Reading the Diatessaron with Ephrem: The Word and the Light, the Voice and the Star

in Vigiliae Christianae
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Through a consideration of the reception history of the so-called “Diatessaron,” Tatian’s second-century gospel compilation, we can learn much about the nature of this peculiar text. Of paramount importance here is the Syriac Commentary on the Gospel attributed to Ephrem of Nisibis. In this article I argue that the ordering of pericopae in the opening section of Tatian’s gospel, which interweaves Matthean and Lukan passages within a broadly Johannine incluisio, prompts the Syriac exegete to an unexpected interpretation of these narratives. By reading these pericopae as a single, continuous narrative, he creatively combines the divine “Word” and “Light” of the Johannine prologue with the Synoptic traditions about John the Baptist as the “voice” and about the star that shone to guide the magi, presenting the star and the voice as extensions of the Son’s own agency. This remarkably original interpretation of the nativity of Jesus illustrates the degree of artistry that went into the making of Tatian’s text and the novel interpretations it elicited from its readers.

Vigiliae Christianae

A Review of Early Christian Life and Language




See Matthew R. Crawford, “Diatessaron, a Misnomer? The Evidence of Ephrem’s Commentary,” Early Christianity 4 (2013): 362-85. For a survey of the history of scholarship on the Diatessaron up to the end of the twentieth century, see William L. Petersen, Tatian’s Diatessaron: Its Creation, Dissemination, Significance, and History in Scholarship, SuppVC 25 (Leiden: Brill, 1994). For an introduction to the “new perspective on the Diatessaron” that has emerged since the publishing of Petersen’s work, see Ulrich B. Schmid, “The Diatessaron of Tatian,” in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, 2nd ed., ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, nttsd 42 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 115-42. The present essay is undertaken in sympathy with the new perspective articulated by Schmid et al., and as a result the so-called “western witnesses” will not be considered in what follows, with the exception of Codex Fuldensis.


Cf. Petersen, Tatian’s Diatessaron, 41-42; Peter J. Williams, “The Syriac Versions of the New Testament,” in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, 144.


On Aphrahat see further Tjitze Baarda, The Gospel Quotations of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage: Aphrahat’s Text of the Fourth Gospel (Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1975); Petersen, Tatian’s Diatessaron, 44-45.


See Matthew R. Crawford, “The Fourfold Gospel in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian” Hugoye 18 (2015): forthcoming.


Aphrahat, dem. 1.10. In Codex Fuldensis the situation is slightly more complicated in that it prefaces John 1:1-5 with Luke 1:1-4, a passage that Ephrem and the Arabic harmony omit. However, the capitularia for Fuldensis also omit Luke 1:1-4 and instead start with John 1:1-5, so it seems that at some point Luke 1:1-4 has been inserted into a tradition that originally lacked it, without the offending scribe bothering to correct the capitularia.


Ranke, Codex Fuldensis, 21. The actual textual content under capitulaxiii carries on to include material from the rest of Matt 3, Luke 3 and John 1. However, these verses are more directly about the ministry of John and so do not concern my argument.


Leloir 1954, 5.


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