The Vita of St. Ephrem the Syrian (1)

The Vita of St. Ephrem the Syrian1

by Edip Aydın

St. Ephrem the Syrian, known as ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’ is undoubtedly the greatest poet and theologian that the Syrian Church ever produced. In the words of Dr. Murray, he is ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.’2

St. Ephrem was not only a well-known figure in the Syriac-speaking world but also had a great reputation in the Greek East as well as the Latin West. Within the patristic age itself Ephrem’s reputation as a holy man, poet and a noteworthy theologian was widely known far beyond his Syrian homeland. Less than fifty years after Ephrem’s death ‘Palladius included a notice of him among the ascetic saints whose memory he celebrated in the Lausiac History. Sozomen the historian celebrated Ephraem’s memory as a popular ecclesiastical writer, some of whose works had been translated into Greek even during his lifetime. St. Jerome recognized Ephraem’s theological genius in a Greek translation he read of a book by Ephraem on the Holy Spirit. And toward the end of the fifth century, Gennadius of Marseilles called attention to Ephraem as a composer of metrical psalms.’3

The testimonies to the great popularity of St. Ephrem throughout the medieval Christian world all refer to works in Greek. Although Sozomen the historian testifies that Ephrem’s works were translated during the saint’s lifetime, the scholars today have come to recognize that there is only a spiritual affinity between the writers of the works ascribed to St. Ephrem in Greek and those attributed to him in Syriac. Moreover, in the hagiographical tradition, an examination of the Greek and Syriac sources for the saint’s life gives us two different images of St. Ephrem. This is also reflected in the iconographical tradition. For the sake of convenience Dr. Griffith styles these two different depicted characters of the saint as ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’ and the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’.4

The ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’ is the product of the writers in the Greco-Syrian monastic communities of the fifth and sixth centuries. They transmitted the works of St. Ephrem in Greek as well as Syriac, and they even composed new hymns and homilies in Ephrem’s style and ascribed them to him. Also, they composed the Syriac Vita of St. Ephrem and a Syriac work called the Testament of St. Ephrem, which is also attributed to him. These two works are the primary sources for the literary icon of Ephrem Byzantinus.5

In the Vita, Ephrem is depicted as a monk living in a cave on the mountain near Edessa. He only leaves his cave shortly before his death to supervise relief efforts in Edessa during a severe famine. Incidentally, he is said to have composed some madroshe (doctrinal hymns) and memre (verse homilies) in Syriac, to overcome the heresy of Bar Daysan (154-222), a native of Edessa. In this account, to ensure the authenticity of his monastic lifestyle, Ephrem is said to have visited St. Bishoi (Pisoes) in the Egyptian Desert. Even today a visitor to Deyr al-Suryan monastery in Wadi al-Natron is shown a tree claimed to have been planted by St. Ephrem during his visit there. The Vita also tells of his visit to St. Basil of Caesarea in order to guarantee his orthodoxy for the Imperial Church. He flees priestly ordination at Basil’s hands, in good monastic style, though he accepts the office of the diaconate. Parallel to this account, the Testament of St. Ephrem reflects the world-view of a monastic hero, a desert solitary whose stories John of Ephesus may have told. According to Dr. Griffith, ‘This literary, or verbal icon, in fact must lie behind the best-known artistic presentation of St. Ephraem, the composition known as the ‘Dormition of Ephraem Syrus’, in which Ephrem’s body, lying on a funeral slab, surrounded by mourners, is the focal point of a tableau made of other scenes from a cycle of hermits, stylites and recluses.’6 Examples of this are to be found both in the Vatican gallery and the Monastery of Dokherias on Mount Athos. This is a perfect presentation of the profile of ‘Ephraem Byzantinus’.

In the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’ on the other hand, which is the recovery of Ephrem’s genuine works in Syriac and other texts in Syriac, ‘we find no mention whatsoever of any monastic tendencies, but instead only an overwhelmingly and entirely consistent picture of Ephrem as teacher and caretaker of the souls of the flock and even as a friend and advisor to his bishops.’7 Ephrem was born in 303 to Christian parents (Hymns Against Heresies 26.10), in or around Nisibis and received baptism in his youth (Hymns on Virginity 37.10.1-4). He became a ‘teacher’ (malpana) and a poet who for the majority of his almost seventy years, served the bishops of Nisibis namely Jacob, Babu and Vologeses (Hymns on Nisibis 13-21), as a catechist, biblical exegete, and liturgical composer. When Rome handed over Nisibis to Persia in 363, Ephrem was forced to leave the town and move some hundred miles west to Edessa where he served Abraham, the bishop of Edessa, for the last ten years of his life in the same capacity. He died in 373. St. Ephrem was certainly not a monk; but as an unmarried man he was probably a ‘single’ person (ihidaya) dedicated to the service of God.8

Ephrem refers to himself as a ‘herdsman'(‘alana), a member of the shepherd-bishop’s pastoral staff. At the end of his Hymns Against the Heresies Ephrem wrote of himself, saying:

O Lord, may the works of your herdsman (‘alana)
not be negated.
I will not then have troubled your sheep,
but as far as I was able,
I will have kept the wolves away from them,
and I will have built, as far as I was capable,
Enclosures of madrashe
for the lambs of your flock.

