Christian apologist and theologian; b. Eastern Syria, c. a.d. 120; date and place of death unknown. He studied philosophy and became a pupil of justin martyr in Rome and a Christian convert. In 172 (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.29) he broke with the Roman church and returned to Mesopotamia, where he set up his own school. It was probably at this time that he composed his most important work, the diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels. He was a prolific writer, but his only complete surviving work is the Oratio ad Graecos, written in Greek, which is preserved in the Codex Arethas from which all other MSS derive. The date and occasion of the Oratio are obscure. A case has been made for its delivery as an inaugural lecture at the opening of Tatian's Syrian school, but the more current view is that it was written in the full fervor of conversion.
Tatian's conversion had been an intellectual one, arising from a search for truth, which had been met by his study of the Scriptures. These, he argues, are older and more divine than any Greek writings. He uses "Greek" as synonymous with "educated" and "barbarian" as implying the reverse. Christians are ipso facto "barbarian," because they make a clean break with culture. His work is full of virulent polemic against ancient and contemporary religious thought and practice, but has some value for its many references to mythology and ancient works of art. On the positive side, he expounds Christian monotheism, a doctrine of the Logos and creation, and theories about men, angels, and those fallen angels who lead men astray through polytheism.
The most striking feature of his theology is his emphasis on the transcendence of God. The Logos springs from God, yet Christ and sonship are not explicitly mentioned. The Spirit exists at two levels, a material spirit in men and animals and demons, and a divine spirit originally in man, but lost at the Fall. Nevertheless, knowledge can enable man to regain immortality. Matter was corrupted by sin, and so Tatian enjoins a strict asceticism. Irenaeus (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.29) even called Tatian the founder of the Encratites and criticized him for his affinity with Gnosticism—a view that is challenged by modern scholars.
Tatian had obviously read widely, and his thinking was greatly influenced by philosophical concepts; but there was much that he misunderstood or misrepresented. His style is turgid and often obscure. In fact, he typifies the education that he derided.
Bibliography: e. j. goodspeed, Die ältesten Apologeten (Leipzig 1914) 266–305. e. fascher, Paulys Realencyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 4A.2 (1932) 2468–71. g. bardy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 15.1:59–66. m. elze, Tatian und seine Theologie (Göttingen 1960). b. altaner, Patrology, tr. hilda graef 127–129. j. quasten, Patrology 1:220–228.