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  • Prophets “Speak Under”: Dionysius’ ὑποφητεύω as Key to the Medieval Concept of Prophecy
  • Sr. Maria Veritas Marks O.P. (bio)

Introduction: Problem of inspiration in medieval theology

Where should one look to find a medieval theology of Biblical inspiration? Some scholars believe it does not exist. Denis Farkasfalvy takes to task neo-scholastics primarily of the period between Vatican Councils I and II for falsifying the theology: “Thomists and neo-Thomists like to use Thomas’s thought on prophecy for developing a scholastic theology of biblical inspiration,” but although “theological textbooks of the early twentieth century often pretended to be articulating St. Thomas’s actual teaching … Aquinas never asked the question of how divine and human actions had jointly produced the Bible.”1 Farkasfalvy’s analysis applies equally to Albert.

A comprehensive rebuttal of his claim lies beyond the scope of this paper. However, a word family based on the Greek root hypophet- and used nine times in the corpus of Dionysius the Areopagite offers the key to part of the answer. Albertus Magnus’ reception of this term demonstrates that, in his time, prophecy as a category embraced much more than our modern understanding of “prediction of future events” and carried more spiritual weight than “the action or practice of revealing or expressing the will or thought of God.”2 The precise nature of the category, both its broadness and its spiritual implications, is evident both in the way translations used by Albert render hypophet- and in Albert’s commentary on these passages. The concept of prophecy, its richness now evident, suddenly begins to look like precisely the place where medievals would aim to ask, and answer, “the question of how divine and human actions jointly produce” the Word in human words. [End Page 39]

Albert’s use of Dionysius

Dionysius himself remains a mysterious figure. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was the first to question ninth-century Abbot Hilduin’s conflation of the author of the Dionysian corpus with the early missionary to Gaul who founded the monastery of St. Denis to which both Hilduin and Abelard belonged. Abelard, however, did not contest another conflation, that of the author with Paul’s convert from the Greek Areopagus.3 The Dionysian corpus, partly because of the unique status conferred upon its author, exercised a profound influence upon medieval theology. “Its apostolic origins,” states J. Durantel, “assured it a capital importance.”4

Fruitful analysis of Dionysian influence upon any particular medieval theologian requires examination of the translations available in the theologian’s time. Paul Rorem explains:

Since few Western readers were able or courageous enough to examine Dionysius in the original Greek, most of them sought the help of the translations, paraphrases, comments, and commentaries that gradually constituted the Latin Dionysian corpus. At each stage a stratum of interpretation was added, which then influenced the next layer. Thus the influence of the medieval Dionysius cannot be appreciated from the Greek text and a modern translation, but only from these Latin translations and aids.5

As John Jones demonstrates by his contention that Sarracenus’ translation reinforces an essentialist reading of Dionysius, what is at stake is not negligible.6 While the scope of this project will allow us to look only at Eriugena’s and Sarracenus’ translations, a full investigation would also include John of Scythopolis, Maximus, Hilduin, Anastasius, Suger, Hugh of St. Victor, and Albert’s contemporaries Robert Grosseteste and Thomas Gallus. [End Page 40]

A comparison of Albert’s commentaries, from the Albertus Magnus Institute’s online critical edition, with Philippe Chevallier’s collated translations of Dionysius shows that Albert was using at least Eriugena’s and Grosseteste’s translations.

The root hypophet-historically

Our way into Dionysius on prophecy will be through the Greek semantic family hypophet-. The online Thesaurus Linguae Graecae catalogs 420 uses of the word, from as early as Homer. Liddell–Scott–Jones defines ὑποφήτης, the best represented of the root’s words, as “suggester, interpreter, expounder, especially of the divine will or judgement, e.g. priest who declares an oracle.” This term makes its last appearance only in the sixteenth century and is most used, according to the TLG’s relative distribution chart, in the seventh, eighth, ninth...


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