I will have made a disciple
of the simple and unlearned man,
And I will have given him a strong hold
on the herdsmen’s (‘alone) staff,
the healers’ medicine,
and the disputants’ armor.9

This is all that Ephrem is telling us about his role and position in the Church. It is probable that he was a deacon but there is no early Syriac text that identifies him as such. The word (‘alana) translated as ‘herdsman’ is very difficult to define precisely. Most often it is interpreted in relation to the Greek tradition simply as a term meaning deacon. But the normal Syriac word for deacon is mshamshono. As Dr. Matthews has noted, the term (‘alana) ‘is often used to denote a disciple in relation to his master, most significantly, after the pattern of that of Elisha to Elijah. Though in this instance, the term expresses Ephrem’s relationship to God, it is this very same relationship of Ephrem to his bishops’.10 What inspired the Syriac writers to celebrate Ephrem as a teacher par excellence was the fame of his teaching and that of the holiness of his life. The same also led the hagiographers in the Greek-speaking world, and those under their influence, to fashion the image of Ephrem Byzantinus.11


In the iconographic tradition the way St. Ephrem is portrayed is not all that different from the literary or verbal icon of the saint himself. In iconography, as in the case of hagiography, one may classify the icons into two different types. The first type of icons is largely based on his Vita that developed in Greco-Syrian monastic circles. The other type is that which depicts St. Ephrem closer to the image that emerges from his authentic writings and other texts in Syriac. Especially some modern Syriac icons attempt to portray him in this way. The former may correspond to what Dr. Griffith has termed the ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’, and the latter to what he named the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’ in his writing about the images of Ephrem. For the sake of convenience, one may classify the extant iconographic images of St. Ephrem as follows:

  • Icons that fall under the type ‘Ephrem Byzantinus’:
    • St. Ephrem in monastic habit. (The modern icon that covers Kathleen McVey’s book, Ephrem the Syrian Hymns, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series).
    • ‘Dormition of Ephrem Syrus’ in which St. Ephrem’s body is lying on a funeral slab and surrounded by mourners. (See John R. Martin, ‘The Death of Ephraim in Byzantine and Early Italian Painting,’ The Art Bulletin 33 (1951), pp. 217-225).
    • St. Ephrem featured with a scroll and vine. (Based on the Vita, 14, 15).
  • Icons that may fall under the type of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’:
    • St. Ephrem as a deacon. (He is depicted in liturgical vestments holding a thurifer in his hand. An original type of this icon today adorns the wall of St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Diyarbekõr, Turkey).
    • St. Ephrem with St. Basil. This is the earliest surviving icon portraying St. Ephrem in a rather appropriate way. (Illustrated in K. A. Manafis (ed.), Sinai: Treasures of the Monastery of St. Catherine (Athens, 1990), p. 145).
    • St. Ephrem the ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’. (The modern icon of St. Ephrem that came out recently from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria).

Liturgical Material

In the area of liturgical tradition for the feast of St. Ephrem, Dr. Brock has published a very good article.12 His study, for reasons of practicality, is confined to the printed editions of the Hudra and Panqitho (hymnodies or liturgical books for the yearly cycle of prayers for Sundays and feastdays in the Syriac Church). Hudra is used in the East Syrian and Panqitho in the West Syrian Churches. Here, I shall closely follow Brock’s observations and incorporate a great deal from him.

St. Ephrem is commemorated both in Eastern and Western Syrian tradition. In the Church of the East his commemoration feast, along with other Syriac teachers falls on Friday of the fifth week after Epiphany. The printed Hudra offers little that is very specific: Ephrem (along with Narsai) is celebrated as a teacher who ‘interpreted and illuminated the Scripture’, and who ‘quenched and rendered ineffective the sects of the erroneous heretics’. Ephrem is compared to a ‘skilled doctor who blended the insights of the Scriptures for the healing of the sick world’s ill’. Furthermore, we read in the Hudra that Ephrem ‘became a fountain and caused life to flow for the whole world.’

In the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the feast of St. Ephrem (together with St. Theodore) is commemorated on Saturday of the first week of Great Lent. One of the striking features of the liturgical texts commemorating the saint is the considerable use made of memro (metrical homily) on Ephrem by Jacob of Serugh.13 This is either direct quotation from the memra or in a rephrased prose form. The direct quotations comprise couplets 21-29 and 148-162 of Amar’s recent edition of the memra. These include a couplet (152) which specifically refers to Ephrem’s role in instructing the women. The couplet reads: ‘This man introduced women to doctrinal disputes; with (their) soft tones he was victorious in the battle against all heresies.’ Further material that is derived from the memro is found primarily in Sedro (a long discourse that usually follows a Premion in the book ofHusoyo, the Syriac liturgical book of propitiatory prayers) which features in the commemoration feast for 28 January (Syrian Catholic only) and on Saturday of the first week of Lent in the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Naturally, the influence of the sixth century Vita is also reflected in several passages, such as ‘God caused Ephrem to pass from paganism and brought him to true faith.’ Also, the anecdote concerning the scroll and vine (Vita 14-15) feature here. The scroll is an indirect comparison of Ephrem’s divine inspiration with Ezekiel’s consuming of a scroll (Ezekiel 3: 1-3). There are also references to Ephrem’s ascetic life on the mountains of Edessa (based on 13 of the Vita) which talk of ‘the fragrance of (Ephrem’s) life of mourning’ (riho d-‘abiluta). There is also a madrosho (doctrinal poem in stanzaic form) on Ephrem that says he was sent to Edessa to combat the heresies of Mani, Marcion and Armianos, son of Bar Daisan. Also from the Vita are a few references to the meeting with St. Basil. There are also many other references from the Vita that feature in the liturgical texts of the feast. Finally, the Mosul edition of the Panqitho contains one of the supposedly autobiographical texts ascribed to St. Ephrem, a Sogitho (dialogue poem) beginning with ‘How often have I hungered…’ This Sogitho is also to be found in the current hymnal book of the Syrian Orthodox Church titled: Zmirotho d-Ito,Songs of the Church, and is chanted at the Divine Liturgy commemorating the feast of the saint that falls on Saturday during the first week of Lent.

