Terminology Tuesday: Diaterssaron

DIATESSARON. Diatessaron (Greek: dia tessaron (διὰ τεσσάρων): “through [the] four [Gospels]”) is the name given by Eusebius (Hist.Eccl. 4.29.6) to a “combination and collection” of the Gospels created by TATIAN about the year 170 C.E. As one of the earliest witnesses to the text of the Gospels (it is rivaled only by the quotations of Justin, Marcion, and Clement), it occupies a preeminent position in NT textual studies.

Employing the four canonical Gospels and, perhaps, one or more extracanonical sources, Tatian wove a single, continuous narrative. He omitted doublets, harmonized discrepancies, and “corrected” omissions found in his source gospels. Although some scholars have seen Tatian’s theology as the impetus for creating a harmony (so both Elze 1960 and Baarda 1969), the idea was patently “in the air,” for we know that Justin used a gospel harmony (Bellinzoni 1967: 140), and that gospel harmonies or synopses were created by Ammonius of Alexandria (Eus., Ep. ad Carp.) and Theophilus of Antioch (Jerome, Ep. ad Algasiam). Practical advantages must also be considered: a harmony would have—perforce—a unified point of view and, thus, been ideal for evangelization; as a compact epitome it would have been easier to transport and cheaper to copy than the separate Gospels.

The Diatessaron proved itself one of the most popular editions of the Gospels ever produced. It was used by Catholic Christians, such as Ephrem Syrus, by Judaic Christians (Epiph., haer. 46.1.8–9), Manicheans, and missionaries, who took it to the furthest reaches of Christendom. Its greatest impact, however, was in Syria, where as late as the 5th century it was the standard gospel text. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Canons of Rabbula specifically direct that the “Euangelion da-Mepharreshe” (“separated gospel,” i.e., canonical Gospels) be read in the churches, and that Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus from 423 to 457, reports impounding over 200 copies of the “Euangelion de-Meḥalleṭe” (“gospel of the mixed,” another name for the Diatessaron) from the churches in his diocese.
Reconstruction of the Diatessaron’s text is necessary, for no copy has come down to us. Witnesses to its text are diverse: translations (often rearranged), commentaries, and quotations. On the basis of provenance and language, these witnesses are classified as Eastern and Western. The most important include (in the East): Ephrem’s Commentary (extant in both the Syriac original and an Armenian translation; both 4th century); the gospel quotations of Aphrahat (Syriac, 4th century); an Arabic Harmony (Arabic, 12th–13th century); a Persian Harmony (Persian, 1547 C.E., a copy of a 13th century ms); Ishoʿdad of Merv’s Commentary (Syriac, 9th century). Further, since the Diatessaron preceded and influenced all extant versions of the separated Syriac gospels (Black 1972: 142), the most ancient Syriac versions (syrs.c.p.pal, 4th century and later) also contain numerous Diatessaronic readings. In the West the most important witnesses include: Codex Fuldensis (Latin, 6th century); a poem, The Heliand (Old Saxon, 9th century); the Liège Harmony (Middle Dutch, 13th century); related to the Liège Harmony are the Stuttgart, Cambridge, Haaren, and Haagse Harmonies (all in the Middle Dutch, 14th–15th century) and the Middle German Leben Jhesu, or Theodiscum Harmony (14th century); the Tuscan Harmony (Middle Italian, 13th–14th century); the Venetian Harmony (Middle Italian, 13th–14th century); and the Pepysian Harmony (so named, for it was once owned by Samuel Pepys; Middle English, ca. 1400 C.E.). This diverse array of sources bears witness to the popularity of Tatian’s creation among the common folk wherever it went.

