Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 16: Tatian and the Fabrication of the New Testament


Born in Syria around 120, Tatian posthumously became one of the founders of the Church due to his extremism in matters of asceticism. Irenaeus attacked him because, “like Marcion and Satornilus, he called marriage a corruption and debauchery. He maintained that Adam was not saved.”[1]

Converted to Christianity, and a disciple of Justin in Rome, Tatian was exposed to attacks by Crescens, Justin’s accuser. Teaching Christianity in Rome around 172-173, he professed the anti-Marcionism of his master and transmitted it to his disciple, Rhodon. Then he left for the East and founded schools while the New Prophecy took off. One supposes that he died at the end of that decade.

Tatian’s single known work falls under the heading of the apologetic. His Speech to the Greeks opposed Christianity to Greek philosophy, in general, and the Stoics, in particular. In it he developed ideas shared by Tertullian and the new popular current. His profession of monotheist faith contradicted accusations of dualism, which were often made about him by the Catholics. On the other hand, his idea of the Christ had not evolved beyond that of Justin: “The heavenly Logos, the spirit born from the Father and Reason issued from the reasonable power – in imitation of the Father who engendered him – made man in the image of immortality, so that, just as incorruptibility is in God, man likewise participates in the lot of God and possesses immortality. But before forming man, the Logos created the angels.”[2] The Holy Spirit was called the Minister of God who had suffered.

Tatian’s essay On Perfection, According to the Savior is lost, but Clement of Alexandria picked out of it an absolute condemnation of marriage that surpassed the Montanist spirit. The Church profited by erecting Tatian as the leader of a phantom heresy called Encratism, in which were grouped together – thanks to the Church’s Fourth Century struggle against the Donatists and the Circumcellions – the supporters of an excessive moral rigor.

No doubt there was another reason for the animosity of the Church towards Tatian. Deschner cites him as one of the copyists who re-worked the letters of Paul and gave them a stylistic unity.[3]

The growth of popular Christianity engendered a general revival of Jewish midrashim, translated somehow or other by the Judeo-Christians: it was now a matter of de-Judaicizing them and explaining them rationally to the general public. Tatian has been credited with having harmonized, in addition to Paul’s letters, the many propagandistic texts that presented themselves as the Gospel preached by “the” Apostle, because there was only one at the time.

Nevertheless, neither Irenaeus, Tertullian, nor Clement of Alexandria mentioned the Diatessaron euaggelion, which would remain the dogmatic work par excellence of the Syrian Christian churches until the Fifth Century, when they were replaced by the four gospels of the Catholic Church. A Greek fragment of fourteen lines recovered at Dura-Europos dates from 230 at the latest. It proposed placing end to end the fragments of the gospels attributed to Mark, Luke and Matthew. Was this [a fragment of] the Diatessaron and, if so, was it the one by Tatian? How come Tertullian, an admirer of Tatian, did not mention it? As for the fragments by Irenaeus, they were altered too much to offer serious testimony concerning the canonical gospels in the Second Century.[4]


The Canonical Gospels

What aspect did Christianity present at the end of the Second Century? Although the Greeks and Romans did not distinguish it from Judaism and were confused about the differences between the sectarians of Jesus, the Sethians, the Naassenes, the Barbelites and other messianists, the New Prophecy established in the urban milieu a popular Christianity that attracted slaves, a fraction of the plebes and the petite bourgeois, as well as a fringe of the aristocracy, which until then had been rather receptive to Gnostic doctrines and philosophical Christianity.

If the importance accorded to faith, to life according to the Christ, to asceticism, to the refusal of riches, and to the vocation of martyrdom reduced Gnosticism to a marginal existence (though Christianity nevertheless exploited it in the genesis of its theology), Gnosticism was embraced by a good number of bishops and heads of communities who, since Trajan’s conventions (renewed by Hadrian), had been integrated into public life and who, careful to avoid all scandal, already carried themselves as if they were future ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the triumphant Church. The ardor and fanaticism of the poor Christians disturbed the lax bishops of the Second Century. They formed the proto-Catholic current or, more exactly, they were chosen in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries as the representatives of a backdated orthodoxy.