The West Syriac liturgical tradition for the commemoration feast of St. Ephrem as we have seen above, draws on a variety of sources, primarily on Jacob of Serugh’s memro on St. Ephrem and the Vita. As Dr. Brock has concluded, ‘The result, not surprisingly, is that no consistent portrait is offered of the saint who is being commemorated.’14

Regarding the transformations that have taken place in the Syriac tradition with the portrait of St. Ephrem, Dr. Brock offers a good explanation. He says: ‘Perhaps all that the fifth -and sixth- century biographers wanted to do was to present the saint in modern guise, to make him relevant to their own context.’15 Dr. Griffith, further illustrating this point, states: ‘It was not that the Syriac-speaking monks in the Greco-Syrian communities of east Byzantium were deliberately trying to conceal St. Ephraem’s true identity behind an Evagrian mask. Rather, their intention was doubtless to praise the virtues of their most famous holy man, in the newly popular Byzantine idiom of asceticism in which the citizens of fifth and sixth-century Edessa were desperate to claim a place of pride for themselves and for their city. So it was that in popular piety Ephraem, the bishop’s man, became St. Ephraem, the model Byzantine monk, the deacon of Edessa.’16

Some Concluding Remarks

By way of a conclusion, I would like to say that St. Ephrem’s memre and madrashe, the homilies and hymns, became central to both East and West Syrian liturgical tradition, and his works have played a decisive role and influenced all aspects of Syrian ecclesiastical life. His fame as a hymnodist and ascetic spread to all branches of the Church. And today, thanks above all to the late Dom Edmund Beck’s editions of St. Ephrem’s genuine works, and the work of other prominent scholars in the field, there is a universal appeal to St. Ephrem. He has become a spiritual Father for the whole Church.


Amar, Joseph P., The Syriac Vita Tradition of Ephrem the Syrian, Ph.D. Diss., The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1988.

Amar, Joseph P. (Ed.), A metrical Homily on Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob of Sarug, Turnhout, 1995 (Patrologia Orientalis 47, fasc. 1, no. 209).

Beck, Edmund, Des Heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses, Louvain, 1957 (CSCO, vol. 169-170; Script. Syr. 76-77).


1 This is a paper for a class of Hagiology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, NY, 1999.

2 Robert Murray, ‘Ephrem Syrus’, Catholic Dictionary of Theology, vol. II, London, 1967, pp. 220-223.

3 Sidney Griffith, ‘Images of Ephraem: the Syrian Holy Man and his Church’, Traditio, (1989-1990), p. 7.

4 Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church: the Universal Appeal of St. Ephraem the Syrian’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 1 (1998) no. 2, §5

5 Idem, §6. See also Joseph P. Amar, The Syriac Vita tradition of Ephrem the Syrian (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1988).

6 Ibid. §7.

7 Edward G. Matthews, Jr., ‘The Vita Tradition of Ephrem the Syrian, the Deacon of Edessa’, Diakonia 22, (1988-1989), p. 26.

8 On the significance of this title see Sidney Griffith, ‘Asceticism in the Church of Syria: the Hermeneutics of Early Syrian Monasticism’, Vincent L. Wimbush & Richard Valantasis (eds.), Asceticism, New York, 1995, pp. 220-245.

9 Edmund Beck, Ephrem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses, Louvain, 1957 (CSCO, vol. 169-170; Scr. Syr. 76-77), vol. 169, 56: 10 & 11, pp. 211-212. Quoted by Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church…’, §8.

10 Edward G. Matthews, Jr., ‘The Vita Tradition of Ephrem…’, p. 28.

11 Cf. Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church….’, §9.

12 Sebastian Brock, ‘St. Ephrem in the Eyes of Later Syriac Liturgical Tradition’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 2, (1999), no. 1.

13 See Joseph P. Amar, A Metrical Homily on Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob of Sarug, Patrologia Orientalis 47, fasc. 1, no. 209, Turnhout, 1995. [Critical edition of the Syriac text with translation and introduction].

14 Sebastian Brock, ‘St. Ephrem in the Eyes of the Later Syriac Liturgical Tradition’, § 23.

15 Idem, § 24.

16 Sidney Griffith, ‘Images of Ephraem…’, pp. 32-33.

Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 7 issue 2 (winter 1999-2000)

Mind the gap! or, A Church Father with a sense of fun

by Andrew Palmer

St Ephraem the Syrian, according to a Greek text attributed to him, believed that ‘seriousness mixed with laughter destroys souls easily’. Like much of the ‘Greek Ephraem’, this utterance resembles those of the genuine Ephraem as much as Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh resembles A. A. Milne’s. Perhaps the kind of laughter the Greek originator of this saying had in mind was cynical or insensitive. But I rather suspect that Byzantine monks suffered from acute sense-of-humour failure as well.

