My current research involves the history of alternative gospels and scriptures, and how these supposedly “lost” works in fact survived and exercised their influence many centuries after they supposedly disappeared.
One classic example of a “lost” text is the Diatessaron, a valuable harmony or synthesis of the four canonical gospels composed around 170. Because the work was so convenient and accessible, it became immensely popular. Some church leaders disliked it, though, given the personal theological views of its compiler, Tatian. He was a prominent Encratite, whose faith demanded the rejection of wine, meat and sexual activity, although it is difficult to see much sign of that belief in the Diatessaron. Nevertheless, from the fifth century, orthodox bishops replaced the work wherever possible in the churches under their control. So the Diatessaron was suppressed, at least in the sense of being excluded from official church worship, and indeed no full copy survives intact today.
Yet although it was notionally suppressed, copies certainly circulated long afterwards. Distinguished scholars in the Syriac East were still using the work as authoritative through the thirteenth century. Copies of the Diatessaron found their way to the West, where it continued to shape the New Testament readings of faithful Catholics through the Middle Ages. In addition, heretical movements like the Manichaeans favored the work, and carried copies deep into Central Asia.
Through the Diatessaron, the medieval and early modern worlds had access to many readings that were usually associated with lost Jewish-Christian gospels, like the Gospel of the Ebionites, or the Gospel According to the Hebrews. These works had for instance told of the light or fire that illuminated the river Jordan at the time of Jesus’s baptism; or they reported how Jesus, after the Resurrection, told his disciples that he was no “phantasm” (rather than the “spirit” of the canonical texts). Both these readings appeared in the Diatessaron. In Matthew 8, Jesus heals a leper and tells him to go to a priest and offer the gift commanded by Moses. A great many early texts though tell the healed man to go to a priest “and execute the Law,” words that resonated powerfully with Jewish-Christians. Again, this early tradition – perhaps the original tradition? – survived in the Diatessaron.
Curiously, a book composed in second century Syria became so popular in medieval Northern and Western Europe, and that fact tells us much about how manuscripts traveled in these times. In the 540s, Bishop Victor of Capua (near Naples) discovered a Latin version of the work and ordered it copied, although he was not entirely sure just what he was dealing with. By the eighth century, that copy found its way to the English missionary Boniface, by means still unknown. England over the previous decades had become a vigorous center of learning, in close contact with neighboring Ireland, while English scholars avidly sought out books from Italy itself. The book, in other words, might have traveled from Italy direct to England, or conceivably could have been diverted via Ireland.
Although technically “lost,” scholars have been able to reconstruct large sections of the Diatessaron because of the many different fragments that still exist around the world. It gives some idea of the work’s vast influence when we realize that these odds and ends exist in dozens of languages. Apart from Christianity’s ancient languages, of Greek, Syriac and Latin, the Diatessaron left its inheritance in tongues as diverse as Armenian, Parthian, Old Saxon, Arabic, Old English, Old High German, Middle Dutch, Middle Italian and Old French.
It is in these languages that, all through the Middle Ages, we find gospel accounts in which a great light shines in the Jordan, or where Jesus tells the leper to go and execute the Law. From the eighth century, we find traces of the Diatessaron not just in copies of the scriptures but in the poems and epics that mark the first stirrings of European vernacular literature. These signs appear in the Heliand (Savior), the ninth century poem that stands at the beginning of German literary history.
From the thirteenth century, vernacular gospel harmonies drawn directly from the Diatessaron became very common across Western Europe, because they supplied exactly the well-organized material that clergy needed to meet the needs of preaching to the lay faithful. No doubt these preachers would be appalled to know that the Biblical texts they were using had been condemned by the church as heretical and moreover that they preserved ancient Jewish-tinged readings.
So I return to the basic question. Just how “lost” was this particular gospel? And what does this experience tell us about the ability of any church or institution to suppress or eliminate any written work, provided there was still demand for it?