Where did our Bible come from? Part 8: The Diatessaron

Ok, I’ve been bad, really bad, about keeping up with blog posting. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy. Unfortunately, I’ve been busy writing the sort of stuff that probably wouldn’t work to well in a blog post (I doubt anyone (or more than a handful of people) wants to read a 25,000 word piece about German idealist philosophers and their impact upon the continental theology of a later German theologian’s idea bout contingency). That said, I hope to get back into blogging on trains and such. To be honest, though, I may still be a bit patchy the next couple weeks, but I will make an effort to at least get two posts a week out (maybe getting back to three). Today, I’m going to briefly make mention of the Diatessaron, which really drove home the point that the church needed all four distinct gospels, not a single harmony, and then next time (whenever that is) try to move towards a slight conclusion as to what the probable criteria was for determining which books were, in fact, Scripture. Following that, I may say something about translation and the use of the bible today, but we’ll see.

The Diatessaron

If you want to review (hey it’s been a while) feel free to click back to other posts in this series. Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Last time I made mention of the first attempt to bring about a single gospel. Marcion’s purpose, however, was a malicious one. He sought to expunge any evidence of the Old Testament from the bible and so simple cut out those parts that didn’t match his worldview. He tried to shape the Word of God, rather than be shaped by it. Because of this, he was one of the earliest heretics of the early church. Please note that he was not considered a heretic because the views he held were mistaken (which they were), but because he refused any correction and actively sought to convert others to his mistaken view at the cost of unity to the church. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the more “virtuous” attempt to produce a single gospel: The Diatessaron.

Between rough 150-175, the Diatessaron was produced by Tatian, who was a Christian Apologist (the group who came right after the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers). I say that the Diatessaron was a “virtuous” attempt to produce one gospel because Tatian’s motives were not to divide the church, nor did he want to edit out parts of the text that didn’t fit his worldview. Instead, he attempted to blend together all four gospels into a single “harmony” of the gospels that could be read, chronologically, straight through. In doing so, he attempted to explain seeming contradictions. In a few places, however, he simply removed the seeming contradiction (he famously did not include the genealogies of Jesus from either Matthew or Luke. Still, of the four Gospels as they are accepted today, remarkably only 56 verses do not have a corresponding or analogous verse in the Diatessaron.

Rejection of the Diatessaron

While the Diatessaron was accepted in the Syrian until the early 5th century, the overwhelming majority of the church, though appreciative of it, rejected it as genuine Scripture. What was the reason for this rejection? While we can only speculate, we nevertheless have good reason to believe that the early Church felt that it was important to maintain the four unique perspectives on the Jesus event, warts and all. The “four winds” as they were often called, were important in their unique peculiarity. The church may have rejected the Diatessaron, but it did so primarily because it needed the authenticity, the “realness” of the four Gospels.

This should give us cause, on the one hand, to consider that these four gospels are likely what they say they are: namely historical accounts written by real people who were either themselves eyewitnesses, or who were in conversation with eyewitnesses of the Christ event. On the other hand, it should cause us to appreciate the gospels in their uniqueness. Why did Mark leave out things that Matthew and Luke thought important? Why does John seem to follow a wildly different chronology from the other three (and include completely different accounts of miracles)? Why does Matthew use the term “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God”? Why does Mark skip past the infancy of Jesus? And on and on the questions could go. The fact is, we have four unique accounts of what happened. While the general story is the same in all of them, they chose to tell it in different ways. Therefore, although all four have the same purpose (something akin to promoting faith in God and Jesus Christ), they each, nevertheless, seem to have distinct, not homogenous, purposes beyond that. The truth is, we have four, not one, and that is important.

Transition between this time period and the criteria

With regard to the rest of the New Testament, there were a lot of more minor shifts, and no major pronouncements until the canon was more or less identified. I mentioned in my first post on the New Testament some of the timing related to when certain books were accepted. It seems, though, that the recognition of the rest of the New Testament  occurred without much incident, at least compared to the acceptance of the four Gospels as four different Gospels. Next time, I’m going to look at some of the criteria that may have been used to determine which writings could be accepted as Scripture very early on, and what that means for us.


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