Ephrem the Syrian
PART VII. --Thus the fixed points for determining the chronology of Ephraim's life are:

1. The death of his patron, St. Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis, in 338, after the first siege of that city.
2. The third siege, in which he was among the defenders of the city, in
3. The surrender of Nisibis by Jovian, and its abandonment by its Christian inhabitants, 363; followed by Ephraim's removal to Edessa.
4. The consecration of Basil to the see of Caesarea, late in 370, followed by Ephraim's visit to him there.
5. The deliverance of the Edessenes from the persecution of Valens (370-372), celebrated by Ephraim in a hymn. 6. Ephraim's death,

To this list it would be right to prefix the meeting of the Council of Nicaea in 325, if the evidence of Ephraim's presence at it, along with
St. Jacob, were sufficient. But it has no early attestation; and no writer prior to Theodoret (Hist. Eccles. II. 30) associates the name of
Jacob with any incident in Ephraim's life.

The date of Ephraim's birth is nowhere directly stated, but it is usually assumed to have been early in the reign of Constantine (306-
337), on the authority of the Vatican Life, which says, "In the days of the victorious Constantine, true believer, was born the holy man
Ephraim." But the statement of the Parisian Life is less explicit, and is capable of a different meaning:--"He was in the days of the
victorious Constantine." This merely implies that Ephraim (if the pronoun represent him) lived in the reign of that emperor. But it rather
appears that Ephraim's father is meant, inasmuch as he is the subject of the immediately preceding sentence which describes him as a
heathen priest; and the purport of the passage is, that the saint was the son of a man who not merely had been one of an idolatrous
priesthood, but continued to be so after Constantine had acknowledged the Christian religion.(4)

The earlier authorities give no express statement on this point; but a late tenth-century Greek menologium, that of the Emperor Basil
(Porphyrogenitus), says that he "continued from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens,"(5)--implying as it seems that he was born, as
the Vatican Life represents, after Constantine's accession in 306.

Considering, however, that the Life in both its forms affirms that Ephraim was brought by St. Jacob to the Council of Nicaea in 325--in
which it is borne out by Gregory Barhebraeus in his Ecclesiastical Chronicle(6) (who though a very late writer (1226-1286) had access to
early authorities and judgment in using them)--it is hard to reconcile the chronology, for the improbability of the admission of a lad of
nineteen, in any capacity, to that venerable assembly, is very great. If we accept it as a fact that he was chosen by Jacob to accompany
him, and was permitted to be present among the Fathers at Nicaea, it seems almost necessary to place his birth before Constantine
became emperor.(7)

Farther: the menologium above cited adds that he died "in extreme old age;" and the tone and tenor of his testament go far to confirm the
truth of these words. But as he died in 373, he cannot have been more than 67 years old in that year if he was born in 306. No doubt 67
is a ripe age, but hardly sufficient to warrant the strong expression of the menologium. Without pressing its language unduly, we may
surely take it as implying that he had passed the" threescore years and ten" of the Psalmist at the time of his death--in other words that
he was born not later than the first or second year of the fourth century.

Thus by rectifying the text and rendering of the opening sentences of the Life, we relieve ourselves of the supposed necessity of placing
his birth in or after 306. And his presence in the Council of 325, and his extreme old age in 373, concur in pointing to the beginning of
the fourth century--if not to the later years of the third--as the probable time of that event.

However this may be, whether he was born in 306 or earlier, it is certain that by far the greater part of the long life of the "Deacon of
Edessa"--all of it save its last

ten or eleven years (363-373) was passed in his native Nisibis; and that he did not even attain the diaconate till he was considerably over
sixty years of age, and within three years of his end.


