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Essays on "Supernatural Religion"

by J. B. Lightfoot



[MAY, 1877.]

All that is known of the life of Tatian can be soon told. He was an Assyrian by birth, as he himself distinctly states. If other writers call him a Syrian, the discrepancy may be explained by the common confusion between the two nationalities; or possibly it should be accounted for by his place of residence during the later years of his life. As a heathen he exercised the profession of a sophist, and in this capacity travelled far and wide. His mind was first turned towards Christianity by reading the Scriptures, which impressed him greatly. As a Christian he became the hearer--in some sense the disciple--of Justin Martyr, doubtless at Rome; and when Crescens, the cynic, succeeded in bringing about his master's death, Tatian's life also was imperilled by the plots of this machinator. While he remained in the metropolis he had among his disciples Rhodon, who in later years undertook to refute one of his heretical works. Subsequently he left Rome, and seems to have spent the remainder of his life in the East, more especially in Syria and the neighbouring countries.

After the death of Justin Martyr--how soon after we do not know--his opinions underwent a change. Hitherto he had been regarded as strictly orthodox; but now he separated himself from the Church, and espoused views closely allied to those of the Encratites. A leading tenet of his new ascetic creed was the rejection of marriage as an abomination. But he is stated also to have adopted opinions from Gnostic teachers, more especially the doctrine of Æons, which he derived from the Valentinian school [273:1]. The author of _Supernatural Religion_ further says that, 'although Tatian may have been acquainted with some of his (St Paul's) Epistles, it is certain that he did not hold the Apostle in any honour, and permitted himself the liberty of altering his phraseology' [273:2]. Where did he learn this 'certain' piece of information that Tatian thought lightly of St Paul? Assuredly not from any ancient writer. It is quite true that Tatian is stated to have mutilated some of St Paul's Epistles and rejected others. But so did Marcion, who held the Apostle in extravagant honour. And the motive was the same in both cases. The Apostle's actual language did not square with their favourite tenets in all respects, and therefore they assumed that his text must have been corrupted or interpolated. So far from its being at all doubtful, as our author seems to suggest, whether Tatian was acquainted with any of St Paul's Epistles, we have positive evidence that he did receive some [273:3]; and moreover one or two coincidences in his extant work point to an acquaintance with the Apostle's writings. His leanings, like those of Marcion and Valentinus, were generally in the opposite direction to Judaism. His tendency would be not to underrate but to overrate St Paul. At the same time such passages as 1 Tim. iv. 3, where the prohibition of marriage is denounced as a heresy, were a stumbling-block. They must therefore be excised as interpolations, or the Epistles containing them must be rejected as spurious.

The date of Tatian is a matter of some uncertainty. He was a hearer, as we have seen, of Justin Martyr in Rome; and if the chronology of this father had been established beyond the reach of doubt, we should be treading on firm ground. On this point however there has been much variety of opinion. The prevailing view is, or was, in favour of placing Justin's death as late as A.D. 163-165, on the authority of Eusebius; but the most careful investigations of recent criticism have tended towards a much earlier date [274:1]. The literary activity of Tatian seems to have begun about the time of Justin Martyr's death; and after this we have to allow for his own career, first as an orthodox Christian, and then as a heretic. When Irenæus wrote his first book, Tatian was no longer living, as may be inferred from the language of this father [274:2]: and this book must have been written before A.D. 190, and may have 'been written as early as A.D. 178 [274:3]. Again, if we may assume that the 'Assyrian,' whom the Alexandrian Clement mentions among his teachers [274:4], was Tatian, as seems highly probable, we have another indication of date. The first book of the _Stromateis_, in which this fact is recorded, was itself written about A.D. 194 or 195; and Clement there speaks of the Assyrian as one of his earlier masters, whom he had met with in the East, before he settled down under the tuition of Pantænus at Alexandria. In like manner Tatian's connection with Rhodon would point roughly to the same conclusion. On the whole, we shall perhaps not be far wrong if we place the literary activity of Tatian at about A.D. 155-170. It may have begun some few years earlier, or it may have extended some few years later.

