In this post we continue to look at some things we learn from the Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels by Tatian.
You can find a description of the Diatessaron, and of its author, in the previous post in this series here.
We saw previously that one thing that Diatessaron shows us, is that already by the middle of the second century the idea of a ‘canon’ of four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — was in place.
But what are some of the other things the Diatessaron shows us?
#2. In the mid-second century everything was up for grabs
In many ways this is the flip side of our previous point.
“Although the Diatessaron shows us that four Gospels were generally regarded as Scripture in the orthodox Church of the mid-second century, it’s still the case that pretty much everything in Christian theology was up for grabs.”
Although the Diatessaron shows us that four Gospels were generally regarded as Scripture in the orthodox Church of the mid-second century, it’s still the case that pretty much everything in Christian theology was up for grabs.
Today we pretty much take it for granted that the Bible is a collection of 27 books of the New Testament, and 39 books of the Old Testament.
But for the Christians of the mid-second century A.D., that wasn’t the case. There was no ‘Bible’ in the sense in which we understand the word today.
That is not to say that the Bible hadn’t been written — it had — but the 27 separate writings which were later to be gathered into ‘the New Testament’ had not yet been so gathered.
“It was as spurious writings began to emerge from the end of the first century onwards […] that the Church began to find it necessary to define which writings it considered authentic, and which it did not.”
Rather, at this time, there was a general regard in the orthodox Church for a group of writings which were considered ‘apostolic’ (that is, of apostolic origin), namely, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul.
It was as spurious writings began to emerge from the end of the first century onwards — such as the Gnostic Gospels, some of them claiming an apostolic origin — that the Church began to find it necessary to define which writings it considered authentic, and which it did not.
“The absence of such a well-defined, and universally defined, canon of New Testament books at this time shows itself in the fact the Syriac-speaking Church adopted the Diatessaron as its main version of the Gospels.”
Thus, as we study the emergence of the New Testament canon of 27 books — which was completed with Athanasius’ well-known list published in A.D. 367 — the picture we see is one of a group of writings universally considered authentic (viz., the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul), and then other writings which were more at the margins: sometimes included in orthodox lists of canonical books, sometimes not. The books which were at the margins of the canon that eventually made it into Athanasius’ list of A.D. 367 are generally those found near the back of our New Testament.
The absence of such a well-defined, and universally defined, canon of New Testament books at this time shows itself in the fact the Syriac-speaking Church adopted the Diatessaron as its main version of the Gospels, from the second century until the fifth — something which could never have happened in later ages.
#3. Second-century Christians regarded the Gospels as factual, historical accounts
The very attempt by Tatian to create a harmony of the four Gospels, is a clear indication that orthodox Christians of his age regarded the Gospels as factual, historical accounts.
“The very attempt by Tatian to create a harmony of the four Gospels, is a clear indication that orthodox Christians of his age regarded the Gospels as factual, historical accounts.”
Today there is a tendency in many quarters to treat the Gospels as more or less mythological accounts. I recently wrote an article about the Independent’s undeserved re-promotion of a 2013 story they ran about Joseph Atwill’s theory that Jesus never even existed. (I should point out, however, that his hypothesis is a real crackpot theory.)
The Telegraph also ran a story recently headed, “‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels.”
But it is difficult to see the point in Tatian’s project of harmonizing the four Gospel accounts, if he did not regard those four accounts as essentially historical. The care with which he has compared, ordered and combined parallel accounts in different Gospels shows a clear belief in their historicity.
Irenaeus bishop of Lyons, a near-contemporary of Tertullian, also demonstrates very clearly his belief these events actually happened. Writing around 180 A.D., he says:—
“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: She believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God…”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, ch. X, §1 [emphasis mine].
#4. Tatian did not regard the Gospels as strictly chronological accounts
Put very simply, the Gospels are narratives. As such, they have in them a natural chronology (as does any narrative).
“The Gospels are narratives. […] But that doesn’t mean that Tatian viewed them as strictly chronological accounts. Clearly he didn’t, because in order to harmonize the four narratives he has to do considerable reordering of events in them.”
But that doesn’t mean that Tatian viewed them as strictly chronological accounts. Clearly he didn’t, because in order to harmonize the four narratives he has to do considerable reordering of events in them.
Some of this reordering is natural and necessary. The account of Jesus’ driving out the money-changers from the temple famously occurs late in the Synoptic Gospels, but very early in John’s Gospel. Clearly here, Tatian is going to have to reorder events in at least one of the Gospels.
In other cases, his reordering is surprising. In section XXXIV of his Diatessaron, Tatian introduces the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. In Luke’s account this takes place very early in Jesus’ procession up to Jerusalem to be crucified. In the Diatessaron it’s relatively late — Jesus has already reached Jerusalem and is into his final week before his crucifixion. Although a strange dislocation, it’s not difficult to see why Tatian has done this: the famous parable is introduced by a question from a teacher of the law, such as frequently happened to Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem.
In other instances Tatian’s reordering seems plain unnecessary. In section XXI of the Diatessaron, Tatian records the story of the Samaritan woman from John chapter 4, after he has already recounted the Feeding of the Five Thousand from John chapter 6 (cf.Diatessaron, sec. XIX). Since the story of the Samaritan woman is only recorded by John, it seems quite unnecessary for Tatian to reverse the order of these two events.
I should point out that scholars differs as to which of the Gospels Tatian is treating as normative.
In this second post we have seen three more observations about what Tatian’s Diatessaron tells us about Christianity in the second century, and how Christians of that time viewed the New Testament writings.
In Part 3 of this series we will make some further observations from Tatian’s work, including considering some passages which Tatian chose to omit.
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Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.