Dionysius Exiguus and church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

In the introduction to his collection of canon law documents (canonical collection), Dionysius Exiguus (c. 525) discusses how the Greek canon is the same as the Latin regula, then moves on to a discussion of the (then) four main councils:

Now, the canons of the general councils begin from the times of Constantine since in the preceding years when persecution was raging, opportunity for teaching the people was least given. Then Christianity was divided into various heresies because there was no freedom for the bishops to come together into one except in the time of the abovementioned emperor. For he gave the opportunity to Christians to gather freely. Under this also the holy fathers, coming from all the globe of the lands in the Nicene Council handed down the second symbolum (henceforth ‘creed’) after the Apostles joined to the evangelical and apostolic faith. Amongst the rest of the councils, there are four venerable synods which principally embrace the whole faith just like the four Gospels and as many rivers of Paradise.

Of these, the first was the Nicene Synod of the three hundred and eighteen bishops, carried out with Constantine Augustus ruling. In this one, the blasphemy of the Arian falsehood was condemned, which concerning the inequality of the Holy Trinity that Arius indeed asserted, the holy synod defined that God the Son is consubstantial with God the Father through a creed.

The second synod of 400 fathers under Theodosius the Elder was gathered at Constantinople which, condemning Macedonius who denied that the Holy Spirit was God, demonstrated that the Holy Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, giving the shape to the creed which the entire confession of the Greeks and Latins proclaim in the churches.

The third synod is the first of Ephesus, of 200 bishops, produced under Theodosius the Younger, which justly condemned in an anathema Nestorius who was asserting that there were two persons in Christ, showing that there is one person of the Lord Jesus Christ in two natures.

The fourth synod, that of Chalcedon of 630 priests (sacerdotes), was held under the princeps Marcian. In it, one judgement of the fathers condemned Eutyches, an abbot of Constantinople who was a defender of the one nature of God the Word and the flesh, and a certain Bishop of Alexandria and Nestorius himself again with the rest of the heretics. The same synod proclaimed that Christ God was so born from the virgin that we confess in him the substance of the divine and human nature.

These are the four principal synods that proclaim most fully the teaching of the faith but also, if there are councils which the holy fathers, filled with the Spirit of God, sanctify after the authority of these four, they would remain with a sturdy strength, whose established deeds are contained in this work. (My trans. from Vat. lat. 1337, fol. 1r-v)

Dionysius’ main concern is not, of course, their doctrinal rulings, although he does include the symbolum of Nicaea amongst his texts. His concern is their canons, their regulations for church life, all of which he freshly translated out of Greek into Latin alongside the regulations from various local church councils and the document called the ‘Canons of the Apostles’. Later on he compiles a collection of papal letters (thus my interest in him). This letter collection is appended to that of the canons.

One quick reflection upon what is an intrinsically interesting document. All four councils were called by emperors, all of whom Dionysius names — Constantine, Theodosius I, Theodosius II, Marcian. Indeed, he states that such general councils would not have been possible before Constantine because of boiling persecution (persecutione feruente). This point is made elsewhere. It is worth thinking on. Today, we have no emperor to make safe the roads and compel bishops to come by edict. But back then, that was the only way to get as many together to qualify as worldwide (ecumenical). Note also that Dionysius leaves room for more councils!

It is also worth remembering that local synods are attested frequently before Constantine, such as the deposition of Paul of Samosata at an Antiochene synod in the 200s, or various local synods in Rome. Or others that escape my mind but likely happened. From the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, church leaders have always sought to gather together to discuss, pray, and debate thereby discovering what ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28).

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An excursus on the Synod of Whitby (AD 664) and Celtic Christianity

Whitby Abbey

As I travel through the messiness that is church history from Constantine to the Reformation, hunting for those whom the institutional church hunted, I would like to branch off on the cusp of the big issues of the Middle Ages to bring to you …

The Synod of Whitby

Why is the Synod of Whitby worth bold letters in the centre of the page? Because the popular myth that surrounds Whitby, one that is intimately linked with modern visions of the ‘Celtic Church’, is that in 664, when King Oswiu and Northumberland chose to follow the current Roman calculations for Easter, they became ‘aligned’ with the Roman Church against the ‘Celtic’ Church in a clash of civilisations and worldviews. It was free-spirited Celt vs bureaucratic, legalistic Roman. Many people call 664 the end of Celtic Christianity. If you’re interested in Celtic spirituality, don’t look any later than this.

So, especially since the gathering was called by the King of Northumberland, it seems the perfect fit for the nastiness that is the official church and its organisms after Constantine ruined everything by daring to give bishops tax-free status.

I just read Benedicta Ward’s little booklet A True Easter: The Synod of Whiby 664 AD, and, well, the truth is messier and, quite frankly, doesn’t support the above reading which draws more upon nineteenth-century nationalism and contemporary Protestant/agnostic searches for early (Christian) spirituality that doesn’t require the presence of a Bishop in Rome.