Tatian was a voluminous writer; but of several writings mentioned by the ancients only one has come down to us, his _Apology_ or _Address to the Greeks_. It was written after the death of Justin, but apparently not very long after. At all events it would seem to have been composed before he had separated from the Church and set himself up as a heretical teacher. Its date therefore is dependent on the uncertain chronology of Justin. The author of _Supernatural Religion_ speaks of it as 'generally dated between A.D. 170-175,' and seems himself to acquiesce in this view. Though I think this date probably several years too late, the point is not worth contending for.

As a rule, the early Apologies abstain from quotations, whether from the Old Testament or from the New. The writers are dealing with Gentiles, who have no acquaintance with and attribute no authority to their sacred books, and therefore they make little or no use of them [275:1]. Thus the _Apologeticus_ of Tertullian does not contain a single passage from the New Testament, though his writings addressed to Christians teem with quotations from our Canonical books. Hence it is not in this extant work that we should expect to obtain information as to Tatian's Canon of the Scriptures. Any allusion to them will be purely incidental. As regards our Synoptical Gospels, the indications in Tatian's Apology are not such that we can lay much stress on them. But the evidence that he knew and accepted the Fourth Gospel is beyond the reach of any reasonable doubt.

The passages are here placed side by side:--

          TATIAN.                    |           ST JOHN.
'God is a Spirit' ([Greek: pneuma ho | 'God is a Spirit' ([Greek: pneuma
Theos]), § 4.                        | ho Theos]), iv. 24.
'And this then is the saying         | 'And the light shineth in the
([Greek: to eirêmenon]); The         | darkness, and the darkness
darkness comprehendeth not the light'| comprehended it not'
([Greek: hê skotia to phôs ou        | ([Greek: kai hê skotia auto ou
katalambanei]), § 13.                | katelaben]), i. 5.
'Follow ye the only God. All things  |'All things were made through
have been made by Him, and apart     | Him, and apart from Him was
from Him hath been made no one thing'| made no one thing' ([Greek: panta
([Greek: panta hup' autou kai chôris | di' autou egeneto kai chôris
autou gegonen oude hen]), § 19.      | autou egeneteo oude hen]), i. 3.

In the last passage from St John I have stopped at the words [Greek: oude hen], because the earliest Christian writers universally punctuated in this way, taking [Greek: ho gegonen k.t.l.] with the following sentence, 'That which hath been made was life in Him.'

Besides these passages there are other coincidences of exposition, with which however I need not trouble the reader, as they may fairly be disputed.

It is difficult to see how any one can resist coincidences like these; and yet the author of _Supernatural Religion_ does resist them.

The first passage our author has apparently overlooked, for he says nothing about it. If it had stood alone I should certainly not have regarded it as decisive. But the epigrammatic form is remarkable, and it is a characteristic passage of the Fourth Gospel.

Of the second passage it should be noticed that Tatian introduces it with the expression ([Greek: to eirêmenon]), which is used in the New Testament in quoting the Scriptures (Luke ii. 24, Acts ii. 16, xiii. 40, Rom. iv. 18); that in the context he explains 'the Word' (Logos) to be 'the light of God,' and 'the darkness' to be 'the unintelligent soul;' that this use of [Greek: katalambanein] is very peculiar, and has caused perplexity to interpreters of St John, being translated variously 'comprehended' or 'surprised' or 'overcame;' that the passage in the Fourth Gospel here again is highly characteristic, and occurs in its most characteristic part; and lastly, that the changes made by Tatian are just such as a writer would make when desiring to divest the saying of its context and present it in the briefest form. On the other hand, the author of _Supernatural Religion_ has nothing to allege against this coincidence; he can produce nothing like it elsewhere; but he falls back on 'the constant use of the same similitude of light and darkness,' and other arguments of the kind, which are valueless because they do not touch the point of the resemblance.

