Who wrote Diatessaron?

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Did Tatian really wrote Diatessaron?

by Yuri Kuchinsky

Greetings, all

It's repeated over and over again in any standard introduction to early Christian history that "Tatian produced the Diatessaron around 170 CE". But was this really so?

This is what I've posted a while back to some biblical studies groups. No objections to my analysis have been offered so far.


So what is the actual evidence that Tatian really wrote the Diatessaron, and why is this idea still accepted by so many without any questions?

It is a general view that Justin Martyr used a harmony of 3 Synoptic gospels as his main gospel text. He probably was not the author of this, but used a text that was already well established. Soon after his time, GJohn (probably some early version of it) was also integrated into that to produce the Diatessaron.

There's no evidence that Tatian had anything to do with GJohn being added to Justin's Harmony. He certainly wasn't the author of Justin's Harmony. So then in what sense can it be said that Tatian was the author of the Diatessaron? The evidence for this seems to be extremely thin, and there's considerable evidence to the contrary.

The biggest unanswered question in this general area is, What was the earliest gospel to have been widely published in Syria? It's widely believed that this was a gospel harmony of some sort. Some scholars proposed that this was the Gospel of the Hebrews, which may be the same thing as Justin's Harmony. If so, it's clear that Tatian had nothing to do with this publication, that must have taken place much before him. Thus, Tatian's role in creating the Diatessaron could not have been so great even on the surface of things. So why does every standard reference book still insist that Tatian wrote the Diatessaron?

The following is based on Chapter 35 ("The Earliest Gospel to Have Been Widely Published") of my new book THE MAGDALENE GOSPEL: a Journey Behind the New Testament; Roots Publishing, Toronto, 2002. This is a much abridged version of this chapter.


The only real evidence for Tatian producing the Diatessaron is just one short quote from Eusebius, and even this is disputed, because the original wording is not so clear. This passage survives in Greek, Syriac, and Latin, and each version is somewhat different (Petersen supplies and discusses all three versions in his Tatian's Diatessaron, 1994, p. 36).

Here is the translation of the Greek version of Eusebius' comment, which seems to be considerably more dismissive of the Diatessaron that the other two versions,

[Tatian, the first leader of the Encratites] "... arranged a kind of joining together and compilation of the Gospels, I know not how, to which he gave the title The Diatessaron; and it is still to this day to be found in the hands of some." (Eusebius, The History of the Church, IV.29.6, Lawlor and Oulton translation)

To be noted here is a clear political colouring of Eusebius' comment, viz. Tatian is firmly identified as an Encratite heretic. As a result, this necessarily casts doubt on the Diatessaron itself, and on its validity as a gospel text.

Indeed, this may have been the main idea behind this whole comment by Eusebius. Right away, we see that there may have been some political agenda that was being pursued in saying what he was saying. It stands to reason that his aim in writing what he wrote (whatever it was, exactly) may have been -- at least in part -- apologetical, and that his real intention was to dismiss the Diatessaron as a "heretical gospel" that should be viewed with suspicion.

All other attributions of the Diatessaron to Tatian are even later, and were probably based on what Eusebius said. Of course, it's well known that, soon after Eusebius, the Diatessaron will be rejected by most orthodox theologians; it will be seen as a "heretical Judaizing text".

Moreover, the validity of this remark by Eusebius tends to be diminished rather significantly, considering that elsewhere he actually says that someone else wrote the Diatessaron! Because in his EPISTLE TO CARPIANUS, Eusebius also said that the Diatessaron (to dia tessaron euaggelion) was written in Alexandria by one Ammonius (Petersen 1994:37). Ammonius flourished at the beginning of the third century, around the time of Origen, and thus some time after Tatian... So now it sure may seem like Eusebius, himself, was not all that sure who was it exactly that wrote the Diatessaron.


