In our previous post in the series we looked at the so-called ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark’s Gospel and how the Diatessaron provides evidence in favour of its authenticity.
In our final post in this series, we shall make three final observations from Tatian’s harmony.
You can find a description of the Diatessaron, and of its author Tatian, here.
Here, then, are our final three observations on this intriguing text.
#10. Tatian sometimes oddly repeats himself
If you’ve ever read the four Gospels through, you will be aware that there are many passages which repeat across the Gospels, particularly across the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The word ‘synoptic’ roughly means “seeing together,” and is applied to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke precisely because they share so much material with one another.
“We naturally read these passages and draw the conclusion that different Gospel writers are recording the same incident. After all, it would be crazy to conclude that because there are four Gospels, the Lord must have fed five thousand men four times!”
So for example, the story of the healing of the paralytic, with its famous account of the man’s being lowered down through a hole in the roof, is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 9:1-8 (without the ‘roof’ detail); Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26.
We naturally read these passages and draw the conclusion that different Gospel writers are recording the same incident. After all, it would be crazy to conclude that because there are four Gospels, the Lord must have fed five thousand men four times!
And naturally enough, we expect Tatian to do the same in his harmony. We would expect him to recognize that the accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand are four accounts of the same incident, and to merge them into a single text.
In the case of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, this is indeed what he does: His solitary account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand occurs in sec. XVIII of the Diatessaron, which you can find here.
“Perhaps the most glaring instance of [unnecessary repetition] is the account of the calling of Matthew / Levi, which occurs in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. Tatian actually gives us this passage three times, as though in every Gospel it were a separate incident.”
Now and again, however, Tatian repeats himself in a way that seems most peculiar to us.
Perhaps the most glaring instance of this is the account of the calling of Matthew / Levi, which occurs in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.
What is particularly interesting about this passage in the Gospels, is that the disciple whom Jesus calls is given a different name. In the Gospels of Mark and of Luke, he is named Levi, a tax collector. But in the Gospel of Matthew, he is named Matthew — and many have taken his as a sort of signature by Matthew himself, in his otherwise anonymous Gospel: as though he were saying, “You know that tax collector whom Jesus called? I was that tax collector!”
Here are the three passages in question:—
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. Matthew 9:9
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. Mark 2:13-14
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. Luke 5:27-28
Now, we of course recognize these three passages as recording the same incident. And we would expect Tatian to do the same, and to merge these three accounts into one — not a difficult thing to do.
But no! Tatian actually gives us this passage three times, as though in every Gospel it were a separate incident.
The first time it occurs is in Diatessaron, section VI, as follows:—
Passage A. From Diatessaron, sec. VI
And when Jesus went out of the synagogue, he saw a man sitting among the publicans, named Matthew: and he said to him, “Come after me.” And he rose, and followed him.
The incident next occurs in section VII, as follows:—
Passage B. From Diatessaron, sec. VII
And when he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting among the tax-gatherers; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
And the third time, also in section VII, as follows:—
Passage C. From Diatessaron, sec. VII
And after that, Jesus went out, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting among the publicans: and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he left everything, and rose, and followed him.
Passage A is drawn from Matthew 9:9 (with an introductory clause from Luke 4:38 as a bridge from the previous passage). Passage B is drawn from Mark 2:14, and Passage C from Luke 5:27-28.
“Even with the difference of names [of Matthew / Levi], the three passages in the Gospels are so similar in detail — they are even preceded and succeeded by the same incidents in all three Gospels — and are so obviously the same incident, why repeat them at all?”
I am at a loss as to why Tatian has chosen to repeat this passage three times. Even if one were to make something of the difference of names of the tax collector (‘Matthew’ in Matthew’s Gospel; ‘Levi’ in the other two, you will recall), still it would only justify the passage appearing twice.
But as the case stands, even with the difference of names, the three passages in the Gospels are so similar in detail — they are even preceded and succeeded by the same incidents in all three Gospels — and are so obviously the same incident, why repeat them at all?
This is certainly one of the oddest features of the Diatessaron.
Another curious — if rather more understandable — repetition comes in section XLIX, where we read of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin.
Now in two of the Gospel accounts — Matthew’s and Luke’s — Jesus is asked the question, “Are you the Son of God?” and replies, “You have said so.” In both Gospel accounts Jesus’ answer creates a dramatic, intake-of-breath moment in the narrative.
