The Diatessaron and its Relevance to the Study of the Pentateuch
The Christian New Testament begins with the story of Jesus—actually four versions of the story of Jesus, each more or less complete. These accounts of Jesus’ life, the gospels (meaning “good story”), are each named after its purported author, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospels each tell the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry in theological terms. Three of these gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are very similar, and are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels; John is quite different.
The Diatessaron: A Brief History
The Diatessaron is a harmonized gospel, taking all four of the standard gospels and weaving them into one story. (The word actually means “of the four” in Greek.) Although for a long time scholars believed there was one original Diatessaron, authored by a man named Tatian in the second century C.E., most likely several gospel harmonies or Diatessarons were penned between the second and the fourth centuries C.E. The Diatessaron(s) became the pre-eminent Gospel text(s) in the Syriac speaking churches of the east until the 5th century.
Things began to change when the Theodoret (423-457), bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, moved east. As a Greek-speaking western bishop, he found the idea of a harmonized gospel to conflict with the (western) ideal of four separate gospels. Therefore, he confiscated any harmonized versions in his diocese and replaced them with the separate four.
Despite Theodoret’s replacement of the harmonized gospels as part of the public readings (the lectionary, similar to the Jewish Torah-reading) with the standard gospels, the Diatessaron remained important in private devotional use among the populace, and even the teachers of these churches, well into the 10th century, even as it lost canonical status.
Why Were These Harmonies Written?
Although we have no written record of why people wrote diatessarons, no preface to any of our manuscripts that explains the rationale for composing such a text, I would suggest that it was written for both pedagogic and public relations reasons. A harmony, namely a single text that brings together the disparate gospel stories, is easier to digest and could get the message out in a simpler and direct fashion to the masses, as well as avoid the pitfalls of the inconsistencies between the texts, which were already noted and critiqued by early Christianity’s opponents.
Who first had the idea to produce a Diatessaron, and whether it was a person or a community, is unknown. Either way, this idea had ancient precedents. Harmonization, as a literary concept existed in the ancient world such that our author(s) worked within an already known literary framework, and seemingly felt no impunity in reusing other earlier texts.Scholars note that the four individual gospels are themselves harmonized from earlier texts. Moreover, the Gospels are interpretive texts, meaning they interpret passages from the Hebrew Bible as part of their narratives, to support the veracity of their narrative, citing those texts as needed. The concept of harmonization, I think goes hand in hand with interpretation.
The Harmonistic Solution
The harmonistic version, by starting (and ending) with John, the more philosophical gospel, and deleting the human genealogies (lineage from Adam, Abraham or David), streamlines the early Christian message by emphasizing Jesus’ divine nature over his human nature. Yet, since the Orthodox church eventually wanted to emphasize Jesus’ full human AND divine natures, those harmonies that did not include the human genealogies were considered suspect by the likes of Theodoret. Moreover, in Theodoret’s day, the fifth century, Christological controversies dominated the Christian elite’s theological agendas. Those harmonies without the genealogies, and perhaps all harmonies by association, became “heretical” (were suspected of demoting Jesus’ human nature) and in need of confiscation.
The Method of Redaction in the Diatessaron
Since we have the four gospels and we know what is in them, study of the Diatessaron offers important insights into how composite texts are created. Nevertheless, the two disciplines share many similarities, since both are studies of composite texts.
George Foot Moore, in 1890, was the first modern scholar to attempt to compare the methodology and content of the Diatessaron for the benefit of Hebrew biblical scholars. In many ways his pioneering work remains valid, as long as the reader considers that he was studying but one version, the Arabic, out of many. From his examination, Moore determined that about a quarter of the total number of verses over the four Gospels ended up on the cutting room floor.
The redactor of the Arabic Diatessaron, Moore argues, follows the framework and chronology of Matthew as his overall organizing principle. Insofar as how he decided which parallels to include and which to cut, the redactor seems to keep parallels only when they are sufficiently different to warrant a repeat, or if they appear at different junctures in the narrative in the different gospels. Parallel accounts that are more or less identical, and happen at roughly the same point in the story line, are generally cut.
To get a sense of how this looks, we will survey three examples of parallels accounts incorporated into the Diatessaron in three different ways.
