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Ephrem the Syrian
(306-373)

The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.

Selected Works Translated out of the Original Syriac (pdf)

Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephrem's productivity is not in doubt. The church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines. Ephrem combines in his writing a threefold heritage: he draws on the models and methods of early Rabbinic Judaism, he engages skilfully with Greek science and philosophy, and he delights in the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism.


Roger Pearse: Phil Snider has (somehow) been reading Ephrems Hymns against Julian the apostate.  His summary of what they say is fascinating, and may be very relevant to our world.

Ive always been interested in these hymns, but as far as I knew, no translation existed in any modern language.  Does anyone know of one?

UPDATE: Apparently there is one, in Samuel Lieu, The emperor Julian: panegyric and polemic, Liverpool 2, 1996.  This contains a panegyric by Claudius Mamertinus; Chrysostoms Homily on St. Babylas, against Julian and the pagans XIV-XIX (so presumably not complete); and Ephrem the Syrians Hymns against Julian.  The latter fills 24 pages of a TTH volume, so is not all that long.

The book also contains the following information on editions and translations:

The HcJul. were first published by J. Overbeck in his florilegium of Syriac writers: S. Ephraemi Syri, Rabulaei episcopi Edesseni, Balaei aliorumque opera selecta (Oxford, 1865) pp. 3-20. They were translated into German with brief notes by G. Bickell in his article: Die Gedichte des hl. Ephrm gegen Julian den Apostaten, Zeitschrift fr katholische Theologie, II (1878) pp. 335-56. Bickells translation was republished with fuller introduction and notes by S. Euringer in Bibliothek der Kirchenvater, (Kempten and Munich, 1919) pp. 199-238. The most recent edition and the one on which the present translation is based is that of E. Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Paradiso und Contra Julianum, CSCO 175 (text) and 176 (trans.), (Louvain, 1957). There is an unpublished Oxford B. Litt, thesis on the poems (with translation) by P. C. Robson, A Study of Ephraem Syrus Hymns Against Julian the Apostate and the Jews (Ms. B. Litt. d. 1411, 1969). Hymn IV, 18-23 has been translated into English by Sebastian Brock in the appendix to his edition of the Syriac letter attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem on the rebuilding of the Temple (Brock, 1977,283-4).

I had forgotten that the BKV texts are online, thanks to Gregor Emmeneger, here, which includes the four hymns against Julian, starting here.

"Death trampled our Lord underfoot but he in his turn treated death as highroad for his own feet.  He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself.  Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed; but the same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death.  Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain.  It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld.  This chariot was the body which he received from the virgin; in it he invaded deaths fortress, broke open its strong room and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living.  She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature.  But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old.  Christ, the new life, dwelt within her.  When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained.  All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men.

He who was also the carpenters glorious son set up his cross above deaths all consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life.  Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living.  We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man.  You are incontestably alive.  Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.

Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all."

 

WIKIPEDIA BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Ephrem the Syrian (Syriac: ܐܦܪܝܡ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ, Afrm Sryāy; Greek: Ἐφραίμ ὁ Σῦρος; Latin: Ephraem Syrus; ca. 306 373) was a deacon, prolific Syriac-language hymnographer (writer of hymns) and theologian of the 4th century. He is venerated by Christians throughout the world, and especially among Syriac Christians, as a saint.

Ephrem wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems and homilies in verse, as well as prose biblical commentaries. These were works of practical theology for the edification of the Church in troubled times. So popular were his works, that, for centuries after his death, Christian authors wrote hundreds of pseudepigraphous works in his name. Ephrem's works witness to an early, vibrant expression of Christian faith, little touched by the European modes of thought, and more engaged with eastern methods of discourse. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition.[1]

Life

The newly excavated Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis, where Ephrem taught and ministered.Ephrem was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria). 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. Numerous languages were spoken in the Nisibis of Ephrem's day, mostly dialects of Aramaic. The Christian community used the Syriac dialect. Various pagan religions, Judaism and early Christian sects vied with one another for the hearts and minds of the populace. It was a time of great religious and political tension. The Roman Emperor Diocletian had signed a treaty with his Persian counterpart Nerses in 298 that transferred Nisibis into Roman hands. The savage persecution and martyrdom of Christians under Diocletian were an important part of Nisibene church heritage as Ephrem grew up.

