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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 172. Ephraem the Syrian.


I. S. Ephraem Syrus: Opera omnia quae exstant Greece, Syriace, Latine, in sex tomos distributa, ad MSS. codices Vaticanos aliosque castigata, etc.: nunc primum, sub auspiciis S. P. Clementis XII. Pontificis Max. e Bibl. Vaticana prodeunt. Edited by the celebrated Oriental scholar J. S. Assemani (assisted by his nephew Stephen Evodius Assemani, 1732–’43, 6 vols. and the Maronite Jesuit Peter Benedict). Romae, fol. (vols. i.-iii. contain the Greek and Latin translations; vols. iv.-vi., which are also separately numbered i.-iii., the Syriac writings with a Latin version). Supplementary works edited by the Mechitarists, Venet. 1836, 4 vols. 8 vo. The hymns of Ephraem have also been edited by Aug. Hahn and Fr. L. Sieffert: Chrestomathia Syriaca sive S. Ephraemi carmina selecta, notis criticis, philologicis, historicis, et glossario locupletissimo illustr., Lips. 1825; and by Daniel: Thes. hymn. tom. iii. (Lips. 1855) pp. 139–268. German translation by Zingerle: Die heil. Muse der Syrer. Innsbruck, 1830. English translation by Henry Burgess: Select metrical Hymns and Homilies of Ephr. Syrus, transl. Lond. 1853, 2 vols. 12 mo. Comp. § 114, above.

II. Gregorius Nyss.: Vita et encomium S. Ephr. Syr. (in Opera Greg. ed. Paris. 1615, tom. ii. pp. 1027–1048; or in Migne’s ed. of Greg. tom. iii. 819–850, and in Ephr. Op. tom. i.). The Vita per Metaphrastem; several anonymous biographies; the Testimonia veterum and Judicia recentiorum; the Dissertation de rebus gestis, scriptis, editionibusque Ephr. Syr., etc., all in the first volume, and the Acta Ephraemi Syriaca auctore anonymo, in the sixth volume, of Assemani’s edition of the Opera Ephr. Jerome: Cat. vir. ill.c. 115. Sozomen: H. E. iii. c. 16; vi. 34. Theodoret: H. E. iv. 29. Acta Sanctorum for Fehr. i. (Antw. 1658), pp. 67–78. Butler: The Lives of the Saints, sub July 9. W. Cave: Lives of the Fathers, &c. Vol. iii. 404–412 (Oxford ed. of 1840). Fabricius: Bibl. Gr. (reprinted in Assemani’s ed. of the Opera i. lxiii. sqq.). Lengerke: De Ephraemo Syro S. Scripturae interprete, Hal. 1828; De Ephr. arte hermeneutica, Regiom. 1831. Alsleben: Das Leben des h. Ephraem. Berlin, 1853. E. Rödiger: Art. Ephräm in Herzog’s Encykl. vol. iv. (1855), p. 85 ff.


Before we leave the Oriental fathers, we must give a sketch of Ephraem or Ephraim20482048   The Greeks spell his name Ἐφραΐμ,,, the Latins Ephraem. the most distinguished divine, orator, and poet, of the ancient Syrian church. He is called “the pillar of the church,” “the teacher,” “the prophet, of the Syrians,” and as a hymn-writer “the guitar of the Holy Ghost.” His life was at an early date interwoven with miraculous legends, and it is impossible to sift the truth from pious fiction.

He was born of heathen parents in Mesopotamia (either at Edessa or at Nisibis) in the beginning of the fourth century, and was expelled from home by his father, a priest of the god Abnil, for his leaning to Christianity.20492049   This is the account of the Syriac Acta Ephraemi, in the sixth volume of the Opera p. xxiii sqq. But according to another account, which is followed by Butler and Cave, his parents were Christians, and dedicated him to God from the cradle. He went to the venerated bishop and confessor Jacob of Nisibis, who instructed and probably also baptized him, took him to the council of Nicaea in 325, and employed him as teacher. He soon acquired great celebrity by his sacred learning, his zealous orthodoxy, and his ascetic piety. In 363, after the cession of Nisibis to the Persians, he withdrew to Roman territory, and settled in Edessa, which about that time became the chief seat of Christian learning in Syria.20502050   On the early history of Christianity in Edessa, compare W. Cureton: Ancient Syriac Documents relative to the earliest Establishment of Christianity in Edessa and the neighboring Countries, from the Year after our Lord’s Ascension to the Beginning of the Fourth Century. Lond. 1866. He lived a hermit in a cavern near the city, and spent his time in ascetic exercises, in reading, writing, and preaching to the monks and the people with great effect. He acquired complete mastery over his naturally violent temper, he denied himself all pleasures, and slept on the bare ground. He opposed the remnants of idolatry in the surrounding country, and defended the Nicene orthodoxy against all classes of heretics. He made a journey to Egypt, where he spent several years among the hermits. He also visited, by divine admonition, Basil the Great at Caesarea, who ordained him deacon. Basil held him in the highest esteem, and afterwards sent two of his pupils to Edessa to ordain him bishop; but Ephraem, in order to escape the responsible office, behaved like a fool, and the messengers returned with the report that he was out of his mind. Basil told them that the folly was on their side, and Ephraem was a man full of divine wisdom.

