Catholic Encyclopedia – Saint Ephraem

[Saint Ephrem of Syria]Article

(Ephrem, Ephraim) Born at Nisibis, then under Roman rule, early in the fourth century; died June, 373. The name of his father is unknown, but he was a pagan and a priest of the goddess Abnil or Abizal. His mother was a native of Amid. Ephraem was instructed in the Christian mysteries by Saint James, the famous Bishop of Nisibis, and was baptized at the age of eighteen (or twenty-eight). Thenceforth he became more intimate with the holy bishop, who availed himself of the services of Ephraem to renew the moral life of the citizens of Nisibis, especially during the sieges of 338, 346, and 350. One of his biographers relates that on a certain occasion he cursed from the city walls the Persian hosts, whereupon a cloud of flies and mosquitoes settled on the army of Sapor II and compelled it to withdraw. The adventurous campaign of Julian the Apostate, which for a time menaced Persia, ended, as is well known, in disaster, and his successor, Jovianus, was only too happy to rescue from annihilation some remnant of the great army which his predecessor had led across the Euphrates. To accomplish even so much the emperor had to sign a disadvantageous treaty, by the terms of which Rome lost the Eastern provinces conquered at the end of the third century; among the cities retroceded to Persia was Nisibis (363). To escape the cruel persecution that was then raging in Persia, most of the Christian population abandoned Nisibis en masse. Ephraem went with his people, and settled first at Beit-Garbaya, then at Amid, finally at Edessa, the capital of Osrhoene, where he spent the remaining ten years of his life, a hermit remarkable for his severe asceticism. Nevertheless he took an interest in all matters that closely concerned the population of Edessa. Several ancient writers say that he was a deacon; as such he could well have been authorized to preach in public. At this time some ten heretical sects were active in Edessa; Ephraem contended vigorously with all of them, notably with the disciples of the illustrious philosopher Bardesanes. To this period belongs nearly all his literary work; apart from some poems composed at Nisibis, the rest of his writings-sermons, hymns, exegetical treatises-date from his sojourn at Edessa. It is not improbable that he is one of the chief founders of the theological “School of the Persians”, so called because its first students and original masters were Persian Christian refugees of 363. At his death Saint Ephraem was borne without pomp to the cemetery “of the foreigners”. The Armenian monks of the monastery of Saint Sergius at Edessa claim to possess his body.

The aforesaid facts represent all that is historically certain concerning the career of Ephraem. All details added later by Syrian biographers are at best of doubtful value. To this class belong not only the legendary and occasionally puerile traits so dear to Oriental writers, but also others seemingly reliable, e.g. an alleged journey to Egypt with a sojourn of eight years, during which he is said to have confuted publicly certain spokesmen of the Arian heretics. The relations of Saint Ephraem and Saint Basil are narrated by very reliable authors, e.g. Saint Gregory of Nyssa (the Pseudo?) and Sozomen, according to whom the hermit of Edessa, attracted by the great reputation of Saint Basil, resolved to visit him at Caesarea. He was warmly received and was ordained deacon by Saint Basil; four years later he refused both the priesthood and the episcopate that Saint Basil offered him through delegates sent for that purpose to Edessa. Though Ephraem seems to have been quite ignorant of Greek, this meeting with Saint Basil is not improbable; some good critics, however, hold the evidence insufficient, and therefore reject it, or at least withhold their adhesion. The life of Saint Ephraem, therefore, offers not a few obscure problems; only the general outline of his career is known to us. It is certain, however, that while he lived he was very influential among the Syrian Christians of Edessa, and that his memory was revered by all, Orthodox, Monophysites, and Nestorians. They call him the “sun of the Syrians,” the “column of the Church”, the “harp of the Holy Spirit”. More extraordinary still is the homage paid by the Greeks who rarely mention Syrian writers. Among the works of Saint Gregory of Nyssa is a sermon (though not acknowledged by some) which is a real panegyric of Saint Ephraem. Twenty years after the latter’s death Saint Jerome mentions him as follows in his catalogue of illustrious Christians: “Ephraem, deacon of the Church of Edessa, wrote many works [opuscula] in Syriac, and became so famous that his writings are publicly read in some churches after the Sacred Scriptures. I have read in Greek a volume of his on the Holy Spirit; though it was only a translation, I recognized therein the sublime genius of the man”. Theodoret of Cyrus also praised his poetic genius and theological knowledge. Sozomen pretends that Ephraem wrote 3,000,000 verses, and gives the names of some of his disciples, some of whom remained orthodox, while others fell into heresy. From the Syrian and Byzantine Churches the fame of Ephraem spread among all Christians. The Roman Martyrology mentions him on 1 February. In their menologies and synaxaria Greeks and Russians, Jacobites, Chaldeans, Copts, and Armenians honour the holy deacon of Edessa.