Ecclesiastical reluctance reinforced the numbers of lapsi, which were increased by the persecutions of the Third Century, whereas Montanist intransigence was perpetuated among the partisans of Novatian and, much later, Donat.

The midrashim of the Elchasaite and Judeo-Christian Churches conferred a legitimacy to particular and often rival churches: the churches of Thomas, Simon-Peter, James, Saul-Paul, Clement, Philip, Matthias. . . . The unity imposed by the great movement of the New Prophecy collated diverse writings that had been translated several times from the Hebrew or Aramaic, revised and copied. This incongruous ensemble then gave birth to a propaganda-literature adapted to the popular nature [facture populaire] of the movement. Anti-Semitism, miraculous fables and the exaltation of poverty and sacrifice little by little composed a Jesus who was more in conformity with the plebian mindset. The apostles, initially the witnesses of the Lord, whose mythical authority guaranteed this or that a community, thenceforth formed a [unified] cohort tasked with propagating the Christian law that was substituted for Mosaic law.

The apostles erected as saints and martyrs served as models for the exaltation of the Christians of Carthage, Scili, Lyon, Vienna and Rome.

The Acts circulated, telling of the marvelous adventures, deaths and ascensions of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Philip, Andrew and James, who were the heroes of a saga dominated by Joshua, cut from the same cloth as the Christians who caused scandals and perished for their faith.

Justin[5] and Tertullian[6] mentioned the Acts of Pilate. (Augmented in the Fifth Century by a description of hell, the Acts became, in the Eighth Century, the Gospel of Nicomedes, in which the legends of Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail appeared. The Acts was originally a Montanist or pre-Montanist text that was excluded from the canon.) Considered a saint and martyr in Syria and Egypt, Pilate still belonged to a dramaturgy in which the angelos-christos lived a brief terrestrial existence in a historical context.

The Acts of Pilate contained materials that, in the hands of copyists who were less exalted and more careful with historical probability, were put to use in the fabrication of the canonical Gospels:

“It was the sixth hour; a darkness covered the entire world until the ninth hour. The sun was obscured: the veil of the temple went from on high to down below, and cut it in two. Jesus cried in a loud voice: My Father, Abi, Adasch, Ephkidron, Adonai, Sabel, Louel, Eloei, Elemas, Ablakanei, Orioth, Mioth, Ouaoth, Soun, Perineth, Jothat.”[7]

The names mentioned by Jesus, which identified him with a magician or a thaumaturge, corresponded to the Eons of power, many of which figured upon the abraxas or talismans of magic rituals.[8]

Tertullian’s narrative in his Apologetics merits being quoted [here] because, effacing the thaumaturgical aspects, it composed a more sober and yet very different version than that retained by the Catholic canon. The Christ was still the angelos-christos, but prey to a terrestrial drama that was perfectly understandable by the faithful who were headed towards ordeals and a radiant heavenly resurrection.

“Thus, what comes from God is God, the Son of God, and the two make only one. Thus the spirit that comes from the spirit and the God who comes from God are different in measure: he is second in rank, not in condition, and he comes from his source without being detached from it.

“Thus, this ray of God, as he had always foretold, descended into a Virgin and, being incarnated in her womb, he was born man mixed with God. The flesh united with the spirit nourished itself, grew, spoke, taught, worked – and that is the Christ. For the moment, accept this ‘fable’ (it is similar to yours), while waiting for me to show you how the Christ was revealed and who were those who, in advance, circulated among you fables of this type, so as to destroy this truth.

“The Jews also knew that the Christ would come, because the prophets had spoken to them. And, indeed, even today, they await his coming, and between them and us there is no greater subject of contestation than their refusal to believe that he has already come.

“Because two ascensions of the Christ were announced: one that would be accomplished in the humility of the human condition; the other was expected at the end of the world, in the sublime splendor of the paternal power received and the divinity clearly manifested. Therefore, the Jews – not understanding the first – have believed that the second was the only one, and they hoped for it as it was more clearly foretold.

“Due to their sin, the Jews have indeed merited being unable to understand the first one: they would believed it, if they understood it, and they would have been saved, if they believed it. They themselves say in the Scriptures that, as a punishment, they have been deprived of wisdom, intelligence and the usage of their eyes and ears.

