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).
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 http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/vol1No2/HV1N2Griffith.html.
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)