Sunday, May 3, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Christian Lange (ed.), Ephraem der Syrer: Kommentar zum Diatessaron I. Fontes Christiani Bd. 54/1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. 366. ISBN 9782503519746. €37.29 (pb). Christian Lange (ed.), Ephraem der Syrer: Kommentar zum Diatessaron II. Fontes Christiani Bd. 54/2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. viii, 332. ISBN 9782503528694. €37.29 (pb).
Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University

Two branches of research within Early Christianity converge in the text here translated into German. The first is the problem of the Diatessaron, a harmony of the four gospels written by Tatian in the second century which had a long afterlife in many parts of Europe and the Near East but which can be reconstructed only from quotations and late translations.1 The other is the religious oeuvre of Ephrem the Syrian, one of the most fascinating of the 'Fathers of the Church'. As well as a highly productive poet of elegant and vivid Christian poetry in Syriac, Ephrem wrote prose commentaries, including this commentary on the Diatessaron, in his day the standard version of the Gospels within the Syrian church. For a long time known only through an Armenian version, the Syriac original of Ephrem's Commentary was gradually made known through the discovery and publication of a sixth-century Syriac ms in the Chester Beatty collection.2 It has since been the object of a number of studies, both literary/philological and theological. The present two volume work by Christian Lange in the Fontes Christiani series adds a German translation to the existing Latin, French and English versions available,3 though perhaps its most important contribution will be found in the Einleitung, in which Lange seeks to resolve the various difficulties that surround the text, especially the disagreements between the two recensions and the undoubted presence of secondary interpolations within both branches of the tradition. Chapter I is an overview of Ephrem's life and religious background in which Lange goes over the basic questions, such as that of Ephrem's coenobitic status. He follows Beck and others in using for the most part references from within the genuine works rather than external testimony for the reconstruction of Ephrem's career. Important questions are briefly raised, such as the source of Ephrem's 'Jewish' exegeses and his anti-semitic polemics (p.17f.).

Brief descriptions of the Marcionites, Bardesanites and Manichaeans are to be found in the section on the Nisibene period, although they might be more appropriately placed under the section on Edessa, since the Hymns against the Heresies is more likely to date from that later period, as Lange himself will argue (p.41f.).

There is an interesting discussion on the question of whether the Nicene homoousios was really (as Beck claimed) the basis of Ephrem's theology, a suggestion which Lange refutes on the basis that Ephrem is more interested in plurality in the Godhead than in unity, and never mentions the Nicene buzzwords (p.26ff.). He suggests that the Ephremic theology found in the Commentary is rather closer to that found in the creed of the Synod of Antioch (341), and it is notable that the Emperor Constantius is not vilified as an Arian but praised as a Christian Emperor who defended Nisibis against the Persians. In the later Edessene period, by contrast, Ephrem was clearly aware both of Nicaea and of the later Antiochene schism (p.32-4).

In Chapter II, Lange tries to map out the chronological order of Ephrem's works as a means of tracing the development of his thought over time, an approach that has unfortunately (he believes) not often been tried before. This approach, as he admits, involves the (dangerous) assumption that the hymn cycles found in the tradition represent groupings designed by Ephrem himself rather than by later editors. The Diatessaron Commentary is to be placed among the late works on account of the nature of the doctrinal debates which underlie much of its text.

Chapter III is a little disparate - it begins by highlighting the importance the Diatessaron had in the Syrian churches of the fourth and fifth centuries, and also its importance to modern research as a witness to the second century state of the gospel text; the reconstruction of the Diatessaron itself from quotations in Ephrem therefore constitutes one of the principal interests of the present text and the justification for its publication in a modern translation, although this possibility is not further explored within these volumes. This chapter also reviews the history of research, especially on the questions of the authenticity and unity of the text. Although Lange positions himself very much in the research trajectory of Beck in his attempts to distinguish the authentic Ephremic sections within the text, he nonetheless evidently feels some sympathy for the view of Carmel McCarthy that Ephrem's name should not be removed from the text, since he himself has not, in this translation, done so. We shall return to this problem at the end of this review.