Of the innumerable writings--controversial, expository, hortatory, devotional--which were for Ephraim the fulfilment of his dream in
childhood, the fruit of the many years of literary activity that exercised his full heart and busy brain, enough remains to give an adequate
idea of his powers and to amaze us by its variety and abundance. The exaggeration of Sozomen who reckons the number of lines written
by him at "three hundred myriads" (three millions) is not to be taken as more than a rough guess at the probable total; but it is evidence
of the impression made on the men of the generations to whom his works were transmitted by his fertility. That he himself was
conscious of this gift appears in the fact that he records the dream and claims for his hymns and sermons that in them is to be found its
interpretation. His faculty of speech, as Gregory informs us in a remarkable passage, though adequate to utter the thoughts of any other
mind, was sometimes overborne by the rapid rush and abounding throng of the ideas with which his inspiration filled him, in such
measure that he was forced to pray for the intermission of its flow, "Restrain, O Lord, the tide of Thy grace!"(8) Copiousness is the
characteristic, and its excess is the chief fault, of Ephraim as an author. The Syriac language has great capacity for condensation; and the
parallelism of balanced clauses which Syriac literature affects, conduces to brevity. But on the other hand, the Syrian mind has a
tendency to amplify; amplification is the besetting sin of Syriac writers,--of Ephraim not least. And thus, while each sentence has the
severe precision of an epigram, the manifold reiteration of epigrammatic clauses amounts to verbosity: one and the same thought or fact
is presented in a long-drawn series of slightly varied aspects, with change of expression or at most of illustration, till the recurrence
becomes tedious. This criticism is meant primarily for his hymns; but it applies also to too many of his metrical homilies (to be described
presently). In all his writings, metrical or otherwise, this habit of amplification leads him, in handling the narrations of Scripture, to fill out
their simple outline with elaborate detail that wrongs their beauty and dignity. Of such treatment, examples will be found in this volume,
in some of the hymns (such as the XIVth and XVth On the Epiphany, and in the Discourse on the Woman who was a Sinner.

His extant works (some of which are known to us only in a Greek version), and those of his lost works of which the titles are recorded,
divide themselves into three classes;--Commentaries on Scripture, Homilies (mimre), and Hymns (madrashe).

1. Commentaries.--His Commentaries belonged (if we may trust the Life) to his later years, after his migration to Edessa, when he was
past middle life. There he is related to have begun his exposition (still extant) of Genesis, in the preface to which he refers to the homilies
and hymns which he had previously produced (Opp. Syr. Tom. I., p. 1). He seems to have commented on almost all the canonical books
of the Old Testament. His expositions of the Pentateuch, the chief historical books,(9) the Prophets (including Lamentations), and Job,
survive, and have been printed (in the Roman edition of 1732-43,

supplemented by that of Professor Lamy, of Louvain, Tom. II., 1886);(1) but those which he is recorded to have written on the Psalms
and Proverbs, the books which may be presumed to have most influenced the religious spirit and literary form of his works, have not
been preserved. None of the above, however, have reached us in a complete form, but rather as a series of extracts, apparently abridged,
from the Commentaries as originally issued by their author. In commenting on the New Testament, he treated of the Gospels, not in their
separate form, but in the continuous narrative known as the "Diatessaron" compiled from them by Tatian in the second century. This
work, long lost, has been lately recovered in an Armenian version. His Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul has likewise been
preserved for us in Armenian. Both have been published by the Mechetarist Fathers of St. Lazaro; first in Armenian, afterwards in a
Latin version.(2) In the present volume it has been judged best to include none of the Commentaries, inasmuch as the method and spirit
of Ephraim's treatment of Scripture are shown adequately, and in a more interesting form, in his Homilies and Hymns.

2. Homilies.--The Homilies are very varied in character. Many are controversial,--directed against the Jews, against heathenism in the
person of the Emperor Julian, against the heresies of Manes, of Marcion, of Bardesan, of the Anomoean followers of Arius. Others set
forth articles of the Faith--the Creation, the Fall, Redemption by the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord, His Descent into Hades, His
Resurrection, the Mission of the Holy Spirit, the Rest of Paradise, the Second Coming, the End of the World. Others are expository,
treating of narratives from the Old and the New Testaments, such as the life of Joseph, the Repentance of Nineveh, or the story of "the
woman who was a sinner" of St. Luke vii.--Others again are hortatory--calling to repentance, warning against sin, threatening future
retribution, extolling virginity. Of the Homilies two--one doctrinal, of Our Lord ; one expository, of the sinful woman, are given in this
selection. It is to be noted that the Homilies are usually metrical in form, being written in regular stichoi (lines of uniform length). And
some of them--for example, a series of nine for the "Rogation Days,"(3) and another of eight for the "Passion Week" (week before
Easter), and the vigil of "New Sunday" (first alter Easter)--were and still are regularly read as lessons, as part of the offices of the
Church;(4) a singular mark of reverence--extended. it seems, to the sermons of no other divine.