On the third passage he remarks that, unlike the author of the Fourth Gospel, 'Tatian here speaks of God, and not of the Logos.' Just so; but then he varies the preposition accordingly, substituting [Greek: hupo] for the Evangelist's [Greek: dia] to suit his adaptation. Our author also refers to 'the first chapters of Genesis;' but where is there any language in the first chapters of Genesis which presents anything like the same degree of parallelism? Here again, he is unable to impugn the coincidence, which is all the more remarkable because the words are extremely simple in themselves, and it is their order and adaptation which gives a character of uniqueness to the expression.

So much for the individual coincidences. But neither here nor elsewhere does our author betray any consciousness of the value of cumulative evidence. It is only necessary to point to the enormous improbability that any two writers should exhibit accidentally three such resemblances as in the passages quoted; and the inference will be plain.

It is not however in this testimony which his extant work bears to the Fourth Gospel, however decisive this may be, that the chief importance of Tatian consists. Ancient writers speak of him as the author of a Harmony or Digest of the four Gospels, to which accordingly he gave the name of _Diatessaron_. This statement however has been called in question by some recent critics, among whom the author of _Supernatural Religion_ is, as usual, the most uncompromising. It is necessary therefore to examine the witnesses:--

1. In the first place then, Eusebius states definitely [277:1]--'Tatian composed a sort of connection and compilation, I know not how, of the Gospels, and called it the _Diatessaron_ ([Greek: sunapheian tina kai sunagôgên ouk oid' hopôs tôn euangeliôn suntheis to dia tessarôn touto prosônomasen]). This work is current in some quarters (with some persons) even to the present day.'

This statement is explicit; yet our author endeavours to set it aside on the ground that 'not only is it based upon mere hearsay, but it is altogether indefinite as to the character of the contents, and the writer admits his own ignorance ([Greek: ouk oid' hopôs]) regarding them' [278:1].

His inference however from the expression 'I know not how' is altogether unwarranted. So far from implying that Eusebius had no personal knowledge of the work, it is constantly used by writers in speaking of books where they are perfectly acquainted with the contents, but do not understand the principles or do not approve the method. In idiomatic English it signifies 'I cannot think what he was about,' and is equivalent to 'unaccountably,' 'absurdly,' so that, if anything, it implies knowledge rather than ignorance of the contents. I have noticed at least twenty-six examples of its use in the treatise of Origen against Celsus alone [278:2], where it commonly refers to Celsus' work which he had before him, and very often to passages which he himself quotes in the context. It is not ignorance of the contents, but disparagement of the plan of Tatian's work, which the expression of Eusebius implies. The _Diatessaron_ was commonly current, as we shall see presently, in the neighbouring districts: and it would be somewhat strange if Eusebius, who took a special interest in apocryphal literature, should have remained unacquainted with it.

2. Our next witness is overlooked by the author of _Supernatural Religion_. Yet the testimony is not unimportant. In the _Doctrine of Addai_, an apocryphal Syriac work, which professes to give an account of the foundation and earliest history of Christianity at Edessa, the new converts are represented as meeting together to hear read, along with the Old Testament, the New (Testament) of the _Diatessaron_' [278:3]. It seems clear from this notice that, at the time when the writer composed this fiction, the form in which the Evangelical narratives were commonly read in the churches with which he was best acquainted was a _Diatessaron_, or _Harmony of Four Gospels_. From internal evidence however it is clear that the work emanated from Edessa or its neighbourhood. The date of the fiction is less certain; but it is obviously an early writing. The St Petersburgh MS containing it is assigned to the sixth century, and the British Museum MSS to the fifth or sixth century [279:1]; while there exists an Armenian version said to have been made as early as the fifth century. The work itself therefore must have been written much earlier than this. There is indeed no good reason for doubting that it is the very Syriac document to which Eusebius refers as containing the correspondence of our Lord with Abgarus, and preserved among the archives of Edessa, and which therefore cannot have been very recent when he wrote, about A.D. 325 [279:2]. At the same time it contains gross anachronisms and misstatements respecting earlier Christian history, which hardly allow us to place it much earlier than the middle of the third century [279:3]. Whatever may be its date, the fact is important that the writer uses _Diatessaron_, adopted from the Greek into the Syriac, as the familiar name for the Gospel narrative which was read in public. Of the authorship of this work however he says nothing. This information we have to seek from other sources. Nor is it far to seek.

