Anthony and Joel Watts have dialogued a bit (here, here, and here) on Anthony’s suggestion of the Diatessaron as a form of counter-memory being a good dissertation topic. In response, Joel asked, “But is the Diatessaron about memory or ease?”
I want to jump in here (with serious hesitance since Diatessaron studies is absolutely one the most complex areas in Gospels studies) in defense of my co-blogger and in light of Watts’ perceptive engagement. The question is one we’ve heard before, usually in a warning tone of seeing “memory” everywhere. Joel’s tone isn’t like that, but I should also concede that those criticisms are right—we do, in fact, see memory everywhere.
Pace our good friend Joel, though, I would hesitate to describe the intentions behind the Diatessaron (so far as we can speak of them) in terms of “ease” at all. There was nothing inherently easier about consulting a harmony over a scroll or codex of an individual gospel. Nor was there anything inherently easier about producing such texts. Both practices (consultation and production) were labor intensive, especially compared to modern textual practices, and the majority of the ancient world was utterly incapable of either.
Rather, I’m more inclined to see the re-shaping of the Jesus tradition in Tatian’s work as ideological to the core. In defense of this notion, I would cite another physical re-shaping of the Jesus tradition from roughly the same time period that was, without question, ideological to the core—Marcion’s taking of the scissors to the Gospels. Marcion (a contemporary of Tatian’s teacher Justin Martyr and, like Justin, prominent in Rome) and Tatian both were not content to argue about the content, authority, and nature of the Gospels. Rather, they contributed to the ongoing debate by altering them physically. Both also shared the fate of eventually paling in comparison to the dominance of the fourfold canon (although the Diatessaron was wildly popular for some time later). One of the real interesting aspects of social memory approaches that has yet to be applied fully in Biblical Studies is the connection between physical, material artifacts and the commemorative practices they enable or reflect, along with the identity construction processes involved therein. Here, I would suggest, is a promising dissertation—comparing early Christian responses to the physical re-shapings of the Gospel tradition by Marcion and Tatian.