First, what was this gathering actually about? It was about two things: the date of Easter and how monks should shave their heads. True story. That is all it was about. The latter is not so important. The former, on the other hand, was a big deal all over the ancient and early mediaeval church.

Why is the date of Easter a big deal? Why does it matter whether people celebrate it at the same time? Well, as the Venerable Bede points out, when the King of Northumberland celebrated Easter on one date and his Queen another, one would be feasting while the other was fasting (this is how similar the two practices were; basically the date was the only difference). This is the general complaint about different dates of Easter from time immemorial. It also matters because almost the entire liturgical year is centred around Easter; it sets the dates for the fast of Lent as well as the baptisms which traditionally occur at Easter and Pentecost. It was important for the ancient and mediaeval Christians, who lived in an almost completely oral society for whom visible signs meant more than they do today, that those who are united internally — that is, doctrinally — be united visibly as well.

The dispute about Easter first pops up, according to tradition, in the late 100s when some Christians in Asia Minor were found to be always celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan, that is, Passover — they were accordingly called Quartodecimans. Some people call the Roman episcopus Victor who sent the letter on this issue to the eastern churches the first ‘Pope’. Whatever that’s worth, Quartodecimans were not the end of such disputes, since calculating Easter is a bit tricky. Constantine, who very often tried to help the church find unity and uniformity in various matters, ruled that everyone should follow the Bishop of Alexandria, since Egyptians are good at astronomy and stuff. This didn’t stop Pope Leo I a little over a hundred years later arguing with the Bishop of Alexandria about what the right date would be.

Around 457 (while a frustrated Leo was Bishop of Rome), the Church in Rome decided to follow the Easter tables by Victorius of Aquitaine. This usage spread to the whole western Church that was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, including the Church in Ireland, which was in the process of being evangelised by missionary-bishop-monks sent from Rome.

So how do the Rome-evangelised churches in the south of England, and the Ireland-evangelised churches in the north of England end up with different dates for Easter?

Well, in 525, everyone’s favourite short monk from Scythia, Dionysius Exiguus, came up with new tables for calculating the date of Easter that would run until 1063. These were a bit better at calculating the combined solar-lunar cycle that determines Easter (apparently a tricky thing to this day), so the Roman Church and those in communion with her on the continent adopted the new cycle.

Ireland and Wales (and, as a result, the missions in Scotland and England) did not. I imagine this is because there was not a lot of contact between them and Spain and Gaul (let alone Italy!), especially since Spain and Gaul were busy being consolidated into barbarian kingdoms at the time, with the occasional invasion by a neighbour. When Augustine of Canterbury turned up in 597, the Welsh Christians resisted his calculation of Easter; for them, it does seem to have been a mark of resistance and individuality.

Sixty-seven years later at Whitby, however, the Irish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons and Irish who favoured the old Roman dating of Easter, and the Kentish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons who favoured the new Roman dating, were all simply appealing to what they saw as the authentic tradition. They had all partnered in mission, and some of them were married to people from the other side of the debate.  Theologically, they were in agreement. It was the thorny issue of Easter and how to shave a monk’s head over which they disagreed. As Benedicta Ward paints the scene, this was a meeting of friends, of Christians who loved one another who wanted to solve a problem.

Except possibly Oswiu, for whom this was also a matter of secular politicking.

Anyway, the new Roman position won. Although Colman resigned his bishopric and monastery, his replacements in Lindisfarne were still Irish-trained; the only difference was the fact that they would follow the new date of Easter. When he left, some of the English monks followed him to Iona.

Ward points out that Bede speaks highly of the Irish missionaries and monks, finding their obstinacy concerning dating Easter as the only general fault. Their devotion to the theological truths of Easter he praises.

Eventually, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the isles adopted the new Roman date of Easter. While this may sound like reading history backwards, it still strikes me as inevitable. The entire church on the continent followed this practice, as did the churches in southern England with a mix in Northumberland. The Church of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages  esteemed unity, and the celebration of the Church’s chiefest and principal feast was an important demonstration of that unity.

If you’re looking for a Roman church imposing its power over local practices, look not to the Synod of Whitby.

Dionysius Exiguus — too much overlooked

Dionysius Exiguus, or ‘Denys the Short’ (Wee Dennis, perhaps?) was a ‘Scythian’ (ie. from the Northeastern edge of the Roman Empire) monk who lived at Rome in the early sixth century. I have a feeling this is precisely why he has fallen into obscurity, for — other than Boethius & Benedict — the Latin Fathers between the two papal Greats (Leo, d. 461, & Gregory, ascended sedes Apostolica 590) are often overlooked. One may read Sidonius Apollonaris out of an interest in Late Latin prose style, but who reads Cassiodorus these days?

