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Tatian (110-180) referred to himself as “an Assyrian,”[1] “born in the frontier district between the Roman Empire and Parthia”.[2] Trained in “mythology, history, poetry, and chronology”[3] he became disgusted with paganism. He travelled first to Antioch and then to Rome, where he was converted by reading the Hebrew Scriptures.[4] In Rome he joined the school of Justin Martyr, (between 150-165)[5] whom he held in high regard.[6] Tatian was a man of fiery temperament and seems to have found in Christianity a means by which to attack not only “pagan religion, but also… the Roman system of law and government.”[7] He was apparently the first Christian writer to declare that God created matter by the power of the Logos:[8] “And as the Logos, begotten in the beginning, begat in turn our world, having first created for Himself the necessary matter...”[9] From this it was only a small step for later Christian thinkers to arrive at the doctrine of creation out of nothing.[10] Unlike his teacher Justin he did not link the Greek hero Deucalion with Noah.[11]


After Justin’s martyrdom Tatian’s teaching gradually became more and more ascetic, until he broke with the Church in about 172 and returned to Mesopotamia.[12] Here (according to Eusebius and Jerome) he founded the sect of the Encratites.[13] Who, it was alleged, abstained from meat and rejected worldly goods, substituting water for wine in the Eucharist.[14] He was opposed by many of the early church fathers, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria,[15] Hippolytus[16] and Origen[17]. This probably explains why all but two of his numerous works have perished, so we have little opportunity to examine at first hand the claims of heresy levelled at him.[18] Irenaeus summarises the false teachings of Tatian as follows:

  1. “He invented a system of certain invisible Aeons [or powers], like the followers of Valentinus...”
  2. “Like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication...”[19]
  3. “...his denial of Adam’s salvation...”[20]

Irenaeus notes that Tatian was the source of this last heresy. Robert M. Grant explains Tatian’s reasoning in the Address as follows: “...since immortality is obtainable only where a soul forms a union… with the divine Spirit (13.2), and since the divine Spirit was lost by the same man (7.3), the first man Adam cannot have been saved.”[21] Perhaps more interesting than Tatian’s reasoning is the obvious inference that if Irenaeus was able to class the denial of Adam’s salvation as heresy (and Scripture is silent on this point) then the orthodox position at that time must have been that Adam was saved after the fall. It may well be that this doctrine was considered important because it countered Gnostic teaching to the contrary.

On Creation

It is not surprising that Tatian’s teaching on creation was misinterpreted when he made such use of Gnostic terminology. An example of this is Tatian’s statement that the Logos, begotten by the Father, in turn ‘begot’ the creation (5.2).”[22] Further evidence of allegedly Gnostic teaching is found in Address 20:

The demons were driven forth to another abode; the first created human beings were expelled from their place: the one, indeed were cast down from heaven; but the other were driven from the earth, yet not out of this earth, but from a more excellent order of things than exists here now.

The phrase “not of this earth, but from a more excellent order of things...” may suggest to some a higher level of existence,[23] but could equally be well be taken as a reference to the physical Eden, which is no longer part of this world.[24] In defence of Tatian, Gerald F. Hawthorne has made the following points[25]:

  • “It is quite possible that Irenaeus’ catalogue of heresies is derived solely from his acquaintance with the Discourse.”
  • “Subsequent references to Tatian as a heretic among the early fathers seem to be based upon Irenaeus’ remarks with very little evidence for his heresy.”[26]
  • “Some of the things for which Irenaeus condemned Tatian can hardly be classed a heresy...” An example of this is the subject of Adam’s salvation - or lack of it - as noted above.
  • Some orthodox teachers of the early church… spoke of him as the champion of orthodoxy. Rhodo, for example, Tatian’s own pupil, testifies that he combated the heresy of Marcion.”[27]

Given these considerations it is less easy to dismiss Tatian out of hand as a heretic. The charge that Tatian was a Gnostic is difficult to substantiate. Tatian clearly declared his belief in Christ’s incarnation,[28] His suffering[29] and bodily resurrection.[30] We can only guess at the real reason for Tatian’s condemnation at the hands of Irenaeus. Some have suggested that it may have been his status as an independent Christian teacher. In such a position he was outside of the control of the church hierarchy and may well have been seen as a threat to orthodoxy; “orthodoxy” at that point in history being increasingly defined as that which the bishops believed.


  1. Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 42 (Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF], Vol. 2, pp.81-82).
  2. W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. p.175.
  3. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, 1910. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. p.727.
  4. Tatian, Address, 29 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.77).
  5. “Justin Martyr", Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edn. Oxford: OUP, 1997. p.1341.
  6. Tatian, Address, 18 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.73).
  7. Frend, op.cit., p.175; Tatian, Address, 28 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.77).
  8. B. Studer, “Creation,” Angelo D. Bernardino, ed. Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Vol. 1. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1992.
  9. Tatian, Address, 5 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.67.
  10. Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo, trans. A.S. Worrall. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994. p.154.
  11. Jack P. Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968), 107: “Though Tatian does not specifically mention Noah’s flood, his chronology would make it impossible for him to identify Deucalion with Noah (Address to the Greeks 39.2).”
  12. Eusebius, Church History, 4.29.3 (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers {NPNF], 2nd series, Vol. 1, p.208.
  13. Eusebius, History, 4.29.6 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 1, p.209); Jerome, Lives, 29 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 3, p.369); Against Jovinian 1.3 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 6, p.347); cf. Irenaeus, who writes that this sect came from Saturinus and Marcion (see Heresies 1.28.1 [ANF, Vol. 1, p.353]).
  14. Hendrik F. Stander, “Encratites,” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland, 1990. p.298.
  15. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 3.7; ANF, Vol. 2, 396, pp.406-407 (text in Latin).
  16. Hippolytus, Refutation, 8.9; 10.14 (ANF, Vol. 5, pp.122, 146).
  17. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, op.cit., p.1341.
  18. ANF, Vol. 2, p.61.
  19. Tatian rejected marriage on the basis of 1 Cor. 7:5 & Gal. 6:8; Tatian, Address, 8 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.68); Irenaeus, Heresies 1.28.1 (ANF, Vol. 1, p.353). See further R.M. Grant, “Tatian and the Bible,” Kurt Aland & F.L. Cross eds. Studia Patristica, Vol. 1. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1957. pp.300-301.
  20. Irenaeus, Heresies, 1.28.1 (ANF, Series 1, Vol. 1, p.353).
  21. Robert M. Grant, “The Heresy of Tatian,” Journal of Theological Studies 46 (1954): 64.
  22. . Grant, “Heresy,” op.cit., p.64.
  23. Grant, “Tatian,” op.cit., p.305.
  24. Robert C. Newman, Personal Communication, November 1995.
  25. Gerald F. Hawthorne, “Tatian and His Discourse to the Greeks,” Harvard Theological Review 57.3 (1964): 165-166.
  26. Eusebius, History, 4.29 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 1, pp.207-209); Hippolytus, Philosphumena, 8.16.
  27. Eusebius, History, 5.13.1 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 1, p.227).
  28. Tatian, Address 21 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.74).
  29. Tatian, Address 15 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.71-72).
  30. Tatian, Address 13 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.70-71).

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