Tatian’s “Diatessaron”: Mischievous or Misleading? -- By: Leslie McFall

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:1 (Spring 1994)
Article: Tatian’s “Diatessaron”: Mischievous or Misleading?
Author: Leslie McFall


Tatian’s “Diatessaron”:
Mischievous or Misleading?

Leslie McFall

In his work, Αἱρετικῆς κακομυθίας ἐπιτομή, a work directed against heresies in general, the Syrian Father, Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus (d. 457/58), stated his reasons why he withdrew Tatian’s Diatessaron from public use in the churches of Syria. Of Tatian’s work he said:

He composed the Gospel which is called Diatessaron, cutting out the genealogies and such other passages as show the Lord to have been born of the seed of David after the flesh. This work was in use not only among persons belonging to his sect, but also among those who follow the apostolic doctrine, as they did not perceive the mischief of the composition, but used the book in all simplicity on account of its brevity. And I myself found more than two hundred such copies held in respect in the churches in our parts. All these I collected and put away, and I replaced them by the Gospels of the four Evangelists.1

The first reason Theodoret gave was that Tatian (ca. AD 110–70) had interfered with the material of the canonical Gospels which had been handed down from apostolic times; and the second was that Tatian was not an orthodox believer. The inference of these two statements—that Tatian was a mischievous person and his Diat. a mischievous composition—was to prejudice the Syrian Church against Tatian and consequently against his work.2 Theodoret’s action almost spelled the end for this early “Life of Christ.” However, a century before the suppression of the Diat. (when it was still well received in the Syrian churches), two influential Syrian Fathers used it as the basis for their expositions. The first was Aphrahat, Bishop of St. Matthew (near Mosul), who produced

a series of homilies ca. AD 336–45 based on the text of the Diat.3 He was followed by Ephraem, a deacon of Edessa (d. 373), and the most famous of the Syrian Fathers. Both men wrote their expositions in Syriac, the presumed original language of the Diat.4

Today the Diat as such is no longer extant but three-quarters of Ephraem’s Syriac commentary on it has been recovered.5 This work quotes the text of the Diat. before commenting on it. There are also many translations of Tatian’s original work extant even though these were made after its language had been vulgarized or assimilated...

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