There is one minor error here: the date of the Chester Beatty ms is given by Leloir as late fifth or early sixth century, not the first half of the fifth (p.52).

Chapter IV provides a useful table of the passages that are extant in the different recensions (Syriac and Armenian) followed by the results of an analysis of these passages (a fuller version of how these results are achieved can be found in Lange's monograph).4 On the whole, passages to be found only in the Syriac (b) have different exegeses from parallel passages which were undoubtedly in the Urtext (because found in both recensions) and these must therefore be interpreted as interpolations. Sections only in Armenian are also in general shown to be interpolations, though some such passages may reflect original material omitted from the extant Syriac. The important conclusion is that both recensions include additions to the basic Urtext.

The next critical question is whether, assuming the Urtext to be recoverable, it is a unified text. Certainly not, argues Lange, for "der Urtext stellt eher eine Sammlung verscheidener Vorlagen dar, die ein syrischer Herausgaber zusammengestellt hat." (p.67). This conclusion is reached largely through literary analysis (internal contradictions, misplaced passages, variation of styles etc.) and occasionally through a comparison of the Commentary with exegeses in the 'genuine Ephrem', i.e. in the authentic poetic cycles. In this, Lange falls largely on the side of Leloir in seeing evidence of multiple authorship where others (e.g. Petersen and McCarthy) see only variation in literary style.

Once the basic homogeneity of the Urtext has itself been called into question, it is slightly unclear exactly what the next investigation, into the 'authenticity' of the text, is meant to achieve, since a text which comes from different hands can hardly be described as 'authentic' or 'inauthentic'. The discussion of the significance of Jesus' baptism (p.71-2) is anyway from a passage which matches a lacuna in the Syriac ms and which cannot therefore with any certainty be ascribed to the Urtext. The discrepancy found here between the theology of the Commentary and the theology of Ephrem does not prove the inauthenticity of the Urtext, since the latter has been shown to be a collection - rather one would be interested to hear Lange's opinion on which parts of the text do go back to Ephrem himself and which to his students.

Lange's conclusion to this section is then depicted in a stemma of the recension in which the original commentary of Ephrem is assumed to have been edited and expanded by a pupil of Ephrem's school, to produce the Urtext. If there is a weakness here, it is in the implicit assumption that something like a coherent text from the hand of Ephrem himself ever existed. The perceptive conclusion (quoted from p.67 in the last paragraph but one) surely casts doubt on whether his [S1] is a hypothetical textual product at all rather than merely an oral tradition deriving from the school of the master. Even if some of the exegeses do derive from a literary tradition, need that have been a coherent Ephremic 'Diatessaron Commentary'?

As to the date of the Urtext [U], Lange detects a number of references to the ongoing Trinitarian disputes within the Greek-speaking world at the time. He suggests from passages attributable to the post-Ephremic compiler, that the latter was a follower of Meletius of Antioch, writing between 381 and 394.

Most of the rest of the Introduction consists of an overview of the theological ideas contained within the Commentary,by which Lange means the Urtext of the extant recensions insofar as they can be recovered, rather than the parts which go back to Ephrem himself. This is a reasonable procedure since the recovery of U is relatively straightforwardly achieved by treating only those passages present in both recensions, whereas the isolation of the exegeses of Ephrem himself would require a more thorough and uncertain source analysis.

A survey of the Christology of the Commentary (Chapter VII) highlights the importance the compiler attached to certain issues such as the pre-existence of Christ (against the Arians) and His complete and full incarnation. It is in general the Arians who are predominantly in view throughout the work and the compiler deals with many of the commonplaces of the Arian debates. This marks an interesting distinction between the Compiler and Ephrem, whose later works (written in Edessa) tend to focus rather on Marcionites and Bardesanites than Arians (who were the object of his earlier attacks). This perhaps reflects the fact that the Compiler was working after the rise of the so-called Neo-Arian party, when these issues had become urgent once again. The old chestnut of Prov 8.22, however, is never addressed.

