Theotokos: ps.Dionysius of Alexandria’s Letter to Paul of Samosata

In my last post we looked at whether Origen used the word “Theotokos” (Mother of God) for the virgin Mary.  Let’s continue this by looking at another supposed 3rd century use of the term, in Dionysius of Alexandria, Letter to Paul of Samosata (CPG 1708).

Dionysius died in 264 AD, and the text does indeed use the term Theotokos:

How do you say that a man is a superior Christ, and not really God, and adored by every creature with the Father and the Holy Spirit, incarnated from the holy virgin and Mary the Mother of God?

But is the text authentic?  Well a little further on, we read:

You call him abandoned who was Lord by nature, and the Word of the Father, “through whom the Father made all things,” (John 1) and whom the holy fathers called “homoousion” of the Father, for they taught us about God…

That is a pretty overt reference to the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), and, by itself, tells us that the text is not 3rd century.

The work itself is full of arguments about Christology.  These were analysed by N. Bonwetsch and G. Bardy in the early 20th century, who concluded that they were clearly directed against the school of Antioch, and especially Diodorus of Tarsus and his pupil Theodore of Mopsuestia.  The tone was somewhat monophysite, and in fact somewhat Apollinarian. They concluded that the text was composed by an unknown Apollinarist in the late 4th-early 5th century.

Ed. Schwartz, who produced a critical edition in 1927, called the writer a “bungler”:

Ein weiteres, bisher, wie es scheint, nicht benutztes Argument für die Unechtheit liefert die Sprache, über die allerdings ein sicheres Urteil erst möglich ist, wenn die willkürlichen Glättungen von de Torres beseitigt sind. Der ‘große’ Dionysius war einer der elegantesten und glänzendsten Stilisten nicht nur seiner, sondern der Kaiserzeit überhaupt; der Verfasser der drei Schriften ist ein Stümper, dessen sprachliche und schriftstellerische Kenntnisse und Fähigkeiten in umgekehrtem Verhältnis zu seinem frommen Eifer stehen.

Another argument for inauthenticity, which it seems has not been used up to now, is provided by the language, about which, however, a reliable judgment is only possible if the arbitrary smoothings by de Torres are eliminated. The ‘great’ Dionysius was one of the most elegant and brilliant stylists not only of his time but of the whole of the empire; the author of the three writings is a bungler whose linguistic and literary knowledge and skills are in inverse proportion to his pious zeal.

The Apollinarians were notorious for forging texts in the names of earlier respected fathers, under which they advanced their own beliefs.  Indeed Leontius of Byzantium even wrote a book “Against the frauds of the Apollinarists”.  They also seem to have interpolated the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, creating the “long version” of 15 letters.

Others have looked at the text since, and given it an even later date, possibly 6th century.  See for instance in Lang, John Philoponus, p.110, n.355, online here:

The forger of the spurious Letter to Paul of Samosata, attributed to Dionysius of Alexandria and most likely written in the sixth century, also adduces Col. 2:9: Ps.-Dionysius of Alexandria. Resp. 7 ad Paul. Samos. 261.3-10: Schwartz. This passage is a good example of how the forger uses the Letter of the Six Bishops and adopts its themes. De Riedmatten (1952). 123-6. shows that Ps.-Dionysius of Alexandria develops the thought of the earlier letter in an Apollinarian direction, pace Schwartz (1927), 55. who dismisses both documents as spurious.

H. De Riedmatten, Acta de Paulo Samosateno seu Disputatio inter Paulum ac Malchionem (fragmenta), (1952).

The last bit is from the bibliography: but I think there must be something wrong with that reference, for I can find no such volume.  It is perhaps:

Henri de Riedmatten, Les Actes du procès de Paul de Samosate. Etude sur la christologie du IIIe au IVe siècle (= Paradosis. Études de littérature et de théologie anciennes, VI). Fribourg en Suisse, Éditions Saint-Paul, 1952. In-8°, 171 p.

This used to be online here, but is no longer.

To summarise, we cannot use Dionysius of Alexandria as a witness for the use of “Theotokos” in the third century.

Just for fun, I pasted the 1608 Latin translation (byTurrianus) of the Greek into Google Translate, and cleaned it up a bit.  I frankly don’t understand all the theological noodling, so it may well contain crass errors.  But I place it online anyway:

I’ve also placed it at here.  It has no scholarly value, of course, but it might save someone the effort of doing the same, merely in order to read it.  As ever, I make it public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational, or commercial.


15 thoughts on “Theotokos: ps.Dionysius of Alexandria’s Letter to Paul of Samosata

  1. I’m going to read this later… I need to eat lunch pretty badly!!

    Before I forget, here’s a really neat thesis — Friesen on the pagan, Jewish, and Christian reception of the Bacchae by Euripides, and on how both Jews and early Christians adopted Bacchae images of Dionysus to explain the actual God and His deeds. She argues that Acts has an extended set of imagery connected to this (as well as to Homer, etc.), which was part of his way of explaining what Christianity was and how it is better and truer than what paganism had.

    Re: this post —

    I would expect “technical terms” like Theotokos/Deipara to come along later than the NT “mother of my LORD” (mother of YHWH), and short versions like “meter Theou/mater Dei.” Because theological terms show up when there’s a problem (like the Collyridians, or the Gnostics that thought of Sophia as the mother of various things).

