Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > A Reply to Dr Lightfoot's Essays



I NEED not reply at any length to Dr. Lightfoot's essay on the Diatessaron of Tatian, and I must refer those who wish to see what I had to say on the subject to Supernatural Religion[145:1] I may here confine myself to remarks connected with fresh matter which has appeared since the publication of my work.

An Armenian translation of what is alleged to be the Commentary of Ephraem Syrus on Tatian's Diatessaron was published as long ago as 1836, but failed to attract critical attention. In 1876, however, a Latin translation of this work by Aucher and Moesinger was issued, and this has now, naturally introduced new elements into the argument regarding Tatian's use of Gospels. Only last year, a still more important addition to critical materials was made by the publication in Rome of an alleged Arabic version of Tatian's Diatessaron itself, with a Latin translation by Ciasca. These works were not before Dr. Lightfoot when he wrote his Essay on Tatian in 1877, and he only refers to them in a note in his present volume. He entertains no doubt as to the genuineness of these works, and he triumphantly claims that they establish the truth of the "ecclesiastical theory" regarding the Diatessaron of Tatian.

In order to understand the exact position of the case, however, it will be well to state again what is known regarding Tatian's work. Eusebius is the first writer who mentions it. He says--and to avoid all dispute I give Dr. Lightfoot's rendering:--

"Tatian composed a sort of connection and compilation, I know not how (ouk oid' hopôs), of the Gospels, and called it Diatessaron. This work is current in some quarters (with some persons) even to the present day." [146:1]

I argued that this statement indicates that Eusebius was not personally acquainted with the work in question, but speaks of it from mere hearsay. Dr. Lightfoot replies--

"His inference, however, from the expression 'I know not how' is altogether unwarranted. So far from implying that Eusebius had no personal knowledge of the work, it is constantly used by writers in speaking of books where they are perfectly acquainted with the contents, but do not understand the principles, or do not approve the method. In idiomatic English it signifies 'I cannot think what he was about,' and is equivalent to 'unaccountably,' 'absurdly,' so that, if anything, it implies knowledge rather than ignorance of the contents. I have noticed at least twenty-six examples of its use in the treatise of Origen against Celsus alone, [146:2] where it commonly refers to Celsus' work which he had before him, and very often to passages which he himself quotes in the context." [146:3]

If this signification be also attached to the expression, it is equally certain that ouk oid' hopôs is used to express ignorance, although Dr. Lightfoot chooses, for the sake of his argument, to forget the fact. In any case some of the best critics draw the same inference from the phrase here that I do, more especially as Eusebius does not speak further or more definitely of the Diatessaron, amongst whom I may name Credner, Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Reuss and Scholten; and should these not have weight with him I may refer Dr. Lightfoot to Zahn, [147:1] and even to Dr. Westcott [147:2] and Professor Hemphill. [147:3] Eusebius says nothing more of the Diatessaron of Tatian and gives us no further help towards a recognition of the work.

Dr. Lightfoot supposes that I had overlooked the testimony of the Doctrine of Addai, an apocryphal Syriac work, published in 1876 by Dr. Phillips after Supernatural Religion was written. I did not overlook it, but I considered it of too little critical value to require much notice in later editions of the work. The Doctrine of Addai is conjecturally dated by Dr. Lightfoot about the middle of the third century, [147:4] and it might with greater certainty be placed much later. The passage to which he points is one in which it is said that the new converts meet together to hear, along with the Old Testament, "the New of the Diatessaron." This is assumed to be Tatian's "Harmony of the Gospels," and I shall not further argue the point; but does it bring us any nearer to a certain understanding of its character and contents?

The next witness, taking them in the order in which Dr. Lightfoot cites them, is Dionysius Bar-Salibi, who flourished in the last years of the twelfth century. In his commentary on the Gospels he writes:--

"Tatian, the disciple of Justin, the philosopher and martyr, selected and patched together from the four Gospels and constructed a gospel, which he called Diatessaron--that is, Miscellanies. On this work Mar Ephraem wrote an exposition; and its commencement was--In the beginning was the Word. Elias of Salamia, who is also called Aphthonius, constructed a gospel after the likeness of the Diatessaron of Ammonius, mentioned by Eusebius in his prologue to the Canons which he made for the Gospel. Elias sought for that Diatessaron and could not find it, and in consequence constructed this after its likeness. And the said Elias finds fault with several things in the Canons of Eusebius, and points out errors in them, and rightly. But this copy (work) which Elias composed is not often met with." [148:1]

