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The Diatessaron (c. 160–175) is the most prominent early Gospel harmony; and was created by Tatian, an early Christian Assyrian apologist and ascetic. Tatian sought to combine all the textual material he found in the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—into a single coherent narrative of Jesus's life and death. However, and in contradistinction to most later gospel harmonists, Tatian appears not to have been motivated by any aspiration to validate the four separate canonical gospel accounts; or to demonstrate that, as they stood, they could each be shown as being without inconsistency or error.
Tatian's harmony follows the gospels closely in terms of text but, in order to fit all the canonical material in, he created his own narrative sequence, which is different from both the synoptic sequence and John's sequence; and occasionally creates intervening time periods that are found in none of the source accounts. This sequence is coherent and consistent within itself, but not necessarily consistent with that in all or any of the separate canonical gospels; and Tatian apparently applies the same principle in respect of the narrative itself. Where the gospels differ from one another in respect of the details of an event or teaching; the Diatessaron resolves such apparent contradictions by selecting one or another alternative wording and adding consistent details from the other gospels; while omitting apparent duplicate matter, especially across the synoptics. Hence, in respect of the healing of the blind at Jericho the Diatessaron reports only one blind man, Bartimeaus, healed by Jesus when leaving the city according to the account in Mark 10:46ff (expanded with phrases from Luke 18:36-37); consequently omitting any separate mention of two unnamed blind men healed by Jesus leaving Jericho (Matthew 20:29ff), and also the healing by Jesus entering Jericho the previous day of a single unnamed blind man (Luke 18:35ff).
Otherwise, Tatian originally omitted altogether both of the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as Luke's introduction (Luke 1: 1-4); and also did not originally include Jesus' encounter with the adulteress (John 7:53–8:11). This latter passage is, however, generally considered to be a late addition to the Gospel of John, with the Diatessaron itself often cited as an early textual witness in support of its omission. Most scholars agree that Tatian did, from the beginning, include the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16: 9-20), and correspondingly is amongst the earliest witnessess to this inclusion. Tatian added no significant wording to the textual material he took from the separate gospels. Only 56 verses in the canonical Gospels do not have a counterpart in the Diatessaron, mostly the genealogies and the Pericope Adulterae. The final work is about 72% the length of the four gospels put together; around a quarter of the text of the separate gospels being adjudged by Tatian to be duplicated. (McFall, 1994).
In the early Church, the gospels at first circulated independently, with Matthew the most popular. The Diatessaron is notable evidence for the authority already enjoyed by the four gospels by the mid-2nd century. Twenty years after Tatian's harmony, Irenaeus expressly proclaimed the authoritative character of the four gospels. It is unclear whether Tatian intended the Diatessaron to supplement or replace the four separate gospels; but both outcomes came to pass in different churches. The Diatessaron became adopted as the standard lectionary text of the gospels in some Syriac-speaking churches from the late 2nd to the 5th century, when it gave way to the four separate Gospels, in the Peshitta version. At the same time; in the churches of the Latin west, the Diatessaron circulated as a supplement to the four gospels, especially in Latin translation.
Tatian was an Assyrian who was a pupil of Justin Martyr in Rome, where, Justin says, the apomnemoneumata (recollections or memoirs) of the Apostles, the gospels, were read every Sunday. When Justin quotes the synoptic Gospels, he tends to do so in a harmonised form, and Helmut Koester and others conclude that Justin must have possessed a Greek harmony text of Matthew, Luke and Mark.
If so, it is unclear how much Tatian may have borrowed from this previous author in determining his own narrative sequence of Gospel elements. It is equally unclear whether Tatian took the Syriac Gospel texts composited into his Diatessaron from a previous translation, or whether the translation was his own. Where the Diatessaron records Gospel quotations from the Jewish Scriptures, the text appears to agree with that found in the Syriac Peshitta Old Testament rather than that found in the Greek Septuagint—as used by the original Gospel authors. The majority consensus is that the Peshitta Old Testament preceded the Diatessaron, and represents an independent translation from the Hebrew Bible. Resolution of these scholarly questions remained very difficult so long as no complete version of the Diatessaron in Syriac or Greek had been recovered; while the medieval translations that had survived—in Arabic and Latin—both relied on texts that had been heavily corrected to conform better with later canonical versions of the separate Gospel texts.
There is scholarly uncertainty about what language Tatian used for its original composition, whether Syriac or Greek. Modern scholarship tends to favour a Syriac origin; but even so, the exercise must have been repeated in Greek very shortly afterwards—probably by Tatian himself.