“The result is a rather clunky account of Jesus’ trial, which loses the moment of dramatic tension we have both in Matthew and Luke.”
Now both question and answer are worded differently in each Gospel — in Matthew, the question is put by the high priest Caiaphas alone, and Jesus answers as if speaking to Caiaphas only; whereas in Luke the question is put to Jesus by all those present, and to all present he addresses his answer.
Now this is quite obviously the same question and answer, narrated slightly differently. Yet because in the one narrative Jesus is speaking with one person, and in the other with many people, Tatian has copied this into his harmony both ways.
The result is a rather clunky account of Jesus’ trial, which loses the moment of dramatic tension we have both in Matthew and Luke:—
And when the morning approached, the servants of all the chief priests and the scribes and the elders of the people and all the multitude assembled, and made a plot; and they took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they sought false witnesses to bear witness against him, in order that they might put him to death, but they did not find them. But many false witnesses came; even so, their witness did not agree. At last, however, there came two lying witnesses, and said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple of God that is made with hands, and will build another not made with hands after three days.’” Even then their witness did not agree. But Jesus was silent. And the chief priest rose in the midst, and asked Jesus, and said, “Have you nothing to say in answer to this, what testimony these witnesses have borne against you?” But Jesus was silent, and did not answer him at all. And they took him up into their assembly, and said to him, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe me: and if I ask you, you will not answer me a word, nor will you let me go.” And the chief priest answered and said to him, “I adjure you by the living God: Tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him, “You [singular] have said that I am he.” They all said to him, “So you are the Son of God, then?” Jesus said, “You [plural] have said that I am he. I say to you, that henceforth you shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the chief priest tore his tunic, and said, “He has blasphemed.” And they all said, “Why should we seek any more witnesses? We have now heard the blasphemy from his mouth. What do you think?” They all answered and said, “He is worthy of death.”
Again, one has to ask why Tatian did not harmonize this in a more elegant manner, and opt either for the singular or the plural response out of Jesus’ lips.
#11. Tatian’s attempt to harmonize the four Gospels is not entirely successful, and leads to considerable difficulties in his account
Aside from clunky and needless repetitions, another effect of Tatian’s harmonization is that it actually leads to various problems in the narrative.
“Another effect of Tatian’s harmonization is that it actually leads to various problems in the narrative.”
To be sure, some of these narrative problems are latent in the four Gospels themselves — putting the accounts together just exposes them more clearly. A good example of this is the problem of how Jesus’ disciples, after his resurrection, can both go into Galilee (so Matthew, Mark, John) and remain in Jerusalem (so Luke).
But some of Tatian’s problems are actually caused by his ordering of the Gospel material.
An instance of this can be seen in the very last section, section LV, of the Diatessaron. There we read:—
But the eleven disciples went into Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but there were some of them who doubted.
“In Tatian’s account, the disciples are already in Galilee — seven of them at least — and then ‘the eleven disciples went into Galilee’!”
The statement above creates a problem for Tatian in the narrative, because the last thing to happen in the preceding section was John 21:1-23, an event which explicitly takes place at the Sea of Tiberias (= the Sea of Galilee):—
And after that, Jesus showed himself again to his disciples at the sea of Tiberias. And this was the way he showed himself to them.
Thus, in Tatian’s account, the disciples are already in Galilee — seven of them at least — and then “the eleven disciples went into Galilee” (sec. LV).
This is a typical example of the kind of problem which Tatian’s ordering of material creates in the narrative frequently, particularly towards the end.
#12. It is better to let each of the four Gospels speak for itself
“As obvious a project as the Diatessaron is — for as soon as you have a recognized canon of four Gospels, documents which are all covering the same historical ground and which have so much material in common, it is natural to want to harmonize them — there is definitely something lost from each of the Gospels individually in the process of harmonization.”
My reading of the Diatessaron has brought me to the conclusion that it really is better to let the four Gospels speak each one for itself.
As obvious a project as the Diatessaron is — for as soon as you have a recognized canon of four Gospels, documents which are all covering the same historical ground and which have so much material in common, it is natural to want to harmonize them — there is definitely something lost from each of the Gospels individually in the process of harmonization.
A couple of examples will demonstrate this.
