Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.
« Ennodius (1) Magnus Felix, bp. of Pavia Ephraim (4) the Syrian Ephraim (6), bp. of Antioch and patriarch »

Ephraim (4) the Syrian

Ephraim (4) the Syrian, usually called Ephrem Syrus, from the Syriac form of his name Aphrem, was born in Mesopotamia, for he describes his home as lying between the Tigris and the Euphrates (Opp. Syr. i. 23), probably at Nisibis. As Edessa became the chief scene of his labours, he is generally styled the Edessene. It is comparatively certain that he died, as stated by St. Jerome, "in extreme old age," c. a.d. 373, and therefore was probably born c. a.d. 308.7474St. Jerome's expression must not be forced too much.

The story of his parents seeking to train him in idolatry is at variance with his own statements. In his Confession (Opp. Gr. i. 129) he says, "When I sinned, I was already a partaker of grace: I had been early taught about Christ by my parents; they who had begotten me after the flesh had trained me in the fear of the Lord. I had seen my neighbours living piously; I had heard of many suffering for Christ. My own parents were confessors before the Judge: yea, I am the kindred of martyrs." Or again, in his Syriac works (Opp. Syr. ii. 499): "I was born in the way of truth; and though my boyhood understood not the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came."

In 337 Constantine the Great died, and Sapor, king of Persia, seized the opportunity of invading Mesopotamia. He commenced the siege of Nisibis in 338, and in 70 days had brought it to the verge of surrender. But Ephrem induced the aged bishop James to mount the walls and pray for the Divine succour. Shortly afterwards swarms of mosquitoes and horse-flies made the horses and elephants unmanageable, and Sapor withdrew his forces lest he should bring upon himself heavier chastisement. Before the end of 338 St. James died, when Ephrem probably left Nisibis, and after a short stay at Amid, to which city his mother is said to have belonged, travelled towards Edessa, the chief seat both of Christianity and of learning in Mesopotamia.

Knowing no handicraft and having no means of living, Ephrem there entered the service of a bath-keeper, but devoted his spare time to teaching and reasoning with the natives. While so engaged one day his words were overheard by an aged monk who had descended from his hermitage into the city, and being rebuked by him for still mingling with the world, Ephrem withdrew into a cavern among the mountains, adopted the monastic dress, and commenced a life of extreme asceticism, giving himself up to study and to writing. His works were widely diffused, and disciples gathered round him, of whom many rose to eminence as teachers, and several of whom he commemorates in his Testament. The growing fame of Basil, bp. of Caesarea in Cappadocia, inspired Ephrem with a strong desire to visit one who had been shewn him in a dream as a column of fire reaching from earth to heaven.

