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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

Ten from ’10 continued

Greg Given, religion

  • Hometown: Knoxville, TN
  • Adviser: Michael Foat
  • Thesis: Anchoring the Areopagite: An Intertextual Approach to Pseudo-Dionysius
  • What it’s about: Intrigued by the writings of the Christian philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius, I set out to trace connections to other ancient texts. I discovered that he relied heavily on (i.e., swiped from) two earlier writers, Theodoret of Cyrus and Cyril of Alexandria. As far as I can tell, no one realized this until now.
  • What it’s really about: You’d be surprised what you can learn from ancient plagiarism.
  • Cool stuff I did: Studied Coptic, played guitar in a rock band named Diacon-Panthers, worked on Canyon Crew, learned to brew beer, and gained a whole new appreciation for sunlight.
  • Most influential book I read: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
  • How Reed Changed Me: When I got to Reed I hated history and was absolutely, positively sure I was going to do physics for the rest of my life. Reed has definitely broadened my horizons and given me new insight into how things work. I’m definitely grateful for the financial aid I received, including the Mary E. Barnard Memorial Humanities Scholarship and the Betty Gray Scholarship.
  • What’s Next: Harvard Divinity School.

Thesis Closeup:

Anchoring the Areopagite

The early Christian philosopher Dionysius the Areopagite has always been something of an enigma. Although his writings exerted profound influence on medieval theology, especially regarding the hierarchy of angels, many facts about the author remain shrouded in mystery—which is rather appropriate, since William James proclaimed him “the fountainhead of Christian mysticism.” We are not certain when he was born, where he lived, or who he really was. One of the few things we do know is that he was an impostor, writing under the pseudonym of a biblical character who makes a brief appearance in the New Testament as a disciple of Paul. In fact, textual clues suggest that the author actually lived in the fifth or sixth century CE. Over the years, scholars have attempted to establish the true identity of this Pseudo-Dionysius, as he has come to be known, and trace his ideas back to various other sources, such as Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, Iamblichus, and Proclus.

By employing a sophisticated intertextual analysis to a database of ancient writings, Greg was able to show that Pseudo-Dionysius borrowed heavily from two early Christian sources who had so far escaped detection: Theodoret of Cyrus and Cyril of Alexandria, two bishops who were both deeply enmeshed on opposite sides of the Nestorian controversy, which revolved around the question of whether Christ was both human and divine. By drawing on these two antagonistic sources, Pseudo-Dionysius may have been trying to reconcile the Nestorian schism, as well as integrating Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian doctrine.—CL

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010