It is interesting to note that the text uses both the idiomatic Syriac metaphor for the incarnation, he took a body, while at the same time using what is more a calque upon the Greek, he was embodied (ethgsham). Although the compiler stresses that the different aspects of Christ can be perceived in different parts of the Gospels, he retains some sense of Christological unity by asserting the single subjectivity of the Word. As was by the late fourth century common practice amongst many Greek theologians, so for the compiler of the Commentary, Christology is rooted in the need to express a coherent soteriology. The Compiler is shown to represent the theology of the late Ephrem rather than the early.

When Lange turns to the Trinitarian teaching of the Commentary, the Compiler's various opponents come more clearly into view. As well as Arians, they include Bardesanites, whose cosmology is roundly opposed, and Marcionites, whose docetism, for example, is countered in the exegesis of Christ's baptism. Both these groups figured prominently in Ephrem's own polemic in Edessa. He is also keenly aware of the Pneumatomachi, those who denied divinity to the Holy Spirit, an issue which arose within Greek theological debate too late for Ephrem to have engaged in it, but which must have been a significant problem for his immediate followers.

Lange shows how the Compiler is thoroughly Ephremite in many of his ideas and expressions but also goes far beyond the master. He "erweist sich durch seine theologische Fachbegrifflichkeit nicht nur als erstaunlich gut über die Diskussionen im griechischsprachigen Westen informiert, sondern integriert diese auch in sein Werk." The student is thus as worthy an object of study as the master.

The Introduction concludes with a number of short sections on other issues of interest. Thus (Chapter VIII) it is shown that Ephrem/the Compiler had access to a non-Diatessaronic text of the New Testament which approximates to that of the Vetus Syra; Chapter IX discusses the varied styles to be found in the text, sometimes homiletic, sometimes more discursive; Chapter X briefly discusses the exegetical method of the Compiler which follows that of Ephrem in using types and symbols to bridge the gap between the outer/historical text and the inner/spiritual one - this in contrast to the neo-Arian tendency to maintain a strong metaphysical gap between creator and created. Chapter XI discusses the various opponents that are in view in the text, an issue mentioned more than once already.

Finally, Chapter XII introduces us to the German translation itself, which he hopes will be a smooth and 'verständlichen deutschen Text'. The translation follows the Syriac of the Chester Beatty ms where extant (with only the more significant variations in the Armenian being noted in the footnotes) and the Armenian version where the former is missing. One finds that one has to keep a careful eye on the footnotes in order to keep track of when the text being translated comes from one of these lacunae - a marginal notation of some kind might have been more helpful. The four small sections towards the end of the Commentary which are in the Armenian but certainly missing from the Syriac are included in the translation, though the fact is again marked only in the footnotes.

The German translation is, as mentioned, designed to flow smoothly and to be easily comprehensible to the occasional reader not accustomed to the idioms, circumlocutions, and abbreviations of the Syriac. A few examples will illustrate the style. "Why did you not reckon with your mind?' becomes simply 'warum hast du nicht eingesehen?" [3,1]; again, (lit.) "Pharaoh, however, because he did not know his lineage and his mother and the time at which the redeemer of the Hebrews would be born, killed the children, so that along with many would be killed that one who was being sought by him" is rendered as "Der Pharao hingegen tötete alle Kinder, weil er die Abstammungslinie, die Mutter und die Zeit, zu der der Erlöser der Hebräer geboren warden sollte, nicht kannte, damit er mit den vielen, die er tötete, auch zugleich den einen, den er suchte, umbrachte," [3,5] and finally (lit.) "this [one], where he says that they should be silent, [is] so that the disciples might learn" is translated with "als er zu Jüngern sagte, sie sollten schweigen, geschah dies, damit er sie lehre" [7,27b]. The terms he uses are sometimes rather more graphic than their Syriac equivalents, e.g. 'unbarmherzig' for 'awala' (evil) [3,1]. At other times he unifies lexical variation, thus 'Böses' for both 'mesrah' and 'bishta' [3,5], while elsewhere the opposite happens: 'tä die Irre zu führen...blenden', where there is only the single Syriac term 'ta'a' [3,5].