Example 1 – Back-to-Back Harmonization: The Opening Story
As an example of a back-to-back harmonization, let us look towards the beginning of the Arabic Diatessaron, which deals with the birth of Jesus. Two of the standard gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin with Jesus’ birth. Luke actually opens with the birth of Jesus’ “mentor,” John the Baptist, then segues into the birth of Jesus. Matthew opens with a genealogy from Abraham to Jesus and then narrates the details of Jesus’ conception and birth. Matthew does not have a birth narrative of John, rather John appears first already as an adult later in the narrative.
How does the Arabic Diatessaron deal with the parallel accounts of the birth of Jesus in these two gospels? Some of the Arabic harmonies included the genealogies and some did not, but all seem to have included a doubling of the birth of Jesus, taken from the first chapter of Luke and Matthew in which the Matthian piece is inserted into the Lucan narrative such that they seemingly complement rather than contradict each other as their details vary.
The two birth narratives of Jesus sit one after the other in mostly sequential pattern, following the birth of John (as it is in Luke), and provoking few obvious inconsistencies.
Nevertheless, the careful reader will notice that the stories are actually different.
- In Luke, the angel is named Gabriel; in Matthew it is an unnamed angel.
- In Luke, Jesus is announced to Mary; in Matthew the announcement is made to Joseph.
- In Luke, the virgin Mary’s pregnancy is foretold to her; in Matthew it seems to come as a surprise.
- In Luke, the angel’s revelation comes when Mary is awake; in Matthew it comes as a dream revelation to Joseph.
- In Luke, Mary is told to name Jesus; in Matthew, Joseph is told that his name will be Immanuel.
Luke begins with a long description of the prediction of John the baptists’ birth, the interactions of his mother Elizabeth and her cousin, Mary, the prediction of Jesus’ birth to Mary and John’s birth itself as background to the birth of Jesus. The Arabic Diatessaron then starts with this narrative, but before continuing with Jesus’ birth according to Luke, it includes the birth narrative according to Matthew. Matthew introduces the birth, Luke contextualizes it within a larger historical framework.
[I skip here Luke 1:2-25, since it deals only with the birth of John.] Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into Galilee, unto a city named Nazareth. To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said unto her, Hail, thou that art full of favour, our Lord is with thee: O thou blessed among women. And when she beheld him, she was troubled at his saying, and was considering what this salutation might be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.,Thou shalt now conceive, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Mary unto the angel, How shall this be done unto me since no man hath known me? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come, and the power of the Most High shall descend upon thee: Wherefore also that which shall be born of thee, shall be holy and shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, , she also hath conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, that is called barren. For nothing shall be difficult to God.. Mary said, Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. (=Lk 1:26-38) [I skip again here Luke 1:2-39-80, since it deals only with the birth of John] Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah was on this wise: In the time when his mother was given in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband was a just man and did not wish to expose her, and he purposed to put her away secretly. But when he thought of this, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, and said unto him, Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, and he shall save his people from their sins. And all this was that the saying from the Lord by the prophet might be fulfilled: Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, With us is our God. And when Joseph arose from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife; and knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son. [=Mt. 1.18-25] And in those days there went forth a decree from Augustus Caesar that all the people of his dominion should be enrolled. This first enrolment was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And every man went to be enrolled in his city. And Joseph went up also from Nazareth, a city of Galilee, to Judaea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem (for he was of the house of David and of his tribe). Mary his betrothed, she being with child, to be enrolled there. And while she was there the days for her being delivered were accomplished. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them where they were staying. And there were in that region shepherds abiding, keeping their flock in the watch of the night. And behold, the angel of God came unto them, and the glory of the Lord shone upon them; and they were greatly terrified. And the angel said unto them, Be not terrified; for I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to the whole world; there is born to you this day a Saviour, which is the Lord the Messiah, in the city of David. And this is a sign for you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. And there appeared with the angels suddenly many heavenly forces praising God and saying, Praise be to God in the highest, And on the earth peace, and good hope to men. And when the angels departed from them to heaven, the shepherds spake to one another and said, We will go to Bethlehem and see this word which hath been, as the Lord made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe laid in a manger. And when they saw, they reported the word which was spoken to them about the child. And all that heard wondered at the description which the shepherds described to them. But Mary kept these sayings and discriminated them in her heart. And those shepherds returned, magnifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, according as it was described unto them. And when eight days were fulfilled that the child should be circumcised, his name was called Jesus, being that by which he was called by the angel before his conception in the womb. [=Lk 2.1-22]
A reader who was unfamiliar with the gospels in their separate form could likely read this passage as a smooth narrative. There are no obvious or blatant contradictions between the Matthew and Luke materials and the passages are spliced in such a way as to make them read consecutively, in the order of their occurrence.
