Ephraem (or Ephem) the Syrian
(c. 306 - 373)

EarlyChurch.org.uk


Synopsis

EPHREM SYRUS (or Ephraem) is the most prominent of the fathers of the Syrian Church in the fourth century, and the greatest orator I and hymn-writer produced by that church.

Life. - Besides the so-called confession of Ephraem (existing both in Greek and in Armenian) and his testament (existing both in Syrian and Greek), we have a panegyric of him by Gregory of Nyssa (written shortly after his death, and found both among Gregory’s works and in the first volume of the Roman edition of Ephraem’s Greek works), and an elaborate life of him (Acts Ephraemi), written in Syriac, and found in the third volume of the Roman edition of his Syrian works. All these materials are very unreliable, however. They contradict each other, and are full of legendary matter. In modern times his life has been written by Zingerle, in the first volume of his translation, and by Alsleben, Berlin, 1853.

Ephraem was born in the beginning of the fourth century, according to a notice in his commentary on the Genesis (Op. Syr., 1. 23), in Mesopotamia; according to Sozomen (Mist. Eccl., III. 16) and the Syrian biography, at Nisibis. He was educated by Bishop Jacob of Nisibis, and seems to have accompanied him to the Council of Nicaea (325). When, in 363, the Emperor Jovinian surrendered Nisibis to the Persians, Ephraem moved first to Amid, the native place of his mother, and then to Edessa, at that time the centre of Syrian learning. He settled among the anchorites in a cave outside the city, adopted a life of severe asceticism, and devoted himself wholly to theological study and authorship. Now and then he appeared among the people: and his hymns and polemical speeches, directed against the Chaldaean astrologers, against Bardesanes and Harmonius, the Arians and Sabellians, Apollinaris, Marcion, etc., made a deep impression; and obtained a lasting influence. Later writers (Assemani, Bibl. Orient., IV. 924) tell us that he founded a school in Edessa; and it is, at all events, certain that he had pupils, and among them some of great celebrity. A tradition reports that he visited Egypt, and staid there eight years : another, that he visited Basil the Great at Caesarea. He died during the reign of Valens, either 373, or 375, or 378.

Works. - Ephraem was a very prolific author; but of his numerous writings only a part exists in the original Syrian text, and the rest in Greek, Latin, Armenian, and Slavic translations. A complete list of his writings is given by J. S. ASSEMANS, in Bibl. Orient., 1. 59-164, and in the preface to the Roman edition of his Greek works. See also WRIGHT: Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3, 1271. The Slavic translations from his works were edited by J. P. Kohl Moscow, 1701; the Armenian, by the Mekhitarists, Venice, 1836. The principal edition of the Syrian and Greek texts is that which appeared in Rome in 6 vols. fol., 1732-46, under papal authority’, - 3 vols. Greek text, with Latin translation, edited by J. S. Assemani, and 3 vols. Syrian text, also with Latin translation, edited by Petrus Benedictus and S. E. Assemani.

It is doubtful whether or not Ephraem himself understood Greek; but it is quite certain that those of his works which have come down to us only in a Greek version are translations. Sozomen says that the works of Ephraem were very [743] early translated into Greek, even in the lifetime of the author; and this statement is corroborated by the fact that Chrysostom and Jerome were acquainted with them. They consist of sermons, homilies, and tracts, exegetical, dogmatic, and ascetic. Photius mentions (Bibl. Cod., 196) that he knew fifty-two such productions by Ephraem, and had heard that there existed more than a thousand. In many churches in the East they were read aloud during service, after the Bible recitals; and they seem to have attained the same honor in the Western Church. Translations into Latin were early made. Small collections of Ephraem’s discourses translated into Latin circulated in the fifteenth century. The first larger collection (in 3 vols. fol.) was given by (Gerhard Vossius, Rome, 1589, and reprinted in 1593 and 1598. It contains 171 pieces, of which only one was translated directly from the Syrian. Augmented editions of this collection appeared at Cologne (1603) and at Antwerp (1619). The first collected edition of Ephraem’s Greek works was given by Ed. Thwaites, Oxford, 1709. The best edition is Rome, 1732-46, 6 vols. folio, ed. by the Assemanis.

