Ephrem the Syrian, St.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN, ST.
Theologian, exegete, and Doctor of the Church; b. nisibis, in Mesopotamia, c. 306; d. edessa, June 373.
Life. Born into a pagan family (though some sources call his parents Christian), Ephrem was baptized at the age of 18 or 28 by the ascetic Bp. (St.) James of Nisibis (303–338), whose influence on his early life was profound. Even more significant was the influence of James' second successor, Vologeses (346–361), with his blending of asceticism and culture; in this period Ephrem was already a famous teacher in the School of Nisibis.
When the Christian Emperor Jovianus was compelled to cede Nisibis to the Persians after the defeat of julian the apostate (363), Ephrem emigrated with many other Christians to Edessa, where he continued to teach, and became a friend and counselor of Bishop Barses. The exegetical School of Edessa, intermediate in
method between Antiochene literalism and Alexandrian typology, owes to him its glory and perhaps even its foundation. Ordained a deacon, possibly by James of Nisibis, he apparently never became a priest, and by feigning madness managed to escape episcopal consecration. The Church historian sozomen emphasized Ephrem's reserve in dealing with women and a self–control that made it possible for him to dominate a natural irascibility.
Doctrine. Some historical significance is attached to Ephrem's works against heresies; e.g., the second volume of the Syriac works contains 56 hymns against Marcion, Bardesanes, and Manes, while the third volume has 87 hymns against the "investigators," i.e., skeptics, especially the Arians and Anomeans. More importantly, the hymns and discourses are of interest for the history of dogma. Ephrem's doctrine on man's last end is perfectly orthodox: a particular judgment that fixes the soul's destiny after death; purgatory; and the eternity of hell's punishments. But, like most of the Christian writers down to Pope benedict xii, he saw the souls of the just awaiting the resurrection in a sort of sleep, not enjoying beatitude before the body's resurrection. His forceful, realistic description of the Last Judgment inspired dante.
Remarkable as a devotee of the Virgin Mary, Ephrem extoled her cult and believed in her Immaculate Conception. Other dogmas that find support in him are original sin, free will and its harmony with divine grace, the primacy of Peter, intercession of the saints, and the Real Presence. An antiphon (No. 48) recovered in Armenian reveals the Trinity, especially the Spirit, at work in bringing the glorified humanity of Christ under the Eucharistic species. Our Lord, through the Father's right hand, i.e., the Holy Spirit, is in the Eucharist, and through the Eucharist is in men's hearts, without diminution, in His entirety, adapting Himself to their littleness. For Ephrem, as for many of the Eastern Fathers, the Eucharistic consecration, as well as the Incarnation and Redemption, is the work of the whole Trinity.
Works. Ephrem's literary legacy is still in an early stage of scientific exploration. The edition of J. S. and S.E. Assemani (6 v.: three for the Greek works, three for the Syriac, with Latin translation; Rome 1732–46) is incomplete and inexact, while T. J. Lamy's edition (4 v., Syriac works; Mechlin 1882–1902) omits the works in Assemani. E. Beck undertook a critical edition, with German translation, of the Syriac works in the Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium series, which includes the hymns on faith (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium [Paris–Louvain 1903] 154/Syr. 73; 155/Syr.74), against heresies (169/Syr. 76; 170/Syr. 77), on paradise or against Julian (174/Syr. 78; 175/Syr. 79), on the Nativity and Epiphany (186/Syr. 82; 187/Syr. 83), and on the Church (198/Syr. 84; 199/Syr. 85). C. Tonneau edited the commentaries on Genesis and Exodus (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium [Paris–Louvain 1903] 152–153). The edition of the Greek works by S. G. Mercati produced only one fascicle (Rome 1915). Of the Armenian Ephrem (see below), L. Leloir reedited the commentary on the Diatessaron with a Latin translation (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium [Paris–Louvain 1903] 137 and 145).