Example 1. The sense of Jesus’ hour having not come/having come in John’s Gospel
In John’s Gospel there is a real sense of Jesus’ hour not yet having come — and then suddenly, half-way through the Gospel, the hour has come.
See the texts below:—
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” John 2:4
So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. John 7:30
These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. John 8:20
And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” John 12:23
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. John 13:1
If you’ve ever read John’s Gospel through at one sitting, you may have noticed that from chapter 11 onwards, the tension starts to build and build as Jesus approaches his Passion in chapters 18—19.
“The Diatessaron, with all its flitting between the Gospels, […] entirely loses the tension which the author John consciously builds up throughout his Gospel.”
One of the literary devices the author John uses to crank up this tension is this sense of Jesus’ hour not yet having come, and then suddenly having come.
In this sense John’s Gospel really is a literary work: it is designed to leave an impression on you, the reader.
When one comes to the Diatessaron, and specifically to one of the Johannine statements about Jesus’ time/hour not yet having come, such as the statement from John 7:6 in Diatessaron, sec. XXVIII:—
For up to this time not even Jesus’ own brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time till now has not arrived; but as for you, your time is always here. It is not possible for the world to hate you. But it hates me, for I bear witness against it, that its deeds are evil.”
The Diatessaron, with all its flitting between the Gospels — and let’s face it, the other three Gospels don’t even sound like John’s Gospel — entirely loses the tension which the author John consciously builds up throughout his Gospel.
Example 2. Mark’s device of the cursing of the fig tree / the cleansing of the Temple
Mark’s Gospel does something unique with the account of the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers: he surrounds it in an allegory.
Take a look at the passage from Mark chapter 11, with the preceding and succeeding incidents:—
12On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19And when evening came they went out of the city.
20As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:12-25
The fact that the author Mark surrounds the cleansing of the Temple in the withering of the fig tree is an unmistakable sign that he viewed the latter as an allegory of the former. Jesus came to the Jerusalem Temple expecting to find fruit there — the fruit of good deeds done by a nation having faith in his God and Father — and he found none. All he found was money-changers and pigeon-sellers, “a den of robbers,” as he called it. The Temple had become a market-place.
“[Tatian] entirely scrubs out Mark’s device of surrounding the cleansing of the Temple in the fig tree incident.”
This is a dramatic moment in Mark’s Gospel, and Jewish readers of his Gospel in the first and second centuries A.D. could hardly have missed the significance.
However, it is lost in Tatian’s version.
In section XXXII of the Diatessaron, Tatian recounts the cleansing of the Temple — incorporating elements mainly from Matthew’s Gospel and from John’s — and then follows it with the cursing of the fig tree, himself following Matthew’s order of events.
This all reads very nicely, and it is in itself a fine harmonization of the different accounts — but it entirely scrubs out Mark’s device of surrounding the cleansing of the Temple in the fig tree incident.
It may be that Tatian didn’t notice this device of Mark’s — or it may be that he thought it not sufficiently important to preserve — either way, the theological point made by it in Mark’s Gospel has been lost.
“[The Diatessaron] — however much it impressed the Syriac Church for several centuries — could never be a sufficient replacement for what Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa, called ‘the Distinct Gospel.’”
These are just two of many ways in which Tatian’s harmony — however much it impressed the Syriac Church for several centuries — could never be a sufficient replacement for what Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa (d. 435), called “the Distinct Gospel.”
It is thus not surprising that eventually the Syriac Church came under pressure to ditch it in favour of the four distinct Gospels, as used by the rest of the orthodox Church worldwide.
My view of the Diatessaron is that it was a clever work in its time — and it shows that there were some clever people in the mid-second century A.D. who were not ashamed to own the name of ‘Christian’ — but ultimately believers in Jesus have to come back to the apostolic word of God, that which was given by Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, and was accepted by the orthodox Church through the ages and in all places.
* * *
We have reached the end of our Lessons from the Diatessaron. In the course of these six posts we have learned a number of useful things which the Diatessaron shows us, but that ultimately, we need to let the Gospel writers speak for themselves.
The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. X (henceforth referred to as ANF). The Diatessaron of Tatian, sec. VI, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.iv.iii.vi.html. (Note: In the online version Vol. X is referred to as Vol. IX.) I have slightly adapted this and subsequent quotations to make them more readable to modern readers.
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.