The real Ephraem was full of fun. It goes rather against the grain to call him a Father at all; perhaps we should call him a Church Child? (After all, he remained a deacon until his death.) Much of his best teaching is presented in the form of a game. For travellers on the London Underground, the words ‘Mind the gap!’ have a rather banal meaning: ‘Try not to fall between the train and the platform!’ But ‘Mind the gap!’ would be a good name for the game Ephraem plays with his reader in the Hymns on Faith. Or should I say ‘the game Ephraem would have liked to play with his reader’ – before certain people with more vanity than sense spoiled the game for other readers by filling in the gaps with verses of their own composition.

When the manuscript was copied out again, these extra verses were put in amongst the original verses by a tidy-minded scribe who thought they looked better that way. The technical term for this process is ‘interpolation’. We need Interpol – the Inter-age Police Force – to detect what has been added. The ink will not show up as of a different colour, because we only have copies of the interpolated copy. Even in the interpolated copy the original and the secondary verses were written out with a single pen. We’d need to rediscover the original manuscript with the gaps in which the secondary verses were composed to prove it by forensic science.

Fortunately it is not too difficult, once you realise what has happened, to restore the poems as they were. For example, Hymn 68 in the Hymns on Faith must originally have had 22 verses. There are 22 letters in the Syriac alphabet and Hymn 68 has one verse for each letter, except that it has two verses for the last letter. One of these two – probably the second – is an intruder.

Hymns 66 and 67 lead up to the complete alphabet ‘acrostic’ in Hymn 68 by covering the alphabet between them: thirteen verses in Hymn 66, for the first thirteen letters in the alphabet, and nine verses in Hymn 67, for the remaining nine. But interpolations have inflated these two poems as well. And the same is true of Hymns 4 and 5, of which Hymns 66 and 67 are a kind of mirror. Hymn 4 has verses for each of the first nine letters in the alphabet, but, between the fourth and fifth, nine extra verses have been inserted. Hymn 5 covered the remaining 13 letters of the alphabet, so the extra verses on the tenth, twelfth, sixteenth and twenty-second letters should be removed.

The original pattern must have been as follows:
Hymn 4: 9 verses on letters 1-9
Hymn 5: 13 verses in letters 10-22
Hymn 66: 13 verses on letters 1-13
Hymn 67: 9 verses on letters 14-22
Hymn 68: 22 verses on letters 1-22

All in all, forty-four extra verses have been interpolated in these five hymns alone.

The Hymns on Faith contain several other acrostics on the alphabet – for example, Hymns 6, 11, 26 and 32 – and most of these have been interpolated as well (all except Hymn 11, in fact). It looks as though there was something about such poems which encouraged people to add to them. Either the game of composing a verse on a given letter was like a contagious disease and the extra verses are copy-cat performances; or else the attraction is that you can ear-mark your new composition with an initial letter which shows where it fits into Ephraem’s composition, like a gloss in a footnote which later gets included in the text.

But why is it that Hymn 68, which had twenty-two verses, has an extra verse, while Hymn 11, which is also an acrostic of the whole alphabet, has no extra verses inserted in it? And why is it that Hymn 68 has only one extra verse, whereas Hymn 66 (which covers thirteen letters) has eleven extra verses and Hymn 67 (which covers nine) has sixteen extra verses?

The answer to the second question might be that each of these hymns was written on a page of its own, which had room for twenty-four verses, give or take a single verse. Hymn 66 originally used up the space of thirteen verses, leaving room for eleven extra verses; Hymn 67 left room for fifteen extra verses and an extra one was squeezed in; and Hymn 68 left room for two extra verses, although only one was composed.

The answer to the first question might be that the two hymns are in different metres. Hymn 11 may have completely filled the page it was on, leaving no room for extra verses to be composed.

The obvious way to test these answers is by trying to imagine how the pages of the original manuscript were laid out; then seeing if the lay-out can account for all the interpolations.

Syriac manuscripts from the fifth and sixth centuries are the earliest material evidence we have to go on. There seem to be three possible lay-outs: one block of text; two columns of text; and three columns of text. The likelihood is that the original manuscript set out the poetry line by line; so the length of the lines would indicate the width of the text and would tell us how many columns it is likely that there were to the page.

In Hymns 66-68 the line-length is four syllables (each verse consists of five four-syllable lines). This means the width of the text was small; so there would have been room for three columns to a page.

Let’s look at some three-column Syriac manuscripts, like the British Library Additional MS 12,176 and the Vatican Apostolic Library Syriac MS 111 (both of which are datable around AD 500). Both these manuscripts have forty to forty-six lines to the column, with a tendency to stop at forty or forty-two. Was this the original lay-out of Hymns 66-68 in the Hymns on Faith?

If it was, then the five-line verses mean that there could have been eight or nine verses in each column, making twenty-four to twenty-seven verses to a page. The tendency to stop at forty or forty-two lines to a column would mean that eight verses to a column is the more likely format, but there would have been room to add an extra verse of five lines in the wide lower margin.

This exactly accounts for the number of interpolated verses in Hymns 66-68. Hymn 66 filled the first column and more than half of the second column (8 + 5 verses), leaving room for eleven extra verses in the empty spaces (3 + 8) and so filling up three columns of forty lines each. Hymn 67, with the extra verses, filled two columns of forty lines and one column of forty-five lines (8 + 8 + 9 verses). Hymn 68 originally came two verses short of filling all three columns and so left room for two extra verses (8 + 8 + 7 verses in all). The proposed reconstruction can be studied in Figure 1. The fact that the space was not fully used up does not weaken the explanation, any more than does the fact that a verse was added in the lower margin in Hymn 67.

