1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ephraem Syrus

26248711911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 9 — Ephraem Syrus

EPHRAEM SYRUS (Ephraim the Syrian), a saint who lived in Mesopotamia during the first three quarters of the 4th century A.D. He is perhaps the most influential of all Syriac authors; and his fame as a poet, commentator, preacher and defender of orthodoxy has spread throughout all branches of the Christian Church. This reputation he owes partly to the vast fertility of his pen—according to the historian Sozomen he was credited with having written altogether 3,000,000 lines—partly to the elegance of his style and a certain measure of poetic inspiration, more perhaps to the strength and consistency of his personal character, and his ardour in defence of the creed formulated at Nicaea.

An anonymous life of Ephraim was written not long after his death in 373. The biography has come down to us in two recensions. But in neither form is it free from later interpolation; and its untrustworthiness is shown by its conflicting with data supplied by his own works, as well as by the manner in which it is overloaded with miraculous events. The following is a probable outline of the main facts of Ephraim’s life. He was born in the reign of Constantine (perhaps in 306) at or near Nisibis. His father was a pagan, the priest of an idol called Abnil or Abizal.[1] During his boyhood Ephraim showed a repugnance towards heathen worship, and was eventually driven by his father from the home. He became a ward and disciple of the famous Jacob—the same who attended the Council of Nicaea as bishop of Nisibis, and died in 338. At his hands Ephraim seems to have received baptism at the age of 18 or of 28 (the two recensions differ on this point), and remained at Nisibis till its surrender to the Persians by Jovian in 363. Probably in the course of these years he was ordained a deacon, but from his humble estimate of his own worth refused advancement to any higher degree in the church. He seems to have played an important part in guiding the fortunes of the city during the war begun by Shapur II. in 337, in the course of which Nisibis was thrice unsuccessfully besieged by the Persians (in 338, 346 and 350). The statements of his biographer to this effect accord with the impression we derive from his own poems (Carmina Nisibena, 1-21). His intimate relations with Bishop Jacob were continued with the three succeeding bishops—Babu (338–?349), Vologaeses (?349–361), and Abraham—on all of whom he wrote encomia. The surrender of the city in 363 to the Persians resulted in a general exodus of the Christians, and Ephraim left with the rest. After visiting Amid (Diarbekr) he proceeded to Edessa, and there settled and spent the last ten years of his life. He seems to have lived mainly as a hermit outside the city: his time was devoted to study, writing, teaching and the refutation of heresies. It is possible that during these years he paid a visit to Basil at Caesarea. Near the end of his life he rendered great public service by distributing provisions in the city during a famine. The best attested date for his death is the 9th of June 373. It is clear that this chronology leaves no room for the visit to Egypt, and the eight years spent there in refuting Arianism, which are alleged by his biographer. Perhaps, as has been surmised, there may be confusion with another Ephraim. Nor can he have written the funeral panegyric on Basil who survived him by three months. But with all necessary deductions the biography is valuable as witnessing to the immense reputation for sanctity and for theological acumen which Ephraim had gained in his lifetime, or at least soon after he died. His biographer’s statement as to his habits and appearance is worth quoting, and is probably true:—“From the time he became a monk to the end of his life his only food was barley bread and sometimes pulse and vegetables: his drink was water. And his flesh was dried upon his bones, like a potter’s sherd. His clothes were of many pieces patched together, the colour of dirt. In stature he was little; his countenance was always sad, and he never condescended to laughter. And he was bald and beardless.”

The statement in his Life that Ephraim miraculously learned Coptic falls to the ground with the narrative of his Egyptian visit: and the story of his suddenly learning to speak Greek through the prayer of St Basil is equally unworthy of credence. He probably wrote only in Syriac, though he may have possessed some knowledge of Greek and possibly of Hebrew. But many of his works must have been early translated into other languages; and we possess in MSS. versions into Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. The Greek versions occupy three entire volumes of the Roman folio edition, and the extant Armenian versions (mainly of N.T. commentaries) were published at Venice in four volumes in 1836.

It was primarily as a sacred poet that Ephraim impressed himself on his fellow-countrymen. With the exception of his commentaries on scripture, nearly all his extant Syriac works are composed in metre. In many cases the metrical structure is of the simplest, consisting only in the arrangement of the discourse in lines of uniform length—usually heptasyllabic (Ephraim’s favourite metre) or pentasyllabic. A more complicated arrangement is found in other poems, such as the Carmina Nisibena: these are made up of strophes, each consisting of lines of different lengths according to a settled scheme, with a recurring refrain. T. J. Lamy has estimated that, in this class of poems, there are as many as 66 different varieties of metres to be found in the works of Ephraim. These strophic poems were set to music, and sung by alternating choirs of girls. According to Ephraim’s biographer, his main motive for providing these hymns set to music was his desire to counteract the baneful effects produced by the heretical hymns of Bardaiṣan and his son Harmonius, which had enjoyed popularity and been sung among the Edessenes for a century and a half.