Since we have the gospels separated out, it is relatively easy for us to pick up on the discontinuities in the Diatessaron’s presentation. The work would be much harder if all we had was the final product, since it would be a challenge to delineate the sources in the first place. This is what makes the Diatessaron such a useful example of a harmonized text.
Example 2 – The Spliced Version of the Meeting of Jesus and John
The next sequence tells of the first meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist as grown men (according to Luke they had “met” previously as in-utero infants, as their mothers were first cousins). The Gospel of John introduces John the Baptist as a witness to Jesus’ messianic status (he is the “Word” in the opening paragraph), but we get no biographical information about him there; that information the Harmony draws from Luke (that he is son to a priest, Zacharias, and to Elisabeth, cousin to Mary). Thus, the harmony functions to bring all the narrative pieces together in a more comprehensive manner.
In the following chart, I bring the English translation of the Arabic Harmony printed edition, from 1888, in comparison to the standardized Gospel texts of John, Luke and Matthew. I cite them in the King James Version so that the English is equally antiquated (the Harmony was translated in 1910).
|Diat. 4.28-41 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. And Jesus was about thirty years of age, and was supposed to be the son of Joseph. Now John saw Jesus coming unto him, and saith, This is the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me shall come a man, which is preferred before me, for he is before me. And I knew him not; but that he may be made manifest to Israel, for this cause am I come baptizing in water. Now John was forbidding, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? Jesus answered him, and said, Suffer it now: thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized; and he went up straightway from the water: and the heaven was opened unto him. And the Holy spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove’s body: and lo, a voice from the heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And John bare witness, saying, Furthermore I saw the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven; and it abode upon him. And I knew him not; but he that sent me to baptize in water, he said unto me, Upon Whomsoever thou shalt see the spirit descending and abiding, this is he that baptizeth in the Holy Spirit.And I have seen, and have borne witness, that this is the Son of God.||Matt. 3:13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? 15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. 16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.||Luke 3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, 22 And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. 23 And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph,[here we have the Lukan genealogy]||John 1.29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. 30 This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. 31 And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. 32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. 33 And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. 34 And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.|
The textual description of the interaction between John and Jesus, in which John baptizes Jesus and Jesus is divinely claimed through the appearance of a white dove above his head, is a composite text made up of several verses from three of the Gospels woven tightly together. Since we have the separate gospels, we can see exactly how this particular harmonizer did his work. Again, if all we had was the final product, and read it carefully, we might suspect that it was a patchwork, but it would be very challenging to figure out what verses came from what source.
Example 3 – Duplicating Stories in Different Timeframes
As in the Pentateuchal narratives, there are, at times, similar narratives that repeat within the final text; for example, in both Genesis 12 and 20 Abraham tries to pass off Sarah as his sister. In most cases, where the gospels tell the same story, at the same point in the narrative sequences, the Arabic harmony drops all but one version, though sometimes they are interwoven, as we saw above. Yet at others, if the details are significantly different and they appear in different narrative timeframes, the redactor includes them both but not necessarily in the timeframes in which they appear in their individual gospel source.
Often the author understands these various versions of a narrative as different enough to string them together in a sequence as pieces of a larger narrative. This is evident, for example, in the calling of the first disciples. The story of the calling of Simon (Peter) and Andrew appears in all of the gospels at (John 1.35-51; Mt. 4.18-22, 16-17-18; Mk 1.16-20; 3:16 and Luke 5.1-11; 6.14). The three synoptic Gospels separate the calling of these first disciples and the renaming of Simon as Peter. In John, they happen all at once. The Arabic harmony—which includes John, Matthew, and Luke only—places them in the Harmony’s fifth and sixth chapters.
|And next day John was standing, and two of his disciples; and he saw Jesus as he was walking, and said, Behold, the Lamb of God! And his two disciples heard him saying this, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned and saw them coming after him, and said unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Our master, where art thou staying? And he said unto them, Come and see. And they came and saw his place, and abode with him that day: and it was about the tenth hour. One of the two which heard from John, and followed Jesus, was Andrew the brother of Simon. And he saw first Simon his brother, and said unto him, We have found the Messiah. And he brought him unto Jesus. And Jesus looked upon him and said, Thou art Simon, son of Jonah: thou shalt be called Cephas.