Works of Saint Ephraem

The works of this saint are so numerous and important that it is impossible to treat them here in detail. Let it suffice to consider briefly:

(1) the text and the principal versions and editions of his writings
(2) his exegetical writings
(3) his poetical writings

Texts and principal versions and editions

The Syriac original of Ephraem’s writings is preserved in many manuscripts, one of which dates from the fifth century. Through much transcription, however, his writings, particularly those used in the various liturgies, have suffered no little interpolation. Moreover, many of his exegetical works have perished, or at least have not yet been found in the libraries of the Orient. Numerous versions, however, console us for the loss of the originals. He was still living, or at least not long dead, when the translation of his writing into Greek was begun. Armenian writers seem to have undertaken the translation of his Biblical commentaries. The Mechitarists have edited in part those commentaries and hold the Armenian versions as very ancient (fifth century). The Monophysites, it is well known, were wont from an early date to translate or adapt many Syriac works. The writings of Ephraem were eventually translated into Arabic and Ethiopian. In medieval times some of his minor works were translated from the Greek into Slavonic and Latin. From these versions were eventually made French, German, Italian, and English adaptations of the ascetic writings of Saint Ephraem. The first printed (Latin) edition was based on a translation from the Greek done by Ambrogio Traversari (Saint Ambrose of Camaldoli), and issued from the press of Bartholomew Guldenbeek of Sultz, in 1475. A far better edition was executed by Gerhard Vossius (1589-1619), the learned provost of Tongres, at the request of Gregory XIII. In 1709 Edward Thwaites edited, from the manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, the Greek text, hitherto known only in fragments. The Syriac original was unknown in Europe until the fruitful Oriental voyage (1706-07) of the Maronites Gabriel Eva, Elias, and especially Joseph Simeon Assemani (1716-17), which resulted in the discovery of a precious collection of manuscripts in the Nitrian (Egypt) monastery of Our Lady. These manuscripts found their way at once to the Vatican Library. In the first half of the nineteenth century the British Museum was notably enriched by similar fortunate discoveries of Lord Prudhol (1828), Curzon (1832), and Tattam (1839, 1841). All recent editions of the Syriac original of Ephraem’s writings are based on these manuscripts. In the Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris) and the Bodleian (Oxford) are a few Syriac fragments of minor importance. Joseph Simeon Assemani hastened to make the best use of his newly found manuscripts and proposed at once to Clement XII a complete edition of the writings of Ephraem in the Syriac original and the Greek versions, with a new Latin version of the entire material. He took for his own share the edition of the Greek text. The Syriac text was entrusted to the Jesuit Peter Mobarak (Benedictus), a native Maronite. After the death of Mobarak, his labours were continued by Stephanus Evodius Assemani. Finally this monumental edition of the works of Ephraem appeared at Rome (1732-46) in six folio volumes. It was completed by the labours of Overbeck and Bickell, while other savants edited newly found fragments. A splendid edition of the hymns and sermons of Saint Ephraem is owing to the late Monsignor T. J. Lamy. However, a complete edition of the vast works of the great Syriac doctor is yet to be executed.