The Diatessaron was used as the standard Gospel text in the liturgy of at least some sections of the Syrian Church for possibly up to two centuries and was quoted or alluded to by Syrian writers. Ephrem the Syrian wrote a commentary on it, the Syriac original of which was rediscovered only in 1957, when a manuscript acquired by Sir Chester Beatty in 1957 (now Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709, Dublin) turned out to contain the text of Ephrem's commentary. The manuscript constituted approximately half of the leaves of a volume of Syriac writings that had been catalogued in 1952 in the library of the Coptic monastery of Deir es-Suriani in Wadi Natrun, Egypt. Subsequently, the Chester Beatty library was able to track down and buy a further 42 leaves, so that now approximately eighty per cent of the Syriac commentary is available (McCarthy 1994). Ephrem did not comment on all passages in the Diatessaron, and nor does he always quote commentated passages in full; but for those phrases that he does quote, the commentary provides for the first time a dependable witness to Tatian's original; and also confirms its content and their sequence. .
How the Gospel text that was a standard in Syriac Christianity for possibly as long as two centuries should have utterly disappeared requires explaining. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus on the Euphrates in upper Syria in 423, suspecting Tatian of having been a heretic, sought out and found more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron, which he "collected and put away, and introduced instead of them the Gospels of the four evangelists". Thus the harmonisation was replaced in the 5th century by the canonical four gospels individually, in the Peshitta version, whose Syriac text nevertheless contains many Diatessaronic readings. Gradually, without extant copies to which to refer, the Diatessaron developed a reputation for having been heretical.
No Christian tradition, other than some Syriac ones, has ever adopted a harmonized Gospel text for use in its liturgy. However, in many traditions, it was not unusual for subsequent Christian generations to seek to provide paraphrased Gospel versions in language closer to the vernacular of their own day. Frequently such versions have been constructed as Gospel harmonies, sometimes taking Tatian's Diatessaron as an exemplar; other times proceeding independently. Hence from the Syriac Diatessaron text was derived an 11th-century Arabic harmony (the source for the published versions of the Diatessaron in English); and a 13th-century Persian harmony. The Arabic harmony preserves Tatian's sequence exactly, but uses a source text corrected in most places to that of the standard Syriac Peshitta Gospels; the Persian harmony differs greatly in sequence, but translates a Syriac text that is rather closer to that in Ephrem's commentary.
A 'Old Latin' version of Tatian's Syriac text appears to have circulated in the West from the late 2nd century; with a sequence adjusted to conform more closely to that of the canonical Gospel of Luke; and also including additional canonical text (such as the pericope of the adulteress), as well, possibly, as non-canonical matter from the Gospel of the Hebrews. With the gradual adoption of the Vulgate as the liturgical Gospel text of the Latin Church, the Latin Diatessaron was increasingly modified to conform to Vulgate readings. In 546 Victor of Capua discovered such a mixed manuscript; and, further corrected by Victor so as to provide a very pure Vulgate text within a modified Diatessaron sequence and to restore the two genealogies of Jesus side-by-side, this harmony, the Codex Fuldensis, survives in the monastic library at Fulda, where it served as the source text for vernacular harmonies in Old High German, Eastern Frankish and Old Saxon (the alliterative poem 'Heliand'). The older mixed Vulgate/Diatessaron text type also appears to have continued as a distinct tradition, as such texts appear to underlie surviving 13th–14th century Gospel harmonies in Middle Dutch, Middle High German, Middle French, Middle English, Tuscan and Venetian; although no example of this hypothetical Latin sub-text has ever been identified. The Liège Diatessaron is a particularly poetic example. This Latin Diatessaron textual tradition has also been suggested as underlying the enigmatic 16th century Islam-influenced Gospel of Barnabas (Joosten, 2002).
The title Diatessaron comes from the Latin diatessarōn ("made of four [ingredients]"), derived in turn from Greek, διὰ τεσσάρων (dia tessarōn) ("out of four"; i.e., διά, dia, "at intervals of" and tessarōn [genitive of τέσσαρες, tessares], "four").
The Syriac name for this gospel harmony is 'ܐܘܢܓܠܝܘܢ ܕܡܚܠܛܐ' (Ewangeliyôn Damhalltê) meaning 'Gospel of the Mixed' while in the other hand we have 'ܐܘܢܓܠܝܘܢ ܕܡܦܪܫܐ' (Evangelion de Mepharreshe) meaning 'Gospel of the separated'.