The problems in reconstructing the Diatessaron’s text are twofold. First, all of the witnesses have been “Vulgatized” to some degree; that is, the nonstandard Diatessaronic reading (exactly what the text critic prizes) has often been replaced with the standard (“Vulgate,” regardless of the language) reading of the language. Second, since each witness has its own textual history, variants in them cannot automatically be regarded as Diatessaronic. This has led some scholars to dispute whether certain “witnesses” or readings actually are Diatessaronic (de Bruin 1980: 204; Fischer 1972: 48, n. 158). Research, however, has now convinced most experts of their relationship to the Diatessaron, for only in this manner can their singular agreements be explained (van den Broek 1974; Quispel 1975; Petersen 1985). The question of where Tatian composed his harmony remains open. Rome, where he studied with Justin, is possible, as is the Syrian East, where he returned after having been expelled by the Roman Church as a heretic (in the East he is first called a heretic in the 4th-century Syriac translation of Eusebius’ Hist.Eccl.). On the basis of the text it uses in its OT citations and certain Semitic syntactic features—present even in the Western witnesses—it seems quite certain that Syriac was the original language of the Diatessaron (Petersen 1986). The number and identity of the sources employed by Tatian remain unclear. Numerous readings attributed by Church Fathers to “the Gospel of the Hebrews” or “the Jewish Gospel” appear in the Diatessaron. An example is the “light” which shines in the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism. Epiph. (haer. 30.13.7) says this stood in the “Hebrew Gospel”; the reading is also in Justin (Dial. 88.3) and at Matt 3:16 in two Old Latin mss (a and g1, 4th and 9th century, respectively). Whether a “fifth source,” such as Epiphanius’ “Hebrew Gospel,” is Tatian’s source for this reading, or whether it came from a variant ms of the gospel of Matthew, as represented by the two Old Latin mss, cannot be determined until we have a clearer picture of the Gospels in the mid 2d century. Nevertheless, a strong prima facie case can be made that Tatian employed sources other than the canonical Gospels, for there are numerous examples of such extracanonical readings in the Diatessaron (Phillips 1931).
Textually speaking, the Diatessaron is a gold mine of early readings, some of which may, arguably, antedate the reading offered by the canonical Gospels (Petersen 1983; 1985: 165–67). The Diatessaron’s text is related to the so-called “Western Text” (which is actually of Eastern origin); Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (D) and Washingtonianus (W) sometimes follow its readings. Even more remarkable, however, are the number of agreements offered by the Old Latin mss—a greater number of agreements than with the Greek mss, although from a far smaller number of mss. This phenomenon was first noted by Vogels (1911), and remains unexplained. Whether the agreements are due to Tatian’s appropriation of the text used in Rome in the mid 2d century (Klijn 1969: 54–55), or whether the agreements indicate that the Diatessaron preceded and influenced the earliest Latin translation of the Gospels, is unclear. Von Soden’s (1911–13) hypothesis that the Greek Gospels owed most of their cross-gospel harmonizations to the influence of the Diatessaron is discredited today, for such harmonizations appear to have been a common tendency of scribes, and many of the harmonizations present in the Greek gospel mss are absent from the Diatessaronic witnesses.

  Bibliography  Baarda, T. 1969. Vier = Één: Enkele bladzijden uit de geschiedenis van de harmonistiek der Evangeliën. Kampen, Netherlands.  Bellinzoni, A. 1967. The Sayings of Jesus in the Writings of Justin Martyr. NovTSup 17. Leiden.  Black, M. 1972. The Syriac Versional Tradition. Pp. 120–59 in Die alten Übersetzungen des neuen Testaments, die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare, ed. K. Aland. ANTF 5. Berlin.  Broek, R. van den. 1972. A Latin Diatessaron in the “Vita Beate Virginis et Salvatoris Rhythmica.” NTS 21: 109–32.  Bruin, C. C. de. 1980. Jezus: het verhaal van zijn leven. ‘s-Gravenhage, Netherlands.  Elze, M. 1960. Tatian und seine Theologie. Göttingen.  Fischer, B. 1972. Das Neue Testament in lateinischer Sprache. Pp. 1–92 in Die alten Überstezungen des neuen Testaments, die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare, ed. K. Aland. ANTF 5. Berlin.  Klijn, A. F. J. 1969. A Survey of Researches into the Western Text of the Gospels and Acts, Vol. 2. NovTSup 21. Leiden.  Peters, C. 1939. Das Diatessaron Tatians. OCA 123. Rome.  Petersen, W. L. 1983. Romanos and the Diatessaron. NTS 29: 484–507.  ———. 1985. The Diatessaron and Ephrem Syrus as Sources of Romanos the Melodist. CSCO 475. Louvain.  ———. 1986. New Evidence for the Question of the Original Language of the Diatessaron. Pp. 325–43 in Studien zum Text und zur Ethik des Neuen Testaments, ed. W. Schrage. BZNW 47.  Phillips, C. A. 1931. Diatessaron—Diapente. Bulletin of the Bezan Club 9: 6–8.  Quispel, G. 1975. Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden.  Soden, H. F. von. 1911–13. Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments … 2d ed. Berlin.  Vogels, H. J. 1911. Die altsyrischen Evangelien in ihrem Verhältnis zu Tatians Diatessaron. BibS (F) 16. Freiburg im Breisgau.

Petersen, W. L. (1992). Diatessaron. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, pp. 189–190). New York: Doubleday.

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