Saint Ephrem (Classical Syriac: ܡܪܝ ܐܦܪܝܡ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ (Mār Aprêm Sûryāyâ); ca. 306 – 373) was a Syriac deacon and a prolific Syriac-language hymnographer and theologian of the 4th century from the region of Syria. His works are hailed by Christians throughout the world, and many denominations venerate him as a saint. He is especially beloved in the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Ephrem wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems, and sermons in verse, as well as prose biblical exegesis. 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 pseudepigraphal works in his name. Ephrem’s works witness to an early form of Christianity in which Western ideas take little part. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition
Ephrem was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria, in the Roman province of Mesopotamia, which had come into Roman hands only in 298). 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. The culture included pagan religions, Judaism and early Christian sects.
Jacob, the second 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 malp̄ānâ, a title that still carries great respect for Syriac Christians). He was ordained as a deacon either at his baptism or later. 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, ‘allānâ), to his bishop as the “shepherd” (ܪܥܝܐ, rā‘yâ), and to his community as a ‘fold’ (ܕܝܪܐ, dayrâ). 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.
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. 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.
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. In that year, Shapur attacked again. The cities around Nisibis were destroyed one by one, and their citizens killed or deported. Constantius II was unable to respond; the campaign of Julian in 363 ended with his death in battle. His army elected Jovian as the new emperor, and to rescue his army, he was forced to surrender Nisibis to Persia (also in 363) and to permit the expulsion of the entire Christian population.
Ephrem, with the others, went first to Amida (Diyarbakır), 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.
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 skillfully 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, madrāšê). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. The madrāšê are written in stanzas of syllabic verse and employ over fifty different metrical schemes. Each madrāšâ had its qālâ (ܩܠܐ), a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qālê are now lost. It seems that Bardaisan and Mani composed madrāšê, and Ephrem felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims. 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. Later writers have suggested that the madrāšê were sung by all-women choirs with an accompanying lyre.
Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies. Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies that 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. He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as 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, rend and devalue Christ’s followers with their false teachings.
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.
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.