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Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little or Dennis the Short, meaning humble) ( – ) was a sixth century monk born in Scythia Minor, modern Dobruja, Romaniamarker (a small portion is in Bulgariamarker). He was a member of the Scythian monks community concentrated in Tomismarker, the major city of Scythia Minor.

From about 500 he lived in Romemarker, where, as a learned member of the Roman Curia, he translated from Greek into Latin 401 ecclesiastical canons, including the apostolical canons and the decrees of the councils of Nicaeamarker, Constantinople, Chalcedon and Sardis, and also a collection of the decretals of the popes from Siricius to Anastasius II. These collections had great authority in the West and still guide church administrations. Dionysius also wrote a treatise on elementary mathematics.

The author of a continuation of Dionysius's Computus, writing in 616, described Dionysius as a "most learned abbot of the city of Rome", and the Venerable Bede accorded him the honorific abbas, which could be applied to any monk, especially a senior and respected monk, and does not necessarily imply that Dionysius ever headed a monastery; indeed, Dionysius's friend Cassiodorus stated in Institutiones that he was still only a monk late in life.

Dionysius is best-known as the inventor of the Anno Domini era, which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar.

Works and Translations

According to his friend and fellow-student, Cassiodorus (De divinis Lectionibus, c. xxiii), though by birth a Scythian, he was in character a true Roman and thorough Catholic, most learned in both tongues (by which he meant Greek and Latin) and an accomplished Scripturist. He translated standard works from Greek into Latin, principally the "Life of St. Pachomius", the "Instruction of St. Proclus of Constantinople" for the Armenians, the "De opificio hominis" of St. Gregory of Nyssa, and the history of the discovery of the head of St. John the Baptist. The translation of St. Cyril of Alexandria's synodical letter against Nestorius, and some other works long attributed to Dionysius are now acknowledged to be earlier and are assigned to Marius Mercator.

Of great importance were the contributions of Dionysius to the science of canon law, the first beginnings of which in Western Christendom were due to him. His Collectio Dionysiana embraces (1) a collection of synodal decrees, of which he has left two editions: (a) Codex canonum Ecclesiæ Universæ. This contains canons of Oriental synods and councils only in Greek and Latin, including those of the four œcumenical councils from Nicæa (325) to Chalcedon (451). (b) Codex canonum ecclesiasticarum. This is in Latin only; its contents agree generally with the other, but the Council of Ephesus (431) is omitted, while the so-called "Canons of the Apostles" and those of Sardica are included, as well as 138 canons of the African Council of Carthage (419). (c) Of another bilingual version of Greek canons, undertaken at the instance of Pope Hormisdas, only the preface has been preserved. (2) A collection of papal Constitutions (Collectio decretorum Pontificum Romanorum) from Siricius to Anastasius II (384-498).

Anno Domini

Dionysius is best-known as the inventor of the Anno Domini era, which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar. He used it to identify the several Easters in his Easter table, but did not use it to date any historical event. When he devised his table, Julian calendar years were identified by naming the consuls who held office that year — he himself stated that the "present year" was "the consulship of Probus Junior [Flavius Probus]", which he also stated was 525 years "since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ". How he arrived at that number is unknown. He invented a new system of numbering years to replace the Diocletian years that had been used in an old Easter table because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians. The Anno Domini era became dominant in Western Europe only after it was used by the Venerable Bede to date the events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.

Easter tables

In 525, Dionysius prepared a table of the future dates of Easter and a set of "arguments" explaining their calculation (computus) on his own initiative, not at the request of Pope John. Note well that only the first nine arguments are by Dionysius — arguments 10 to 16 as well as the second paragraphs of 3 and 4 and the third paragraph of 9 are later interpolations. Arguments 11 and 12 imply that these were interpolated in the year 675, shortly before Bede. He introduced his tables and arguments via a letter to a bishop Petronius (also written in 525) and added another explanatory letter (written in 526). These works in volume 67 of the 217 volume Patrologia Latina also include a letter from Bishop Proterius of Alexandria to Pope Leo (written before 457). Though not named by Dionysius, this collection was recently called his Liber de Paschate (Book on Easter) by Audette.

