January 28, 2022

Life, Works and Thought of Saint Ephraim the Syrian (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky

I. Life.

It is difficult to separate the truth from the legends which have grown up around Ephraem the Syrian, and only a very few facts are definitely known about his life. He lived approximately between 306 and 373. He was born in Nisibis and his parents were probably Christians, not pagans. He practiced ascetic discipline from his earliest youth, and was very close to Jacob, bishop of Nisibis. He entered the clergy but never rose above the diaconate. However, he played an active role in the life of his native city. In 363 Nisibis was ceded to Persia and Ephraem withdrew to Edessa, where he devoted himself to literary activity and to teaching in what was known as the "Persian School." Apparently it was Ephraem, who had probably taught Biblical studies earlier, who founded the Biblical school in Edessa. Lucian studied in Edessa with a certain Macarius, and Eusebius of Emesa was also a pupil there, but it was Ephraem who first organized the school.

We can form a conception of Ephraem's teaching from the Biblical commentary he has left, but we have no other reliable in formation about the early years of the school of Edessa which later became so famous. Although it is unlikely that the school experienced any great changes, most of what we know of it relates to a later era when the Greek influence was predominant. During this period the school was similar to the Hebrew schools in which the pupils lived in dormitories and formed a kind of fraternity. The main subject of study was Sacred Scripture. Students learned to explicate the Bible by writing down and memorizing the exegeses of their teachers. In this way the "school tradition" came into being. Study was probably similar to this during the life of Ephraem, and it is his teaching that was acknowledged as the "tradition" until the middle of the fifth century.

We have no other reliable information about Ephraem. His later life in particular is obscure. An encomium to him has been ascribed to Gregory of Nyssa, but probably does not belong to Gregory. According to tradition Ephraem was present at the Council of Nicaea, traveled through Egypt and Pontus, and visited with Basil the Great, but none of this can be proven. Little biographical material can be drawn from Ephraem's own writings, and furthermore the mass of compositions which have survived under his name have not yet all been definitely attributed to him, since his name was freely used by later scribes. The exact year of Ephraem's death has not been established.

Ephraem was primarily an ascetic, but at the same time he had an outstanding gift for lyricism. He is least significant as a thinker. His theological writings, which are euphonic and melodious, are the work of a lyric poet. They are sincere and intimate. Ephraem's orations are also lyric, and it often seems that he is singing rather than speaking. His abundant images are vivid and often extremely complex, and they frequently evolve into independent dramatic scenes. Besides this, Ephraem had the gift of tears. "Weeping for Ephraem was the same as breathing the air for other men. His tears poured forth both day and night." These were not tears of fear or guilt, but of tenderness and compassion.

Ephraem's severe personal asceticism did not make him harsh in his relations with other men. Even in his exhortations to repentance he does not denounce sinners but tries to soften their hearts and to move their souls. His cosmic imagery is especially remarkable. It is Ephraem's talent as a poet that accounts for his exceptional influence and the broad and immediate popularity of his works. Jerome has written that "in some churches (in the East) his writings were publicly read after the books of Scripture." And Theodoret has remarked that the holidays honoring martyrs are made more solemn by the hymns of Ephraem. According to Sozomen his works were translated into Greek, which Ephraem himself did not know, even during his lifetime.

II. Works.

The most important of Ephraem's writings which have come down to us are his commentaries on the Bible. They were written during the later years of his life in Edessa. Apparently Ephraem explicated all of the canonic books but only his writings on Genesis and Exodus (up to 32:26) have been preserved entirely and in their original forms. A few fragments from other exegeses have survived in the ninth century collection of Severus of Edessa, and the Biblical text of these has been altered to the Peshitta. Commentaries on the Diatessaron and the epistles of Paul (with the exception of the epistle to Philemon) have been preserved in Armenian translations. Ephraem also composed exegetical homilies on individual subjects drawn primarily from the Old Testament, including the state of man before the fall, Joseph and his betrayal by his brothers, and the prophet Jonah and his mission to Nineveh. These are more like hymns than sermons. Besides his Biblical commentary, Ephraem's prose works include several dogmatic and polemical books.

The majority of Ephraem's writings are poetic and have a metrical form. Syrian versification is based not on the length of syllables but on their total number. Long vowels are not distinguished from short vowels, but words are broken up into distinct individual units, and in this way speech becomes measured. In addition to this, Syrian poetry makes use of a device similar to the "parallelism" of Hebrew poetry. Two or more verses are joined together to form a stanza, which can frequently be broken down into shorter lines, some of which function as refrains. Acrostics are also common. This form corresponds to the general character of Syrian poetry, which is didactic. Apparently the first Syrian poet was Bardesanes ("Bar-Daisan"), who used metrical forms in his sermons. According to Theodoret Ephraem decided to fight him with his own weapons. "Some time ago, Harmonius, the son of Bardesanes, composed several songs, and by uniting his impious teaching to these pleasant melodies he afforded his listeners great enjoyment as he led them to perdition. Ephraem therefore borrowed their melody but joined it to his own orthodox doctrine and in this way he provided his listeners with instruction that was as enjoyable as it was useful." Some of Ephraem's poetry, his memre, or orations, were intended for oral declaration or to be read aloud. In distinction to these, some other works, his mad(h)rĂ se, or, literally, instructions, were written for choral singing with the accompaniment of harps.