The subject-matter of Ephraim’s poems covers all departments of theology. Thus the Roman edition contains (of metrical works) exegetical discourses, hymns on the Nativity of Christ, 65 hymns against heretics, 85 on the Faith against sceptics, a discourse against the Jews, 85 funeral hymns, 4 on freewill, 76 exhortations to repentance, 12 hymns on paradise, and 12 on miscellaneous subjects. The edition of Lamy has added many other poems, largely connected with church festivals. It must be confessed that, judged by Western standards, the poems of Ephraim are prolix and wearisome in the extreme, and are distinguished by few striking poetic beauties. And so far as they are made the vehicle of reasoning, their efficiency is seriously hampered by their poetic form. On the other hand, it is fair to remember that the taste of Ephraim’s countrymen in poetry was very different from ours. As Duval remarks: “quant à la prolixité de saint Éphrem que nous trouvons parfois fastidieuse, on ne peut la condamner sans tenir compte du goût des Syriens qui aimaient les répétitions et les développements de la même pensée, et voyaient des qualités là où nous trouvons des défauts” (Littér. syriaque, p. 19). He is no worse in these respects than the best of the Syriac writers who succeeded him. And he surpasses almost all of them in the richness of his diction, and his skill in the use of metaphors and illustrations.

Of Ephraim as a commentator on Scripture we have only imperfect means of judging. His commentaries on the O.T. are at present accessible to us only in the form they had assumed in the Catena Patrum of Severus (compiled in 861), and to some extent in quotations by later Syriac commentators. His commentary on the Gospels is of great importance in connexion with the textual history of the N.T., for the text on which he composed it was that of the Diatessaron. The Syriac original is lost: but the ancient Armenian version survives, and was published at Venice in 1836 along with Ephraim’s commentary on the Pauline epistles (also only extant in Armenian) and some other works. A Latin version of the Armenian Diatessaron commentary has been made by Aucher and Mösinger (Venice, 1876). Using this version as a clue, J. R. Harris[2] has been able to identify a number of Syriac quotations from or references to this commentary in the works of Isho’dadh, Bar-Kepha (Severus), Bar-ṣalibi and Barhebraeus. Although, as Harris points out, it is unlikely that the original text of the Diatessaron had come down unchanged through the two centuries to Ephraim’s day, the text on which he comments was in the main unaffected by the revision which produced the Peshitta. Side by side with this conclusion may be placed the result of F. C. Burkitt’s[3] careful examination of the quotations from the Gospels in the other works of Ephraim; he shows conclusively that in all the undoubtedly genuine works the quotations are from a pre-Peshitta text.

As a theologian, Ephraim shows himself a stout defender of Nicaean orthodoxy, with no leanings in the direction of either the Nestorian or the Monophysite heresies which arose after his time. He regarded it as his special task to combat the views of Marcion, of Bardaiṣan and of Mani.

To the modern historian Ephraim’s main contribution is in the material supplied by the 72 hymns[4] known as Carmina Nisibena and published by G. Bickell in 1866. The first 20 poems were written at Nisibis between 350 and 363 during the Persian invasions; the remaining 52 at Edessa between 363 and 373. The former tell us much of the incidents of the frontier war, and particularly enable us to reconstruct in detail the history of the third siege of Nisibis in 350.

Of the many editions of Ephraim’s works a full list is given by Nestle in Realenk. f. protest. Theol. und Kirche (3rd ed.). For modern students the most important are: (1) the great folio edition in 6 volumes (3 of works in Greek and 3 in Syriac), in which the text is throughout accompanied by a Latin version (Rome, 1732–1746); on the unsatisfactory character of this edition (which includes many works that are not Ephraim’s) and especially of the Latin version, see Burkitt, Ephraim’s Quotations, pp. 4 sqq.; (2) Carmina Nisibena, edited with a Latin translation by G. Bickell (Leipzig, 1866); (3) Hymni et sermones, edited with a Latin translation by T. J. Lamy (4 vols., Malines, 1882–1902). Many selected homilies have been edited or translated by Overbeck, Zingerle and others (cf. Wright, Short History, pp. 35 sqq.); a selection of the Hymns was translated by H. Burgess, Select Metrical Hymns of Ephrem Syrus (1853). Of the two recensions of Ephraim’s biography, one was edited in part by J. S. Assemani (B.O. i. 26 sqq.) and in full by S. E. Assemani in the Roman edition (iii. pp. xxiii.-lxiii.); the other by Lamy (ii. 5-90) and Bedjan (Acta mart. et sanct. iii. 621–665). The long poem on the history of Joseph, twice edited by Bedjan (Paris, 1887 and 1891) and by him attributed to Ephraim, is more probably the work of Balai.  (N. M.) 

  1. It is true that in the Confession attributed to him and printed among his Greek works in the first volume of the Roman edition he speaks (p. 129) of his parents as having become martyrs for the Christian faith. But this document is of very doubtful authenticity.
  2. Fragments of the Commentary of Ephrem Syrus upon the Diatessaron (London, 1895).
  3. “Ephraim’s Quotations from the Gospel,” in Texts and Studies, vol. vii. (Cambridge, 1901).
  4. There were originally 77, but 5 have perished.