Fig. 1

Figure 1 (right to left, as in Syriac; O = original verse; X = verse of secondary composition)

Can the same line of reasoning explain the lack of interpolations in Hymn 11 (the only alphabet acrostic without extra verses)?

Hymn 11 is composed in a different metre: each verse is three lines long; the first and the second lines are each eleven syllables long; the third is seventeen syllables long (4 + 4 + 4 + 5). To save space on the pages which contained the sixteen hymns in this metre the original lay-out probably made four lines in each verse by putting the last five syllables on a line of their own. That would mean the column of writing was eleven or twelve syllables across. Two columns of this width could have been fitted on the same page which contained three columns of four or five syllables (the metre of Hymns 49-65 consists of a series of five-syllable lines), since less space was needed between the columns. That means that Hymn 11 could just have been fitted on one page, with eleven verses in each of two columns, each column having forty-four lines. That leaves very little room in the bottom margin for extra compositions.

Does the explanation work for Hymns 4-6, which are in another metre again? The metre of Hymns 4-6 has eleven six-syllable units, normally grouped in sense-units of twelve syllables, except that the last three six-syllable units usually form a sense-unit on their own. In fact, the ninth of the eleven six-syllable units is usually a self-contained sense-unit within this final group. That suggests that the verses had six lines, the fifth line being six syllables long, the others twice six. We detect a series of sixes already, and others will emerge. There are six hymns in this metre; one of these is Hymn 6; and in Hymn 6, the number six is explicitly highlighted. To fit in with all this one might wish there to be six verses of six lines each in each column, giving thirty-six lines. However, seven verses of six lines could easily be fitted in.

Suppose that the nine verses in the original Hymn 4 were distributed over two columns of twelve-syllable width. That would have left room for a further three to five verses on that page. What we have is nine extra verses. The theory seems to have broken down. Or has it?

Remember that Hymns 4 and 5 between them cover the whole alphabet? Suppose that they were set out on facing pages, with seven verses to the column! That would leave room for six extra verses. But still it is not enough; nor does it even begin to account for the interpolations in Hymn 5. However, don’t let’s give up yet!

Suppose we go at it another way: leave room after Hymn 4 for the nine extra verses! We go back to the harmonious idea that there were six verses to a column and we find that the original nine verses fill one and a half columns, leaving exactly one and a half columns for the nine extra verses. Hymn 5 can begin at the top of the fourth column; and verse seven of Hymn 5 will then begin in the first column over the page, verse thirteen being isolated at the top of the column next to it. Hymn 5 has seven extra verses. Five of these may have been composed under verse thirteen: I suggest, the ones which are initialled with the tenth, the seventeenth, and the twenty-second letters (verses 2, 11 and 18-20), because these letters would have headed the three columns over which Hymn 5 is distributed. The remaining two (verses 5 and 6 in Beck’s edition) relate closely to the subject-matter of Hymn 6. I suggest they were composed under that hymn and transported back to Hymn 5 by a later interpolator, who ordered the extra stanzas according to the alphabetical series in the Hymns, without considering their content. These two verses begin with Låmadh, the twelfth letter, but there is no initial Låmadh in Hymn 6, which covers letters 1 to 10. Hymn 5 covers letters 10-22 and so contains a verse on Låmadh, to which the two extra verses could be appended.

Hymn 6, having 10 verses, filled one whole column and part of another, leaving room for two extra verses exactly. That would have meant that these two verses were on the same opening as the latter part of Hymn 5, which might have encouraged the interpolator to insert them in that hymn. Why the author of those verses chose the initial Låmadh I don’t know, but I suppose it has to do with the number six again, whether because Låmadh is the twelfth letter (2 x 12 = 24, which is also the product of the numbers of original verses in the two columns, 6 and 4), or because Låmadh stands for the number 30, so that two Låmadhs make sixty.

Six of the seven extra verses in Hymn 6 (four on the second letter, one on the ninth, and two on the tenth) would have filled a column left blank over the page, and the seventh might have been composed under the last verse in the next column, making that column up to six verses (Hymn 7 originally had only five verses: the ones initialled with the five letters of the poet’s name, AFREM). It is probable that Hymn 7 began below the top of the column and that the seven extra verses inserted in Hymn 6 were not divided into six and one by Hymn 7.

The six verses added on to Hymn 7 in the manuscripts must have been composed in a column left blank by the poet after Hymn 7. Hymn 8 could then have begun at the top of the last column and continued over the page. Hymns 8 and 9 have no interpolations so they may have filled three columns of six verses each with two columns of seven between them. The total number of columns filled by these six hymns would then have been sixteen (which contains the perfect number six, and ten, the number marked by the initial of Jesus, Yudh), or four page-openings, allowing Hymns 10 and 11, in a new metre, to be written out facing each other on a new page-opening (both Hymn 10 and Hymn 11 have exactly 22 verses).

In favour of this reconstruction we can add that it accounts for various things. For example, the first interpolated verse in Hymn 4 begins with the fourth letter of the alphabet and, according to this reconstruction, it was composed in the left-hand column immediately opposite the original verse on the fourth letter. Again, in Hymn 5, the interpolated verses feature, as we have seen, the letters which, according to the reconstruction, headed the three columns.