Ephraem utilized verse forms in the fight against heresy and al so to glorify God. He wrote a great deal on dogmatic and polemic themes, and has left orations against Marcion and Manes (or Mani), against Bardesanes, against Julian the Apostate, and against the "sceptics" or Arians. Ephraem's "Nisibeian verses" were written early in his life. His funeral hymns and penitential hymns are particularly remarkable for their lyricism. Mention should also be made of his "Testament," which has been preserved only in a later revision.

III. Thought.

His Attitude Toward Scripture.

Ephraem's most outstanding characteristic as a teacher is his close adherence to the Bible. His attitude to Scripture is reverent, for the Divine books have been given to us from God through the Holy Spirit. They are the means of our salvation. The mysteries of the holy books and their wonderful harmony are accessible only to those who approach them with faith. On the twenty-two streams a tree grows forth which bears many fruits, and its branches extend beyond the bounds of the earth. Ephraem uses the Old Testament text of the Peshitta and only rarely cites the Septuagint, probably referring to a Syriac translation or relying on a glossary. Occasionally he mentions the Hebrew text or Hebrew commentary, but he never quotes these directly.

Ephraem begins by examining the literal meaning of the Biblical text before exploring the significance of the events and characters of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, the flood, and so forth, as prototypes and prefigurations. He interprets the narrative of the six days of creation literally, and in the tradition of Hebrew exegesis he understands the "Spirit of God" in Genesis 1:2 as a powerful wind which moved and warmed the waters. God created man not by a simple command, in the way that He created the rest of the world, but with circumspection, through a kind of exchange of ideas among all the members of the Trinity. Man, like other incorporeal spirits, is created by God with a free will and a free choice between good and evil. In order for man to recognize God as his Creator and Master, God gave him His first commandment and prohibition. In Ephraem's conception the forbidden tree is a simple tree, but there is no other command that God could have given. God could not have told the first man not to kill, or steal, or commit adultery, or that he should love his neighbor because as yet there were no other people.

Freedom, the Image of God, and the Fall.

Man's likeness to God is revealed in his freedom. Because man contains the image of God within himself, man's thought possesses a kind of omnipresence and is capable of embracing all places. The first man was adorned with a "robe of glory" and with "heavenly garments" and the bliss and grandeur of man's state before the fall surpass description. We lost these through the lust and arrogant disobedience of the first Eve, but they are returned to us through the second Eve, the Virgin Mary. Our first paradise is restored to us in the Church, and the tree of life is here replaced by the Eucharist. Ephraem interprets all Messianic references as prefigurations.

The Exegetical Mixture of Poetic Symbolism and Literal Interpretation.

Ephraem's writings are characterized by an unsystematic combination of literal interpretation and poetic symbolism, and the Bible is transformed from a book of history to a book of parables. However, he succeeds in demonstrating the organic integrity of both Testaments, which together form "a single body of truth." This is a single word "which was spoken by a single pair of lips for various generations." It contains both the weaker rays and the full light, both the image and the fulfillment. It is two harps which are played by one Artist. The single path has three parts: from paradise to Zion, from Zion to the Church, and from the Church to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Poetic form does not always foster clarity. In addition to this, the Syriac language of Ephraem's time did not yet possess a theological terminology. Finally, Ephraem had a tendency to be satisfied with definition through negation and to avoid more detailed examination. "I openly admit the insignificance of my being and I do not want to try to know my Creator because the Inaccessible One is awesome by His very nature." He limits his inquiry to that which has been revealed and does not try to discover that which is hidden or which is not clearly expressed in Scripture and in the canons of faith.

Dogmatic Thought.

However, a wealth of dogmatic material can be drawn from the works of Ephraem. First of all, he emphasizes the importance of an orthodox confession of the Trinity, for "without this it is impossible to live a true life." The Trinity is a mystery but we have been enlightened by the testimony of God so that we can distinguish the names and recognize the indivisible unity and equality of the Divinity. There is neither separation nor merging in the Trinity, but "there is a great order." The Divine names are not merely names, but they designate actual persons. "If there is no person, then the name is only an empty sound." The persons can be contemplated in the Divine names. The Son of God is the proper Son of the Father and everything that belongs to the Father belongs also to the Son. The incomprehensible generation of the Son is natural and eternal, and in this same way the Father manifests the Spirit, Who proceeds eternally from His own essence. This Trinitarian dogma is brief and simple, but nevertheless it is completely clear. Possibly its lucidity is explained by the presence of Jacob, the bishop of Nisibis, at the Council of Nicaea. "The truth is written in few words," Ephraem remarks. "Do not try to make long explanations."