This information regarding Ephraem--who died about A.D. 373--be it remembered, is given by a writer of the twelfth century, and but for this we should not have known from any ancient independent source that Ephraem had composed a commentary at all, supposing that he did so. It is important to note, however, that a second Diatessaron, prepared by Ammonius, is here mentioned, and that it was also described by Eusebius in his Epistle to Carpianus, and further that Bar-Salibi speaks of a third, composed on the same lines by Elias. Dr. Lightfoot disposes of the Diatessaron of Ammonius in a very decided way. He says:

"It was quite different in its character from the Diatessaron of Tatian. The Diatessaron of Tatian was a patchwork of the four Gospels, commencing with the preface of St. John. The work of Ammonius took the Gospel of St. Matthew as its standard, preserving its continuity, and placed side by side with it parallel passages from the other Gospels. The principle of the one was amalgamation; of the other, comparison. No one who had seen the two works could confuse them, though they bore the same name, Diatessaron. Eusebius keeps them quite distinct. So does Bar-Salibi. Later on in his commentary, we are told, he quotes both works in the same place." [148:2]
Doubtless, no one comparing the two works here described could confuse them, but it is far from being so clear that anyone who had not seen more than one of these works could with equal certainty distinguish it. The statement of Dr. Lightfoot quoted above, that the Diatessaron of Ammonius "took the Gospel of St. Matthew as its standard, preserving its continuity," certainly does not tend to show that it was "quite different in its character from the Diatessaron of Tatian," on the supposition that the Arabic translation lately published represents the work of Tatian. I will quote what Professor Hemphill says regarding it, in preference to making any statement of my own:--
"On examining the Diatessaron as translated into Latin from this Arabic, we find in by far the greater portion of it, from the Sermon on the Mount to the Last Supper (§§ 30-134) that Tatian, like his brother harmonist Ammonius, took St. Matthew as the basis of his work … St. Mark, as might be expected, runs parallel with St. Matthew in the Diatessaron, and is in a few cases the source out of which incidents have been incorporated. St. Luke, on the other hand, is employed by Tatian, as also in a lesser degree is St. John, in complete defiance of chronological order." [149:1]

This is not quite so different from the description of the Diatessaron of Ammonius, which Dr. Lightfoot quotes:--

"He placed side by side with the Gospel according to Matthew the corresponding passages of the other Evangelists, so that as a necessary result the connection of sequence in the three was destroyed so far as regards the order (texture) of reading." [149:2]
The next witness cited is Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, writing about A.D. 453, and I need not quote the well-known passage in which he describes the suppression of some 200 copies of Tatian's work in his diocese, which were in use "not only among persons belonging to his sect, but also among those who follow the Apostolic doctrine," who did not perceive the heretical purpose of a book in which the genealogies and other passages showing the Lord to have been born of the seed of David after the flesh were suppressed. It is a fact, however, which even Zahn points out, that, in the alleged Diatessaron of Ephraem, these passages are not all excised, but still remain part of the text, [150:1] as they also do in the Arabic translation. This is the only definite information which we possess of the contents of the Diatessaron beyond the opening words, and it does not tally with the recently discovered works.

I need not further discuss here the statement of Epiphanius that some called Tatian's Diatessaron the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Epiphanius had not seen the work himself, and he leaves us in the same ignorance as to its character.

It is clear from all this that we have no detailed information regarding the Diatessaron of Tatian. As Dr. Donaldson said long ago: "We should not be able to identify it, even if it did come down to us, unless it told us something reliable about itself." [150:2]

We may now come to the documents recently published. The MS. of the Armenian version of the commentary ascribed to Ephraem is dated A.D. 1195, and Moesinger declares that it is translated from the Syriac, of which it is said to retain many traces. [150:3] He states that in the judgment of the Mechitarist Fathers the translation dates from about the fifth century, [150:4] but an opinion on such a point can only be received with great caution. The name of Tatian is not mentioned as the author of the "Harmony," and the question is open as to whether the authorship of the commentary is rightly ascribed to Ephraem Syrus. In any case there can be no doubt that the Armenian work is a translation.

The Arabic work published by Ciasca, and supposed to be a version of Tatian's Diatessaron itself, is derived from two manuscripts, one belonging to the Vatican Library and the other forwarded to Rome from Egypt by the Vicar Apostolic of the Catholic Copts. The latter MS. states, in notes at the beginning and end, that it is an Arabic translation of the Diatessaron of Tatian, made from the Syriac by the presbyter Abû-l-Pharag Abdullah Ben-at-Tib, who is believed to have flourished in the first half of the eleventh century, and in one of these notes the name of the scribe who wrote the Syriac copy is given, which leads to the conjecture that it may have been dated about the end of the ninth century. A note in the Vatican MS. also ascribes the original work to Tatian. These notes constitute the principal or only ground for connecting Tatian's name with the "Harmony."