Shortly before his death, when the city of Edessa was visited by a severe famine, Ephraem quitted his solitary cell and preached a powerful sermon against the rich for permitting the poor to die around them, and told them that their wealth would ruin their soul, unless they made good use of it. The rich men felt the rebuke, and intrusted him with the distribution of their goods. Ephraem fitted up about three hundred beds, and himself attended to the sufferers, whether they were foreigners or natives, till the calamity was at an end. Then he returned to his cell, and a few days after, about the year 379, he expired, soon following his friend Basil.

Ephraem, says Sozomen, attained no higher clerical degree than that of deacon, but his attainments in virtue rendered him equal in reputation to those who rose to the highest sacerdotal dignity, while his holy life and erudition made him an object of universal admiration. He left many disciples who were zealously attached to his doctrines. The most celebrated of them were Abbas, Zenobius, Abraham, Maras, and Simeon, whom the Syrians regard as the glory of their country.20512051   Sozomen, H. E. iii. 16. Cave(I. c. iii. 409) says of him: “He had all the virtues that can render a man great and excellent, and this that crowned all the rest, that he would not know it, nor cared to hear of it; being desirous, as Nyssen tells us, οὐ δοκεῖν, ἀλλ ̓ εἶναι χρηστός, not to seem, but to be really good.”

Ephraem was an uncommonly prolific author. His fertility was prophetically revealed to him in his early years by the vision of a vine which grew from the root of his tongue, spreading in every direction to the ends of the earth, and was loaded with new and heavier clusters the more it was plucked. His writings consist of commentaries on the Scriptures, homilies, ascetic tracts, and sacred poetry. The commentaries and hymns, or metrical prose, are preserved in the Syriac original, and have an independent philological value for Oriental scholars. The other writings exist only in Greek, Latin, and Armenian translations. Excellent Greek translations were known and extensively read so early as the time of Chrysostom and Jerome. His works furnish no clear evidence of his knowledge of the Greek language; some writers assert his acquaintance with Greek, others deny it.20522052   Sozomen and Theodoret expressly say that Ephraem was not acquainted with the Greek language, but used the Syriac “as a medium for reflecting the rays of divine grace.” According to the legend he was miraculously endowed with the knowledge of the Greek on his visit to Basil, who was in like manner inspired to greet him in Syriac.

His commentaries extended over the whole Bible, “from the book of creation to the last book of grace,” as Gregory of Nyssa says. We have his commentaries on the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament and the Book of Job in Syriac, and his commentaries on the Epistles of Paul in an Armenian translation.20532053    Opera, tom. iv. and v., or vol. i. and ii. of the Opera Syr., and the supplements of the Mechitarists. They have been but little used thus far by commentators. He does not interpret the text from the original Hebrew, but from the old Syriac translation, the Peshito.20542054   He refers, however, occasionally to the original, as, for instance, ad Gen. i. 1: Interjecta particula את
   , quae in Hebraico textu hac loco legitur, idem valet, quod Syriacus articulus .” (Opera, vi. 116.) But such references prove no more than a superficial knowledge of Hebrew.

His sermons and homilies, of which, according to Photius, he composed more than a thousand, are partly expository, partly polemical, against Jews, heathen, and heretics.20552055   Opera, tom. i. ii. iii. and iv. Compare Photius, Bibl. Cod. 196. They evince a considerable degree of popular eloquence; they are full of pathos, exclamations, apostrophes, antitheses, illustrations, severe rebuke, and sweet comfort, according to the subject; but also full of exaggerations, bombast, prolixity, and the superstitious of his age, such as the over-estimate of ascetic virtue, and excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary, the saints, and relics.20562056   There is even a prayer to the holy Virgin (in Latin only) in his Works, tom. iii. p. 577; if it be genuine; for there are no other clear traces of such prayers before the fifth century. Mary is there addressed as “immaculata ... atque ab omni sorde ac labe peccati alienissima, virgo Dei sponsa, ac Domina nostra, ” etc. Some of his sermons were publicly read after the Bible lesson in many Oriental and even Occidental churches.20572057   Hieron, De script. eccl.c.115,

His hymns were intended to counteract the influence of the heretical views of Bardesanes and his son Harmonius, which spread widely by means of popular Syrian songs. “When Ephraem perceived,” says Sozomen, “that the Syrians were charmed with the elegant diction and melodious versification of Harmonius, he became apprehensive, lest they should imbibe the same opinions; and therefore, although he was ignorant of Greek learning, he applied himself to the study of the metres of Harmonius, and composed similar poems in accordance with the doctrines of the church, and sacred hymns in praise of holy men. From that period the Syrians sang the odes of Ephraem, according to the method indicated by Harmonius.” Theodoret gives a similar account, and says, that the hymns of Ephraem combined harmony and melody with piety, and subserved all the purposes of valuable and efficacious medicine against the heretical hymns of Harmonius. It is reported that he wrote no less than three hundred thousand verses.20582058   Sozomen, iii. 16: τριακοσια μυριάδα ἔπων,ἔπηand στίχοιis equivalent to verses or lines. Origen says of the Book of Job that it contains nearly 10,000 ἔπη. But, with the exception of his commentaries, all his Syriac works are written in verse, i.e., in lines of an equal number of syllables, and with occasional rhyme and assonance, though without regular metre.20592059   Comp. Rödiger, in Herzog’s Encycl. vol. iv. p. 89, and the Observationes prosodicae of Hahnand Sieffertin their Chrestomathia Syriaca.


II.—The Latin Fathers.



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