Finally, putting Hymns 8 and 9 into columns of six, seven, six, seven and six verses would bring verses 14-16 of Hymn 8 to the top of a column on one side of the binding exactly opposite verses 4-6 of Hymn 9 on the other side of the binding, so that verses 7-10 of Hymn 9 would have continued below and to one side of verses 14-16 of Hymn 8. The reason why this seems right is that Hymn 8, verses 14-16 all begin with the name Daniel, which begins with the letter which stands for 4 (as in verse 14 and verse 4); whereas verses 7-10 of Hymn 9 all begin with the name Zechariah (except that verse 10 does not have that name as its first word), which begins with the seventh letter. The total of acrostic verses in these two hymns is therefore 6 or 7 (depending on whether you count verse 10 of Hymn 9); and that very uncertainty seems to reflect the fluctuating column-lengths, now six, now seven verses to a column. I shall suggest at the end a reason why Ephraem might have chosen to give this highly contrived impression of being ‘at sixes and sevens’.

What is neat about the reconstruction is that it accounts for the exact number of extra verses in Hymns 4-7: 29. The original verses in Hymns 4-7 total 37. 37 + 29 = 66. There are six lines in each verse. 66 x 6 = 396. There are 36 lines in each column (discounting titles and refrains), making it possible to have columns containing exactly six verses with a total of 36 lines. 396 divided by 36 is 11. So Hymns 4-7, together with the extra verses we find in them, would have filled exactly 11 columns. Besides, the numbers 66 and 396 fit in nicely with the pattern of sixes we have already discovered. It is no accident that, in the original manuscript, these totals could only be reached by adding to those written those unwritten, by using, that is, to echo the last words of Hymn 1, both speech and silence. Hymn 1, verse 19 is a programmatic statement prefacing the whole book:

Let me use, in this dispute, both of these judiciously:
let me argue modestly; keep me still, not merely mute!
Where it helps, allow me speech; where that hinders, silence teach!

We have a debt of gratitude towards the people who vainly composed their own verses in the gaps in Ephraem’s manuscript. They showed little respect, it’s true, for Ephraem’s intentions. Yet their additions preserved the length of those gaps and made it difficult for later scribes to compress the text and get rid of the gaps altogether. Unintentionally, they enabled us to rediscover the very intentions they had disrespected. In a longer, but in some ways already superseded, article: ‘Words, Silences, and the Silent Word: Acrostics and Empty Columns in Saint Ephraem’s Hymns on Faith’ (forthcoming in Parole de l’Orient) I reconstruct the whole manuscript; for present purposes, half of the first quire of twelve folios, or six rectangles of cured, shaved and polished animal-skin piled up on top of one another and folded in half for binding. With this diagram before us, we can start playing ‘Mind the gap!’ (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2

Figure 2 (right to left, as in Syriac; O = original verse; X = verse of secondary composition; A, B, G, D, h, W, Z, H, T, Y, K, L, M, N, s, E, F, S, Q, R, J, t = the Syriac alphabet; KB means K comes first in Beck’s edition, B is what I conjecture in this position; I ignore the jumble of initials in 8 and 9 in order to bring out what I think is the only pattern in them; [Z] indicates that the name Zechariah is repeated in the first line, but not at the head of it, whereas Zechariah comes at the head of the three preceding verses; < indicates the beginning of Hymn 9)

The game begins with the obvious question: Why did Ephraem leave such a lot of empty parchment? Parchment, after all, was expensive. If you have seen the film The Pillow Book, by Peter Greenaway, you will already know that it is about a Japanese calligrapher who painted books on men’s shaved skin and sent them to her homosexual male publisher, where the ‘walking books’ stripped naked and allowed their texts to be copied by demure female secretaries in kimonos. One of the ‘walking books’ gets kicked out of doors as worthless by the publisher, who cannot discover any words on his skin, not even behind his ears or on his eyelids (as had been the case with the previous ‘walking book’, the ‘Book of Secrets’). It turned out that the wordless book had his title written on his tongue and closed up in his mouth. The title was: ‘The Book of Silence’. Ephraem’s game has no such single-layered solution, but leads from depth to depth, leaving Peter Greenaway, for all his cleverness, looking like a man who, after all, has nothing very profound to say, and who pays lip-service to oriental wisdom and to many-layered communication, without really understanding what it is that he is praising.

Hymn 4 has nine verses: it stops short of the tenth letter. The tenth letter is Yudh, the initial of yaldå, which means either ‘birth’ or ‘child’. This is a key-word in the first verse and a key-concept in the Hymns on Faith as a whole. In verse 1 of Hymn 4 Ephraem writes of the yaldå (the mysterious genesis of the eternal word from God the Father) that ‘the search for him is enclosed in silence’. In the gap after Hymn 4 the reader searches for the letter Yudh in vain; just as, in the life of faith, he searches in vain for words to describe the genesis of the Silent Word which is the ‘Brainchild’ of God; then begins, instead, to search for the Child Himself in silent prayer.

The hymn begins by evoking the scene witnessed in heaven by the prophet Daniel (7,9-10):

A thousand thousands stand; a myriad myriads prompt.
Those thousands and myriads cannot penetrate one.
All of them are silent, where they stand in service.
He does not share his throne, except with his own son.
In silence is he sought.
Were the wakeful to intrude, that silence would check them.

From this translation, done into the original metre, it can be seen that the distinctive short line, which is followed by a blank half-line, and probably by a silence in the musical rendering (now lost), is exactly the phrase ‘The search for him is enclosed in silence’ (compressed, because of the metre, into six syllables: ‘In silence is he sought.’).