So little is known regarding the Diatessaron of Tatian that even the language in which it was written is matter of vehement debate. The name would, of course, lead to the conclusion that it was a Greek composition, and many other circumstances support this, but the mere fact that it does not seem to have been known to Greek Fathers, and that it is very doubtful whether any of them, with the exception of Theodoret, had ever seen it, has led many critics to maintain that it was written in Syriac. Nothing but circumstantial evidence of this can be produced. This alone shows how little we really know of the original. The recently discovered works, being in Arabic and Armenian, even supposing them to be translations from the Syriac and that the Diatessaron was composed in Syriac, can only indirectly represent the original, and they obviously labour under fatal disability in regard to a restoration of the text of the documents at the basis of the work. Between doubtful accuracy of rendering and evident work of revision, the original matter cannot but be seriously disfigured.

It is certain that the name of Tatian did not appear as the author of the Diatessaron[152:1] This is obvious from the very nature of the composition and its object. We have met with three works of this description and it is impossible to say how many more may not have existed. As the most celebrated, by name at least, it is almost certain that, as time went on and the identity of such works was lost, the first idea of anyone meeting with such a Harmony must have been that it was the Diatessaron of Tatian. What means could there be of correcting it and positively ascertaining the truth? It is not as if such a work were a personal composition, showing individuality of style and invention; but supposing it to be a harmony of Gospels already current, and consequently varying from similar harmonies merely in details of compilation and arrangement, how is it possible its authorship could remain in the least degree certain, in the absence of an arranger's name?

An illustration of all this is aptly supplied in the case of Victor of Capua, and I will allow Dr. Lightfoot himself to tell the story.

"Victor, who flourished about A.D. 545, happened to stumble upon an anonymous Harmony or Digest of the Gospels, and began in consequence to investigate the authorship. He found two notices in Eusebius of such Harmonies; one in the Epistle to Carpianus prefixed to the canons, relating to the work of Ammonius; another in the Ecclesiastical History, relating to that of Tatian. Assuming that the work which he had discovered must be one or other, he decides in favour of the latter, because it does not give St. Matthew continuously and append the passages of the other evangelists, as Eusebius states Ammonius to have done. All this Victor tells us in the preface to this anonymous Harmony, which he publishes in a Latin dress.

"There can be no doubt that Victor was mistaken about the authorship; for though the work is constructed on the same general plan as Tatian's, it does not begin with John i. 1, but with Luke i. 1, and it does contain the genealogies. It belongs, therefore, at least in its present form, neither to Tatian nor to Ammonius." [153:1]

How this reasoning would have fallen to the ground had the Harmonist, as he might well have done in imitation of Tatian, commenced with the words, "In the beginning was the Word"! The most instructive part is still to come, however, for although in May 1887 Dr. Lightfoot says: "There can be no doubt that Victor was mistaken about the authorship," &c., in a note now inserted at the end of the essay, after referring to the newly-discovered works, he adds: "On the relation of Victor's Diatessaron, which seems to be shown after all not to be independent of Tatian … See Hemphill's Diatessaron." [153:2] On turning to Professor Hemphill's work, the following passage on the point is discovered:--

"It will be remembered that Victor, Bishop of Capua, in the year 543, found a Latin Harmony or compilation of the four Gospels without any name or title, and being a man of enquiring mind he at once set about the task of discovering its unknown author. I have already mentioned the way in which, from the passage of Eusebius, he was led to ascribe his discovery to Tatian. This conclusion was generally traversed by Church writers, and Victor was supposed to have made a mistake. He is now, however, proved to have been a better judge than his critics, for, as Dr. Wace was the first to point out, a comparison of this Latin Harmony with the Ephraem fragments demonstrates their substantial identity, as they preserve to a wonderful degree the same order, and generally proceed pari passu." [153:3]
But how about Luke i. 1 as the beginning? and the genealogies? Nothing could more clearly show the uncertainty which must always prevail about such works. Shall we one day discover that Victor was equally right about the reading Diapente?

I have thought it worth while to go into all this with a view of showing how little we know of the Diatessaron of Tatian and, I may add, of the Commentary of Ephraem Syrus and the work on which it is based. It is not at present necessary to examine more closely the text of either of the recently published works, but, whilst leaving them to be tried by time, I may clearly state what the effect on my argument would be on the assumption made by Dr. Lightfoot that we have actually recovered the Diatessaron of Tatian, and that it is composed upon a text more or less corresponding with our four Gospels. Neither in the "Harmony" itself nor in the supposed Commentary of Ephraem Syrus is the name of any of the Evangelists mentioned, and much less is there any information given as to their personality, character, or trustworthiness. If these works were, therefore, the veritable Diatessaron of Tatian and the Commentary of Ephraem upon it, the Gospels would not be rendered more credible as the record of miracles nor as witnesses for the reality of Divine Revelation.


