Ephraem of Syria

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EPHRAEM OF SYRIA (c. 306373) was a theologian, biblical interpreter, teacher, poet, and hymnographer whose teaching activity and prolific writings have had lasting influence on the Christian tradition. Renowned for his hymns and poetic homilies, he is regarded as the preeminent Syrian father, a doctor of the universal church, and, according to Robert Murray, "the greatest poet of the patristic age perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante" ("Ephrem Syrus, St.," in Catholic Dictionary of Theology, vol. 2, London, 1967, p. 222).

Born in Edessa (present-day Urfa, Turkey) in a Christian family (not a pagan household as some sources would have it), Ephraem lived for many years in Nisibis and taught at the catechetical school there. A town on the eastern Roman frontier, Nisibis was frequently pressed by the Persians. It was finally ceded to them in 363, at which time Ephraem, with the larger part of the Christian population, fled westward to Edessa, a partially Hellenized cultural center still in Roman hands. Ephraem's hymns on Nisibis reflect the vicissitudes of the Christian community there.

Edessa was a hotbed of heresies, where Arians, Manichaeans, Marcionites, and the followers of the famous Bardaisan (Bardesanes)many of whom successfully spread their teachings through poems and songshad confused and divided the Christians. It was here that Ephraem, perhaps ordained a deacon by this time, flourished as an orthodox teacher, effective apologist, and unifying leader.

Ephraem was called "the harp of the Spirit" by his contemporaries. His fame spread after his death, and he came to be venerated as a saint. His ancient biographers embellished his life with many accounts emphasizing his apologetic work against the Arians and highlighting the traditional view of Ephraem as father of Syrian monasticism. He is said to have visited the great monastic centers in Egypt; it is also told that upon his return he met with Basil of Caesarea, in whose presence he miraculously spoke Greek. Although Ephraem no doubt led a celibate life of evangelical fervor and simplicity and greatly admired contemporary ascetics, the traditional image of him as a monk does not fit his actual intense activity as a Christian teacher, public defender of the faith, and inspired poet who led people in song.

An immense legacy of writings in Syriac, Armenian, Greek, and Latin has been preserved under Ephraem's name, but much of it is spurious, especially the materials in Greek and Latin. Nevertheless, scholarship after World War II has uncovered an impressive body of authentic works in the original Syriac and also in Armenian versions.

Ephraem's writings consist of prose works, poetic homilies, and hymns. Of his prose works the most numerous are biblical commentaries (on Genesis, Exodus, the letters of Paul, and Tatian's Diatessaron ). He also wrote prose refutations against Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, as well as a number of prose sermons and ascetical works the authenticity of which is disputed. Ephraem's poetical homilies are metrical sermons intended for recitation rather than singing. Among them are the six Sermons on Faith deriving from the Nisibine period and containing references to the Persian danger. Many other similar metrical sermons on various topics attributed to him are of doubtful authenticity.

Ephraem's fame justly rests on hundreds of exquisite poetic hymns that interpret, defend, and celebrate the basic mysteries of the Christian faith: creation, incarnation, redemption, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Mary, the church, sacraments, and the kingdom of God. They are preserved in individual collections under such titles as Hymns on Faith, Hymns against Heresies, Hymns on the Crucifixion, Hymns on Paradise, and Hymns on the Church. Acknowledged as jewels of Semitic poetry, these hymns reflect Ephraem's superb talents in their diverse symmetrical forms, cascades of imagery, breathtaking parallelisms, and artistic wordplays, all extremely difficult to render in English. Although many are composed of multiple stanzas accompanied by refrains, others are cast in the form of dramatic disputations, for example, between Death and Christ or Death and Satan, a style with Mesopotamian precedents.

Although Ephraem used traditional Christian themes and known Semitic literary forms, his originality and freshness are striking. Some examples may indicate why he is hailed as one of the world's greatest religious poets. In one hymn to Christ, translated by Robert Murray in Eastern Churches Review 3 (1970), Ephraem vividly associates images of the Holy Spirit's descent on Mary, Jesus' baptism, Christian baptism, and the Eucharist:

See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore You!
See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism;
in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!

In another incarnational hymn, Ephraem fashions extended imagery of Christ as the pearl. This hymn plays on the words amoda ("diver") and amida ("baptized"). The pearl is found by plunging into the water, but it must be pierced (a reference to Christ's suffering) before it can be set in its place of honor.

The form of the dramatic disputation is exemplified by several hymns on Christ's descent into hell that celebrate his cosmic victory over Death. In one such hymn, Death addresses Christ on the cross, challenging and taunting him in his apparent weakness. Then Jesus signals his own death with a loud cry ("Our Lord's voice rang out thunderously in Sheol"), and angels of light illumine the darkness of hell. Seized by terrible fear, Death repents of its prideful words, confesses Jesus as king, and submissively hands over Adam as the first fruits of death with the words: "As first hostage I give you Adam's body. Ascend now and reign over all, and when I hear your trumpet call, with my own hands I will bring forth the dead at your coming" (Brock, 1983, p. 44). The hymn ends in a crescendo of praise to Christ that is typical of Ephraem's poetry.


The following sources and studies can be recommended for further reading. A systematic study of Ephraem's theology is yet to be written.

Beck, Edmund, ed. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Scriptores Syri. Louvain, 19551975. The standard editions of the hymns and homilies of Ephraem, with German translations, are available in different volumes in this series.

Brock, Sebastian, trans. The Harp of the Spirit. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, no. 4. San Bernardino, Calif., 1983. The best collection of English translations of seventeen of Ephraem's hymns and the Homily on the Nativity.

Gwynn, John, ed. Selections from the Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim the Syrian. Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 8, pt. 2. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1969. English translations of the hymns on nativity, Epiphany, faith, and Nisibis, as well as of the homilies on the Lord, repentance, and the Sinful Woman.

Murray, Robert. Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. London, 1975. A pioneering exploration of sources and themes of early Syrian writers, especially Aphraates and Ephraem, dealing with Christ and the church.

Vööbus, Arthur. Literary, Critical and Historical Studies in Ephrem the Syrian. Uppsala, 1958. An analysis of the sources, life, thought, and role of Ephraem in the tradition of Syrian monasticism.

Theodore Stylianopoulos (1987)