Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem the Syrian

Fr. Joseph Kalariparampil



Ephrem the Syrian ( ܡܪܝ ܐܦܪܝܡ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ (Mār Aprêm Sûryāyâ, ca. 306 – 373), a Syriac deacon, a prolific Syriac-language hymnographer, a theologian, a teacher of repentance, was born at the beginning of the fourth century in the city of Nisibis (now Nusaybin in Turkey, on the border with Syria; in Roman Mesopotamia, then recently-acquired by the Roman Empire) into the family of impoverished toilers of the soil. His works are hailed by Christians throughout the world, and many denominations venerate him as a saint. He has been declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church. He is especially beloved in the Syrian Churches. He is the most widely acclaimed figure in the history of Syriac-speaking Christianity.

Eminent Syriac scholar, Sebastian Brock in his Luminous Eye, explains five ways why Ephrem is becoming more important these days. 1. He belongs to Asian Christianity, not the West. In order to have a Christianity freed from Greek, Ephrem is the apt theologian. 2. His poetical and symbolical theology gives us a break from the old approaches. There is freshness, vigour and novelty in his works. 3. He gives the inner meaning of Scripture and helps us to focus on the spiritual sense of Scripture. 4. His ideas of the interconnectedness of everything make him an appropriate saint for ecologically-minded people. 5. May be he is the first one who started women choirs in the Christian churches. He formed women choirs and appreciated the females in his works.[1]


His parents raised their son in piety. Internal evidence from Ephrem’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community in the city, although later hagiographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest (or there are some other claims that his parents were initially pagans and later converted to Christianity). Numerous languages were spoken in the Nisibis of Ephrem’s day, mostly dialects of Aramaic. And the Christian community there used the Syriac dialect. The culture included pagan religions, Judaism and early Christian sects.

Jacob, the second bishop of Nisibis (+ 338), was appointed in 308, and Ephrem grew up under his leadership. Jacob of Nisibis is recorded as a signatory at the First Council of Nicea in 325. He was a noted ascetic, a preacher of Christianity and denouncer of the Arians. Ephrem was baptized as a youth and almost certainly became a son of the covenant (bnay qyama), an unusual form of Syrian proto-monasticism. That means, he seems to have been a part of the members of the covenant, a close-knit, urban community of Christians that had ‘covenanted’ themselves to service and had refrained from sexual activity. It refers to Ephrem as ‘a single one’ (ܐܚܝܕ ). In Ephrem’s time, the Syriac ‘single one’ modelled his life on Christ, ‘the only Begotten Son of the Father’. Edmund Beck, who spent most of his time to study Ephrem, convincingly demonstrated that Ephrem lived an indigenous Syriac Christian lifestyle which is identified as ‘proto-monastic’, the cornerstone of which was the vow of sexual continence made at baptism.

Bishop Mar Jacob appointed Ephrem as a teacher. Under his guidance Ephrem attained Christian meekness, humility, submission to God’s will, and the strength to undergo various temptations without complaint. Constant spiritual sobriety, the developing of good within man’s soul gives him the possibility to take upon himself a task like blessedness, and a self-constraint like sanctity. Realizing the great worth of his disciple, Mar Jacob made use of his talents. He trusted him to preach sermons, to instruct children in school, and he took Ephrem with him to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (in the year 325). St Ephrem was in obedience to Mar Jacob for fourteen years, until the bishop’s death in 338. He was ordained as a deacon either at his baptism or later (There is a legend that he was a monk).

He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. Ephrem is popularly credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which, in later centuries, was the centre of learning of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The school was originally founded in 350 in Nisibis. In 363, when Nisibis fell to the Persians, Ephrem accompanied by a number of teachers left the school. After he reached Edessa, it is claimed that he took over the directorship of the school of Edessa and its importance grew up further under his guidance.

During Ephrem’s life Nisibis was the major commercial and political centre in Northeast Mesopotamia and the point of trade between the Roman and Persian empires, with a cosmopolitan blend of people including Jews, Romans, Arabs, Aramaeans, Parthians and Iranians.[2] Emperor Constantine I (272-337), who had legalised and promoted the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, died in 337. Seizing on this opportunity, Shapur II (309-379) of Persia began a series of attacks into Roman North Mesopotamia. Nisibis was besieged in 338, 346 and 350. During the first siege, Ephrem credited Bishop Jacob as defending the city with his prayers. In the third siege, of 350, Shapur rerouted the river Mygdonius to undermine the walls of Nisibis. The Nisibenes quickly repaired the walls while the Persian elephant cavalry became bogged down in the wet ground. Ephrem celebrated what he saw as the miraculous salvation of the city in a hymn that portrayed Nisibis as being like Noah’s Ark, floating to safety on the flood (Carmina Nisibena 11).

