Tatian—Apologist or Heretic?
TOWARD the end of his third missionary journey, the apostle Paul called a meeting of the older men of the congregation in Ephesus. He told them: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.”—Acts 20:29, 30.
True to Paul’s words, the second century C.E. proved to be a time both of change and of the foretold apostasy. Gnosticism, a widespread religious and philosophical movement that polluted the faith of some believers, was on the move. Gnostics believed that spiritual things are good and that all matter is evil. Reasoning that all flesh is evil, they rejected marriage and procreation, claiming that Satan originated these. Some of them believed that since only that which pertains to the spirit is good, it does not matter what a man does with his physical body. Such viewpoints resulted in extreme life-styles, either asceticism or fleshly indulgence. The Gnostic claim that salvation came only from mystical Gnosticism, or self-knowledge, left no room for the truth of God’s Word.
How did professed Christians respond to the threat of Gnosticism? Some learned men spoke out against its erroneous doctrine, while others succumbed to its influence. Irenaeus, for example, embarked on a lifelong struggle against heretical teachings. He had been educated by Polycarp, a man who was a living link to the apostles. Polycarp recommended strong adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Despite having learned under the same tutelage, however, Irenaeus’ friend Florinus lapsed into the teachings of Valentinus, the most prominent leader of the Gnostic movement. Those were turbulent times indeed.
Shedding light on the climate of that period are the works of Tatian, a notable writer of the second century. What kind of a man was Tatian? How did he become a professed Christian? And how did Tatian fare under the influence of Gnostic heresy? His intriguing rejoinders and his own example provide valuable lessons for truth-seekers of today.
Meeting With “Certain Barbaric Writings”
Tatian was a native of Syria. Extensive travels and prolific reading made him knowledgeable in the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Tatian came to Rome as an itinerant rhetorician. While he was in Rome, though, his attention was diverted to Christianity. He began to associate with Justin Martyr, perhaps becoming his pupil.
In a revealing account of his conversion to nominal Christianity, Tatian claims: “I sought how I might be able to discover the truth.” Expounding on his personal experience when exposed to the Scriptures, he says: “I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centered in one Being.”
Tatian did not hesitate to invite his contemporaries to examine the Christianity of his day and to observe its simplicity and clarity in contrast with the darkness of heathenism. What can we learn from his writings?
What Do His Writings Reveal?
Tatian’s writings portray him as an apologist, a writer who speaks out in defense of his faith. He had a stern and antagonistic attitude toward pagan philosophy. In his work Address to the Greeks, Tatian accentuates the worthlessness of paganism and the reasonableness of nominal Christianity. His style is very harsh as he expresses contempt for Greek ways. For example, with reference to philosopher Heracleitus, he states: “Death, however, demonstrated the stupidity of this man; for, being attacked by dropsy, as he had studied the art of medicine as well as philosophy, he plastered himself with cow dung, which, as it hardened, contracted the flesh of his whole body, so that he was pulled in pieces, and thus died.”
Tatian held in high esteem the belief in one God, the Creator of all things. (Hebrews 3:4) In Address to the Greeks, he refers to God as “a Spirit” and says: “He alone is without beginning, and He Himself is the beginning of all things.” (John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17) Rejecting the use of images in worship, Tatian writes: “How can I speak of stocks and stones as gods?” (1 Corinthians 10:14) He believed that the Word, or the Logos, came into existence as the firstborn of the heavenly Father’s works and thereafter was used in the creation of the material universe. (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:13-17) Concerning the resurrection at the appointed time, Tatian states: “We believe that there will be a resurrection of bodies after the consummation of all things.” As to why we die, Tatian writes: “We were not created to die, but we die by our own fault. Our free-will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin.”
The explanation Tatian gives of the soul is confusing. He says: “The soul is not in itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal. Yet it is possible for it not to die. If, indeed, it knows not the truth, it dies, and is dissolved with the body, but rises again at last at the end of the world with the body, receiving death by punishment in immortality.” Exactly what Tatian meant by these statements is unclear. Could it be that while sticking to certain Bible teachings, he also tried to keep in favor with his contemporaries and therefore tainted Scriptural truths with pagan philosophies?
Another notable work of Tatian’s is the Diatessaron, or Harmony of the Four Gospels. Tatian was the first to give the congregations in Syria the Gospels in their own tongue. This was a highly regarded work, weaving the four Gospels into a single narrative. It was used by the Syrian Church.
A Christian or a Heretic?
A careful examination of Tatian’s writings reveals that he was familiar with the Scriptures and had great respect for them. He writes regarding their influence on him: “I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command; I detest fornication; I am not impelled by an insatiable love of gain to go to sea; . . . I am free from a mad thirst for fame . . . The same sun is for all, and one death for all, whether they live in pleasure or destitution.” Tatian admonishes: “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it. Live to God, and by apprehending Him lay aside your old nature.”—Matthew 5:45; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:10.
Consider, however, Tatian’s writing entitled On Perfection According to the Doctrine of the Savior. In this work he attributes matrimony to the Devil. Claiming that individuals would be tying their flesh to the perishable world through marriage, Tatian strongly condemns it.
It appears that about 166 C.E., after the death of Justin Martyr, Tatian either founded or associated with an ascetic sect called the Encratites. Its adherents emphasized strict self-control and mastery of one’s body. They practiced an asceticism requiring abstinence from wine, marriage, and possessions.
A Lesson to Be Learned
Why did Tatian deviate so far from the Scriptures? Did he become “a forgetful hearer”? (James 1:23-25) Did Tatian fail to turn down false stories and thereby fall prey to human philosophy? (Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 4:7) Since the errors he subscribed to were so great, could some mental aberration be suspected?
Whatever the case, Tatian’s writings and example provide a glimpse of the religious climate of his day. They demonstrate how damaging the influence of worldly philosophy can be. May we take to heart the apostle Paul’s warning to turn away “from the empty speeches that violate what is holy and from the contradictions of the falsely called ‘knowledge.’”—1 Timothy 6:20.