3. We are told that the most famous of the native Syrian fathers, Ephraem, the deacon of Edessa (who died A.D. 373 [280:1]), wrote a commentary on the _Diatessaron_ of Tatian. Our informant is Dionysius Bar-Salibi, who flourished in the last years of the twelfth century, and died A.D. 1207. In his own Commentary on the Gospels, he writes as follows [280:2]:--

Tatian, the disciple of Justin, the philosopher and martyr, selected and patched together from the Four Gospels and constructed a Gospel, which he called _Diatessaron_, that is _Miscellanies_. On this work Mar Ephraem wrote an exposition; and its commencement was--_In the beginning was the Word_. Elias of Salamia, who is also called Aphthonius, constructed a Gospel after the likeness of the _Diatessaron_ of Ammonius, mentioned by Eusebius in his prologue to the Canons which he made for the Gospel. Elias sought for that Diatessaron and could not find it, and in consequence constructed this after its likeness. And the said Elias finds fault with several things in the Canons of Eusebius, and points out errors in them, and rightly. But this copy (work) which Elias composed is not often met with.

This statement is explicit and careful. The writer distinguishes two older works, bearing the name of _Diatessaron_, composed respectively by Tatian and Ammonius. In addition he mentions a third, composed at a later date by this Elias. Of the work of Ammonius of Alexandria (about A.D. 220) Eusebius, as Bar-Salibi correctly states, gives an account in his _Letter to Carpianus_, prefixed to his Canons. It was quite different in its character from the _Diatessaron_ of Tatian. The _Diatessaron_ of Tatian was a patchwork of the Four Gospels, commencing with the preface of St John. The work of Ammonius took the Gospel of St Matthew as its standard, preserving its continuity, and placed side by side with it the parallel passages from the other Gospels [281:1]. The principle of the one work was _amalgamation_; of the other, _comparison_. No one who had seen the two works could confuse them, though they bore the same name, _Diatessaron_. Eusebius keeps them quite distinct. So does Bar-Salibi. Later on in his commentary, we are told, he quotes both works in the same place [281:2]. When therefore he relates that Ephraem wrote a commentary on the _Diatessaron_ of Tatian, he is worthy of all credit. From the last witness we have learnt that the _Diatessaron_ was commonly read in the churches of Edessa; and it was therefore most natural that this famous Edessan father should choose it for commenting upon.

It is quite true that other Syrian writers have confused these two _Diatessarons_ [281:3]. But this fact is only valid to show that confusion was possible; it is powerless to impugn the testimony of this particular author, who shows himself in this passage altogether trustworthy. Who would think of throwing discredit on Lord Macaulay or Mr Freeman, because Robertson or Hume may be inaccurate?

4. Our next witness is more important than any. The famous Greek father Theodoret became bishop of Cyrus or Cyrrhus, near the Euphrates, in the year 420 or 423 according to different computations, and held this see till his death, which occurred A.D. 457 or 458. In the year 453 he wrote his treatise on _Heresies_, in which he makes the following statement:--

He (Tatian) composed the Gospel which is called _Diatessaron_, cutting out the genealogies [282:1] 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 ([Greek: tais par' hêmin ekklêsiais]). All these I collected and put away, and I replaced them by the Gospels of the Four Evangelists.

The churches to which he refers were doubtless those belonging to his diocese of Cyrrhestice, which contained eight hundred parishes [283:1]. The proportion of copies will give some idea of the extent of its circulation in these parts.

It is vain, in the teeth of these facts, to allege the uncritical character of the father as discrediting the evidence. The materials before Theodoret were ample; the man himself was competent to form a judgment; and the judgment is explicit. Neither can there be any reasonable doubt, considering the locality, that the _Diatessaron_ here mentioned is the same which is named in the _Doctrine of Addai_, and the same which was commented on by Ephraem Syrus. When the author of _Supernatural Religion_ argues that Theodoret does not here regard this _Diatessaron_ as patched together from the four canonical Gospels, it is unnecessary to follow him. This point may be safely left to the intelligence of the reader.

