St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373) BIOGRAPHIES OF SYRIAN SCHOLARS AND WRITERS – Mor Ignatius Aphram Barsoum – Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa

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St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373)

St. Ephraim is unquestionably the master of the Syriac language and the poet par excellence of the Syrians. He possessed the innate properties of creativeness, poetic versatility, and the ability to present many meanings in few words. His style is solid, powerful, fluent and eloquent. In poetry he practiced an entirely new doctrine in which he was seldom rivaled. He distinguished himself by his abundant subject matter, fertile imagination and naturalness. In all these he takes palm. Into these poems he incorporated lofty ideas and noble meanings which would inspire his readers to the highest spheres of piety and submissiveness, and worship. St. Ephraim was an example of conscientiousness and religious zeal. His heart was completely dominated by the love of God. And so this is why he was described as “The Prophet of the Syrians,” “The Sun of the Syrians,” “The Harp of the Holy Spirit,” and the “Possessor of Wisdom.” Moreover, Christendom professed his leadersllip while he was still alive and chanted his songs, praising God through them.
St. Ephraim was born in the early part of the fourth century into a Christian family, (contrary to some accounts which maintain that he was born a heathen and was converted to Christianity in the prime of his life). His upbringing ennobled his character. In the prime of youth he deserted the world and accompanied St. Jacob, bishop of Nisibin, who was renowned for his purity and holiness. Besides righteousness Ephraim learned much of what was unique in Syriac literature. He entered a monastic order, was ordained a deacon and taught for thirty-eight years at the school of Nisibin, which has been founded by his master. He also worked under his successors, the Bishops Baboy, Walgash and Ibrahim, and composed part of his songs known as the Songs of Nisibin. By the year 359 he had achieved wide fame. In the year 363 he left his country as a result of the Persian invasion and moved to Edessa, settling in its Holy Mountain where he was highly welcomed by its ascetics. He expanded the school of Edessa, which, as a result of his contributions and knowledge, became widely famous. It was at this school that he opened the treasures of his knowledge and commented on the Old and the New Testaments. Furthermore, he wrote many excellent poems and masterpieces of canticles. His poetry had become the model of eloquence. Many studied under him.
He was an abstinent and ascetical person, sober, understanding, serene and original. He was a flaming fire which burned the tare of the misguided heretics, a brilliant master and a faithful soldier, keeping watch on the strongholds of Orthodoxy. He died on the 9th of June, 373, nearing seventy years of age. Over his remains a monastery, known as the Lower Monastery, was built in the neighborhood of Edessa. The Church commemorates him on the first Sabbath of the Lent.

Of the prose writing of St. Ephraim have come down to us the comentary on the Book of Genesis, part of the Book of Exodus9 and fragments of the rest of the Books of the scriptures, interspersed in the collection of the monk Severus (d. 861). In these commentaries he relied on the Pshitto version. Of his writings also surive an Armenian translation of his commentary on the Diatessaron version of -the Gospel, a commentary on the Pauline Epistles (except for a few verses which may be found in the commentary on the Gospel by Yeshue Dad al-Mrarwazi) and some discourses containing commentaries on chapters of the Holy Bible. We have red selected chapters from a book of his called The Book of Opinions,10 two discourses against the heretics Hypatius and Domnus, two treatises on the love of the Most High, and supplications, a letter to the monks who dwelt in the mountains.11 He also wrote stories of the Apostles. Of these, the story of St. Peter the Apostle has survived and has been published.12