And yet Tatian was certainly very well known within the movement even in his own time. For example, we have Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria -- all Tatian's contemporaries -- as well as Origen and Jerome, all referring to Tatian, and mentioning him writing his ORATION TO THE GREEKS (Contra Gentes, also known as AGAINST THE NATIONS). But never do they mention either the Diatessaron, or Tatian writing it (Metzger, EARLY VERSIONS, Oxford, 1977:32). And this would certainly be a most curious omission in their testimonies, seeing that many of these same writers travelled in Syria, and knew the affairs of Syrian Church quite well.

Moreover, in actual fact, Jerome (347-419 CE) says specifically -- or at least implies very strongly -- that, by his own time, out of all literary productions of Tatian, only the ORATION TO THE GREEKS still survived! So then why did he not mention the Diatessaron? If indeed Tatian wrote it, surely Jerome would have known about it?

This is what Jerome says,

"Tatian wrote ... innumerable volumes, one of which, a most successful book AGAINST THE NATIONS, is extant, and this is considered the most significant of all his works." (Jerome, LIVES OF ILLUSTRIOUS MEN, Ch. 29)

LIVES OF ILLUSTRIOUS MEN is believed to have been written by Jerome in 393, when the Diatessaron would have still been the main gospel of Syria, and perhaps elsewhere as well. So I think it stands to reason that, if Jerome knew anything about Tatian writing it, he would have seen it as "the most significant of all his works", rather than AGAINST THE NATIONS... (Writing long ago, T. Zahn, a leading Diatessaronic scholar of his time, already referred to this quote from Jerome in one of his articles [HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS, in "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge", v. 5], while, interestingly enough, also expressing some uncertainty that Tatian really wrote the Diatessaron.)


Also, the testimony of Epiphanius about the Diatessaron is certainly most interesting. He wrote the following ca 400 CE,

"He [Tatian] is said to be the author of the Diatessaron, which some call the Gospel According to the Hebrews". (Epiphanius, PANARION, 46.1.9)

This identification, as was made by some commentators in Epiphanius' time, seems very important. So this may cast light on the real identity of the Diatessaron -- it was probably known early on as the Gospel According to the Hebrews.


Now, we can come back to Syria, and look again at what was the earliest gospel used there.

In his 1951 monograph (STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE GOSPEL TEXT IN SYRIAC) Voobus outlines considerable historical evidence indicating that GHeb was the earliest Syrian gospel. For example, this is what he says,

"I have had a thought which has forced itself upon me again and again in the course of my studies, which is that the Gospel According to the Hebrews might have been used here. Several observations seem to support this view. It appears quite natural, if we study the beginnings of Christianity in Mesopotamia and Persia, that we should meet with a Jewish Christian origin of the church." (1951:17-18)

In particular, his case seems to be well supported by the following quote from Eusebius,

"...from the Syriac Gospel According to the Hebrews he [Hegesippus] quotes some passages in the Hebrew tongue." (Hist. Eccl. IV. 22.8; although the exact translation of this text has been disputed, the basic meaning seems to be reasonably clear.)

It's clear that, in ancient times, the Diatessaron was a very important and very wide-spread gospel. There are about twenty languages in all in which the Diatessaron is now believed to be attested -- languages that were spoken in all sorts of places all over the world. And, moreover -- just like with the situation in Syria -- often one learns that, for many of these places, the Diatessaron was the first gospel ever to make it there.

But we should also keep in mind that Tatian had been expelled from the Church already in 170 CE, having been declared a heretic in Rome. So, even on the surface of it, it is hardly likely that Tatian could introduce some brand-new gospel in 170, and then it would have spread around the world like wildfire. A much likelier possibility is that this gospel had already been around well before him -- so that it could spread so far and wide. So this is how it could leave its traces all over the place -- from Armenia to China in the East, and all the way to Tunisia and England in the West.

Thus, when one considers all such evidence objectively and without any presuppositions, it seems like Tatian had very little to do with the Diatessaron -- if he had anything to do with it at all. Indeed, the reason why, in later times, the Diatessaron was widely attributed to Tatian seems clear enough -- this was an effective way to discredit this ancient gospel, and to deny it any validity.

All the best,


Source: http://www.globalserve.net/~yuku/bbl/tatian.htm & Source: http://www.theologyonline.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-25572.html