The nine verses of Hymn 4 stand for the nine divisions of the angels, ordered, in three ascending ranks, below the throne of God, as Ephraem’s contemporary, Athanasius, imagines them (see Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon, s.v. angelos) and as, towards the year 500, an anonymous Syrian would describe them in the Celestial Hierarchies attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. The hymn ends with a verse on the seraphim and a verse on the cherubim. The latter are just below the throne (or the chariot: it has wheels of blazing fire, according to Daniel), which they carry (Ezekiel, chapter 10). The blank parchment after the verse on the cherubim can therefore be seen as a representation of the fiery throne itself and of the river of fire which flowed out of it. The verses ‘lead up to’ the blank space, just as the ranks lead up to the throne. The fact that the throne is invisible, whereas the verses representing the angels are visible, can be read as meaning: ‘If the angels themselves, who are made of created spirit and fire, cannot be seen or described by human beings, how much less can the One who sits on the throne, who is as far beyond the comprehension of angels as the angels are beyond that of men!’ Similar arguments are used explicitly by Ephraem in the Hymns on Faith. For example, Hymn 33, verse 7:

Even evil spirits
cannot be portrayed.
If you represent
holy spirit with thoughts,
putrid spirits will put
all your words to shame.

Hymn 11, verses 7 and 8, give expression to the idea that the gap between beasts and humans corresponds to that between humans and angels and that there is a yet greater gap between the angels and the Holy Trinity (the Father and the Son and the Love they share, which is a name for the Holy Spirit):

Little Man can never hear all languages.
Even an ear attuned to that of watchful stars
could not hear the silence in which sire and son
communicate on high.

Foreign is the tongue of men to that of beasts;
foreign that of watchful stars to both of these;
foreign to the watchers is the hush in which
the father shares his love.

‘Watchers’ is the name given to the angels by the Prophet Daniel (4:13). Robert Murray, in The Cosmic Covenant (London, 1992), has documented an ancient Hebrew myth about the stars, which makes them in some way identical with the angels. I am convinced that Ephraem meant his readers to think of the stars when he used the name ‘watchers’ for the angels. For example, the passage just quoted follows immediately on a reference to the firmament and to the days which follow one another. The mind associates this easily with the contrasting image of the star-studded firmament at night. The stars keep watch while humans sleep. They might well be made of spirit and fire, the stuff of angels. They are said to shout praise to the Creator in the inaudible ‘Music of the Spheres’; and yet they maintain a deep silence in the midst of heaven, apparently empty of all but the myriad stars, yet full of the unseen presence of the lord around whom they revolve.

In Hymn 10, verse 4, the Syriac has: ‘Watchers, behold, are astounded at your intermediate wealth,’ that is, at the knowledge manifested to them, which is intermediate between God’s own knowledge and that of human beings. Thinking of the stars between heaven and earth and of the shooting stars which seem like angels racing to earth with messages for the human race, I translate this whole verse as follows:

Only he that bore you knows your crowning lay.
Meteoric eyes are widened at your spread.
Readings filter down to earth and surfeit us
with insights, like a flood.

As we hurtle through the space left by Ephraem between Hymns 4 and 5, we may well contemplate the child in the image of the sun, offered to us in Hymn 4, verse 4 (the metre, usually 12 + 12 + 12 in the first three lines, here gets thrown off balance and ‘dashed to pieces’ and becomes 6 + 12 + 12 + 6):

Does the mind not stagger? Its eye was braced to gaze
full on your effulgence. Then your small flame came out
and dashed it to pieces! Who can look at the son?
His rays are to be feared, so dense in every part!
He’s that sun long foretold.
There’s healing in his hem, but pain in seeking him.

The sun reappears many times. Already in Hymn 5, verse 5, it has become an image not only of the child, but also of the mystery of his birth:

Nature gives us a kiln to test the word for truth.
The sun is all naked before the all-naked eye,
yet she is unable to penetrate his depths.
Nothing hides him from her, yet she cannot see him.
How much less can we gaze
directly at the sun of your bare begetting!

In Hymn 6, verse 2, it becomes a model by which to understand that, while God himself is unreachable, his child reaches down to earth, and in that ‘beam’ the intensity of the ‘sun’ is so softened that our eyes can bear it – just:

Blazing on high, the sun defeats all our gazing.
All pales beside its fact; all yields to its impact.
Its beam is stretched out long; it comes down to the eye.
But for the veiled one’s child, there’s none that has seen him.
Too intense for his slaves,
through his child that unseen presence appeared to men.

Much later, in Hymn 40, and again in Hymns 73-75, the sun becomes an icon of the Holy Trinity, with the heat being added to the fire and the light as the third partner. In Hymn 57 an analogy is drawn between the human memory and the Word of God (Syriac mellthå = Greek logos), and the sun is used as a simile for both:

The model discerned
in the dim mirror
of the human mind
teaches through wonder
of God’s own mellthå.
Our word has never
its own dull nature;
our silence worships
his word’s bright silence
The mind amazes.

It is in the rarefied brightness of the unstained parchment that we catch a reminder of the sun, which represents the impenetrable knowledge of God. With the first two lines of Hymn 5, we re-enter the thick ‘atmosphere’ of Ephraem’s articulated poetry (as opposed to his unarticulated poems: the gaps), descending from the silent contemplation of divine knowledge to a comparison between angelic knowledge and human knowledge:

In moderation the knowledge of watchers probes.
Inordinately the knowledge of humans roams.