Jacob, the first bishop of Nisibis, was appointed in 308, and Ephrem grew up under his leadership of the community. Jacob of Nisibis is recorded as a signatory at the First Council of Nicea in 325. Ephrem was baptized as a youth, and almost certainly became a son of the covenant, an unusual form of Syrian proto-monasticism. Jacob appointed Ephrem as a teacher (Syriac malp̄ān, a title that still carries great respect for Syriac Christians). He was ordained as a deacon either at his baptism or later.[2] He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. In his hymns, he sometimes refers to himself as a 'herdsman' (ܥܠܢܐ, allān), to his bishop as the 'shepherd' (ܪܥܝܐ, rāy) and his community as a 'fold' (ܕܝܪܐ, dayr). Ephrem is popularly credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which in later centuries was the centre of learning of the Church of the East.

In 337 Emperor Constantine I, who had legalised and promoted the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, died. Seizing on this opportunity, Shapur II of Persia began a series of attacks into Roman North Mesopotamia. Nisibis was besieged in 338, 346 and 350. During the first siege, Ephrem credits Bishop Jacob as defending the city with his prayers. Ephrem's beloved bishop died soon after the event, and Babu, who succeeded Jacob as bishop, led the church through the turbulent times of border skirmishes. 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 which portrayed Nisibis as being like Noah's Ark, floating to safety on the flood.


The interior of the Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis.One important physical link to Ephrem's lifetime is the baptistery of Nisibis. The inscription tells that it was constructed under Bishop Vologeses in 359. That was the year that Shapur began to harry the region once again. The cities around Nisibis were destroyed one by one, and their citizens killed or deported. The Roman Empire was preoccupied in the west, and Constantius II and Julian struggled for overall control. Eventually, with Constantius dead, Julian the Apostate began his march into Mesopotamia. He brought with him his increasingly stringent persecutions of Christians. Julian began a foolhardy march against the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, where, overstretched and outnumbered, he was forced into an immediate retreat back along the same road. Julian was killed defending his retreat, and the army elected Jovian as the new emperor. Unlike his predecessor, Jovian was a Nicene Christian. He was forced by circumstances to ask for terms from Shapur and conceded Nisibis to Persia, with the provision that the city's Christian community would leave. Bishop Abraham, the successor to Vologeses, led his people into exile.

Ephrem found himself among a large group of refugees that fled west, first to Amida (Diyarbakır), and eventually settling in Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa) in 363. Ephrem, in his late fifties, applied himself to 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. 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.


 Writings
Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephrem's productivity is not in doubt. The church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines. Ephrem combines in his writing a threefold heritage: he draws on the models and methods of early Rabbinic Judaism, he engages skilfully with Greek science and philosophy, and he delights in the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism.

The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns (ܡܕܖ̈ܫܐ, madrā). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. The madrā are written in stanzas of syllabic verse, and employ over fifty different metrical schemes. Each madrā had its qāl (ܩܠܐ), a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qāl are now lost. It seems that Bardaisan and Mani composed madrā, and Ephrem felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims. The madrā 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 madrā usually had a refrain (ܥܘܢܝܬܐ, nṯ), which was repeated after each stanza. Later writers have suggested that the madrā were sung by all women choirs with an accompanying lyre.

Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies.[3] Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies which threatened to divide the early church. He lamented that the faithful were "tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles."[4] He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Hereies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as a fully human and divine. Ephrem asserts that Christ's unity of humanity and divinity represents peace, perfection and salvation; in contrast, docetism and other heresies sought to divide or reduce Christ's nature, and in doing so would rend and devalue Christ's followers with their false teachings.

Ephrem also wrote verse homilies (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ, mmr). These sermons in poetry are far fewer in number than the madrā. The mmr are 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 biblical commentaries on the Diatessaron (the single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church), on Genesis and Exodus, and on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles. He also wrote refutations against Bardaisan, Mani, Marcion and others.

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 1979 by Dom Edmund Beck OSB as part of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium.