“In their debasement, the Jews have thus concluded that he [Jesus] was only a man; and naturally, because of his power, they took him for a magician: in fact, they saw him, according to his own word, chasing demons from the bodies of men, giving sight to the blind, purifying the lepers, straightening up the paralyzed, [and] finally bringing the dead back to life, always according to his word, making the elements serve him, calming the tempests and walking on the waters, thus showing that he was the Son previously announced by God, and born for the salvation of all, this Word of God, eternal, first-born, accompanied by his power and intelligence, having his spirit for support.

“Hearing the preaching of his doctrines, which confounded the doctors and notables among the Jews, they were exasperated, especially since they saw an immense multitude flocking to him: to the point that, finally, they delivered him to Pontius Pilate, who then governed Syria in the name of the Romans and, through the violence of their votes, they forced the pro-curator to deliver Jesus to them so as to put him on a cross. He himself had foretold that they would act thus; this would not have been much, if the prophets had not also foretold it.

“And yet, attached to the cross, he made many miraculous remarks at his death. Indeed, from himself he rendered his soul with his last words, averting [prévenant] the services of the executioner; at the same moment, the day was deprived of the sun, at the moment that he marked the place of his orb. One certainly believes that this was an eclipse, and those who do not know that this miracle had also been foretold for the death of the Christ, not understanding the reason, deny it, and yet you find this global accident set down in your archives.

“Then the Jews, after having detached the body [from the cross], and after having deposited in it a sepulcher, watched over it with great care, using a military guard: as he had foretold that he would be resurrected from the dead on the third day, the Jews feared that his disciples, furtively removing the cadaver, would outwit their suspicions.

“But on the third day, the earth suddenly trembled, the enormous rock placed upon the sepulcher was set aside, the guard – struck by fright – dispersed, the disciples did not show themselves, and in the sepulcher one found nothing other than the remains of a tombstone.

“Nevertheless, the Jewish notables, who had an interest in having people believe in [the commission of] a crime and in diverting a tributary and dependent people from their faith, spread the rumor that he had been taken away by his disciples. In fact, for his part, he did not appear before the multitudes, so as to not uproot the impious from their errors and so that faith, which was destined for a quite precious compensation, was costly to men.

“But Jesus passed forty days with several disciples in Galilee, in the province of Judea, where he taught them what he had to teach them. And then, having trusted to them the mission of preaching throughout the whole earth, he was elevated to heaven enveloped in a cloud: an ascension much more true than yours, the ascension that Proculus customarily attributes to Romulus.

“Pilate, who was himself already a Christian in his heart, announced all of these facts relative to the Christ to Tiberius, then to Caesar. (Note by Vaneigem: there’s no doubt that the historical staging of the trial of Jesus the agitator was drawn from the Christian legend of Pilate. The events here originated in cosmic dramaturgy and hierophany.) The Caesars themselves would have believed in the Christ, if the Caesars were not necessary to the era or if the Caesars had been able to be Christians as well as Caesars.

“As for the disciples, scattered throughout the world, they obeyed the precepts of their divine Master; after having suffered greatly, them too, at the hands of Jewish persecutors, confident in the truth, they ended up joyfully sowing [semer] [their own] Christian blood in Rome, during the cruel persecutions of Nero.

“But we will show you unimpeachable witnesses of the Christ, even among those whom you adore. This is a great point, which I can put forward, to obligate you to believe the Christians, even the very ones who prevent you from believing the Christians.

“For the moment, here is the chronological history of our religion; here is, we declare, the origin of our sect and our name, with their author.

“One can no longer reproach us for any infamy, one cannot imagine that there is something else, because it is not permitted for anyone to lie about his religion. Indeed, by saying that one adores something other than what one [actually] adores, one denies what one adores and one transports one’s tributes to another [thing], and by transporting them, one no longer adores what one has renounced.

“Therefore we say, and we say it publicly, and we cry it aloud when we are hurt by your tortures and bloodied: ‘We adore God through Christ.’ Believe he was a man, if you like; it is through him that God wanted to be known and adored.