He ignored the existing tables used by the Church of Rome, which were prepared in 457 by Victorius of Aquitaine, complaining that they did not obey Alexandrianmarker principles, without actually acknowledging their existence. To be sure that his own tables were correct, he simply extended a set of tables prepared in Alexandria that had circulated in the West in Latin, but were never used in the West to determine the date of Easter (however, they were used in the Byzantine Empire, in Greek). The Latin tables were prepared by a subordinate of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria shortly before Cyril's death in 444. They covered a period of 95 years or five decennovenal (19-year) cycles with years dated in the Diocletian Era, whose first year was 285 (the modern historical year in progress at Easter). Diocletian years were advantageous because their division by 19 yielded a remainder equal to the year of the decennovenal cycle (1–19).

The epact (the age of the moon on 22 March) of all first decennovenal years was zero, making Dionysius the first known medieval Latin writer to use a precursor of the number zero. The Latin word nulla meaning nothing was used because no Roman numeral for zero existed. To determine the decennovenal year, the Dionysian year plus one was divided by 19. If the result was zero (to be replaced by 19), it was represented by the Latin word nihil, also meaning nothing. Both "zeros" continued to be used by (among others) Bede, by whose extension of Dionysius Exiguus’ Easter table to a great Easter cycle all future Julian calendar dates of Easter Sunday were fixed unambiguously at last. However, in medieval Europe one had to wait as late as the second millennium before one got dispose of the number zero itself, which had come into being around the year 600 in Indiamarker.

Dionysius copied the last decennovenal cycle of the Cyrillian table ending with Diocletion 247, and then added a new 95-year table with numbered Anni Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (Years of our Lord Jesus Christ) because, as he explained to Petronius, he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians. The only reason he gave for beginning his new 95-year table with the year 532 was that six years were still left in the Cyrillian table after the year during which he wrote. For the latter year he only stated that it was 525 years after the Incarnation of Christ, without stating when the latter event occurred in any other calendar. He did not realize that the dates of the Alexandrian Easter repeated after 532 years, despite his apparent knowledge of the Victorian 532-year 'cycle', indicating only that Easter did not repeat after 95 years. He knew that Victorian Easters did not agree with Alexandrian Easters, thus he no doubt assumed that they had no bearing on any Alexandrian cycle. Furthermore, he obviously did not realize that simply multiplying 19 by 4 by 7 (decennovenal cycle x cycle of leap years x days in a week) fixed the Alexandrian cycle at 532 years, otherwise he would have stated such a simple fact.

No evidence exists that the Church of Rome accepted the Dionysian tables until the tenth century, although it is possible that they were accepted sometime during the sixth century. Most of the British Church accepted them after the Synod of Whitby in 664, although quite a few individual churches and monasteries refused to accept them, the last holdout finally accepting them during the early tenth century. The Church of the Franks (Francemarker) accepted them during the late eighth century under the tutelage of Alcuin, after he arrived from Britain.

Ever since the second century, some bishoprics in the Eastern Roman Empire had counted years from the birth of Christ, but there was no agreement on the correct epoch — Clement of Alexandria ( ) and Eusebius of Caesarea ( ) wrote about these attempts. Because Dionysius did not place the Incarnation in an explicit year, competent scholars have deduced both AD 1 and 1 BC. Most have selected 1 BC (historians do not use a year zero). Because the anniversary of the Incarnation was 25 March, which was near Easter, a year that was 525 years "since the Incarnation" implied that 525 whole years were completed near that Easter. Consequently one year since the Incarnation would have meant 25 March 1, meaning that Dionysius placed the Incarnation on 25 March 1 BC. Because the birth of Jesus was nine calendar months later, Dionysius implied, but never stated, that Jesus was born 25 December 1 BC. Only one scholar, Georges Declerq (Declerq, 2002), thinks that Dionysius placed the Incarnation and Nativity in AD 1, basing his conclusion on the structure of Dionysius's Easter tables. In either case, Dionysius ignored his predecessors, who usually placed the Nativity in the year we now label 2 BC. Kepler was the first to note that Christ was born during the reign of King Herod the Great ( ), whose death he placed in 4 BC. Kepler chose this year because Josephus stated that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before Herod's death. John Pratt of the International Planetarium Society proposed the 29 December 1 BC eclipse as another eclipse.. According to Josephus, Herod died in the year 4 or 3 BC.