This approach to translation is surely the correct one to adopt here, especially where the audience is not expected to be able to read the original text (although Fontes Christiani volumes are usually supplied with the original Greek or Latin, this is not done for Syriac texts), and the fluidity and lucidity of the translation is most welcome.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to resolve in relation to this book is that of authorship. For despite the fact that throughout the introduction Lange is at pains to name the author of the text as the 'Student of Ephrem' or as the 'Compiler' (in fact, he is more insistent on this point than many earlier scholars such as Leloir, McCarthy, and Petersen), it is nonetheless Ephrem's name that appears on the cover of the volume. Nowhere is this adequately explained. If it is justified of itself (and perhaps it is), then one feels that a greater effort needs to be expended in differentiating those parts of the text which may have come directly from the master's hand (or mouth) and those which derive from the student. If the text was thus divided up, it might detract from readability but it would surely then justify the assertion that what we have in front of us is a commentary by Ephrem. In view of the fact that in the title of his own monograph, Lange calls the work the 'Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron', it is possible that the appearance of Ephrem's name here is the result rather of editorial pressure. If so, this is to be regretted. The present text offers us a window into Ephrem's own world, but it is not a text by Ephrem, though no less interesting for that.

As well as being a welcome new addition to the ever-growing number of Syriac texts available in modern languages to wider audiences interested in Early Christian literature, Lange has provided us with an excellent and up-to-date overview of the state of research into this fascinating but difficult text. His own research has complemented and added in important ways to what has gone before and set a new starting point for further work. The next stage is surely for a more thorough attempt to distinguish the true Ephremic exegeses from those of his school. Meanwhile, these volumes are an excellent introduction both to this text in particular and to the area of Syriac Biblical exegesis in general.

Table of Contents of the Introduction:
I. Das Leben Ephraems des Syrers
II. Das literarische Werk Ephraems
III. Der Kommentar zum Diatessaron
IV. Die Authentizität des Diatessaronkommentars
V. Die Abfassungszeit der Schrift
VI. Ein Schüler Ephraems als Kompilator
VII. Die theologischen Hauptgedanke des Kommentars
VIII. Die biblische Textvorlage des Kommentars
IX. Der Stil des Kommentars
X. Die exegetische Zugangsweise
XI. Aussagen über die Gegner des Kompilators
XII. Anmerkungen zur Übersetzung


1.   The best overview and discussion is the late William L. Petersen's Tatian's Diatessaron: Its Creation, Dissemination, Significance, and History in Scholarship (VCSupp 25) (Brill, 1994).
2.   L. Leloir (ed.), Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l'évangile concordant. Texte syriaque (Manuscrit Chester Beatty 709) (Chester Beatty Monographs 8) (Dublin, 1963), supplemented by a second volume, Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l'évangile concordant. Texte syriaque (Manuscrit Chester Beatty 709). Folios additionels (Chester Beatty Monographs 8a) (Louvain, 1990).
3.   The Latin is to be found in Leloir's editions, as cited above; French in L. Leloir, Ephrem de Nisibe. Commentaire de l'évangile concordant ou Diatessaron, traduit du syriaque et de l'arménien (Sources Chrétiennes 121) (Paris, 1966); English in C. McCarthy, Saint Ephrem's Commentary on the Diatessaron. An English Translation of the Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709 with Introduction and Notes (Journal of Semitic Studies, Suppl. 2) (Oxford, 1993).
4.   C. Lange, The Portrayal of Christ in the Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron (CSCO 616, Subs.118) (Leuven, 2005), p.36-52.

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