Here then we have the testimony of four distinct witnesses, all tending to the same result. Throughout large districts of Syria there was in common circulation from the third century down to the middle of the fifth a _Diatessaron_ bearing the name of Tatian [283:2]. It was a compilation of our Four Gospels, which recommended itself by its concise and convenient form, and so superseded the reading of the Evangelists themselves in some churches. It commenced, as it naturally could commence, with the opening words of the Fourth Gospel--a gospel which, as we have seen, Tatian quotes in his extant work. It was probably in the main a fairly adequate digest of the evangelical narratives, for otherwise it would not have maintained its grounds; but passages which offended Tatian's Encratic and Gnostic views, such as the genealogies, were excised; and this might easily be done without attracting notice under cover of his general plan. All this is consistent and probable in itself. Moreover the range of circulation attributed to it is just what might have been expected; for Syria and Mesopotamia are especially mentioned as the scene of Tatian's labours [284:1].

In this general convergence of testimony however, there are two seemingly discordant voices, of which the author of _Supernatural Religion_ makes much use. Let us see what they really mean.

1. Epiphanius was bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus, in the latter half of the fourth century. In his book on _Heresies_, which he commenced A.D. 374, he writes of Tatian, 'The _Diatessaron_ Gospel is said to have been composed by him; it is called by some _according to the Hebrews_' [284:2].

Here then our author supposes that he has discerned the truth. This _Diatessaron_ was not a digest of our Four Gospels, but a distinct evangelical narrative, the _Gospel according to the Hebrews_. Of this Gospel according to the Hebrews he says that 'at one time it was exclusively used by the fathers.' I challenge him to prove this assertion in the case of one single father, Greek or Latin or Syrian. But this by the way. If indeed this Hebrew Gospel had been in its contents anything like what our author imagines it, it would have borne some resemblance at all events to the _Diatessaron_; for, wherever he meets with any evangelical passage in any early writer, which is found literally or substantially in any one of our Four Gospels (whether characteristic of St Matthew, or of St Luke, or of St John, it matters not) he assigns it without misgiving to this Hebrew Gospel. But his Hebrew Gospel is a pure effort of the imagination. The only 'Gospel according to the Hebrews' known to antiquity was a very different document. It was not co-extensive with our Four Gospels; but was constructed on the lines of the first alone. Indeed so closely did it resemble the canonical St Matthew--though with variations, omissions, and additions--that Jerome, who translated it, supposed it to be the Hebrew original [285:1], of which Papias speaks. Such a Gospel does not answer in any single particular, unless it be the omission of the genealogy (which however does not appear to have been absent from all copies of this Gospel), to the notices of Tatian's _Diatessaron_. More especially the omission of all reference to the Davidic descent of Christ would be directly opposed to the fundamental principle of this Gospel, which, addressing itself to the Jews, laid special stress on His Messianic claims.

How then can we explain the statement of Epiphanius? It is a simple blunder, not more egregious than scores of other blunders which deface his pages. He had not seen the _Diatessaron_: this our author himself says. But he had heard that it was in circulation in certain parts of Syria; and he knew also that the Gospel of the Hebrews was current in these same regions, there or thereabouts. Hence he jumped at the identification. To a writer who can go astray so incredibly about the broadest facts of history, as we have seen him do in the succession of the Roman Emperors [285:2], such an error would be the easiest thing in the world. Yet it was perfectly consistent on the part of our author, who in another instance prefers John Malalas to the concurrent testimony of all the preceding centuries [285:3], to set aside the direct evidence of a Theodoret, and to accept without hesitation the hearsay of an Epiphanius.

2. 'Tatian's Gospel,' writes the author of _Supernatural Religion_, 'was not only called _Diatessaron_, but according to Victor of Capua, it was also called _Diapente_ ([Greek: dia pente]) "by five," a complication which shows the incorrectness of the ecclesiastical theory of its composition.'

