BMCR 2020.07.38

The Eusebian canon tables: ordering textual knowledge in late antiquity

Matthew R. Crawford, The Eusebian canon tables: ordering textual knowledge in late antiquity. The Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xvii, 372 p.. ISBN 9780198802600 $105.00.


Eusebius’ Canon Tables, a reference work in tabular form of parallel passages among the four gospels of the New Testament, was one of the most widely copied works from antiquity, surviving in some form in modern editions of the New Testament. For a work with such a legacy, it has received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Matthew Crawford has corrected that in this splendid book. Crawford expressly notes that his book is not a comprehensive study of the history of the Canon Tables, but provides instead a thorough introduction to the Tables, and four case studies of how the Tables were read in late antiquity and the middle ages.

The study is divided into two parts. Part one (chapters 1-3) outlines the background to the format of the tables and some of the history behind the ancient approach to the difficulties of the four gospels before going on to a more detailed study of Eusebius’ approach and intentions.

Chapter one introduces some background material on ordering textual knowledge in antiquity, a subject that has had a fair bit of treatment in recent years, which Crawford notes and draws on in detail. Crawford first establishes the Canon Tables as a “paratext,” using Genette’s discussion of textual relationships, which not only provides a convenient generic term for the Canon Tables, but also ropes together the four concluding chapters of the book. The section on tabular presentation in antiquity, with its introductory section on information visualization, is grounded in the Canon Tables, and includes a very clear discussion of the organization of data in tabular format (or lack thereof) in the ancient world. He convincingly establishes Ptolemy’s Πρόχειροι κανόνες, or Handy Tables, as the immediate intellectual parent of the Canon Tables’ format. Crawford further demonstrates, through reference to modern work on information visualisation, that the tabular format expresses visibly the relationships among the four gospels, a novel approach to text in antiquity.

In chapter two Crawford investigates, with due diligence, pre-Eusebian scholarship on the Fourfold Gospel using the Letter to Carpianus, the introductory note which explains the use of the Canon Tables, as his guide. He focuses quickly on the relationship between Eusebius and his predecessor Ammonius, the author of the Diatesseron gospel, and his goal is to articulate the “precise relationship between their respective works” with a clarity not present in the considerable amount of prior scholarship on the matter. After a brief discussion of the identity of Ammonius — which cannot satisfactorily be resolved — Crawford tentatively sides with those who identify Ammonius as the teacher of Origen, and begs that Ammonius be given his due for having provided some of the impetus for Origen’s Hexapla as well as the Canon Tables. Next Crawford notes the similarity between Eusebius’ Chronicle and the Canon Tables, a subject he will return to in chapter 3, but, while admitting the close relationship between the two works, I think he takes a rare over-step when he suggests that the Canon Tables were a summary (ἐπιτομή) of the gospels as Eusebius himself says the Chronicle is of his Ecclesiastical History. In a few hazardous pages near the end of chapter 2 (pp 80-91) Crawford wishes to tip the scholarly balance in favour of regarding Ammonius as the originator of Eusebius’ system of dividing the gospels into numbered sections, which is a reasonable hypothesis. He argues that Eusebius’ use of the word ἀφορμαί in the Letter to Carpianus “indicates that there is a significant continuity between the two works.” This is not an argument that will convince everyone. The word ἀφορμαί certainly implies that Eusebius took his starting point from Ammonius, but does not necessarily indicate “significant” continuity. But Crawford then goes on to lay out, convincingly, the way that Eusebius very likely used Ammonius’ textual divisions in the Canon Tables.

In chapter three, Crawford digs into Eusebius’ work itself to discuss “the pressure the paratextual apparatus exerts up on the reader” (96). After noting the canonizing effect the codex had on the establishment of the four gospels as canonical, to the exclusion of others, Crawford argues that the Canon Tables, in creating a web of links across the four gospels, “intensify the canonizing effect of the codex” and reinforce their canonical status. Furthermore, they exert “hermeneutical pressure” upon the reader by encouraging hypertextual reading across individual passages, which in turn allows the reader to “construct new meaning from the textual juxtaposition” (104). He will return to this in chapters 4-7. He further argues that Eusebius had no distinct intent, theological or otherwise, in creating his apparatus. On the contrary, as Eusebius’ Chronicle had done with chronology, his Canon Tables make it impossible to ignore the difficulties attendant on the parallel passages in the gospels. He demonstrates with six case studies that Eusebius only set out to juxtapose similar passages for the reader with no polemical or theological intent.

Part two (chapters 4-7) considers four traditions which “represent four different modes of using the Canon Tables as a paratext” (17) (Augustine’s de consensu evangelistarum, the Syriac Peshitta version of the Canon Tables, the Canon Tables in the Hiberno-Latin tradition, and the decoration of the Canon Tables in two Armenian commentaries). These four traditions are unrelated except insofar as they all use the Canon Tables in different ways, which demonstrates the “openness” of Eusebius’ work. Chapters 5-7 in particular are fresh pieces of research on texts which will be new to many classicists.[1]

In chapters 4 and 5, which I regard as the best work in the book, Crawford shows us how philology ought to be done, and what can be accomplished by painstakingly working through a text. As such, these are not chapters that will send a thrill up everyone’s spine, but everyone will be able to appreciate the conclusions he comes to atop a rock-solid foundation of detailed work. Eusebius’ apparatus is a work which hides itself, but in chapter 4 Crawford proves definitively (or as close to definitively as we are ever going to get) that Augustine followed the gospel parallel texts in the Canon Tables through his de consensu evangelistarum, an issue which has seen some debate for over a century.

In chapter 5, Crawford outlines how an unnamed Syriac biblical scholar adapted and upgraded the Canon Tables in the Peshitta gospel translation by tracking similarities among the gospels in still more detail than Eusebius did, and by putting the individual cross-references in the margins and at the bottom of each page of text, not unlike a modern edition. Crawford treats us to a detailed examination of examples from each of the canon tables which demonstrate how the scholar first internalized Eusebius’ work, and then carefully adapted it to the Syriac version with the result that “the Syriac reviser stands in continuity with Ammonius and Eusebius in using the methodology of demarcating sections of text for the purpose of comparative analysis” (191).

Chapter 6 focusses on four texts from the Hiberno-Latin tradition, all of which extend Eusebius’ work of classification of individual passages “by creating more specific classifications to account for the variety of kinds of agreement and disagreement among the Eusbian parallels.”

Chapter 7, “Seeing the Salvation of God,” is much more speculative than the first six, and goes a very different route from the preceding chapters in that Crawford turns to the decorative elements of the Canon Tables in Armenian manuscripts and their interpretation in two Armenian commentaries. He argues that the interpretation of the decorative elements was not extrinsic to the textual parts, but rather “extended their utility as a means of ordering knowledge and presenting the text of the four gospels to a prospective reader” (229). He goes further, suggesting that the decorative architectural frames (which likely went back to Eusebius himself) were at least in part intended to be used as a kind of mnemonic framework which could aid the reader of the gospels in understanding the uniformity of their message of salvation. His pages on the tables as a “System of Loci and Imagines” and “Bildeinsätze” suggest that we might tie the efforts of Armenian scholars Step`anos and Nerses respectively with the classical rhetorical tradition of using ordered physical objects as anchors for memorization, and with the medieval “Bildeinsatz,” an introductory ekphrastic passage which serves as an introduction or summary of the text which follows.

This book will become the launching pad for all studies of the Canon Tables for many years to come. Crawford is adept both at working through complicated and detailed material, and then laying out clearly and simply for the reader as well as at providing the big-picture overview.


[1] It should be noted that this reviewer does not read Syriac or Armenian.