Ephraem's Christological beliefs are also clearly presented. Primarily, in opposition to the Docetists, he defends the completeness of the Incarnation. In connection with this he develops his teaching on the Mother of God as the Virgin Mother. "Mary would be superfluous if Christ came to us as an apparition and God would be jesting in showing people the birth in the manger." Christ is both God and man at the same time. "He is entirely of the lower order and entirely of the higher order, entirely in everything and entirely one." Ephraem refers to "mingling" and stresses the indivisibility of this union and the unity of the Person of Christ. He says little about redemption but his basic idea is clear: "Christ becomes similar to us in order to make us similar to Himself. The Immortal One comes down to mortals, makes them immortal, and ascends again to the Father." He places particular emphasis on the sufferings of the Savior and on His descent to hell, from which He leads forth Adam as the dead rise from the dust and glorify their Savior.

Ephraem's depiction of the last days is both poetic and lively. His description of the institution of a new Easter through the Eucharist, and the true transformation of the Eucharistic gifts into the food of incorruptibility, is particularly vivid. Against this background his realistic attention to detail is especially striking, and he remarks that the bread which the Savior offered to Judas had first been moistened in water, which removed His blessing from it. All of this is closer to mystical poetry than actual theology.

Ephraem in his anthropology primarily stresses man's freedom, which he sees as the source of responsibility and the desire to strive for God. This striving is a victory over necessity and nature, and it is also a liberation from the "power of the stars" and the elements. The very question as to whether man is free proves that he is because "questions and scepticism arise from freedom." "A nature which is deprived of freedom cannot ask questions. Questions are the work of freedom. Only a free nature can inquire." Man's own internal experience testifies to his freedom.

The world is created by God and "there is nothing on earth that has not been authorized because the source of everything is God." Therefore evil is not from nature or from material sub stance, and "there would be no evil if it were not for the will." At the fall freedom was distorted but not destroyed. Man must make a choice, and "the nature of freedom is identical in all people," so that if one man can be victorious, then this is possible for every one. Man is created in the image of God, and this is revealed in his freedom and in his capacity to accept God's gifts. At his creation man was endowed with immortality, wisdom, and knowledge, and he was clothed in light. At the fall he became mortal, and the first sin is still reverberating in us like an echo. Only Christ liberates men from this condemnation to death.

Ephraem's writings on the Church are vivid and emotional. The Church is the Bride of Christ, the Courtyard of the Shepherd, and the House of God. This house stands on two columns, which are the visible world and the invisible world. Ephraem describes the continuity in the order of things from Adam to Christ, and also the continuity of the apostolic tradition, which has been transmitted through consecration and the laying on of hands. For Ephraem the Church is a place of sanctification which is realized through the sacraments. The first of these is baptism, the sacrament of forgiveness and adoption. The baptismal font is another Jordan, a boundary between life and death, and only the man who crosses to the other shore becomes a "citizen of the spiritual world." At baptism man "is led to freedom in the name of the Trinity." This sacrament is accomplished through anointing with oil, and Ephraem compares this to the Eucharist. Sinners can again wash away their pollution by repentance, and especially by sincere sorrow and tears. "I dress myself in tears and thus I am adorned." Tears magnify the beauty of the outer garments. At the same time Ephraem speaks about the power of the keys, a power which has been given to the Church. The basic principle of his doctrine is that "the entire Church is a Church of those who are perishing and of those who repent."

Ephraem frequently speaks on eschatological themes, which obviously appealed to his poetic imagination. His description of the Last Judgment is similar to the dogma of Aphraates: the righteous are superior to judgment; average men will be judged, but sinners are beyond judgment. The doctrine of the resurrection of all is essential for Ephraem, and he considers that without faith in the resurrection it is impossible to be a Christian and useless to participate in the sacraments, since it is the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, which testify to the resurrection. At the resurrection everyone will be made incorruptible but the bodies of sinners will be dark and they will exude a terrible stench. Everyone will pass through the fire. Righteous men will be unharmed, but sinners will remain in the flames. Just souls will enter the realm of bliss only after the resurrection because outside of their bodies they are insensible and cannot go beyond the boundary of earthly paradise. It is at this boundary that the souls of pardoned sinners will remain after judgment, but the souls of the righteous will then achieve the heights of blessedness. This will be their ultimate and eternal fate.

Ephraem's writings contain many outstanding images but few original ideas. However, his exposition of general Church doctrine is vivid and artistic, and this is the main significance of his dogmatic writing.

From The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century.