However, the most outstanding of St. Ephraim’s writings are his maymars (metrical homilies composed in the seven-syllabic meter which is attributed to him) as well as his madrashes (songs). All of these maymars and madrashes deal with religious subjects such as the divinity of the Lord Christ, His humanity, teachings, His church, Apostles, martyrs, commentaries on the Holy Bible, prayer, fasting, charity and worship. Some of these madrashes pertain to monks, the Resurrection, prayers for the dead, on the scarcity of rain and other subjects. He also composed songs describing virginity, the sacraments of the church, and the Nativity of the Lord. The most beautiful of these is an alphabetical song which impresses its charm on hearts and its lofty theological truths on minds.13 He also composed songs on Epiphany, Easter, the Resurrection, the call of the Apostles, the attributes of the catholic (universal) church, the Virgin and other saints. He also eulogized some of his contemporary bishops and ascetics such as Ibrahim al-Qayduni, and Julian the Aged. He wrote on repentance, a refutation of Bar Daysan, the heretics and Julian the Apostate. The number of his poems (some of which have been lost) is unknown. Howevever, Bar Hebraeus in his Hudoyo (Nomocanon) mentions two hundred and fourteen poems by St. Ephraim combined with those of Mar Isaac, but his number includes only a selection of his maymars whose reading by the clergy was made obligatory. What is known of these maymars are fifteen maymars on the Epiphany, one on the Palm festival, fifteen on the Passover, five on the Passion of Our Lord, two on the Resurrection, and the reception of Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, and one on Low Sunday. He also wrote two on the birth of the Plessed Virgin, St. Andrew the Apostle, the evangelization of the country of Kalkh or the Killitites, three on Job, two on Sts. Sergius and Bacchus and Demite, twenty on the martyrs, five on the death of bishops, priests, deacons, perfect monks, children and everybody else and seven on the composition of man. Other subjects are: solitude for worship, sojournment, the next world, the end of time, humility and love of mammon. He wrote eleven on condolences and the next world, seven on supplications, wisdom, counsel, faith, knowledge and repentance, one on the saying of Isaiah: “The sinner shall be taken away, that he shall not see the glory of the Lord,” ten on the blessings of meals, four on Julian the Apostate, and twenty on diverse subjects. Mgr. Rahamani published two volumes of these maymars. The first of these contains thirty-one maymars as well as fragments of other maymars, such as those on the blessings of meals, the fall of the city of Nicomedia, purity of heart, penitence, and God’s care for us. Other topics include vigilence, repentance, injustice, ascetics, Job the Righteous, the refutation of Bar Daysan, the seige of Nisibin, and Satan enticing people to sin. The second volume contained several maymars which he composed on the scarcity of rain. He has also a magnificent five-syllabic maymar in which he addresses himself; it begins thus: “How often I hungered.” He also composed a famous metrical testament to which have been added many interpolations which have nothing to do vvith the original.14 He also composed a metrical supplication.
Following are his known maymars:
87 maymars on faith and against those who doubt faith, 85 on funerals, 76 on enjoinment for repentance, 15 on the earthly paradise, 51 on virginity and the mysteries of our Lord, which are most iIluminating, 77 known as the maymars of Nisibin which he composed between 350 and 363, of which 60 survived (published by Bickel). Twenty of these maymars were composed in Nisibin and contained an account of the calamities which this city suffered in the siege of the year 350 and during the Persian War (359-363). They also contain some eulogies on the bishops of Nisibin mentioned earlier. The rest of the maymars were composed in Edessa, five containing the record of events of the church of Edessa, four on the worship of idols in the city of Harran and on its bishop Petes and some on the city of Anazete. The rest are on the Passion of our Lord, His Resurrection and resurrection of the dead. Of these maymars composed in Edessa, 15 are on the Nativity of our Lord, 15 on Divine Manifestation, 15 on unleavened bread, 52 on the church, 56 on refutation of heresies, 17 on Ibrahim al-Qayduni, 24 on Julian Sobo (the Aged), 20 on martyrs, 15 on preaching and 18 on diverse subjects.15
The most ancient choral books mention that the scales of the madrashes (metrical songs)16 which he composed are five hundred. However, the largest of these choral books contained only one hundred fifty-six scales, while the majority of them contained no more than forty-five scales (which have been mixed up with other scales composed in imitation of the form and content of St. Ephraim’s scales).
This doctor also composed part of the songs known as the Shohre and the Inyans; also, some takkhsheftos (supplicatory hymns) and cathismata were attributed to him, as was formerly mentioned.17 Philoxenus of Mabug citred two books by him, the first of which he called The Fanqith (Book) of the Refutation of Jews and Heresies (also mentioned by the writer of the chronicle of Seert18). The second is The Fanqith (Book) of the Martyrs of Nisibin19 which contains a collection of some of St. Ephraim’s madrashes, mainly the fanqith on faith, the church, unleavened bread, and Nisibin (which have been cited by Anton of Takrit.20

To St. Ephraim was attributed a book entitled The Cave of Treasures, which contains the story of Adam and Eve after they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden and the genealogy of the tribes of Israel. This book was written in the sixth century.21 Also attributed to him was an excellent panegyric of twelve melodies on Joseph, the son of Jacob. This, in the opinion of Bar Shushan is either the composition of Isaac or Balai, bishop of Balsh, and not the composition of some teachers of the school of Edessa, as some writers thought. The reader will also find in the three volumes published in Latin between 1737 and 1743 by the two monks Butrus (Peter) Mubarak and Stephen Awwad (Assemani) about 300 maymars, most of which were ascribed to St. Ephraim. They are, to be sure, the composition of some of his disciples or the composition of Isaac, Jacob of Saruj, Narsai or other. Between 1882 and 1902 Thomas Lamy also published in Malines four volumes containing St. Ephraim’s maymars and hymns. Some of these were also published in Oxford and Leipzig. Contemporary scholars, however, are anxious to have a better and more accurate edition of St. Ephraim’s works.
Fifty-one of St. Ephraim’s treatises were translated from Greek into Arabic in the eleventh century have come down to us. The Syriac origin of these treatises has been lost.22 The commentary of St. Ephraim on the Holy Bible and others of his writings were translated into Greek either in his lifetime or in the first decade after his death. These translations were read by Gregory of Nyssa who eulogized him in a magnificent homily. Some of his writings were also translated into Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Latin.
Some contemporary critics hold the opinion that St. Ephraim was a moralistic writer and preacher more than a theologian. This is true, because very little of dogmatic research is found in his maymars and songs, even those distorted by the heretics. However, his maymars gained fame and popularity on acccunt of his holiness. Some critics state that what fascinates the reader about St. Ephraim are his firey mind and the allegories in his poems. These brave and artistic pictures and symbols and the broad imagination which his poetry contained are characteristic of the oriental poets – a style unknown to the Greek or Latin poets. However, these critics say that St. Ephraim’s poetry has little creativeness, lofty thoughts or enthusiasm.23
Aother critic, who is more fair, says that what he (St. Ephraim) has written was meant to be for the people and monks and therefore did not penetrate deeply into theological theories. However, in his moralistic discourses he incorporated a spark of zeal and firey enthusiasm which permeated the core of the heart. All that he has written, even though (topics) on which he wrote with utmost prolixity, were in the eyes of his closest readers a symbol of superb rhetoric; for the writer is the reflection of his environment.24
The claim that St. Ephraim has little creativeness, lofty thoughts or enthusiasm is unfair. It is refuted by the unanimity of those (scholars) who have sound taste. Again, he should not be blamed for his prolixity, since it was a trait of the ancient Syrian writers and others. No doubt, this method is incompatible with our modern taste. Nevertheless, the least which could be said about St. Ephraim is that the comprehension of some of his poems requires mental exertion. John of Atharib (d. 735) wrote to Jacob of Edessa, asking for the explanation of some of St. Ephraim’s poems. How valuable it would have been, if some brilliant scholars who lived close to his time wlould have commented upon his poems and unravelled their obscurities.

9- St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373)