. The vision of John Eunuch in about 444, as described in the Vita of Peter Iberian by John Rufus, contained the revelation of the open heavens with angelical hierarchies. It is likely that this was the kernel of the future hierarchical speculations in the Corpus Areopagiticum, where the author (Dionysius Areopagite) is referring to the revelation attained by his teacher, holy Hierotheos. The mutual relationship between Hierotheos and Dionysius in the Corpus are similar to those between Peter Iberian and John the Eunuch.
The memories of Dionysius and Hierotheos in some Syrian (Jacobite) calendars are October 3 and 4, respectively. It is unlikely that this is not because of some mutual relationship between the two which is known from the Corpus Areopagiticum only. Most important, John the Eunuch died on October 4, the memory day of Hierotheos (Life of Peter Iberian, § 171). Therefore, one can suggest that under the names of Dionysius and Hierotheos, it is the pair of the cell-mates Peter Iberian and John the Eunuch that is commemorated on October 3 and 4.
This Honigmann’s opinion should be understood properly within the context of his studies in the Church history of the 5th century Palestine. Honigmann’s Palestine that emerges from his different studies was more like a populated world than a schematic reconstruction, and so, the adequate comprehension of his thesis would imply a possibility to share with him this or another, but not less vivid vision of the historical reality. Nevertheless, at least, one of his critics, Fr Irénée Hausherr, did share his historical vision but categorically rejected his thesis.

Honigmann’s critics

The main critics of Honigmann were the three: Irénée Hausherr (1953), Hieronymus Engberding (1953), and René Roques (1954).
Hausherr was an eminent specialist in the Christian oriental mystical and ascetical literature. To him, Peter Iberian belonged to an ascetic milieu strictly opposed to the profane philosophy: indeed, his teacher was, for some time, Isaias of Gaza known by his idiosyncrasy toward the worldly wisdom. Being a disciple of Isaias, Peter could not be a likely author of the Corpus Areopagiticum.
Engberding, being an outstanding liturgical scholar, corrected Honigmann in the liturgical part of argumentation. The memories of Dionysius and Hierotheos on 3 and 4 October, as he rightly pointed out, do not belong to the monophysite tradition because their source are the Greek Chalcedonian calendars where these memories are preserved until now. So, they have nothing to do with the monophysite saints Peter Iberian and John the Eunuch.
Roques, the author of now classical L’Univers dionysienne (1953), explored the contents of the vision of John the Eunuch in the context of the visions of the heavens available in Christian literature to the end of the 5th century. He concluded that the vision of John presupposes another type of the arrangement of heavenly hierarchies than that of the Corpus Areopagiticum. Especially important that John saw seven angelic ranks instead of nine, and that he saw, among them, the figures of holy humans as separate ranks of heavenly beings.
This threefold attack was enough to bury the Honigmann’s thesis for a while.

van Esbroeck’s apology of Honigmann

Michel van Esbroeck answered the three critics of Honigmann and provided a further development of Honigmann’s argumentation. In his replies to Hausherr and Engberding he introduced some important new data.