Anyway, this wee man is far too often overlooked. The only two books I found about him in the University of Edinburgh Library are both about the fact that he is the person who set out to establish the date of Christ’s birth — and his version stuck, even though he got it wrong (thus BC & AD trace back to him). These two works are both fairly recent, Anno Domini by Georges Declercq and The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era by Alden A. Mosshammer.

Dionysius, though, is an important person to focus our attention upon not only because of Anno Domini starting with him, but also because of the important place he stands and the era of which he is indicative.

Dionysius was prominent chiefly for two activities — translating and editing (maybe this is why I think we should look at him more closely!). He translated various works into Latin, such as the Life of St. Pachomius, Proterius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Leo, the letter of Proclus of Constantinople to the Armenians concerning the orthodox faith, and some works of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the creation of the world.

Sadly, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, ‘Translation has often been marginalized as a second-order activity, lacking in originality’ (‘Translation’). People have an obsession with first things, with the primus inventor, with ‘the original’, with ‘creativity’ and ‘new contributions to knowledge’ that things such as translation or Roman art or the entirety of the Middle Ages, due to their ‘derivative’ nature are scorned and ignored.

Yet translation is an important task. It can tell you as much about the translator as a text composed by the author him/herself. Is this writer skilled at the primary language? Is there facility in the rendering into the target language? What things are changed? What effects do these changes have? Why might they have been made? Are all changes ‘errors’? Can a translation ‘improve’ upon the original?

Furthermore, the Early Medieval enterprise of translation is an important reality in a world where Latin and Greek readers are becoming more and more estranged, unable to read each other’s bodies of literature. Therefore, it becomes imperative that important texts be made available in Latin for the Latin-reading public. Part of the shift from a ‘Classical’ to a ‘Medieval’ world was the shift from a bilingual Roman Empire to a very real, at times insurmountable, division between the Greek East and the Latin West.

Observing which works were translated by Dionysius and his contemporaries. and for whom and what the distribution of these translations was can show us a lot about the late Patristic Age as it forged a brave, new Medieval world.

Dionysius Exiguus is also notable for his contribution to canon law. Here, again, he is not the first to engage in the task under discussion, but he is important and indicative of the age in his own right. He compiled a bipartite collection of documents related to canon law (a ‘canonical collection’), the first part covering the canons of various synods East and West up to Chalcedon, the second collecting papal letters from 284-498.

This, the Collectio Dionysiana, is not unique. Of the canonical collections that contain letters of Leo the Great, fifteen of them are from the sixth century; of the fifteen, seven are from the first half, including the Dionysiana. Although I am aware only of canonical collections with Leonine material, no such collections seem to exist prior to the turn of the sixth century. The early 500s, then, are an important age for the transmission of canon law.

Collections such as the Collectio Dionysiana are very important in this period, because the papal Register was an invention of Gregory the Great. Thus, pre-Gregorian papal letters have a somewhat patchy and scattered history (quite literally). Taking these disparate materials and putting a number of them into a single volume for easy access was a vitally important task at the the beginning of the 500s. Thus could popes and other persons with a need to consult the mind of past Bishops of Rome on issues of faith and practice have an easier time of it.

Furthermore, the choice of letters, whether through necessity (‘These are all I have’) or editorial practice (‘These are all I shall use’) helps shape future opinion on these subjects. No longer will popes have to simply cite Sancti Patres; they can actually name who said what — Noster Pater Sanctus Leo, Papa Romae.

This collection, in particular, has an important place in the development of canon law. Other canonical collections made use of the Dionysiana, such as Collectio Vaticana (6th century), Cresconius’ Concordia canonum (mid-6th with a wide array of manuscripts surviving), Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (8th, many mss), and Collectio Dionysiana adaucta (9th). Canon jurists and papal advisers and popes were reading the Collectio Dionysiana for centuries as they compiled new, larger canonical collections. This particular arrangement and gathering of papal documents would have shaped their own view of papal authority and the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The manuscripts of collections that trace themselves back to Dionysius are mostly no later than the twelfth century, although there is one from the sixteenth. In the twelfth century, Gratian made his famous Decretum, that brought together various excerpts from canons and papal letters arranged systematically on certain questions, so the copying of material such as the Dionysiana would have understandably gone down. Nevertheless, that is five hundred years of consistent copying and use, even in the face of the famous and influential Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

Finally, this anthologising of Dionysius’ is, like his translations, indicative of his age. The Later Roman Empire was a world saturated by far too much reading material, and anthologies were in vogue. I doubt this was because people didn’t like reading long extracts or entire works; rather, it’s because there was so much available to put into the anthologies. It is an age where a person can gain a lot without having to read all 144 books of Livy, or over 100 papal letters just to answer one question.

Dionysius is part of the culture that gives birth to the Middle Ages. He is indicative of the wider realm in many ways, and important for the development of western European culture in the years following the ‘Fall’ of Rome. For these reasons, he is too much overlooked.