And on the next day Jesus desired to go forth to Galilee, and he found Philip, and said unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was of Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Simon. And Philip found Nathanael, and said unto him, He of whom Moses did write in the law and in the prophets, we have found that he is Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth. Nathanael said unto him, Is it possible that there can be any good thing from Nazareth? Philip said unto him, Come and see. And Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, This is indeed a son of Israel in whom is no guile. And Nathanael said unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus said unto him, Before Philip called thee, while thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and said unto him, My Master, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, hast thou believed? thou shalt see what is greater than this. And he said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Henceforth ye shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. [I skip here the account of Jesus teaching in the synagogues of the Galilee and his miracle working there, as it is long and not relevant to the point.]
And while he was walking on the shore of the sea of Galilee, he saw two brethren, Simon who was called Cephas, and Andrew his brother, casting their nets into the sea; for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they immediately left their nets there and followed him. And when he went on from thence, he saw other two brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and Jesus called them. And they immediately forsook the ship and their father Zebedee, and followed him.
And when the multitude gathered unto him to hear the word of God, while he was standing on the shore of the sea of Gennesaret, he saw two boats standing beside the sea, while the two fishers which were gone out of them were washing their nets. And one of them belonged to Simon Cephas. And Jesus went up and sat down in it, and commanded that they should move away a little from the land into the water. And he sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. And when he had left off his speaking, he said unto Simon, Put out into the deep, and cast your net for a draught. And Simon answered and said unto him, My Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing; now at thy word I will cast the net. And when they did this, there were enclosed a great many fishes; and their net was on the point of breaking. And they beckoned to their comrades that were in the other boat, to come and help them. And when they came, they filled both boats, so that they were on the point of sinking.
But when Simon Cephas saw this he fell before the feet of Jesus, and said unto him, My Lord, I beseech of thee to depart from me, for I am a sinful man. And amazement took possession of him, and of all who were with him, because of the draught of the fishes which they had taken. And thus also were James and John the sons of Zebedee overtaken, who were Simon’s partners. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; henceforth thou shalt be a fisher of men unto life. And they brought the boats to the land; and they left everything, and followed him.(Diatessaron 5:4-6:4)
|The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”(John 1:35-51)||While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.(Matthew 16:17-18)
|On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew,(Luke 6:14)
The Diatessaron pulls these three versions of the narrative at the beginning and end of a larger sequence in which disciples of various kinds are called. This section stretches from Chapter 5.4 to 6.4. The sequence begins with John, segues into Jesus teaching in the synagogues of the Galilee, where he performs a miracle or two (making of the wine at the marriage at Cana) and ends with Mathew and Luke. Because the harmonizing author wants to streamline his narrative, this approach to solving the doublets is his least favorite option. He more often then not brings narrative parallels together, either in sequence or by interweaving them.
In short, as I understand it, the gospel harmonies or diatessarons came together as pedagogic tools in the hand of educators and especially missionaries in various geographies and chronologies of the Christian world. One gospel, with a simple message of salvation, would be an easier sell, then four, surely. A gospel harmony in some important sense seeks to erase both the narrative and the theological differences between the gospels by harmonizing them, but in so doing radically alters and distorts the perspective of each individual text. Clearly, the harmonizers gave little thought to the original authors’ feelings and in some sense butchered their predecessor’s work in the process. Yet they did so because they felt compelled to tell an accessible and meaningful theological narrative.
Although the process that produced the diatessarons was centuries later than the time when scholars believe the Pentateuch was created by combining or harmonizing pre-existent sources, it reflects well how and why ancient authors brought very different sources together into a single final work. In the end, like Moore, I believe that Diatessaronic studies sheds some needed light on the processes behind the creation of the Torah, and dispels the notion that the methods posited for the Torah’s redactor are unattested and impossible in antiquity.
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November 18, 2014
January 18, 2021
Dr. Naomi Koltun-Fromm is Associate Professor of Religion in Haverford College. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Stanford. She is the author of Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community.
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