The existing Syrian works of Ephraem consist of commentaries on the Pentateuch and most of the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament. According to Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Orient., III. 1, p. 62), he also wrote a commentary on the Psalms. Of his commentaries on the books of the Yew Testament, only an Armenian translation of that on the Pauline Epistles, and on Tatian’s Diatessaron (for the latter see ZAHN: Forschungen zur Gesch. d. N.T. Kanons, Th. I., Erlangen, 1881, pp. 41 sqq., and LIT, below] have come down to ns. The rest of his Syrian works, contained in the third volume of the Roman edition, consist of sermons, tracts, and hymns, all written in verse; that is, in lilies of an equal number of syllables, grouped together in strophes, and adorned with rhymes and alliterations. The poetical form was, no doubt, adopted as the one best suited to impress the popular mind. At times it becomes prolix and dry; at others it exhibits truly poetical beauties. Several Syrian works ascribed to Ephraem still remain in manuscript; as, for instance, a world’s chronicle from the creation to the birth of Christ, of which one manuscript is found in the library of the Vatican, another in the British Museum.

C. Rodiger, "EPHREM SYRUS," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn., Vol. 2. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.742-743.

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Primary Sources

Book or monograph Sebastian Brock, The Harp of the Spirit, 2nd edn. London: Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, 1983.
Article Sebastian Brock, "Syraic Studies 1971-1980, a Classified Bibliography," Parole de l'Orient, Vol. 10 (1981-1982): 320-327.
Book or monograph Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on ParadiseSt Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, Sebastian Brock, translator. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977. Pbk. ISBN: 0881410764. pp.240. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Ephrem the Syrian, Prose Works. Fathers of the Church, Vol. 91. Edward G. Matthews, Jr., & Joseph P. Amar, trans. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. Hbk. ISBN: 0813200911. pp.528. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Ephraem the Syrian, Refutationes of Mani, Marcion, Bardesanes, and the astrologers (Pr. Ref.), C.W. Mitchell, E.A. Bevan & F.C. Burkitt, trans. London: Williams & Norgate, 1912, 1921.
Book or monograph Kathleen E. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian. New York: Paulist, 1989. Pbk. ISBN: 0809130939. pp.474.

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Secondary Sources

Article J. Neville Birdsall, "The Syriac Original of the Commentary of Ephraim the Syrian upon the Concordant Gospel," The Evangelical Quarterly 37.3 (July-Sept. 1965): 132-136.View in PDF format [All reasonable efforts have been made to contact the current copyright holfer without success. If you hold the rights, please contact me]
Book or monograph Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephraem, revised. Cistercian Publishing, 1994. ISBN: 0879076240. pp.209. {Amazon.com}
Article Richard Hugh Connolly [1873-1948], "St Ephraim and Encratism.," Journal of Theological Studies 8 No 29 (Oct. 1906): 41-48.
Article Sidney H. Griffith, "Ephraem the Deacon of Edessa, and the Church of the Empire," T. Halton & J.P. Williams,eds. Diakonia: Essays in Honor of Robert T. Meyer. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986. pp.22-52.
Article Sidney H. Griffith, "Ephraem the Syrian's Hymns `Against Julian': Meditations on History and Imperial Power," Vigiliae Christianae 41.3 (1987): 238-266.
Article Sidney H. Griffith, "Spirit in the Bread; Fire in the Wine: The Eucharist as Living Medicine in the Thought of Ephraem the Syrian," Modern Theology 15.2 (1999): 225-246.
Article Susan Ashbrook Harvey, "St Ephrem on the Scent of Salvation," Journal of Theological Studies 49.1 (1998): 109-128.
Article Martin Hogan, "Ephrem's Commentary on the Lord's Prayer," Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 24 (2001): 48-63.
Article Carmel McCarthy, "St. Ephrem's Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron: Reflecting on Chester Beatty Syriac Manuscript 709," Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 14 (1991): 79-92.
Book or monograph Robert Murray, Symbols of the Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syraic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Hbk. ISBN: 0521205530. {Amazon.com}
Article W.L. Petersen, "The Diatessaron and Ephrem Syrus as Sources of Romanos the Melodist," I.B. Charbot et al, Corpus Scriptorum christianorum orientalium, Vol. 466. Paris: Reipublicae; Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1986.
Article Paul S. Russell, "Ephraem the Syrian on the Utility of Language and the Place of Silence," Journal of Early Christian Studies 8.1 (2000): 21-37.
Article Paul S. Russell, "Making Sense of Scripture: An Early Attempt by St Ephraem the Syrian," Communio: International Catholic Review 28.1 (2001): 171-201.

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