In 363 Nisibis was captured by Persians and the entire Christian population was expelled from there. After this, Ephrem went to a monastery near the city of Edessa. There he saw many great ascetics, passing their lives in prayer and psalmody. Ephrem, with others, went first to Amida (Diyarbakır), eventually settling in Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa) in 363.

Ephrem combined asceticism with a ceaseless study of the Word of God, taking from it both solace and wisdom for his soul. The Lord gave him a gift of teaching, and people began to come to him, wanting to hear his counsel, which produced compunction in the soul, since he began with self-accusation. Both verbally and in writing, he instructed everyone in repentance, faith and piety, and he denounced the Arian heresy, which at that time was causing great turmoil. Pagans who heard the preaching of the saint were converted to Christianity.

Ephrem, in his late fifties, applied himself to the ministry in his new church and seems to have continued his work as a teacher, perhaps in the school of Edessa. Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world, and the city was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephrem comments that orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called ‘Palutians’ in Edessa, after a former bishop. Arians, Marcionites, Manichees, Bardaisanites and various gnostic sects proclaimed themselves as the true church. In this confusion, Ephrem wrote a great number of hymns defending Nicene orthodoxy. A later Syriac writer, Jacob of Serugh, wrote that Ephrem rehearsed all-female choirs to sing his hymns set to Syriac folk tunes in the forum of Edessa.[3] This homily celebrates Ephrem’s active participation in the daily life of the church. Jacob credited Ephrem with giving the Daughters of the Covenant a public role in the everyday life of the Church.

St Ephrem, accounting himself as the least and worst of all, went to Egypt at the end of his life to see the efforts of the great ascetics. He was accepted there as a guest and received great solace from conversing with them. On his return journey he visited at Caesarea in Cappadocia with St Basil the Great, who wanted to ordain him a priest, but he considered himself unworthy of the priesthood. Later on, St Basil invited St Ephrem to accept a bishop’s throne, but the saint feigned madness in order to avoid this honour, humbly regarding himself as unworthy of it. After his return to his own Edessa wilderness, St Ephrem hoped to spend the rest of his life in solitude, but divine Providence again summoned him to serve his neighbour. The inhabitants of Edessa were suffering from a devastating famine. By the influence of his word, the saint persuaded the wealthy to render aid to those in need. From the offerings of believers he built a poor-house for the poor and sick. After a ten-year residency in Edessa, in his sixties, Ephrem succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims. The most reliable date for his death is 9 June 373.


imagesHis literary legacy testifies to a wide range of liturgical, catechetical, and exegetical activities which had inestimable influence on the churches of the Syriac Orient. Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephrem’s literary productivity is not in doubt. The church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines.

The most important of his works are lyric and teaching hymns (ܡܕܖ̈ܫܐ, madrāšê). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. The madrāšê are gathered into various hymn cycles. Each group has a title — Carmina Nisibena, On Faith, On Paradise, On Virginity, Against Heresies — but some of these titles do not do justice to the entirety of the collection (for instance, only the first half of the Carmina Nisibena is about Nisibis). Each madrāšâ usually had a refrain (ܥܘܢܝܬܐ, ‘ûnîṯâ), which was repeated after each stanza. Particularly influential were his Hymns ‘Against Heresies’. Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies that threatened to divide the early Church. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as fully human and divine. In Ephrem’s hands the madrāšâ is “a powerful teaching device. He uses its parallelism to meditate on subtle theological points, to explore dimensions of type and antitype or to drive home a polemic against heretics and other religious rivals.”[4]

Ephrem also wrote verse homilies (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ, mêmrê). These sermons in poetry are far fewer in number than the madrāšê. The mêmrê were written in a heptosyllabic couplets (pairs of lines of seven syllables each).