Dr Lightfoot as a Sceptical Critic
It may not be uninstructive if I take the liberty of quoting here some arguments of Dr. Lightfoot regarding the authenticity of the "Letter of the Smyrnaens," giving an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. [154:1]

"The miraculous element has also been urged in some quarters as an objection to the genuineness of the document. Yet, considering all the circumstances of the case, we have more occasion to be surprised at the comparative absence than at the special prominence of the supernatural in the narrative. Compared with records of early Christian martyrs, or with biographies of mediaeval saints, or with notices of religious heroes at any great crisis, even in the more recent history of the Church--as, for instance, the rise of Jesuitism or of Wesleyanism--this document contains nothing which ought to excite a suspicion as to its authenticity.

"The one miraculous incident, which creates a real difficulty, is the dove issuing from the wounded side of the martyr. Yet even this might be accounted for by an illusion, and under any circumstances it would be quite inadequate to condemn the document as a forgery. But it will be shown hereafter (p. 627) that there are excellent reasons for regarding the incident as a later interpolation, which had no place in the original document. Beyond this we have the voice from heaven calling to Polycarp in the stadium to play the man (§ 9). But the very simplicity of the narrative here disarms criticism. The brethren present heard the voice, but no one saw the speaker. This was the sole ground for the belief that it was not a human utterance. Again, there is the arching of the fire round the martyr like a sail swelled by the wind (§ 15). But this may be explained as a strictly natural occurrence, and similar phenomena have been witnessed more than once on like occasions, notably at the martyrdoms of Savonarola and of Hooper. Again, there is the sweet scent, as of incense, issuing from the burning pyre (§ 15); but this phenomenon also, however we may explain it, whether from the fragrance of the wood or in some other way, meets us constantly. In another early record of martyrdoms, the history of the persecutions at Vienne and Lyons, a little more than twenty years later, we are told (Euseb. H. E. v. 1, § 35) that the heroic martyrs, as they stepped forward to meet their fate, were 'fragrant with the sweet odour of Christ, so that some persons even supposed that they had been anointed with material ointment' (hôste enious doxai kai murô kosmikô kechristhai autous). Yet there was no pyre and no burning wood here, so that the imagination of the bystanders must have supplied the incident. Indeed, this account of the Gallican martyrs, indisputably written by eye-witnesses, contains many more startling occurrences than the record of Polycarp's fate.

"More or less closely connected with the miraculous element is the prophetic insight attributed to Polycarp. But what does this amount to? It is stated indeed that 'every word which he uttered was accomplished and will be accomplished' (§ 16). But the future tense, 'will be accomplished,' is itself the expression of a belief, not the statement of a fact. We may, indeed, accept this qualification as clear testimony that, when the narrative was written, many of his forebodings and predictions had not been fulfilled. The only example of a prediction actually given in the narrative is the dream of his burning pillow, which suggested to him that he would undergo martyrdom by fire. But what more natural than this presentiment, when persecution was raging around him and fire was a common instrument of death? I need not stop here to discuss how far a prescience may be vouchsafed to God's saints. Even 'old experience' is found to be gifted with 'something like prophetic strain.' It is sufficient to say here again that it would be difficult to point to a single authentic biography of any Christian hero--certainly of any Christian hero of the early centuries--of whom some incident at least as remarkable as this prophecy, if prophecy it can be called, is not recorded. Pontius, the disciple and biographer of Cyprian, relates a similar intimation which preceded the martyrdom of his master, and adds: 'Quid hac revelatione manifestius? quid hac dignatione felicius? ante illi praedicta sunt omnia quaecunque postmodum subsecuta sunt.' (Vit. et Pass. Cypr. 12, 13)" [156:1]

I am the more anxious to quote this extract from a work, written long after the essays on Supernatural Religion, as it presents Dr. Lightfoot in a very different light, and gives me an opportunity of congratulating him on the apparent progress of his thought towards freedom which it exhibits. I quite agree with him that the presence of supernatural or superstitious elements is no evidence against the authenticity of an early Christian writing, but the promptitude with which he sets these aside as interpolations, or explains them away into naturalism, is worthy of Professor Huxley. He now understands, without doubt, the reason why I demand such clear and conclusive evidence of miracles, and why I refuse to accept such narratives upon anonymous and insufficient testimony. In fact, he cannot complain that I feel bound to explain all alleged miraculous occurrences precisely in the way of which he has set me so good an example, and that, whilst feeling nothing but very sympathetic appreciation of the emotion which stimulated the imagination and devout reverence of early Christians to such mistakes, I resolutely refuse to believe their pious aberrations.


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