“To respond to the Jews, I would say that it was through Moses that they, too, learned to adore God; to the Greeks, I would say that Orpheus in Pieria, Musea in Athens, Melampus in Argos, and Trophonius in Boeotia bound men [together] through initiations.”[9]

Simultaneously with the propagation of the Gnostic Gospels (the persistence of an older Christianity, which was discovered at Nag-Hammadi), fantastical narratives (similar to the ones that Tertullian decanted for the usage of the Greeks and Romans) continued to give to Jesus the features of a historical person who was quite close to Apollonios of Tyana, not without recalling that he remained God in the very reality as his human adventure. For the new Christian wave, Jesus was not a pure spirit. Such a belief, among others, founded a passage in the canonical Gospel attributed to Luke (24, 36-43).

In brief, these were the polemics and ideas of the Second Century, which – recuperating and explicating Jewish and Essenean speculations about the Messiah – ended up, through additions and corrections to the novels about Jesus, with the Jesus who made people forget about Joshua (but tardily, because in 240 Origen still emphasized the omnipresence of Moses’ warrior).

Upon all those who, in the growing power of Christianity, glimpsed the perspective of an ascension to power was imposed the necessity of ordering and harmonizing the acts, letters, apocalypses and gospels that were as great in number as the rival communities.

This was the epoch in which Celsus, in his True Discourse (around 180), mocked the multitude of Christian prophets, their rivalries, and their lack of scruples in fabricating texts and in revising the old ones several times. (Tertullian showed where the shoe pinched when he wrote the following with some irritation: “One cannot say that we invent our own materials.”) Each Church placed its gospel or sacred text under the name of a “founding father” or an apostle.

The majority of them are unknown. Nevertheless, one can cite Tatian and a certain Leucius Charinus. Tertullian attributed the Acts of Paul, which included the narrative of his martyrdom and the love that young Thecla felt for him, to the zeal of an Eastern priest who dedicated a true cult to the Apostle (the text enjoyed great popular success in its Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Slavic and Arabic versions). The Acts of Paul participated in Montanist fervor, as did the Gospel attributed to Bartholomew, in which Jesus says, as if addressing Montanus: “salvation to you, my twin, second Christ.”

On the other hand, the Ascension of James, of Elchasaite origin, heatedly rejected Paul.

Over the course of the cascading translations, the misreading of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts created incoherencies and peculiarities that were all the more perceptible in the apocryphal and canonical Gospels that abounded in quotations from the Hebrew mythologies.

The Epistula apostolorum, probably issued from Asia Minor or Egypt in the second half of the Second Century, appeared to be an attempt at syncretism that insisted on the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. An apocalypse was inscribed in the millenarian preoccupations of Montanism: in the Epistula, Jesus responded to questions about the dates of the parousia [second coming] and the resurrection. In it there were elements shared in common with the Gospel attributed to John, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and Hermas’ The Shepherd. In the same spirit, but without millenarian allusions, the Acts of the Apostles, retained as canonical, reconciled the competing views of Paul and Simon-Peter in a historical novel. It corrected the Epistula, which, in the Montanist line, attacked the bishops and priests who were accused of having misled the people of God, after having championed “Saul, that is to say, Paul.”


Ninety-four texts of Christian propaganda were produced between the Second and Ninth Centuries. Twenty-seven of them were retained in the formation of the neo-testamentary corpus and defined the Catholic Holy Scriptures. These “gospels truths” proceeded from a melting pot[11] in which armies of copyists battled to remodel and prune second- and third-hand materials with adjustments that were demanded by the polemics of the time in order to end up with a dogmatic corpus that the imperial, pontifical and inquisitorial instances placed beyond contestation. (Note what Celsus said: “It is quite well-known that many among them [...] have revised the primitive text of the Gospels three or four times, and even more, in order to refute objections to them.”) Arguments from authority remain efficacious, if one judges from the pusillanimity with which the historians of today approach the question. Therefore, as always, with the exception of several phrases from the Pauline letters, all of the texts of the New Testament are fakes – historical falsifications that covered for quite real struggles that took place over many epochs – of the same nature as the Letters of the Jews sent to the Overseas Brothers at the time of Jesus, in which Jews from the year 30 congratulated themselves for crucifying the Messiah. (In 1348, these Letters procured for the inhabitants of Ulm excellent reasons for putting an end to the “Jewry” of the city.[12])