His journey to Caesarea is vouched for by Basil's brother Gregory, and by Ephrem himself in his Encomium on Basil.7575On the authenticity of this piece, which exists only in Greek, see Proleg. to Ephr. Opp. Gr. II. li. Accompanied by an interpreter, he arrived on the eve of the Epiphany, and spent the night in the streets. The next morning they took their place in an obscure corner of the church, and Ephrem groaned in spirit as he saw Basil seated in a magnificent pulpit, arrayed in shining garments, with a mitre sparkling with jewels on his head, and surrounded by a multitude of clergy adorned with almost equal splendour. "Alas!" he said to his interpreter, "I fear our labour is in vain. For if we, who have given up the world, have advanced so little in holiness, what spiritual gifts can we expect to find in one surrounded by so great pomp and glory?" But when Basil began to preach, it seemed to Ephrem as though the Holy Ghost, in shape like a dove, sat upon his shoulder, and suggested to him the words. From time to time the people murmured their applause, and Ephrem twice repeated sentences which had fallen from the preacher's lips. Upon this Basil sent his archdeacon to invite him into his presence, which, offended at the saint's ragged attire, he did reluctantly, and only after he had been twice bidden to summon him. After embracing one another, with many florid compliments, Basil asked him how it was that, knowing no Greek, he had twice cheered the sermon, and repeated sentences of it to the multitude? And Ephrem answered, "It was not I who praised and repeated, but the Holy Ghost by my mouth." Under pressure from St. Basil, Ephrem consented to be ordained deacon. When Basil had laid his hands upon him, being suddenly endowed with the knowledge of Syriac, he said to Ephrem in that tongue, "O Lord, bid him arise," upon which Ephrem answered in Greek, "Save me, and raise me up, O God, by Thy grace." Doubtless Ephrem, travelling about with an educated companion, and having been an eminent teacher at Edessa, a place famous for its schools, had picked up some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, some evidence of which we shall later gather from his own writings. Two instances are given in the Acta of the influence of Ephrem's teaching on St. Basil. It had been usual at Caesarea in the Doxology to say, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, to the Holy Ghost; but after Ephrem's visit Basil inserted and before the third clause. Whereat the people in church murmured, and Basil defended himself by saying that his Syrian visitor had taught him that the insertion of the conjunction was necessary for the more clear manifestation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The other instance is as follows: In Gen. i. 2 the LXX renders "The Spirit of God was borne upon the surface of the water." So St. Basil had understood it, but the Peshitta-Syriac version renders it, "The Spirit of God brooded upon the face of the waters," which Ephrem explained of the Spirit resting upon them with a warm and fostering influence as of a hen sitting upon her nest, and so endowing them with the power of bringing forth the moving creature that hath life. St. Basil gives two reasons for trusting his Syrian friend. First, that Ephrem led a very ascetic life; "for in proportion as a man abandons the love of the world, so does he excel in that perfection which rises above the world." Secondly, that "Ephrem is an acute thinker, and has a thorough knowledge of the divine philosophy," i.e. of the general sense of Holy Scripture. There is nothing to suggest that any appeal was made to the Hebrew, as Benedict suggests, though, in fact, the Syriac and Hebrew words are the same; and, curiously enough, in his own exposition (Opp. Syr. i. 8), Ephrem says that the words simply mean that a wind was in motion; for the waters were instinct, he argues, with no creative energy till the fourth day. From Caesarea, Ephrem was recalled to Edessa by the news that the city was assailed by numerous heresies. On his journey he rescued the people of Samosata from the influence of false teaching by a miracle, and on reaching home sought to counteract heresy by teaching orthodoxy in hymns. The fatalistic tenets of Bardesan, a Gnostic who flourished at the end of the 2nd cent., had been embodied in 150 psalms, a number fixed upon in irreverent imitation of the Psalter of David. His son Honorius had set these hymns to music, and so sweet were both the words and tunes that they were known by heart even by children and sung to the guitar. To combat their influence Ephrem composed numerous hymns himself, and trained young women, who were aspirants after the conventual life, to sing them in chorus. These hymns have no rhyme, nor do they scan, but are simply arranged in parallel lines, containing each, as a rule, seven syllables. Their poetry consists in their elevated sentiments and richness of metaphor, but their regular form was an aid to the memory, and rendered them capable of being set to music. The subjects of these hymns were the Life of our Lord, including His Nativity, Baptism, Fasting, and chief incidents of his ministry, His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. He wrote also on Repentance, on the Dead, and on Martyrs. Upon the Festivals of our Lord, we read, on the first days of the week, and on the days of martyrs, Ephrem gathered round him his choirs, and the whole city flocked to hear them, and the poems of Bardesan lost their influence. While thus occupied Basil endeavoured to persuade him to visit Caesarea again, intending to make him a bishop, but the saint even feigned madness rather than consent. Meanwhile he wrote upon the devastation committed by the Persians, the Maccabean martyrs, the Life of Constantine, and so on, until the accession of Julian rudely disturbed his studies. On his expedition against the Persians Julian had advanced as far as Haran, a town so famous for obstinate adherence to heathenism that Haranite in Syriac is equivalent to pagan, and there determined to hold a great sacrifice, to which he commanded the Edessenes to send chosen citizens to do him homage, and to grace by their presence his restoration of the old cult. But this met with such fierce opposition on the part of the people, and such an eager desire for martyrdom, that the embassy withdrew in haste, and Julian threatened Edessa with bitter vengeance upon his return. Ephrem, who had exerted himself to the utmost in this crisis, resumed his hermit life, quitting the mountains only for controversy with heretics or for charitable services. As a controversialist, Gregory of Nyssa relates of him with great approbation an act contrary to modern views of morality: The "insane and irrational Apollinaris" had written a treatise in two volumes containing much that was contrary to Scripture. These he had given in charge of a lady at Edessa, from whom Ephrem borrowed them, pretending that he was a disciple of Apollinaris and was preparing to defend his views. Before returning them he glued the leaves together, and then challenged the heretic to a public disputation. Apollinaris accepted the challenge so far as to consent to read from these books what he had written, declining more on account of his great age; but he found the leaves so firmly fastened together that he could not open them, and withdrew, deeply mortified by his opponent's unworthy victory.