3. Hymns.--But it is in his Hymns that Ephraim lives,--for the Syrian Churches, and indirectly for the Christian world, of the East if not
of the West.(5) Throughout Syrian Christendom, divided as it has been for ages--in the Malkite, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite
communities, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris, and beyond, even to the Malabar remnant of the Syro-Indian Church, all of which
retain Syriac as the language of their ritual,--the whole body of public worship is shaped by his hymnody and animated with his spirit. It
is literally the fact that the Hymns of Ephraim go with every member of every one of these Churches from the first to the last of his

life, from the font to the grave. The Epiphany Hymns (included in the present selection) are interwoven into the Baptismal Office; among
the Funeral Hymns (which Dr. Burgess has made accessible to English readers)(6) are to be found dirges proper for the obsequies of
each and all, lay and cleric, young and old, male and female. Nor is it to be doubted that it was from these Syriac offices that those of the
Greek- speaking Churches derived this characteristic, common to both, by which both are differentiated from those of the
West,--"hymns occupying in the Eastern Church" (as Dr. Neale observes)(7) "a space beyond all comparison greater than they do in the
Latin," so that "the body of the Eastern breviary is ecclesiastical poetry." That the Syrian Church, and not the Greek, took the initiative
in the development of ritual, appears from the facts that, though there is evidence of the use of Psalms and Canticles from Scripture
throughout Christendom from the first, it is only with Ephraim's contemporary, Gregory Nazianzen, that Greek sacred poetry can be said
to have taken shape,--and that his verses failed to gain a place in public worship. He wrote in the metres of the heathen classics; and it
was not until a later day, and from the hands of other writers, working on other lines, that the hymns appeared which won their way into
the Greek ritual,--hymns written in rhythmic prose, in what seems to be conscious imitation of the Syriac model.(8)

The imitation, however, is by no means complete; it is apparent in the general tone and manner, but does not extend to the form: just as
the Greek version of Ephraim's Hymns, though faithfully reproducing his thoughts and literary method, makes no attempt to retain his
metrical system; but is a rendering into what in form is prose of an original which is in verse. That this should be so is unavoidable, for
Syriac metres are incapable of adaptation to the Greek language. Syriac literature, in all else imitative, here and here only has found out
for itself an independent course. Elsewhere it leans on one side to the Hebrew model to which it was drawn by affinity of language and
by the influence of the Old Testament; on the other to the Greek, as found in the New Testament and in the writings of the great Divines
of the Alexandrian and Antiochian patriarchates, who were the leaders of religious thought for Eastern Christendom. In hymnody alone it
struck out a line of its own; it set an example for the Greek-speaking Churches to follow, so far as was possible for them under the
conditions above indicated. The Syriac Hymnody is constructed on the Hebrew principle of parallelism, in which thought answers to
thought in clauses of repetitive or antithetical balance: but, unlike the Hebrew, its clauses are further regulated by strict equivalence of
syllabic measure. But though in this latter respect it seems to approach to the forms of Western verse, ancient or modern, yet the
resemblance is but superficial: Syriac verse is not measured by feet--whether determined by syllable quantity, as in Greek and Latin, or
by accent, as in English and other modern languages. Thus the metre of Syriac poetry is substantially the "thought-metre" (as it has been
well called) of Hebrew, reduced to regularity of form by the rule that each of the lines into which the balanced clauses fall, shall consist
of a fixed number of syllables. There is no systematic rhyme; but the nature of the language which by reason of its uniformity of
etymological structure abounds in words of like terminations, often causes correspond-

ences of sound amounting to rhyme, or at least to assonance. The lines are very short; not exceeding twelve syllables, sometimes
confined to four. Ephraim, though not the actual inventor, was the first master of this metrical system, the first to develop it into system
and variety.(9) His favorite metres are the five-syllabled and the seven- syllabled. In his more elaborate poems, such as the Nisibene
series, which are rather Odes than Hymns, the strophes or stanzas into which the lines are arranged are often long and of complicated
structure, each strophe consisting of many lines (ranging from four up to fourteen or more) of various lengths according to a fixed
scheme rigidly adhered to throughout the poem--sometimes throughout a group of cognate poems. In other poems, especially in Hymns
intended for popular or ecclesiastical use, where simplicity of structure is suitable, the lines which compose each strophe, whatever their
number, are of uniform length. So easily do the Syriac tongue, and the genius of Syriac literature, lend themselves to this scheme of
short, syllabically equal clauses, that (as has been already stated) many even of the Homilies are metrical; arranged not indeed in
strophes, but in continuous succession of brief stichoi, all of one and the same length--usually of seven syllables; a sort of blank verse,
but a blank verse with no animating accents, no varying pauses. A Homily so constructed would fatigue the ear of a modern audience by
its monotony: but inasmuch as some portions of Ephraim's Homilies were used in certain ecclesiastical Offices, probably recited in a sort
of chant, it may be that in such use we have the explanation of their quasi-versified structure.

