The earliest formal New Testament commentary in Syriac is the so-called Commentary on the Diatessaron attributed to Ephrem. This commentary is thoroughly at home in the world of Syriac Christianity, as seen not least in the fact that it focuses on Tatian’s idiosyncratic gospel version. Nevertheless, portions of the commentary also exhibit awareness of exegetical traditions shared with contemporary Greek authors. This paper focuses on one of the more striking of these parallels, namely, (ps-)Ephrem’s treatment of Mary’s Davidic lineage and relation to Elizabeth her ‘kinswoman’. Eusebius of Caesarea had taken up this issue in his Gospel Problems and Solutions, and the author of the Syriac commentary argues for the same three points evident in Eusebius’ treatment. Hence, the Syriac commentator has likely been directly or indirectly influenced by Eusebius’ formulation of this tradition, although specifying the manner of this transmission of ideas is impossible.
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.