Dionysius and Revelation

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 103-104.

Dionysius of Alexandria lived in the third century C.E., and he was a pupil of Origen. In Ecclesiastical History 7:25 (click here), Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) quotes Dionysius’ views on the Book of Revelation.

Dionysius states the following:

For [some] say that it is not the work of John, nor is it a revelation, because it is covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity. And they affirm that none of the apostles, and none of the saints, nor any one in the Church is its author, but that Cerinthus, who founded the sect which was called after him the Cerinthian, desiring reputable authority for his fiction, prefixed the name.

According to Dionysius, some Christians in his day were claiming that Cerinthus was the author of the Book of Revelation. We don’t have any sources from Cerinthus himself, but we do have second century Christian documents that seek to refute him. According to this article, such sources indicate that Cerinthus was a contemporary of the apostle John, and that he held the following beliefs:

1. The supreme God didn’t create the universe, but an inferior Demiurge did so.

2. Christians should keep the Jewish law.

3. “Christ” came upon the human Jesus at his baptism and left him at his passion (adoptionism).

4. Some say Cerinthus believed Christ rose from the dead in the first century C.E., while others claim he thought that Christ would rise again at the last day.

5. Prior to the resurrection, Christ will rule the earth for a thousand years.

Not all of this is consistent with the Book of Revelation. For example, Revelation 4:11 and 10:16 seem to present the supreme God as the creator of the heavens and earth, which contradicts (1.). Revelation doesn’t strike me as adoptionist (3.), for it affirms that Jesus is still “Jesus” after his death and resurrection (Revelation 22:16, 20-21), rather than separating Jesus from Christ. (But there’s plenty that I don’t know about adoptionism.)

For (2.), there are Christians and scholars who treat Revelation as a Jewish book. For example, many dispensationalists think that its passages about saints who “keep the commandments of God” (Revelation 12:17; 14:12) refer to Torah-observant believers in the last days. Scholars point out that Revelation 2:14 is quite negative about Christians eating meat offered to idols, whereas Paul appears rather tolerant of the practice in I Corinthians 8.

Revelation and Cerinthus do overlap on the millennium (5.). But what Dionysius presents as Cerinthus’ position appears a lot more specific than what we see in Revelation:

For the doctrine which [Cerinthus] taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one. And as he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that that kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion; that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace.

Cerinthus may have believed this about the millennium, but I don’t see anything about that in Revelation’s description. Certinthus probably did what a lot of dispensationalists do: he applied the Old Testament’s passages about Israel’s restoration and rule under the Davidic king to the millennium of Revelation. In the Old Testament, we see things about literal sacrifices, procreation, and eating and drinking under restored Israel’s Davidic monarch. Come to think of it, maybe Revelation presents some eating and drinking, since it refers to a marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

Dionysius prefers not to go with Revelation’s physical, literal millennium, preferring to see it as symbolic of something else. But there were some in his day who rejected the book because of its premillennial stance. But premillennialism was not always unpopular in early Christianity. While Augustine (354-430) later wrote against premillennialism, Justin Martyr in the second century believed in the literal rebuilding of Jerusalem and thousand year reign of Christ (see Justin Martyr, the Millennium, & the Resurrection). He even applied passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel to the millennium! But I wonder how far early Christian advocates of premillennialism went in their literal interpretation. Did they believe, for example, that God would raise up a literal priesthood, with animal sacrifices for atonement (as in Ezekiel)?

While Dionysius accepts Revelation but treats it as an allegory when it discusses the millennium, he agrees with Revelation’s critics that the apostle John did not write the book. He notes differences in Greek style between Revelation and Johannine literature (the Gospel of John, I-III John). He’s like a lot of modern critics, who dispute Johannine authorship of Revelation for that very reason.

But Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen believed that the apostle John wrote the book. Justin and Origen wrote in Greek, so I wonder what they made of Revelation’s different style from that of John’s Gospel and Epistles.

Anyway, that’s my rambling for today. Have a nice day! And, for your viewing pleasure, check out Aggie’s post tying Cerinthus’ beliefs to Armstrongism: More secret teachings behind “The History of the TRUE CHURCH”.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Dionysius and Revelation

  1. purplehymnal says:

    Thanks for the 2nd plug, James, that post got a lost of responses; here’s hoping it will get more! 🙂


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