van Esbroeck’s reply to Hausherr

Peter Iberian’s attitude toward the secular philosophy of his time, especially Platonic one, must be very familiar, despite his close ties with Isaias of Gaza. The Empress Eudocia, being a daughter of an Athenian pagan philosopher and also being a poet and philosopher herself, was not only the de facto stepmother of Peter, but also a person deeply involved into the Palestinian monastic circles connected to Melania the Younger (ca 382—439) and subsequently opposed to the Council of Chalcedon. Peter’s monastic formation (and not only his young years in Emperor’s palace) was deeply influenced by the concept of monasticism acknowledged in the entourage of Melania and formulated by Eudocia in the words of Plato “So for those who despise the vain appearance, that is the deadly cloth which the soul is born to leave, according to the sayings of Plato” (Οὕτω τὴν κενὴν δόξαν περιφρονοῦσιν, ὂν τελευταῖον χιτῶνα Πλάτων ὁ φιλόσοφος φησιν ἡ ψυχὴ πέφυκεν ἀποτίθεσθαι ; quoted in Nicephorus Callistus, PG 146, 1237 A; tr. MvE, and also, in a slightly different form, in Evagrius Scholasticus, I, 22; ed. Bidez, p. 31, the latter being—very probably but not certainly—the source of the former).
For the sake of space, I summarised this van Esbroeck’s argument taking into account my own addition (Lourié 2001) when introducing the figure of Melania the Younger (however, my 2001 paper was written in a close contact with MvE, and so, even this detail is found under his direction). For the role of Melania the Younger as spiritual teacher of Peter Iberian see now (Horn 2006). Eudocia, too, characterised Melania as her “true spiritual mother” (Life of Melania the Younger, 58; ed. Gorce, p. 242).
Eudocia’s quotation from Plato is not a free periphrasis of Phaedo 87 D-E (pace MvE) but a more exact quote from a lost work preserved in Athenaeus (XI, 116, l. 29-31) . One should note (pace MvE) that neither Nicephorus Callistus nor Evagrius attribute this quotation to Eudocia explicitly, but it appears in the description of some peculiar kind of the Palestinian asceticism in Eudocia’s time. Anyway, I think (cf. analysis in Lourié 2001) the ultimate source of the Platonic quotation belongs to the same monastic milieu as Eudocia when she became monastic.
I think that we have to conclude that, despite these minor corrections, this argument of van Esbroeck still holds. Moreover, it is now enforced by taking into account the role of Melania the Younger as the figure who shaped the relevant milieu of the Palestinian monasticism.
Therefore, pace Hausherr, Peter Iberian has had a sufficient background in Christian rethinking of Hellenic philosophy to not to be excluded, on this ground, from the possible authors of the Corpus Areopagiticum.

van Esbroeck’s reply to Engberding

To meet Engberding’s objection, van Esbroeck elaborates on the possibility of reconciliation of Peter Iberian with the followers of the Chalcedon, and thus, the possibility of his recognition as a Chalcedonian saint. His main arguments here are the three:
1. a hard anti-Chalcedonian bias of John Rufus, Peter’s hagiographer, which makes his information about Peter’s continuous anti-Chalcedonian stay somewhat unreliable,
2. Peter’s rejection of the Christological Trisagion of Peter the Fuller testified directly by a Chalcedonian source (Theodorus of Petra, Panegyricon on Theodosius Cenobiarchos, ed. Usener 1890, p. 66.8-10) and indirectly by John Rufus in his Plerophoriae, ch. 22,
3. example of Eudocia who was converted to the Chalcedonian faith by Symeon the Stylite in about 456, not long before her death (460).
These arguments and especially the second one are much important in the view of further argumentation for the authorship of Peter Iberian, but I would consider all of them rather superfluous when answering Engberding (and so, I will return to them later).
Peter Iberian died in 491 and was widely considered as a saint. This was the epoch when the Henotikon of Zeno (482) was in force throughout the Orient where only a small fraction of the followers of Eutychios (anathematised not only at Chalcedon, but also in the Henotikon) remained dissident. All the saints of this period, starting from Daniel the Stylite—the spiritual leader of the epoch of Henotikon, a kind of the prophet Daniel during the rule of Zeno and early (pacific) part of the rule of Anastasius—entered the Eastern Christian synaxaries without problems. It is only since 505, after reinterpretation of the Henotikon in a militant monophysite sense in a sermon of John III Niceotes, patriarch of Alexandria, and especially after 512 (forced change of the leading figures in the Eastern episcopate) that the Henotikon became deeply controversial not only in Rome but in Orient too.
The attitude of Peter toward the Council of Chalcedon did simply not matter in the period when he died (491), in between 482 and 505/512. His loyalty toward the Henotikon is indisputable. Therefore, he must take, after 482, an “irenic” attitude towards those who do not anathematize Chalcedon providing that they do confess that it is God who is born and crucified.
It is rather a too Chalcedonian attitude that would prevent the acceptance of a Church leader of this epoch as a Byzantine saint. I think that it is the real cause of almost complete oblivion of the memory of the patriarch of Constantinople Euthymius/Euphemius (490—496, † 515) who was deposed for his attempt to interpret the Henotikon in an openly Chalcedonian sense, even if without rejecting it formally (s. Lourié 2007).
The acceptance of an anti-Chalcedonian saint of this epoch in the Byzantine Orthodox calendars could seen as problematic in the only case if the whole situation is seen from Rome, then separated from the whole remaining Church and accusing the other patriarchates in “Acacian schism.” The abrogation of the Henotikon, already reinterpreted in a strongly monophysite sense, under Justin I (518) was compensated by the “neo-Chalcedonian” reinterpretation of the Chalcedonian horos (leading to further conflicts with Rome known as the theopaschite controversy and the schism of Pope Vigilius) that was, in fact, a restoration of the mainstream theology of the epoch of Zeno.
Of course, the attitude of John Rufus when he wrote his Life of Peter Iberian in about 500 was closer to the militant anti-Chalcedonian reinterpretation of the Henotikon given by John Niceotes in 505.
The memory of Peter Iberian as a saint is preserved (until now) in the Georgian Church when it became Chalcedonian in the early 7th century but seems to be suppressed in the mainstream Byzantine tradition. These topics still need to be studied properly. Peter Iberian is listed among the leaders of heretics in the Synodical Epistle of Sophronius of Jerusalem (634) published as the first reaction to the ongoing monothelite union. This letter became a first-value dogmatic document after the definitive condemnation of the monothelitism (not earlier than after 715). However, the diothelite doctrine of Sophronius himself was then not quite a common in Orient where verbal “monothelitism” seems to me being prevailing (Lourié 1997, 2006). It is likely that, in his condemnation of Peter Iberian, Sophronius was depending on a marginal Palestinian tradition whose legacy he was sharing. M. van Esbroeck argues (1997) that the corresponding part of the Synodical Epistle is simply copied from a Chalcedonian document of the early 6th century. Be this as it may, such a suppression of Peter’s name in the lists of saints could not affect his “indirect” veneration under the name of Dionysius Areopagite. And this is the only point that is needed to answer Engberding.