Exegetical writings

Ephraem wrote commentaries on the entire Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testament, but much of his work has been lost. There is extant in Syriac his commentary on Genesis and on a large portion of Exodus; for the other books of the Old Testament we have A Syriac abridgment, handed down in a catena of the ninth century by the Syriac monk Severus (851-61). The commentaries on Ruth, Esdras, Nehemias, Esther, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Canticle of Canticles, and Ecclesiasticus are lost. Of his commentaries on the New Testament there has survived only an Armenian version. The Scriptural canon of Ephraem resembles our own very closely. It seems doubtful that he accepted the deuterocanonical writings; at least no commentary of his on these books has reached us. On the other hand he accepted as canonical the apocryphal Third Epistle to the Corinthians, and wrote a commentary on it. The Scriptural text used by Ephraem is the Syriac Peshito, slightly differing, however, from the printed text of that very ancient version. The New Testament was known to him, as to all Syrians, both Eastern and Western, before the time of Rabulas, in the harmonized “Diatessaron” of Tatian; it is also this text which serves as the basis of his commentary. His text of the Acts of the Apostles appears to have been one closely related to that call the “Occidental”. The exegesis of Ephraem is that of the Syriac writers generally, whether hellenized or not, and is closely related to that of Aphraates, being, like the latter, quite respectful of Jewish traditions and often based on them. As an exegete, Ephraem is sober, exhibits a preference for the literal sense, is discreet in his use of allegory; in a word, he inclines strongly to the Antiochene School, and reminds us in particular of Theodoret. He admits in Scripture but few Messianic passages in the literal sense, many more, however, prophetic of Christ in the typological sense, which here is to be carefully distinguished from the allegorical sense. It is not improbable that most of his commentaries were written for the Christian Persian school (Schola Persarum) at Nisibis; as seen above, he was one of its founders, also one of its most distinguished teachers.

Poetical writings

Most of Ephraem’s sermons and exhortations are in verse, though a few sermons in prose have been preserved. If we put aside his exegetical writings, the rest of his works may be divided into homilies and hymns. The homilies (Syriac memrê, i.e. discourses) are written in seven-syllable verse, often divided into two parts of three and four syllables respectively. He celebrates in them the feast of Our Lord and of the saints; sometimes he expounds a Scriptural narrative or takes up a spiritual or edifying theme. In the East the Lessons for the ecclesiastical services were often taken from the homilies of Ephraem. The hymns (Syriac madrashê, i.e. instructions) offer a greater variety both of style and rhythm. They were written for the choir service of nuns, and were destined to be chanted by them; hence the division into strophes, the last verses of each strophe being repeated in a kind of refrain. This refrain is indicated at the beginning of each hymn, after the manner of an antiphon; there is also an indication of the musical key in which the hymn should be sung. The following may serve as an illustration. It is taken from an Epiphany hymn.

Air: Behold the month.
Refrain: Glory to Thee from Thy flock on the day of Thy manifestation.
Strophe: He has renewed the heavens, because the foolish ones had adored all the stars / He has renewed the earth which had lost its vigour through Adam / A new creation was made by His spittle / And He Who is all-powerful made straight both bodies and minds
Refrain: Glory to Thee etc.

Monsignor Lamyu, the learned editor of the hymns; noted seventy-five different rhythms and airs. Some hymns are acrostic, i.e., sometimes each strophe begins with a letter of the alphabet, as in the case with several (Hebrew) metrical pieces in the Bible, or again the fist letters of a number of verses or strophes form a given word. In the latter way Ephraem signed several of his hymns. In Syriac poetry Saint Ephraem is a pioneer of genius, the master often imitated but never equalled. He is not, however, the inventor of Syriac poetry; this honour seems due to the aforesaid heretic Bardesanes of Edessa. Ephraem himself tells us that in the neighbourhood of Nisibis and Edessa the poems of this Gnostic and his son Harmonius contributed efficaciously to the success of their false teachings. Indeed, if Ephraem entered the same field, it was with the hope of vanquishing heresy with its own weapons perfected by himself. The Western reader of the hymns of Ephraem is inclined to wonder at the enthusiasm of his admirers in the ancient Syriac Church. His “lyricism” is by no means what we understand by that term. His poetry seems to us prolix, tiresome, colourless, lacking in the person note, and in general devoid of charm. To be just, however, it must be remembered that his poems are known to most readers only in versions, from which of course the original rhythm has disappeared—precisely the charm and most striking feature of this poetry. These hymns, moreover, were not written for private reading, but were meant to be sung by alternating choirs. We have only to compare the Latin psalms as sung in the choir of a Benedictine monastery with the private reading of them by the priest in the recitation of his Breviary. Nor must we forget that literary taste is not everywhere and at all times the same. We are influenced by Greek thought more deeply than we are aware or like to admit: In literature we admire most the qualities of lucidity, sobriety, and varied action. Orientals, on the other hand, never weary of endless repetition of the same thought in slightly altered form; they delight in pretty verbal niceties, in the manifold play of rhythm and accent, rhyme and assonance, and acrostic. In this respect it is scarcely necessary to remind the reader of the well-known peculiarities and qualities of Arabic poetry.

MLA Citation

  • Jérôme Labourt. “Saint Ephraem”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 20 June 2013. Web. 21 September 2014. <>