The third category of Ephrem’s writings is his prose work. He wrote a biblical commentary on the Diatessaron (the single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church), the Syriac original of which was found in 1957. His Commentary on Genesis and Exodus is an exegesis of Genesis and Exodus. Some fragments exist in Armenian of his commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles. He also wrote refutations against Bardaisan, Mani, Marcion and others. He wrote many prayers and hymns, thereby enriching the Church’s liturgical services.

Ephrem wrote exclusively in the Syriac language, but translations of his writings exist in Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Greek and other languages. Some of his works are only extant in translation (particularly in Armenian). Syriac Churches still use many of Ephrem’s hymns as part of the annual cycle of worship. However, most of these liturgical hymns are edited and conflated versions of the originals. The most complete, critical text of authentic Ephrem was compiled between 1955 and 1991 by Dom Edmund Beck, OSB, as part of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (CSCO 151-2, 154-5, 169-70, 174-5, 186-7, 198-9, 212-3, 223-4, 246-7, 248-9, 270-1, 305-6, 311-2, 320-1, 322-3, 334-5, 363-4, 412-3). Edmund Beck devoted himself for the production critical editions of the works of Ephrem. Through the application of rigorous philological standards, he was able to separate the authentic works of Ephrem from the large body of spurious writings that circulated under his name.

Greek Ephrem

There is a huge corpus of Ephrem pseud-epigraphy and legendary hagiography. Some of these compositions are in verse, often a version of Ephrem’s heptosyllabic couplets. Most of these works are considerably later compositions in Greek. Students of Ephrem often refer to this corpus as having a single, imaginary author called “Greek Ephrem”, or Ephraem Graecus (as opposed to the real Ephrem the Syrian). This is not to say that all texts ascribed to Ephrem in Greek are by others, but many are. Although Greek compositions are the main source of pseud-epigraphic material, there are also works in Latin, Slavonic and Arabic.

Veneration as a Saint

Ephrem is venerated as an example of monastic discipline in Eastern Christianity. In the Eastern Orthodox scheme of hagiography, Ephrem is counted as a Venerable Father (i.e., a sainted Monk). His feast day is celebrated on 28 January and on the Saturday of the Venerable Fathers, which is the Saturday before the beginning of Great Lent.

On 5 October 1920, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed Ephrem a Doctor of the Catholic Church (Doctor of the Syrians). This proclamation was made before critical editions of Ephrem’s authentic writings were available.

The most popular title for Ephrem is Harp of the Spirit (ܟܢܪܐ ܕܪܘܚܐ, Kenārâ d-Rûḥâ). He is also referred to as the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church. His Roman Catholic feast day of 9 June conforms to his date of death.

By declaring Ephrem as the Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict XV in his encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro, stated, he is called the ‘Father of Hymnody’ of the Church and the ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’. Pope continues, “Ephrem never left his solitude in Edessa except on fixed days to preach. In his preaching, he defended the dogmas of faith from swelling heresies. If, conscious of his lowliness, he did not dare to rise to the priesthood, he nevertheless showed himself a most perfect imitator of St Stephen in the lower rank of the diaconate. He devoted all of his time to teaching Scripture, to preaching and to instructing the nuns in sacred psalmody. Daily he wrote commentaries on the Bible to illustrate the orthodox faith; he came to the aid of his fellow citizens, especially the poor and the stricken. What he sought to teach others, he first did absolutely and perfectly” (8).

This article is better to be closed with following statement from the encyclical: “Therefore, God, who has ‘exalted the humble,’ bestows great glory on blessed Ephrem and proposes him to this age as a doctor of heavenly wisdom and an example of the choicest virtues. And the appropriateness of his example is truly singular today” (15).

[1] S. P. Brock, Luminous Eye, 159-172.

[2] Kathleen McVey (Tr.), Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, Classics of Western Spirituality, New York, Paulist Press, 1989, 5.

[3] J. P. Amar, “A Metrical Homily on Holy Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob of Sarug: Critical Edition of the Syriac Text, Translation and Introduction” in PO 209, 1995, 1-76.

[4] K. E. McVey, “Were the Earliest Madrāšē Songs or Recistations?” in G. J. Reinink & A. C. Klugkist (eds), Studies on Continuity and Change in Syriac Christianity in Honour of Professor Han J. W. Drijvers, Leuven: Peeters Publishers & Department of Oriental Studies, 1999, 186.

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