    The interesting bit is that the earliest stuff seems to be a bit roundabout instead, possibly because of worries about paganism, and possibly because of the disciplina arcani about certain subjects. Really really early on, it might even be about the safety of particular people. And yet Mary’s motherhood necessarily comes up, because the Gospels make a point that He was both “son of the Most High” and “son of Mary.”

    JSTOR has a 1990 art paper called “Images of the Mother: When the Virgin Mary Became ‘Meter Theou’ ” by Ioli Kalevrezou, which makes the interesting point that although pix of Mary holding Baby Jesus show up early, they got a lot more popular after Iconoclasm, whereas just before Iconoclasm hit, more (Byzantine) people were into Mary’s depictions as the Virgin or as Protector, or Empress, or so on. I haven’t read the whole article yet.

    Okay, I’m hungry, so I’d better head off. 🙂

  2. Courtney Jade Friesen is a guy. Very obviously a guy. Boy, his parents were not kind to him on the naming front. I hope those are family names or something.

    Anyway, he teaches classics at U of Arizona, and has a new book out about Jewish and Christian interaction with all kinds of pagan plays. So yup, that sounds interesting.

    Alright, going to lunch. Late lunch now!

  3. Those are very good points. Language remains undefined until some crisis, usually when someone starts saying something *definitely* wrong; and then a correct definition is worked out.
    After which statements by earlier writers may suddenly look heretical, when in fact they had no such intention. This is why even Cyril of Alexandria was not happy about retrospective condemnation.

  4. It just occurred to me — even though it’s interpreted in various ways, nobody has a problem with the phrase, “brother of the LORD” (which would mean “brother of YHWH”), or with James’ Greek title, “Iakovos Adelphotheos”.

    In fact, all us Christians are quite proud to _be_ the LORD’s brothers and sisters, by virtue of adoption if not genetics.

    So… not all familial titles are treated equally, I guess?

  5. Actually… I just found that one guy on the Internet who insists on “Adelphochristos.”

    Sadly, his name isn’t Nestorius, so I can’t claim my ten pounds.

  6. Oh, and he also says that James was the only legit successor to Christ, and that everybody except his little group is under the domain of “Peter the traitor, and Paul the obnoxious heresiarch, the fake apostle, and apostate from the law.”

    Well. That shows me, then.

  7. “Courtney Jade Friesen is a guy. Very obviously a guy. Boy, his parents were not kind to him on the naming front. I hope those are family names or something.”

    If is to be believed, Courtney was actually more common as a boy’s name from 1886 to 1961. It wasn’t until 1962 that it was more popular as a girl’s name, and then it exploded in popularity as a girls’ name in the 70’s and 80’s, reaching a height in the 90’s and then gradually declining, falling off the top 1000 most popular girls’ names after 2018. Still, even when it became more popular as a girl’s name, it took a while for it to fade away as a male name, as Courtney remained in the top 1000 most popular boys’ names until 2002. (note all data is for the US)

    I don’t know exactly how old Courtney Jade Friesen is, but the dissertation is from 2013. If you go straight from a Bachelor’s Degree to a PhD, you’d be getting it at around the age of 25. That would put his birth around 1988 (or possibly earlier), at a time when Courtney was not an unpopular name for boys (1988 it was the 273rd most popular). It’s only now, decades later, that it feels odd.

    Sort of like how “Leslie” nowadays is associated with girls, but from 1880 to 1940 was actually much more popular as a boys’ name, but then for whatever reason switched places, losing a lot of popularity as a boys’ name while it got very popular as a name for girls.

    This has been your useless dose of trivia for the week.

  8. No, that was interesting. I wonder if it was a regional male name? Because I was theoretically aware that it was a male name too, but I literally never had run into any male Courtneys in my whole life. Or male Jades, for that matter.

    Aeh, not that it matters. If anything, as a scholar it might help people remember his name and look for it.

    (Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature has a section on 1600’s and 1700’s UK names that keep showing up in the US as names passed down in families. Pretty hilarious for the 1600’s estate heir names that got dropped on girls, albeit very rich noble girls.)

  9. The practice of using aristocratic surnames as given names (at least for boys) is an old one and originally, I think, indicated some affinity with the family concerned, but by the 19th century, if not earlier, was no more than a mark of admiration or respect. (My own great-uncle was christened Lowther, and we have absolutely no connexion with the Earls of Lonsdale.) The noble family of Courtenay has ramifications all over Europe; the English branch stems from Reginald de Courtenay (d. 1190), and Courtenay is still the surname of the Earls of Devon. Therefore Courtenay (variously spelt) is not unusual as a male forename (even if never common: in the social milieu from which I stem it would have been thought unbearably “posh” and pretentious). It is its use as a girl’s name that strikes me as odd, and as a recent innovation. (The same is true of Jade, and I had never before now heard of that as a male name.)

  10. One of my tutors was named Courtenay Phillips. He was rather grand.

    Courtney is probably from Courtney Love, the singer. Pop song influence.

  11. “Courtney” for girls dropped off in the 1990s, they say; probably when word got out about just how awful the widow Cobain was. There were many songs about her, like “Hollaback Girl”. Embarrassingly (for her) often catchy songs.
    “Monica” took a hit in the late 1990s too for some reason.

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