St. Ephrem the Syrian, who is remembered on Jan 28th on the Orthodox calendar, is one of the greatest of Christian poet-theologians, as well the most important author of early Christian literature in the Syriac language. For over a millennium, Ephrem’s works have been known to most of the Orthodox Christian world in the form of Greek, Latin, Armenian, Georgian and Slavonic translations, along with other works attributed pseudepigraphically to his name but lacking a Syriac original. More recently, portions of Ephrem’s corpus have been translated from the Syriac into English and other modern Western languages. In this two-part article, we offer a brief introduction to Ephrem’s life and thought, followed by an overview of themes from his Hymns on Paradise, a poetic cycle focusing on the interpretation of the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.
Very little is known about Ephrem’s life. Ephrem himself states that he was born of Christian parents. Sometimes reckoned around 306, the date of his birth is uncertain. A native of Nisibis, Ephrem spent most of his life in this city on the border of the Roman and Persian empires, only resettling in Edessa (present-day Urfa) in his last decade. Scholars believe that a great many of his hymns date from this period. It is generally agreed that Ephrem died in Edessa in June of the year 373.
Byzantine iconographic and hagiographical traditions depict Ephrem as a monk. While there is no question that the saint’s works reflect a highly ascetical vision of the Christian life, scholarly consensus holds that to call Ephrem “a monk” is, strictly speaking, something of an anachronism. In fact, Ephrem probably belonged to an ancient Syrian tradition of asceticism predating the monasticism which had its origins in the Egyptian desert. This was the Syrian community of the bnay qyama, or “children of the covenant.”
This community of the bnay qyama was made up of ascetics called ihidaye, a term which may be understood literally as the “single ones,” the “simple,” the “single-minded” or the “celibate.” The ihidaye were those who followed uncompromisingly after Christ the Ihidaya, or “Only-Begotten One,” as their personal Bridegroom, having undertaken certain ascetic vows at their baptism, which at this point would still have generally taken place in adulthood. Unlike the monasticism of the Egyptian desert, this ascetic community lived in the villages and cities, in small groups devoted not only to prayer and worship, but also to service within the local church. Unlike the Egyptian monasteries, this Syrian ascetic community included not only the bthule, unmarried persons, but also those called qaddishe, married couples who had renounced conjugal intercourse. It is likely that it was in this sort of ascetic community that Ephrem lived.
According to St. Jerome and the early church historian Sozomen, Ephrem was also a deacon. As an ihidaya and a deacon, Ephrem’s life combined strict ascetic discipline with public service to the Church. This service took the form of his many hymns, which were composed to be sung as a kind of poetic and musical catechesis. The early monastic historian Palladius also depicts Ephrem as engaged in serving the bodily needs of the poor and hungry.
St. Ephrem’s Vision of Holy Scripture
As Fr. Georges Florovsky remarks, “Ephrem’s most outstanding characteristic as a teacher is his close adherence to the Bible.” This adherence extends beyond fidelity to biblical teachings or frequent reference to its texts to a unique poetic affinity with the scriptural idiom. In Ephrem’s hymns, exegesis overflows into poetic development and expansion of the biblical text while maintaining strongly felt continuities with the Hebrew literary tradition and exegetical imagination.
This Semitic and biblical idiom is connected to another outstanding characteristic of Ephrem’s writings: his constant use of images and motifs drawn from the Old Testament. Ephrem treats the biblical canon as a coherent whole, with Christ as the unifying center of both testaments. He reverences the book of the Law and the Prophets as a book of Jesus Christ nearly equally as he does the New Testament. As he sings:
See, the Law carries
all the likenesses of Him.
See, the Prophets, like deacons,
carry the icons of the Messiah.
This emphasis on the Christocentric character of the Old Testament highlights the unity of Scripture as well as of the whole history of God’s redemptive plan for the world. It also serves the further theological purpose of countering the dualistic heresy of Marcionism, widespread in Ephrem’s time and place, which rejected the Scriptures of Israel as the work of another, lesser god, not to be identified with the God of Jesus Christ.