Although Dionysius stated that the First Council of Nicaea in 325 sanctioned his method of dating Easter, the surviving documents are ambiguous. A canon of the council implied that the Roman and Alexandrian methods were the same even though they were not, whereas a delegate from Alexandria stated in a letter to his brethren that their method was supported by the council. In either case, Dionysius' method had actually been used by the Church of Alexandria (but not by the Church of Rome) at least as early as 311, and probably began during the first decade of the fourth century, its dates naturally being given in the Alexandrian calendar. Thus Dionysius did not develop a new method of dating Easter. The most that he may have done was convert its arguments from the Alexandrian calendar into the Julian calendar. The resulting Julian date for Easter was the Sunday following the first Luna XIV (the 14th day of the moon) that occurred on or after the XII Kalendas Aprilis (21 March) (12 days before the first of April, inclusive). The 14th day of the moon, Nisan 14, was the date that Paschal lambs were slain (in late afternoon) until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 prevented their continuing sacrifice, as well as the day when all leavened bread crumbs had to be collected and burned, hence Nisan 14 was the day of preparation for Passover ( ). Alexandria may have chosen it because it was the day that Christ was crucified according to the Gospel of John (18:28, 19:14), in direct contradiction to the Synoptic Gospels ( , Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:7), who state that he was crucified after he ate the Seder, his Last Supper. Then and now, the Seder was eaten after sundown at the beginning of Nisan 15. Because Dionysius's method of computing Easter used dates in the Julian calendar, it is also called the Julian Easter. This Easter is still used by almost all Orthodox churches. The Gregorian Easter still uses the same definition, but relative to its own solar and lunar dates.

Notes

  1. Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chapter VI, Paragraph 4
  2. John P. Pratt, “Yet another eclipse for Herod” originally published in The Planetarian, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 1990, pp. 8–14. “Josephus … not always clear and … sometimes inconsistent … states that Herod captured Jerusalem and began to reign in what we would call 37 B.C., and lived for 34 years thereafter, implying his death was in 4–3 B.C.” “Of the candidates to be Herod's eclipse, the December 29, 1 B.C. eclipse was the most likely to have been widely observed.”
  3. Herod died 34 years after the death of Antigonus and 37 years after Herod was made king by the Romans ( Ant. Jews 17.8.1). Antigonus died when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls (37 BC) ( Ant. Jews 14.16.4). Herod was made king when Caius Domitias Calvinus and Caius Asinius Pollio were consuls (40 BC) ( Ant. Jews 14.14.5). Both 37 BC minus 34 and 40 BC minus 37 yield 4 or 3 BC. See List of Republican Roman Consuls for the modern year numbers.


References

  • Bonnie Blackburn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, "Calendars and chronology", The Oxford companion to the year (Oxford, 1999), 659-937.
  • Georges Declercq, Anno Domini: The origins of the Christian era (Turnhout, 2000); idem, "Dionysius Exiguus and the introduction of the Christian era", Sacris Erudiri 41 (2002): 165-246.
  • Dionysius Exiguus, Patrologia Latina 67 (works).
  • Duta, Florian, "Des précisions sur la biographie de Denys le Petit", Revue de droit canonique, 49: 279-96 (1999)
  • Charles W. Jones, "Development of the Latin ecclesiastical calendar", in Bedae opera de temporibus (Cambridge, Mass., 1943), 1-122.
  • Otto Neugebauer, Ethiopic astronomy and computus, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische klasse, sitzungsberichte, 347 (Vienna, 1979).
  • Gustav Teres, "Time computations and Dionysius Exiguus", Journal for the history of astronomy, 15 (1984): 177-188.


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