Ephraem The Syrian

c.306-373. The great classical writer of the Syrian Church, he was born at Nisibis. It is uncertain whether his parents were Christian. After baptism in early manhood he was made deacon about 338. At some time he probably lived as a monk, but apparently never entered the priesthood. After the Persian occupation of Nisibis, he fled to Edessa where his life was spent in teaching, preaching, and literary activities. Details of his life are few: there is no contemporary biography, and much legendary accretion. His writings are many, covering differing aspects of theology and church life. In exegesis, commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, the “concordant gospel” (i.e., harmony, viz. the Diatessaron), Paul, and Acts have survived, with fragments of other work in the catenae and elsewhere. His dogmatic works are all in polemical form, against Bar-Daisan, Marcion, and Mani, against Julian the Apostate, and other topics. The ascetic life also is his theme, both in spiritual teaching and in the praise of famous ascetics, while he also composed many hymns and poems, among the latter the Nisibene hymns which reflect contemporary conditions and events up to 363. Many polemical and ascetic works are in the metrical form “memre” (the poetical form is called “madrash”).

Ephraem's teaching is orthodox, but conveyed in flowery rhetoric, and a definitive study of his theology is still lacking. His poetic gifts were much prized among the Syrians, however, and they named him “the lyre of the Holy Spirit.” To this is due the wide popularity of his works, of which there is a rich and complex tradition; in Syriac much has been lost, but early translation into Armenian has preserved much. The Greek tradition is also fairly early, and from it stems translation into Latin and Christian Oriental languages. Much spurious matter has also been attributed to him, and the whole tradition still represents an important area of patristic research.

F.C. Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity (1904), pp. 95-110; O. Bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, vol. IV (1924), pp. 342-75; I. Ortiz de Urbina, Patrologia syriaca (2nd ed., 1965), chap. 3.