Further on, in verses 7-9 (verses 10, 12 and 13 in Beck’s edition), the poet seems to come close to stating that he is using the empty space between his poems as a kind of unpainted canvas, to stimulate our imagination:

Again, this air we share is fused with everything.
Our breath depends on it, though the bond is painless.
It passes in and out, stays with us as absent.
The hand which falls on air feels nothing underneath.
Air escapes, yet stays put.
It’s there, yet it’s not there, trapped, but uncatchable.
Paint, then, with these pigments — comparisons with air —
an icon of thereness and unpaintableness!
He’s near and far away, in us, yet not in us.
Creation is in him, he in it, as absent.
There is nothing so big
that he might hide in it; and yet he hides himself.
Chary of going too far, we’ve sketched, for our life’s sake,
impalpable thereness. Now: straight home, to silence!
Blind man, don’t try to see white heat by fingers’ touch!
That will not make all clear; coals are hot: they will sear.
Hidden thereness harms seers,
unless they do homage and so grow in spirit.

The first part of this might have been useful to the mother whose four-year-old son, Callum, questioned her about God:

Callum: Is God everywhere?
Mother: Yes, dear.
Callum: Is he in this room?
Mother: Yes, he is.
Callum: Is he in my mug?
Mother: [growing uneasy] Er – yes.
Callum: [clapping his hand over the mug] Got him!

(quoted from Margaret Donaldson, Human minds: an exploration, Penguin 1993, p. 80)

The transition from Hymn 5 to Hymn 6 was also effected by a blank space. The poet seems to have used this to represent the absence of reasons for the birth of the Son, who was begotten out of sheer love. Look at Hymn 6, verse 1:

Amazing as it seems, some people miss the truth,
that great mountain even short-sighted folk can see.
No one can fail to feel in ‘father’ the name ‘son’.
Not of need was he got: his begetter has none.
No reasons caused that birth.
Out of sheer love, the sire begat a blazing child!

Hymn 6 ends in the following verse (verse 17 in Beck’s edition):

Jesus, O blazing name, O unseen bridge, which leads
over from death to life! Reaching you, I stand still
at your letter, the tenth. Be a bridge for my word
to cross to your truth by! Throw your love to your slave!
Let me cross on your self
to your fearsome father, softened through his own child!

There follows another empty column before Hymn 7. This empty column represents both the beam which connects the sun with the earth and the bridge which enables the poet personally to cross over from earth to heaven. This same bridge enables his human language to come some way towards giving expression to the truth. Hymn 7 represents the poet, being an acrostic composed on the five letters of his name.

The poet is a creator. As such, he realises at least a part of what it means to say that human beings were created in the image of God; for God is a Creator, too. Hymn 6 is very largely about his creation of Adam on the sixth day. The theme of the number six, which we have found to be so ubiquitous in the six hymns 4-9, is certainly chosen, along with the metre, to remind us of the six days of Creation. The first six poems in the book might represent the first six ‘days’ of Ephraem’s poetic creation; except that he only seems to ‘rest from his labours’ after completing a seventh one, Hymn 7. I should like to see the empty column after this acrostic on the name AFREM as a space in which the human creator is ‘resting from his labours’. But how can the first seven hymns in the book be counted as six?

Actually there are several ways: either Hymns 2 and 3 are taken together (they share the same metre and Hymn 3 continues the list of beatitudes in Hymn 2 like a sequel); or Hymns 4 and 5 are taken together (between them they cover the whole alphabet); or Hymns 6 and 7 are taken together (they are linked by an ‘unseen bridge’).

This is the meaning I wanted to suggest for the fluctuation between six and seven in the lay-out of Hymns 8 and 9. By alternating columns of six or seven verses in those hymns, Ephraem may have intended to suggest that the first seven hymns could also be counted, for symbolic purposes, as six.

After Hymn 8 there are no more gaps in the first quire. That is where my analysis, for the purposes of this article, must draw to a close.

Ephraem left gaps in his Hymns on Faith between each of the hymns 4 to 7 and that which followed it. These gaps can be measured, thanks to the extraneous material which gathered in them and which was subsequently incorporated in the hymns. It is a service to Ephraem and his readers to remove this extraneous material. It is also very revealing to restore the book in what must have been its original lay-out. Even the metres of the poems can be seen to be important for deciphering the poet’s more abstruse points. That he had some deep purpose in leaving whole columns blank would seem evident from the fact that parchment was expensive. There seems to be no need to document this for every region and period; to cite one authority only, it has been sufficiently documented by Rosamond McKitterick in The Carolingians and the Written Word. If, in interpreting this purpose, we are guided by what he actually says, not least in the poems to either side of the gaps, our interpretation will be a valid one. This method does, in fact, produce very satisfactory results. The gaps say much more than that speech, in theology, must be balanced by silence; or that ‘roaming’ follows ‘being still’ (to quote Hymn 32, verse 5 = verse 6 in Beck’s edition) in the poet’s rhythm of creativity and meditation, as day follows night in the Genesis Creation-narrative: the ‘gaps’ we have been ‘minding’ are the invisible colours with which Ephraem paints ‘an icon of thereness and unpaintableness’.

Denk om het gat: een kerkvader met gevoel voor humor

Ephraïm de Syriër heeft zijn Hymnen van het Geloof in acrosticha geschreven. Sommige hymnen echter doorbreken die acrosticha. Heeft de auteur ze zo bedoeld, of is er later aan gesleuteld? Op ingenieuze wijze wordt aangetoond dat Ephraïm met zijn publiek speelt door functionele gaten in zijn hymnen open te laten, de acrosticha respecterend. Het patroon van de oorspronkelijke lay-out van de hymnen wordt duidelijk.