Far more creditable is the last act recorded of Ephrem. While withdrawn in his rocky cavern he heard that Edessa had been visited by a severe famine. He came down to the city, and induced the richer citizens to bring out their secret stores of food, on condition, however, that Ephrem should himself take charge of them. He managed them with such skill, prudence, and honesty that they sufficed for the Edessenes and for numerous strangers also. The next year was one of great plenty, and Ephrem resumed his solitary life amidst the prayers and gratitude of all classes.

His death followed shortly afterwards, fully foreseen by himself, as his Testament proves. In this hymn, written in heptasyllabic metre, after playing upon his own name and professing his faith, he commands his disciples not to bury him beneath the altar, nor in a church, nor amongst the martyrs, but in the common burying-ground of strangers, in his gown and cowl, with no spices nor waxlights, but with their prayers. It ends with an account of Lamprotata, daughter of the prefect of Edessa, who earnestly sought permission to be buried in due time at Ephrem's feet.

The works of Ephrem were most voluminous. Sozomen (Eccl. Hist. iii. 16) says that he wrote three million lines, but a large proportion has perished. What remains is said by Bellarmine to be "pious rather than learned." The great edition of his works is that in six vols. fol., pub. at Rome in 1732-1743, under the editorship of the Maronite Peter Mobarek, better known by the Latin translation of his surname Benedict, and completed after his death by J. S. E. Asseman, titular bp. of Apamaea, who is answerable, however, for the translation of only vol. vi. pp. 425-687. The first three vols. consist of sermons and discourses in Greek with a Latin translation. Many of these are probably genuine, for Sozomen says that already in his lifetime works of Ephrem were translated into Greek, and as both Chrysostom and Jerome were acquainted with them, and Gregory of Nyssa quotes his Testament, it is certain that several of his writings were very soon thus made available for general use. But some pieces must be received with caution, and one (Opp. Gr. ii. 356 seq.) is almost certainly not genuine.

The other three vols. contain his Syriac works, the most important being his Exposition of O.T. Of the commentary upon the Gospels few traces remain, but Dionysius Barsalibi, bp. of Amid, says that Ephrem had followed the order of the Diatessaron of Tatian. As copies of Dionysius's own commentary exist in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, and elsewhere, some portions of Ephrem's work, as well as some idea of Tatian's arrangement, might be obtained from it. A collection of Armenian translations of Ephrem's works, pub. in 4 vols. 8vo by the Mechitarists at Venice in 1836, includes one (in vol. iii.) of his commentary on St. Paul's epistles.

Following upon the commentary are 12 metrical expositions of portions of Scripture, such as the creation of man in God's image, the temptation of Eve, the translation of Enoch, etc., occupying pp. 316-319. Some of these, especially that upon the mission of Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites, have been translated into English by the Rev. H. Burgess (Lond. 1856), the author also of Select Metrical Hymns and Homilies of Ephraem Syrus (two vols. Lond. 1853). These expositions are followed by 13 metrical homilies upon the Nativity, pp. 396-436. Next come 56 homilies against false doctrines (pp. 437-560); chiefly against Bardesan, Marcion, and Manes.