 'Greek Ephrem'
Ephrem's artful meditations on the symbols of Christian faith and his stand against heresy made him a popular source of inspiration throughout the church. This occurred to the extent that there is a huge corpus of Ephrem pseudepigraphy 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 pseudepigraphal material, there are also works in Latin, Slavonic and Arabic. There has been very little critical examination of these works, and many are still treasured by churches as authentic.

The most well known of these writings is the Prayer of Saint Ephrem that is a part of most days of fasting in eastern Christianity.


Veneration as a saint
Soon after Ephrem's death, legendary accounts of his life began to circulate. One of the earlier 'modifications' is the statement that Ephrem's father was a pagan priest of Abnil or Abizal. However, internal evidence from his authentic writings suggest that he was raised by Christian parents. This legend may be anti-pagan polemic or reflect his father's status prior to converting to Christianity.

The second legend attached to Ephrem is that he was a monk. In Ephrem's day, monasticism was in its infancy in Egypt. 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 refrained from sexual activity. Some of the Syriac terms that Ephrem used to describe his community were later used to describe monastic communities, but the assertion that he was monk is anachronistic. Later hagiographers often painted a picture of Ephrem as an extreme ascetic, but the internal evidence of his authentic writings show him to have had a very active role, both within his church community and through witness to those outside of it. 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 Monk.

Ephrem is popularly believed to have taken legendary journeys. In one of these he visits Basil of Caesarea. This links the Syrian Ephrem with the Cappadocian Fathers, and is an important theological bridge between the spiritual view of the two, who held much in common. Ephrem is also supposed to have visited Saint Pishoy in the monasteries of Scetes in Egypt. As with the legendary visit with Basil, this visit is a theological bridge between the origins of monasticism and its spread throughout the church.

On 5 October 1920, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed that Ephrem is a Doctor of the Church. 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 (Syriac: ܟܢܪܐ ܕܪܘܚܐ, Kenār d-Rḥ). He is also referred to as the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church.

Today, Saint Ephrem presents an engaging model of Asian Christianity, which might prove a valuable source of theological insight for Christian communities that wish to break out of the European cultural mould. Ephrem also shows that poetry is not only a valid vehicle for theology, but is in many ways superior to philosophical discourse for the purpose of doing theology. He also encourages a way of reading the Bible that is rooted more in faith than in critical analysis. Ephrem displays a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all created things, which could develop his role in the church into that of a 'saint of ecology'. There are modern studies into Ephrem's view of women that see him as a champion of women in the church. Other studies have focused on the importance of 'healing' imagery in Ephrem. Ephrem, then, confronts the contemporary church as an orthodox saint engaged in a theology that is at once nonwestern, poetic, ecological, feminist, and healing.


 Quotations

The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante. Robert Murray.
The boldness of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord, just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 16:5.
You (Jesus) alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these? Ephraim the Syrian, Nisibene Hymns 27:8; ca. 361 AD.

 References
Bou Mansour, Tanios (1988). La pense symbolique de saint Ephrem le Syrien. Bibliothque de l'Universit Saint Esprit XVI. Kaslik, Lebanon.
Brock, Sebastian P (1985). The luminous eye: the spiritual world vision of Saint Ephrem. Cistercian Publications. ISBN 0-87907-624-0.
Brock, Sebastian (trans) (1990). Hymns on paradise: St. Ephrem the Syrian. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York. ISBN 0-88141-076-4.
den Biesen, Kees (2002). Bibliography of Ephrem the Syrian. Self-published, Giove in Umbria. (ephrem_bibliography@hotmail.com)
den Biesen, Kees (2006). Simple and Bold: Ephrem's Art of Symbolic Thought. Gorgias Press, Piscataway, New Jersey. ISBN 1-59333-397-8.
Griffith, Sidney H (1997). Faith adoring the mystery: reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. ISBN 0-87462-577-7.
Matthews, Jr., Edward G. and Joseph P. Amar (trans), Kathleen McVey (ed) (1994). Saint Ephrem the Syrian: selected prose works. Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 0-8132-0091-1.
McVey, Kathleen E (trans) (1989). Ephrem the Syrian: hymns. Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-3093-9.
Mourachian, Mark. "Hymns Against Heresies: Comments on St. Ephrem the Syrian". Sophia, 17, No. 2, Winter 2007. ISSN 0194-7958.
Parry, Ken; David Melling (editors) (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23203-6.
 

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