Just as Ephrem rejects the heretical separation of the Old from the New Testament, so he too refuses to sever the essential unity which exists between Scripture and the created world, as two works of one and the same Lord. Ephrem speaks of the unity of Scripture and creation variously as that of the two “books,” and of God’s two “witnesses.” He writes:
Look and see how Nature and Scripture
are yoked together for the Husbandman:
Nature abhors the adulterers,
practicers of magic and murderers;
Scripture abhors them too.
Once Nature and Scripture had cleaned the land
— they sowed in it new commandments,
in the land of the heart, so that it might bear fruit,
praise for the Lord of Nature
glory for the Lord of Scripture.
This affirmation of the unity of Scripture and nature entails a profound rejection of the Gnostic heresy prevalent in Ephrem’s age, which would identify the Creator of the world as a “demiurge” quite other than the God revealed in Jesus Christ. For Ephrem, as for the whole Church, creation is good; it is the handiwork of the Lord, and as such bears witness to Him.
At the same time, man, as he finds himself in this fallen world, can only come to the true vision of creation with the help of Scripture. It is Scripture itself which is the revelatory vehicle of a true knowledge of the world as God’s creation and handiwork:
The keys of doctrine which unlock all Scripture’s books
Have opened up before my eyes the book of creation,
The treasure house of the Ark, the crown of the Law.
It is Scripture in its narrative which, above all its companions,
Has perceived the Creator and transmitted His works:
Beholding all His handiwork it has made manifest
The objects of His Craftsmanship.
For Ephrem, the “key of doctrine” is no catalogue of doctrinal propositions, but the vision of the crucified and glorified Christ Himself. Scripture and the visible creation together form a treasure-trove of symbols (raze), the interpretive key to which is the Cross of the incarnate God.
Ephrem’s Treatment of Language and Symbol
The importance which Ephrem gives to symbols cannot be underestimated. God must reveal Himself, through Scripture and creation alike, for man to be able to come to knowledge of Him. This He does by means of symbols and names inherent both in the structure of the cosmos and the texts of Scripture.
This importance accorded to symbols is tied to Ephrem’s understanding of language. According to Ephrem, it is language which mediates to us the knowledge of God, through the prayerful reading words of Scripture, in the context of the intellectual contemplation of created things. However, the words of Scripture and the created things to which they refer should not be approached in a literalistic manner, but must be seen as symbols which express the invisible by means of the visible, the inaudible by means of the audible, the uncreated by way of the created. This necessity of a symbolic approach to language on the way towards the knowledge of God results from the “chasm” (pechta) which exists between Creator and creation, the utter difference between God and the world – a distinction which stands at the heart of Ephrem’s theological vision.
While Scripture constitutes the central means by which the revelation of God in Christ is made known to us, there remains an essential inadequacy to all human words which speak of God, including those of Scripture. It is for this reason that the language of Scripture must be read in such a way that the words and images point away from themselves towards the ineffable reality of God Himself, who can be experienced and known but never adequately comprehended in thought or speech. As Ephrem writes in his Hymns on Paradise (11:6-7):
If someone concentrates his attention solely
on the metaphors used of God’s majesty,
he abuses and misrepresents that majesty
and thus errs
by means of those metaphors
with which God has clothed Himself for his benefit,
and he is ungrateful to that Grace
which has stooped low
to the level of his childishness;
although it has nothing in common with him,
yet Grace has clothed itself in his likeness
in order to bring him to the likeness of itself.
Do not let your intellect
be disturbed by mere names,
for Paradise has simply clothed itself
in terms akin to you;
it is not because it is impoverished
that it has put on your imagery;
rather, your nature is far too weak
to be able
to attain to its greatness,
and its beauties are much diminished
by being depicted in the pale colors
with which you are familiar.
In relation to the chasm between Creator and creation, Ephrem places language squarely on the side of the created order. Moreover, language is not only a part of creation, but something specifically allied to human nature, which is “weak.”
On this ground, Ephrem opposes the literalistic and rationalistic approaches to language characteristic of the Arian heresy. It is not that human language in any way approximates the divine realities to which it refers, but rather that God, in a free act of loving condescension, has chosen to appropriate created means to Himself, in order to reveal what is uncreated and in itself beyond the scope of created minds. In Ephrem’s theological vision, God’s taking on the “garment of speech” in Scripture follows the same pattern of condescension exhibited in His taking on the “garment of flesh” in Jesus Christ.
Read part 2
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