In vol. iii., after the Acta S. Ephraems (i.-lxiii.), the first place is held by 87 homilies on the Faith, in answer to freethinkers. The last seven of these are called sermons upon the Pearl, which Ephrem takes as an emblem of the Christian faith, working out the idea with great beauty, though with that diffuseness which is the common fault of his writings. Three very long controversial homilies (pp. 164-208) follow, repeating many of the same thoughts.

A sermon against the Jews, preached on Palm Sunday (pp. 209-224), has been translated by the Rev. J. B. Morris into English.7676Morris (Select Works of Ephr. Syrus, Oxf. 1847) translated 13 rhythms on the Nativity, this against the Jews, the 80 rhythms on the Faith, 7 on the Pearl, and 3 long controversial homilies. Then follow 85 hymns (pp. 225-359) to be used at the burial of bishops, presbyters, deacons, monks, princes, rich men, strangers, matrons, women, youths, children, in time of plague, and for general use. These are trans. into Eng. in Burgess's Select Metrical Hymns.

Next come four short homilies on Free-will (pp. 359-366), partly following the order of the Syriac alphabet; then 76 homilies on Repentance (pp. 367-561). Next, 12 sermons on the Paradise of Eden (pp. 562-598); and finally, 18 sermons on miscellaneous subjects (pp. 599-687). Considerable activity has been displayed in editing other Syriac works of Ephrem—e.g. by Dr. J. J. Overbeck, in S. Ephraemi Syri, Rabulae, Balaei, aliorumque Opera Selecta (Oxf., Clarendon Press, 1865). Almost more important is "S. Ephraemi Syri Carmina Nisibena, ed. by Dr. G. Bickell, Lipsiae, 1866." Of these hymns, the first 21 treat of the long struggle between Sapor and the Romans for the possession of Nisibis, from its siege in 350 to just before its miserable surrender by Jovian in 363. The next 5 hymns have perished; in Nos. 26-30 the scene is Edessa, and the subject the schism there in the bishopric of Barses, a.d. 361-370. Bickell thinks these were written c. 370, towards the close of Ephrem's life. Hymns 31-34 treat of Haran and the many troubles its bishop, Vitus, endured from the pagans there. The other hymns (35-77) treat of the Overthrow of Death and Satan by our Lord, of the Resurrection of the Body in refutation of Bardesan and Manes, of Dialogues between Death, Satan, and Man, and of Hymns upon the Resurrection, not of a controversial but of a consolatory character. From the directions for singing given with each hymn, and the existence in most of them of a response or refrain noted in the MS. in red, the collection was evidently for liturgical use.

Bertheau edited a Syriac homily of St. Ephrem from a MS. at Rome (Göttingen, 1837), and another from the Museum Borghianum was pub. by Zingerle and Mösinger in Monumenta Syriaca (Innsbruck, 1869), vol. i. pp. 4-12; in vol. ii. (pub. 1878) numerous fragments from MSS. at Rome are found, pp. 33-51. In most Chrestomathies specimens of Ephrem's writings are given, and that by Hahn and Sieffert consists entirely of them.

As a commentator Ephrem holds a middle place between the literal interpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the allegorical method of Origen. As Basil and Gregory were both strongly influenced by Origen, Ephrem's independence is the more remarkable. In commenting on Is. xxv. 7 (vol. ii. 61), he gives a statement of his method as follows: "Though the prophet is speaking of Sennacherib he has a covert reference to Satan. For the spiritual sense is usually the same as the ecclesiastical. The words therefore of the prophets concerning those things which have happened or were about to happen to the Jews are mystically to be referred to the future propagation of the church, and the providence of God and His judgments upon the just and upon evil-doers." Benedict, followed by Lengerke, instead of ecclesiastical translates historical; what Ephrem really says is that there is first the literal interpretation, and secondly a spiritual one, which generally refers to the church.

The question has often been asked whether he really possessed any competent acquaintance with Hebrew and Greek. He had not had a learned education, but nevertheless displays considerable knowledge, including some of physical science, and in his discourses on fate, freewill, etc., he manifests, without parade, a sufficient mastery of Greek philosophy to refute the Gnostic errors prevalent in the East. We need not be surprised, therefore, that Sozomen says (H. E. iii. 16) that Basil wondered at his learning.