This is not a very accurate statement. If our author had referred to the actual passage in Victor of Capua, he would have found that Victor does not himself call it _Diapente_, but says that Eusebius called it _Diapente_. This makes all the difference.

Victor, who flourished about A.D. 545, happened to stumble upon an anonymous Harmony or Digest of the Gospels [286:1], and began in consequence to investigate the authorship. He found two notices in Eusebius of such Harmonies; one in the _Epistle to Carpianus_ prefixed to the Canons, relating to the work of Ammonius; another in the _Ecclesiastical History_, relating to that of Tatian. Assuming that the work which he had discovered must be one or other, he decides in favour of the latter, because it does not give St Matthew continuously and append the passages of the other evangelists, as Eusebius states Ammonius to have done. All this Victor tells us in the preface to this anonymous Harmony, which he publishes in a Latin dress.

There can be no doubt that Victor was mistaken about the authorship; for, though the work is constructed on the same general plan as Tatian's, it does not begin with John i. 1, but with Luke i. 1, and it does contain the genealogies. It belongs therefore, at least in its present form, neither to Tatian nor to Ammonius.

But we are concerned only with the passage relating to Tatian, which commences as follows:--

Ex historia quoque ejus (_i.e._ Eusebii) comperi quod Tatianus vir eruditissimus et orator illius temporis clarus unum ex quatuor compaginaverit Evangelium cui titulum _Diapente_ imposuit.

Thus Victor gets his information directly from Eusebius, whom he repeats. He knows nothing about Tatian's _Diatessaron_, except what Eusebius tells him. But we ourselves have this same passage of Eusebius before us, and find that Eusebius does not call it _Diapente_ but _Diatessaron_. This is not only the reading of all the Greek MSS without exception, but likewise of the Syriac version [287:1], which was probably contemporary with Eusebius and of which there is an extant MS belonging to the sixth century, as also of the Latin version which was made by Rufinus a century and a half before Victor wrote. About the text of Eusebius therefore there can be no doubt. Moreover Victor himself, who knew Greek, says _ex quatuor_, which requires _Diatessaron_, and the work which he identifies with Tatian's Harmony is made up of passages from our Four Gospels alone. Therefore he can hardly have written _Diapente_ himself; and the curious reading is probably due to the blundering or the officiousness of some later scribe [287:2].

Thus we way safely acquiesce in the universal tradition, or as our author, [Greek: ouk oid' hopôs], prefers to call it, the 'ecclesiastical theory,' respecting the character and composition of Tatian's Diatessaron [287:3].

* * * * *

[The actual _Diatessaron_ of Tatian has since been discovered, though not in the original language, so that no doubt can now remain on the subject. The history of this discovery has been given in the careful and scholarly work of Prof. Hemphill of Dublin (_The Diatessaron of Tatian_ 1888), where (see esp. p. xx sq) full information will be found. Ephraem's Commentary exists in an Armenian translation of some works of this Syrian father, which had been published in Venice as early as 1836. I had for some years possessed a copy of this work in four volumes, and the thought had more than once crossed my mind that possibly it might throw light on Ephraem's mode of dealing with the Gospels, as I knew that it contained notes on St Paul's Epistles or some portion of them. I did not however then possess sufficient knowledge of Armenian to sift its contents, but I hoped to investigate the matter when I had mastered enough of the language. Meanwhile a Latin translation was published by Moesinger under the title of _Evangelii concordantis expositio facta a Sancto Ephraemo doctore Syro_ Venet. 1876, just about the time when I wrote the above article; but it was not known in England till some years after. Later still an Arabic translation of the _Diatessaron_ itself has been discovered and published in Rome by Ciasca (_Tatiani Evangeliorum Harmoniae Arabice nunc primum etc._, 1888). On the relation of Victor's _Diatessaron_, which seems to be shown after all not to be independent of Tatian, and for the quotations in Aphraates, etc., see Hemphill's _Diatessaron_. Thus the 'ecclesiastical theory'--the only theory which was supported by any sound continuous tradition--is shown to be unquestionably true, and its nineteenth century critical rivals must all be abandoned.]


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