Introductory Note to Tatian the Assyrian
[Translated by J. E. Ryland.]
[a.d. 110-172.] It was my first intention to make this author a mere appendix to his master, Justin Martyr; for he stands in an equivocal position, as half Father and half heretic. His good seems to have been largely due to Justin's teaching and influence. One may trust that his falling away, in the decline of life, is attributable to infirmity of mind and body; his severe asceticism countenancing this charitable thought. Many instances of human frailty, which the experience of ages has taught Christians to view with compassion rather than censure, are doubtless to be ascribed to mental aberration and decay. Early Christians had not yet been taught this lesson; for, socially, neither Judaism nor Paganism had wholly surrendered their unloving influences upon their minds. Moreover, their high valuation of discipline, as an essential condition of self-preservation amid the fires of surrounding scorn and hatred, led them to practice, perhaps too sternly, upon offenders, what they often heroically performed upon themselves,--the amputation of the scandalous hand, or the plucking out of the evil eye.
In Tatian, another Assyrian follows the Star of Bethlehem, from Euphrates and the Tigris. The scanty facts of his personal history are sufficiently detailed by the translator, in his Introductory Note. We owe to himself the pleasing story of his conversion from heathenism. But I think it important to qualify the impressions the translation may otherwise leave upon the student's mind, by a little more sympathy with the better side of his character, and a more just statement of his great services to the infant Church.
His works, which were very numerous, have perished, in consequence of his lapse from orthodoxy. Give him due credit for his Diatessaron, of which the very name is a valuable testimony to the Four Gospels as recognised by the primitive churches. It is lost, with the "infinite number" of other books which St. Jerome attributes to him. All honour to this earliest harmonist for such a work; and let us believe, with Mill and other learned authorities, that, if Eusebius had seen the work he censures, he might have expressed himself more charitably concerning it.
We know something of Tatian, already, from the melancholy pages of Irenaeus. Theodoret finds no other fault with his Diatessaron than its omission of the genealogies, which he, probably, could not harmonize on any theory of his own. The errors into which he fell in his old age 1 were so absurd, and so contrary to the Church's doctrine and discipline, that he could not be tolerated as one of the faithful, without giving to the heathen new grounds for the malignant slanders with which they were ever assailing the Christians. At the same time, let us reflect, that his fall is to be attributed to extravagant ideas of that encraty which is a precept of the Gospel, and which a pure abhorrence of pagan abominations led many of the orthodox to practice with extreme rigidity. And this is the place to say, once for all, that the figures of Elijah upon Mt. Carmel and of John Baptist in the wilderness, approved by our Lord's teachings, but moderated, as a lesson to others, by his own holy but less austere example, justify the early Church in making room for the two classes of Christians which must always be found in earnest religion, and which seem to have their warrant in the fundamental constitution of human nature. There must be men like St. Paul, living in the world, though not of it; and there must be men like the Baptist, of whom the world will say, "he hath a devil." Marvellously the early Catholics were piloted between the rocks and the whirlpools, in the narrow drift of the Gospel; and always the Holy Spirit of counsel and might was their guardian, amid their terrible trials and temptations. This must suggest, to every reflecting mind, a gratitude the most profound. To preserve evangelical encraty, and to restrain fanatical asceticism, was the spirit of early Christianity, as one sees in the ethics of Hermas. But the awful malaria of Montanism was even now rising like a fog of the marshes, and was destined to leave its lasting impress upon Western Christianity;
"forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats." Our author, alas, laid the egg which Tertullian hatched, and invented terms which that great author raised to their highest power; for he was rather the disciple of Tatian than of the Phrygians, though they kindled his strange fire. After Tertullian, the whole subject of marriage became entangled with sophistries, which have ever since adhered to the Latin churches, and introduced the most corrosive results into the vitals of individuals and of nations. Southey suggests, that, in the Roman Communion, John Wesley would have been accommodated with full scope for his genius, and canonized as a saint, while his Anglican mother had no place for him. 2 But, on the other hand, let us reflect that while Rome had no place for Wiclif and Hus, or Jerome of Prague, she has used and glorified and canonized many fanatics whose errors were far more disgraceful than those of Tatian and Tertullian. In fact, she would have utilized and beatified these very enthusiasts, had they risen in the Middle Ages, to combine their follies with equal extravagance in persecuting the Albigenses, while aggrandizing the papal ascendency.
I have enlarged upon the equivocal character of Tatian with melancholy interest, because I shall make sparing use of notes, in editing his sole surviving work, pronounced by Eusebius his masterpiece. I read it with sympathy, admiration, and instruction. I enjoy his biting satire of heathenism, his Pauline contempt for all philosophy save that of the Gospel, his touching reference to his own experiences, and his brilliant delineation of Christian innocence and of his own emancipation from the seductions of a deceitful and transient world. In short, I feel that Tatian deserves critical editing, in the original, at the hand and heart of some expert who can thoroughly appreciate his merits, and his relations to primitive Christianity.
The following is the original Introductory Notice:--
We learn from several sources that Tatian was an Assyrian, but know nothing very definite either as to the time or place of his birth. Epiphanius (Haer., xlvi.) declares that he was a native of Mesopotamia; and we infer from other ascertained facts regarding him, that he flourished about the middle of the second century. He was at first an eager student of heathen literature, and seems to have been especially devoted to researches in philosophy. But he found no satisfaction in the bewildering mazes of Greek speculation, while he became utterly disgusted with what heathenism presented to him under the name of religion. In these circumstances, he happily met with the sacred books of the Christians, and was powerfully attracted by the purity of morals which these inculcated, and by the means of deliverance from the bondage of sin which they revealed. He seems to have embraced Christianity at Rome, where he became acquainted with Justin Martyr, and enjoyed the instructions of that eminent teacher of the Gospel. After the death of Justin, Tatian unfortunately fell under the influence of the Gnostic heresy, and founded an ascetic sect, which, from the rigid principles it professed, was called that of the Encratites, that is, "The self-controlled," or, "The masters of themselves." Tatian latterly established himself at Antioch, and acquired a considerable number of disciples, who continued after his death to be distinguished by the practice of those austerities which he had enjoined. The sect of the Encratites is supposed to have been established about a.d. 166, and Tatian appears to have died some few years afterwards.
The only extant work of Tatian is his "Address to the Greeks." It is a most unsparing and direct exposure of the enormities of heathenism. Several other works are said to have been composed by Tatian; and of these, a Diatessaron, or Harmony of the Four Gospels, is specially mentioned. His Gnostic views led him to exclude from the continuous narrative of our Lord's life, given in this work, all those passages which bear upon the incarnation and true humanity of Christ. Not withstanding this defect, we cannot but regret the loss of this earliest Gospel harmony; but the very title it bore is important, as showing that the Four Gospels, and these only, were deemed authoritative about the middle of the second century.
(Philem. 9). See the additional note, Speaker's Commentary, vol. iii. 843.