The chief places which suggest some knowledge of Hebrew are as follow. Commenting on the creation of whales in Gen. i. 21 (Opp. Syr. i. 18), he says that they and leviathan inhabit the waters, behemoth the land; quoting not only Job xl. 15, but Ps. l. 10, which he translates, "And behemoth upon a thousand hills." Ephrem's rendering is perfectly possible, and must have been obtained from some Jewish source.

On I. Sam. iii. 11 he rightly says that both the Syr. and Heb. names for cymbal resemble the verb so translated. In I. Sam. xxi. 7 he correctly explains the word "detained" by noting that the Heb. word neasar signifies pressed or bidden away. In II. Kings iii. 4 he rightly says that the Syr. nokdo is really a Heb. word, and means "head shepherd."

These points might have been picked up from conversation with others, and there is a marked absence of acquaintance with the language in his commentary as a whole.

Of Greek he also shews but a very moderate knowledge, though a more real acquaintance with it than with Hebrew. His own words in Opt. Syr. ii. 317 are to the point: "Not from the rivulet of my own thought have I opened these things for thy drinking, for I am poor and destitute alike of meat and drink; but, like a bottle from the sea or drops from a caldron, I have begged these things from just men, who were lords of the fountain."

An example will shew him much more at home in Greek than in Hebrew. In I. Kings xiv. 3 (Opp. Syr. i. 480) the Syriac version has, instead of cracknels, a rare word signifying sweetmeats. Ephrem notices that the Greek has grapes, and gives this as an explanation of the Syriac; but makes no reference to the Hebrew word, which certainly signifies some kind of cakes, such as might rightly be called sweetmeats, but certainly is no kind of fruit.

From his intense devotion and piety, his hymns were largely adopted into the services of the church, and prayers also composed by him are found in most Oriental liturgies. His personal character deserves high praise. He was an extreme ascetic, passing his whole life in poverty, raggedness, humility, and gentleness. His gentleness has been denied on account of the fierce language sometimes used in controversial writings. We may, however, take his words in his Testament as literally true (Opp. Gr. ii. 396): "Throughout my whole life, neither by night nor day, have I reviled any one, nor striven with any one; but in their assemblies I have disputed with those who deny the faith. For if a wolf is entering the fold, and the dog goes not out and barks, the master beats the dog. But a wise man hates no one, or if he hates at all, he hates only a fool."

"His words reach the heart, for they treat powerfully of human joys and cares; they depict the struggles and storms of life, and sometimes its calm rest. He knows how to awaken terror and alarm, as he sets forth before the sinner his punishment, God's righteous judgment, his destined condemnation; he knows, too, how to build up and comfort, where he proclaims the hopes of the faithful and the bliss of eternal happiness. His words ring in mild, soft tones when he paints the happy rest of the pious, the peace of soul enjoyed by those who cleave to the Christian faith; they thunder and rage like a storm wind when he scourges heretics, or chastises pride and folly. Ephraim was an orator possessed of spirit and taste, and his poetical gifts were exactly those calculated to give weight and influence to his authority as a teacher among his countrymen" (Roediger). As such they venerated him, giving him especially the title of Malphono, the teacher; but one of his greatest services to the church was the marvellous variety and richness which he gave to its public worship. Ephraim's quotations from the Gospels have been collected by F. C. Burkitt (Texts and Studies, vol. vii. No. 2, Camb. Univ. Press). His Commentary on the Diatessaron was trans. into Latin by J. B. Aucher, and pub. in this form by G. Mösinger (Venice, 1876). See Also J. H. Hill, A Dissertation on the Gospel Commentary of S. Ephraim (Edinburgh, 1896). The Fragments of S. Ephraim have been ed. by J R. Harris for the (Camb. Univ. Press).


« Ennodius (1) Magnus Felix, bp. of Pavia Ephraim (4) the Syrian Ephraim (6), bp. of Antioch and patriarch »


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