The surprise discovery by Chester Beatty of Ephrem’s Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron might not compare with the significance for modern scholarship of Qumran and Nag Hammadi. But for students of the Christian Orient and the Diatessaron, it ranks pretty high.
There is no extant copy of Tatian’s Diatessaron, so reconstruction of this early Gospel harmony has had to resort to generally medieval translations, an always imperfect road for the textual critic.
While the original language of the Diatessaron is still debated, it is widely accepted that Tatian, a native Mesopotamian educated in Rome, wrote or trans- lated it into Syriac at a very early stage, for the Diatessaron was the Gospel for the Syriac-speaking church for several centuries.
In 1836 an Armenian translation of a Commentary on the Diatessaron by the Syriac poet and biblical exegete Ephrem of Edessa was first published. Other editions followed, but it took until 1953 for Louis Leloir to produce the first critical edition of the Armenian version. Still no Syriac text. [End Page 260]
In 1957, a manuscript acquired by Sir Chester Beatty from the Coptic Monastery of Deir es-Suriani in Wadi Natrun (Chester Beatty MS 709) proved to contain the unexpected: the Syriac text of Ephrem’s commentary. Not a complete manuscript, unfortunately. However, in 1966 and again in 1984, additional folios of the original manuscript appeared in Barcelona and Dublin, so that now approximately eighty per cent of the original is available.
Leloir edited the Syriac commentary in 1963 and the additions in 1990, providing translations in Latin. It is these texts that Sr. Carmel McCarthy, RSM, translates for the first time into English.
Methodologically, McCarthy had several problems to confront in producing a useful translation.
First, she has had to weave together the 1963 edition and the 1990 additions. There are a number of passages in the Syriac which do not appear in the Armenian, and these are duly noted. Second, there are also a number of lacunae in the Syriac text, disrupting the flow and readability of the text. McCarthy’s solution is to utilize Leloir’s Latin translation to fill in the gaps. The resulting edition is as close as one can currently get to a complete English version of Ephrem’s commentary.
There are basically two reasons why someone would want to read Ephrem’s Commentary on the Diatessaron. Its traditional importance lies as an avenue to the recovery of the original text of the Diatessaron, at least as it would have circulated in the Syriac of its heyday. It is evident, though, that Ephrem’s purpose was not to provide for his readers the precise Diatessaron text.
The second reason is the manner in which the Commentary reveals in living color the genius of Ephrem’s biblical exegesis and interpretation. Forget for the moment the glimpses of the Diatessaron. Ephrem gives the reader far more than a glimpse of the wealth of the Gospel. The Commentary is important for its witness to the best of Syriac biblical interpretation, which will still delight the faithful reader today.
McCarthy has done an excellent job in preserving in her translation the rhythm and poetry of Ephrem’s writing, even many of his word plays. All the appropriate notations are in place so the scholar may be able to identify the source of a particular passage. A modicum of footnotes lifts up the symbolism and poetry of Ephrem, as well as selected textual and doctrinal issues.
The Commentary is full of little exegetical treasures and textual surprises. The story of the silencing of Zechariah in Luke 1 causes Ephrem to observe, “The word that had come forth from the angel passed over [Zechariah’s] mouth and closed it, and reached out to [Elizabeth’s] womb and opened it. . . . Thus, even if Zechariah was alone in his doubt, nevertheless through his doubt, he removed doubt from everyone else” (I,§16, page 48).
Several quotations point in the direction of the...