Nevertheless, no one is unaware that the manuscript called Sinaiticus, which contained important fragments of the gospels later chosen as canonical, belonged to a batch of fifty manuscripts that Eusebius of Caesarea, a sycophant of Constantine, had transcribed around 331 under the orders of the Emperor, who desired to autocratically unify the emerging Catholic tradition by distributing copies of them to the principal Churches of the Empire. They were subjected to further modifications, as the abbot Bergier emphasized in his Dictionary of Theology: “Men truly knowledgeable in matters of exegesis, and especially [the] sincere [ones], recognize that the text of the New Testament was not set before the end of the Sixth Century.”

Jesus had been an Angel-Messiah, then an agitator put to death despite the Christian Pontius Pilate and because of the Jews. From the exoteric background [la facture exotérique] provided by Montanism, Jesus – God and Man, as in the doctrines of Tertullian – emerged and was then seized and remodeled by anti-Montanist reactionaries.

Catholicism issued from the victory and the vengeance of the lapsi, the priests who, through fear of torture, abjured during the successive persecutions of the Third Century. To the Montanist principles of Novatian and, later, Donat, these priests opposed a conciliatory Jesus, less intransigent, less penetrated by asceticism than the messiah[s] of Tertullian, Clement and Origen.

The critique of sources, which did not start until the end of the Twentieth Century (and then timidly), shows the various stages in transformation of the biblical Joshua into Jesus of Nazareth.

When a community or Church had the need to affirm its cohesion, it gave itself rules that it founded on an older authority. It thus borrowed from the Bible or the midrashim remarks (logia) that it attributed to the Lord, spiritual master of the faithful, much later identified with Joshua/Jesus.

“The statement, ‘There is more happiness in giving than in receiving,’ presented in the Acts of the Apostles (20:35) as a logion of Jesus, was in fact a Jewish maxim originally. One also finds it in the Didache (1:5), but it isn’t certain that this text recognizes in it the status of the word of the Lord [...] The Church adopted the Jewish precepts by adapting them to its needs and by transforming them into the logia of Jesus.”[13]

By Hellenizing themselves, the various Christianities of the Second Century also referred to Greek fables and philosophical precepts.

The logia, which were also inspired by the “wisdom” of Solomon and Jesus the Son of Sira, inscribed themselves in the perspective of Gnostic Christianity. Jerome, citing a logion from the Gospels of the Hebrews in his In prophetam Ezechielem commentarius, wrote, “Whoever has saddened the spirit of his brother is guilty of the greatest crime,” which was in fact a banal moral commandment that he placed into the mouth of Jesus. Therefore, the remark played a role in Gnosticism, as a passage from Hermas makes clear: sadness is a vice because it chases away the Holy Spirit, who inhabits the human soul. The spirit of the brother is not the animus, but the pneuma.

“One can find other theological reasons that lead to the transformation of ancient words and the elaboration of new logia: for example, on the occasion of the controversy that took place with respect to the renewal of the pardons accorded to the sinners after their conversion to Christianity (…) an argument that was based on the content of a logion could only acquire more weight.”[14]

In fact, great controversy was born from the rigor and intransigence of the New Prophecy. It was against it that the redactors of the gospels placed under the names of Matthew and Luke attributed these remarks to Jesus: “If seven times a day your brother offends you and seven times he returns to you to say, ‘I repent,’ you will pardon him” (Gospel attributed to Luke, 17:4). See also the staged episode that insists on the pardon merited by apostate priests, despite the opinions of Novatian and Donat: “Then Peter approached and said to him, ‘Lord, when my brother commits an offense against me, how many times should I pardon him? Seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times seven times’” (Gospel attributed to Matthew, 18, 21-22).[15]

The popular expansion of Christianity in the Greco-Roman Empire, under the impetus of Montanus and Tertullian, ended in the anecdotal translation of Gnostic speculations, in the apologue and the staging of the logia. The New Prophecy propagated imagery that the Catholic Church, contrary to Protestant reluctance, had always encouraged among the “simple of spirit.”

