"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 18, 2021

Tatian's Diatessaron and Our Unspeakable Editorial Urges

Growing up in Canada more than 30 years ago now with an interest in literature and theology, I found reading Northrop Frye was de rigueur. I remember nothing of him now except his marvelous throw-away line about the Bible being a "sprawling, tactless book." Indeed it is.

Can you imagine, then, what temptations it poses if you are some aspiring scribe and editor in the late second century who thinks that at least the gospels could withstand a good going-over? Perhaps you are unusually bothered, or the people of your community confused, by what you and they see as myriad repetitions, lacunae, and inconsistencies? What harm might there be in picking up your Red Redacting Stylus and tidying up Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (inter alia)? 

Many Christians today are recoiling in horror at these very questions, but are only able to do so with the benefit of living after the "canon question" was settled, and more recently after centuries of fights about scriptural inerrancy, infallibility, and other talismanic phrases pounded into their heads. Put all that aside for a time and spare a thought for Tatian the Assyrian and his efforts with the singularly synthesized gospel we know as the Diatessaron, newly studied in Tatian's Diatessaron: Composition, Redaction, Recension, and Reception by James W. Barker (Oxford UP, November 2021), 168pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In the late-second century, Tatian the Assyrian constructed a new Gospel by intricately harmonizing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tatian's work became known as the Diatessaron, since it was derived 'out of the four' eventually canonical Gospels. Though it circulated widely for centuries, the Diatessaron disappeared in antiquity. Nevertheless, numerous ancient and medieval harmonies survive in various languages. Some texts are altogether independent of the Diatessaron, while others are definitely related. Yet even Tatian's known descendants differ in large and small ways, so attempts at reconstruction have proven confounding. In this book James W. Barker forges a new path in Diatessaron studies.

Covering the widest array of manuscript evidence to date, Tatian's Diatessaron reconstructs the compositional and editorial practices by which Tatian wrote his Gospel. By sorting every extant witnesses according to its narrative sequence, the macrostructure of Tatian's Gospel becomes clear. Despite many shared agreements, there remain significant divergences between eastern and western witnesses. This book argues that the eastern ones preserve Tatian's order, whereas the western texts descend from a fourth-century recension of the Diatessaron. Victor of Capua and his scribe used the recension to produce the Latin Codex Fuldensis in the sixth century. More controversially, Barker offers new evidence that late medieval texts such as the Middle Dutch Stuttgart harmony independently preserve traces of the western recension. This study uncovers the composition and reception history behind one of early Christianity's most elusive texts.

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