In point of literary value as poems, a high place cannot be claimed for these Hymns. Some of them indeed have much of the devotional
fervor, and not a little of the human pathos, of the Psalms of David: others show something of the antithetic point and epigrammatic
terseness of the Proverbs of Solomon. Yet the devout aspirations and confessions of the poet are too often forced and artificial in their
utterance; in his funeral dirges we seem here and there to detect the false note of the professional mourner in the effort to exhaust all
possible topics of grief; in all his poems he tends to prolong the series of his parallelisms to a wearisome length and with an iteration that,
though laboriously varied, is tedious,--an iteration that has no precedent in the poetry of the Old Testament, save in one or two of the
latest Psalms, such as the CXXXVIith with its recurring burden "For His mercy endureth for ever," or the CXIXth with its artificial
arrangement (often emulated in Syriac Hymnody) by which each of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet in turn is made to head each
one of eight consecutive verses in praise of the Law of the Lord. On the whole, it must be admitted that the greater qualities of poetry,
such as abound everywhere in nearly every writer of the Hebrew Scriptures,--of truth in rendering the inmost feelings of man's heart in
words of absolute simplicity, of aspiration that rises without effort to the highest things of God--to these Ephraim's Hymns have no

For these shortcomings in his poetry, two main causes may be assigned.

One is in the man himself,--or rather, in his mode of life. Naturally, he was prone to feel for and with his fellow-men; for the sorrows of
the bereaved, the cares of the toiling poor whose lot (as he proved in the last and best episode of his history) moved him to sympathy
and active succour. He can be simple accordingly when he deals with the homely facts of life. But the main tenor of his course was
ascetic; he looked on this life and the life beyond--on man and to God--with a vision clouded by the gloom

of unnatural solitude and self-mortification. An assiduous student of Scripture, he had an ear for its threatenings rather than its promises
and consolations; dread and dismay entered into his heart more deeply than hope; the "Stand in awe and sin not" of the Psalmist was
more familiar to his spirit than the "Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous." The perpetual proneness to tears on which his biographers dwell
with admiration, and which he seems to have thought it right to foster, has its reflex in his writings, in the hysterical overflow of his fears,
his lamentations and his self-reproach. He had lived as an anchorite till his nature became morbid, and its moral fibre was weakened. But
to reach the highest levels in religious literature, whether in prose or in poetry, a man must be sane, his mind healthy and strong,--with a
health and strength sustained and exercised by wholesome daily contact with the lives of other men.

The second cause is to be found in the method, above described as his-- developed though not actually invented by him, and made his
own--which he chose as the vehicle of his thoughts and emotions. The "thought- metre" of the Hebrew poets was regulated (as we have
seen) by balance of sense, not of sound--member answering to member, verse by verse, in equivalence or contrast of substance merely,
not of verbal form: and in this metre, which has been happily likened to the alternating beat of a bird's wings as it mounts aloft, they had
shown it to be possible to attain the highest reach of sublime expression of the utmost that man's spirit can conceive of God and Heaven.
The Syriac Hymnists had the unhappy idea of effecting a compromise between their two contrasted models, the Hebrew and the Greek;
and to this end they compelled their verses into conformity by syllabic measure, of sound, as well as of sense. This artificial structure has
an effectiveness of its own, and is suited to the popular ear; but it is incapable of the elevation which the earlier and simpler method
attained without effort. As its Semitic parallelism of substance excluded Syriac poetry from the variety in topic and largeness in
conception of the Greek, so this grecized regularity of form hampered its efforts to rise to the upper regions where the Hebrew is at
home. The wings are free and ample by whose regulated stroke Hebrew poetry is borne, and they carry it to the supreme height: in
Syriac poetry the flight is too commonly low and feeble, because its wings are clipped. In the former we are conscious of a uniformity as
of the unconstrained waves of the sea, following in a succession of endless change--a uniformity that is majestic: in the latter we detect
the uniformity of the water-wheel, that with artificial movement draws up and dispenses the waters of the well in vessels of fixed
measure--a uniformity that is mechanical and monotonous.

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