Syriac Ephrem. The authentic works in Syriac are the hymns (on faith, against heresies, on virginity, on the Church, on paradise, on the crucifixion), the Carmina Nisibena (ed. C. Bickell, Leipzig 1866), some sermons (on faith, on our Lord), and some commentaries (Genesis, Exodus, etc.). Theodoret testifies (Hist. eccl. 4.29.3) that Ephrem's hymns "lent luster to the Christian assemblies," and Sozomen reports (Hist. eccl. 3.16.7) that the Christians sang them to the music of Harmonius, son of Bardesanes.
Greek Ephrem. Here much is spurious, but certain items are literal translations of Syriac originals that may well stem from Ephrem. Sozomen affirms (Hist. eccl. 3.16.2) that "the Greek translations, which began in his lifetime, lose little if any of their original force." The defects of the Greek text—doublets, long and short recensions, interpolations, and omissions—are common to the Syriac. The Greek is ancient, for citations of Greek Ephrem appear in the sixth century. Mme. D. Hemmerdinger–Iliadou distinguishes carefully (1) texts with a Syriac original, (2) texts that offer readings from the Diatessaron, (3) texts that cite apocrypha and agrapha, and (4) items in meter.
Latin Ephrem. Very old, this represents a state of text less reworked than the Greek manuscript tradition.
Armenian Ephrem. To this we are indebted, above all, for the commentaries on the New Testament (the Diatessaron, Acts, Pauline Epistles), but also for poems that are often important for the history of dogma.
For the Georgian, Slavic, Coptic, Arabic, and Syro–Palestinian versions, see J. Kirchmeyer, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. M. Viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 4.820–822.
Feast: Jan. 28 (Eastern Church); June 18 (Western Church).
Bibliography: Textes arméniens relatifs à S. Ephrem, 2 v., ed. l. ter–pÉtrossian (Louvain 1985). e. beck et al., Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 4.788–822; Die Theologie des Hl. Ephrem in seinen Hymnen über den Glauben (Studia anselmiana 21; 1949); "Die Mariologie der echten Schriften Ephrems," Oriens Christianus 40 (1956) 22–39; Ephräms Polemik gegen Mani und die Manichäer im Rahmen der zeitgenössischen griechischen Polemik und der des Augustinus (Louvain 1978); Ephräms des Syrers Psychologie und Erkenntnislehre (Louvain 1980); Ephräms Trinitätslehre im Bild von Sonne/Feuer, Licht und Wärme (Louvain 1981); Dōrea und Charis; Die Taufe: zwei Beiträge zur Theologie Ephräms des Syrers (Louvain 1984). s. p. brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem (Rome 1985, rev. ed. Kalamazoo, Mich. 1992). c. m. edsman, Le Baptême de feu (Uppsala 1940). p. fÉghali, Les origines du monde et de l'homme dans l'oeuvre de saint Ephrem (Paris 1997). s. h. griffith, Faith Adoring the Mystery: Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian (Milwaukee, Wisc. 1997). m. hogan, The Sermon on the Mount in St. Ephrem's Commentary on the Diatessaron (Bern 1999). jacob of serug, A Metrical Homily on Holy Mar Ephrem, critical ed. of Syriac text, tr. j. p. amar (Turnhout, Belgium 1995). u. possekel, Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian (Louvain 1999). s. schiwietz, Das morgenländlische Mönchtum, v.3 (Mödling bei Wien 1938) 93–179. a. vÖÖbus, Literary, Critical, and Historical Studies in Ephrem the Syrian (Stockholm 1958); History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, 2 v. (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium 184, 197; 1958–60). p. yousif, L'Eucharistie chez saint Ephrem de Nisibe (Rome 1984). a. palmer, "The Merchant of Nisibis: Saint Ephrem and His Quest for Union in Numbers," Early Christian Poetry, j. den boeft and a. hilhorst eds. (Leiden 1993), 167–233. s. h. griffith, "Images of Ephraem: The Syrian Holy Man and His Church," Traditio 45 (1989–1990): 7–33.
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