A passage from the Epistle attributed to Barnabas shows the origin of the sponge of vinegar presented to Jesus on the cross:

“The Epistle of Barnabas testifies in another manner, quite simple, of giving to some statement the authority of the Lord’s word. In two instances in the text, the citation of a logion of the Lord concludes an exegetical debate.

“In the first passage, the author asks, in the framework of a discussion on the meaning of the Jewish sacrificial rites (Epistle of Barnabas, 7:11): ‘And why does one put the wool in the middle of the thorns? It is a foreshadowing of Jesus proposed to the Church: the thorns are formidable; he who wants to remove the scarlet wool must suffer a great deal to make himself master through this test.’ And to continue, in the style of the logia of Jesus formulated in the first person, and by making the phrase follow the expression ϕησιν (‘he said’): ‘Thus those who want to see me and await my kingdom must seize me through ordeal and suffering.’

“As Barnabas gave a typological significance to the entirety of the rite, such a remark by Jesus can be ‘freed’ from the Jewish model without particular effort.

“Another passage (Epistle of Barnabas, 7:4-5) offers a second example of this kind of method: ‘All the priests, but they alone, eat entrails not washed with vinegar. Why?’ And Barnabas now makes the Lord intervene in person, to give a response to his question: ‘Because you will make me drink bile with vinegar, me, who will offer my flesh for the sins of my new people; you eat, only you, while the people fast and lament in the sack and ashes!’”[15]

Thus the three gospels called synoptic were laboriously composed, harmonized somehow or other, and placed under the names of three unknowns: Mark, of which there was a secret version, which Harnack attributes to Marcion; Matthew, perhaps issued from the Apocryphal Gospel attributed to Matthew, which has disappeared; and Luke, [written by] a stylist, a professional writer like Leucius Charinus or Tatian. (It seems established that the Gospel attributed to John was originally a Christian Gnostic text, if not also Naassenean or Sethian. The oldest fragments – according to the book by I. Bel, Christian Papyri, London, 1935 – date from the years 125-165.) The “unquestionable truth” of the synoptic gospels eclipsed a great number of “secret” gospels (apocrypha in Greek), to the point that the Church imposed on the word “apocryphal” the meaning “false, falsified.”

The writings discovered at Nag-Hammadi made no references to the synoptic gospels, and the Jesus attested to by several texts was only an Angel-Messiah. But it would be important to the Church of the Fourth Century, in its struggles against Arius and Donat, to situate historically the person of the Messiah Jesus, so that he no longer appeared as the “second Christ,” like Montanus, and that his divine nature was “consubstantially” mixed with the human nature of a prophet of whom the Church of Rome would erect itself as the universal legatee through a direct line of descent from the twelve apostles – especially Paul, the Roman citizen, and Peter, the first “pope” of the Latin New Jerusalem.


[1] Irenaeus, Mise en lumière et réfutation, I, 28, 1.

[2] Tatian, Oratio, VII.

[3] K. Deschner, III, p. 109.

[4] H. W. Hogg, “The Diatessaron of Tatian,” in Ante-Nicaean Fathers, Grand Rapids, 1951-1956; M. Wittaker, Oratio ad Graecos and Fragments, Oxford, 1982.

[5] Justin, Apologie I, 35, 9-48, 24.

[6] Tertullian, Apologétique, 21, 24.

[7] Acta Pilatis, translation by E. Revillont, Paris, 1912.

[8] Matte-Bonnes, R. and C. Bonner, op. cit.

[9] Tertullian, Apologétique, XXI, p. 8 sq.

[10] E. Junod, “Création romanesque et tradition ecclésiatique dans les Acts apocryphes des apotres,” in H. Koester and F. Bovon, Genèse de l’écriture chrétienne, 1991.

[11] Translator: English in original.

[12] Erbetta, Gli apocrifi, op. cit., p. 139.

[13] H. Koester and F. Bovon, op. cit., p. 36.

[14] Ibid., p. 43.

[15] Ibid., pp. 43 and 44.

[16] Ibid.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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