Note: Peter Iberian and the Trisagion controversy

Cornelia Horn in her very important monograph on Peter Iberian (2006: 391–395) treated at some length the role of the Trisagion controversy in the life (and the Life by John Rufus) of Peter. The controversy started between 468 and 470 when Peter the Fuller, patriarch of Antioch, introduced the words “crucified for us” in the Trisagion hymn. John Rufus, of course, is quite supportive to this innovation. Horn thinks that Peter’s attitude was the same. However, she does not mention van Esbroeck’s arguments and, what is more important, confuses in her theological analysis two different matters: the claim that it is God who is crucified for us (so-called “theopaschism”) and the meaning of the Christological Trisagion in the time of the controversy. Moreover, Horn refers to but seems not really taking into account the study of Janeras (1967) demonstrating that the Christological Trisagion was—and still is—familiar to the Byzantine (Chalcedonian) liturgy, however, without addition. It is the addition only that made a problem.
There is no doubt that Peter Iberian shared the “theopaschite” convictions, but he has here on his side such prominent Chalcedonians as Emperor Justinian and the fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. It was not the “theopaschism” that made the Trisagion controversy of the late 5th and early 6th centuries so acute but especially the role of Peter the Fuller during his second tenure (485—488) when the addition has been made the slogan of a radical monophysitism aiming the genuine “irenic” spirit of the Henotikon. In the epoch of Henotikon, both main sides of the Trisagion controversy were “theopaschite” but they did differ in the matter of the subject of the passion in God. Horn does not mention the testimony of Theodorus of Petra quoted by van Esbroeck (ἐπιτιμάτω τούτοις ὁ μακάριος Πέτρος Χριστοῦ παθόντος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν σαρκί οὐχί δὲ καὶ θεότητι ἀποφηνάμενος) and the letter of Peter to John Rufus quoted in the Plerophoriae (ch. 22, p. 49–50) where Peter suggests to him to decline the invitation to Antioch from the part of Peter the Fuller in the 480s (“...si tu vas à Antioche, tu seras troublé, puis convaincu par tes amis et par celui qui est maître là-bas; [et alors] ou bien tut e joindras à lui, ou bien tu tomberas dans [son] inimité s’il te renvoie”).
One can mention here an interesting hypothesis of van Esbroeck (1993): he thought possible that Demophilus, the addressee of the 8th letter of the Corpus, has his prototype in the person of Peter the Fuller, and Demophilus’ digression of the order of the Church is Peter’s liturgical innovation (addition to the Trisagion).

van Esbroeck’s reply to Roques

The reply to Roques is the most succinct. Indeed, the vision of John in about 444 showed not the absolutely same heavens that are described in the Corpus Aropagiticum. However, the distance between the vision and the formation of the earliest layer of the Corpus is not less than 20 years. Peter could reshape the earlier mystical experience of his friend. Therefore, Roques’ considerations are not especially relevant to the problem of the authorship of the Corpus.

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