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 St. 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 St. Ephraem was borne without pomp to the cemetery "of the foreigners". The Armenian monks of the monastery of St. Sergius at Edessa claim to possess his body.
The aforesaid facts represent all that is historically certain concerning the career of Ephraem (see BOUVY, "Les sources historiques de la vie de S. Ephrem" in "Revue Augustinienne", 1903, 155-61). All details added later bySyrian 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 St. Ephraem and St. Basil are narrated by very reliable authors, e.g. St. Gregory of Nyssa (the Pseudo?) and Sozomen, according to whom the hermit of Edessa, attracted by the great reputation of St. Basil, resolved to visit him at Caesarea. He was warmly received and was ordained deacon by St. Basil; four years later he refused both the priesthood and the episcopate that St. Basil offered him through delegates sent for that purpose to Edessa. Though Ephraem seems to have been quite ignorant of Greek, this meeting with St. 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 St. 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 St. Gregory of Nyssa (P.G., XLVI, 819) is a sermon (though not acknowledged by some) which is a real panegyric of St. Ephraem. Twenty years after the latter's death St. 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" (Illustrious Men 115). Theodoret of Cyrus also praised his poetic genius and theological knowledge (Hist. Eccl., IV, xxvi). 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 (Church History III.16). 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 St. 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 intoGreek 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 (translations as yet unedited). 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 St. Ephraem. The first printed (Latin) edition was based on a translation from the Greek done by Ambrogio Traversari (St. 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 ofLord 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 (Oxford, 1865) and Bickell (Carmina Nisibena, 1866), while other savants edited newly found fragments (Zingerle, P. Martin, Rubens Duval). A splendid edition (Mechlin, 1882-1902) of the hymns and sermons of St. 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". (J. R. Harris, "Fragments of the Commentary of Ephrem Syrus upon the Diatessaron", London, 1905; J. H. Hill, "A Dissertation on the Gospel Commentary of St. Ephraem the Syrian", Edinburgh, 1896; F. C. Burkitt, "St Ephraim's Quotations from the Gospel, Corrected and Arranged", in "Texts and Studies", Cambridge, 1901, VII, 2.) 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 ofTheodoret. 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 (see DIVINE OFFICE; BREVIARY) 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 (ed. Lamy, I, p. 4).
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.
Mgr. 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 St. 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.
Life No 9 Book Ib The Life of St Ephraem of Syria, (Life of St Simeon Stylites begins further down page), a deacon of Edessa, by an unknown Greek writer translated into Latin by Gerardus Vossius Chapter 1 Our holy father Ephraem came from in the East, born of godly Syrian parents in Edessa. He lived during the times of the great Emperor Constantine and others who reigned after him. He kept himself innocent of evil deeds from his youth up. While he was still a boy, his parents in a dream saw a vision of a fruit-laden vine growing out of Ephraem's mouth, which grew to such an extent that it spread over everything under the heavens. All the birds of the air came and fed on its fruit, yet however much they ate there was still plenty left. He sought the desert from a very young age, developing a bottomless store of compunction, through which he was able to receive the divine grace of the holy Spirit.
Chapter II Someone else, inspired by the breath of God, had a night vision in which he saw an awe-inspiring man holding a large volume and asking: "Who is able, do you think, to take this book and guard it?" And a voice came to him: "No one other than Ephraem my servant." And Ephraem, standing near, opened his mouth and devoured the book, from whence a flood of teaching sent by God streamed forth, full of compunction and penitence, filling the mind with a fear of judgment and of the second coming in majesty of the King and Lord of all, Jesus Christ our true God, who will reward each one according to his works. Thus was certified the purity and truth of the divine teachings contained in his writings.
Chapter III Again, another of the holy old men saw in a vision a band of Angels coming down out of heaven by God's command, carrying a proclamation, a scroll with writing within and without. And they spoke among themselves: "To whom may we entrust this scroll?" And some said this and some said that, and others replied as follows: "Truly there are many saints and righteous people, but this scroll should be entrusted to no one except Ephraem, meek and humble of heart." And the old man saw that they gave the scroll to holy Ephraem. In the morning he heard the most striking words of wisdom for the instruction of others streaming from Ephraem's mouth, full of compunction and the fear of God, scattered about as from a free flowing fountain. And the old man knew that what flowed from that mouth had been inspired by the holy Spirit.
Chapter IV This holy father Ephraem was filled with a desire to visit the city of Edessa and he prayed to God: "Lord Jesus Christ, let me visit that city, and when I enter let there be someone to meet me with whom I can explore the meaning of the Scriptures." A woman who was one of the city's prostitutes met him as he was going through the gate. Ephraem the servant of God was disappointed when he saw her. "Lord Jesus Christ," he said, "you have despised the prayers of your servant Ephraem. What sort of common ground would this woman have with me in discussing the Scriptures?" The woman stood still, gazing at him. "Tell me, my girl, why are you standing there staring (intueor) at me so intently?" "I can look at (intueor) you, because as a woman I was created out of your manhood. But you do not give me any respect at all (intueor), you only see the dust of the ground out of which you were created" (Genesis 2). When Ephraem the servant of God heard that, he looked up to heaven and glorified God who had given her the wisdom to be able to give him such an answer as that. He realised that God had not despised his prayer. He went on into the city where he stayed for some time.
Chapter V It so happened that another prostitute lived next door to the guesthouse in which he was staying. After he had been there for a few days, he heard her say, "Give me a blessing, abba." He looked up and saw her looking out at him through her window. "God bless you," he said. "Isn't there something you have been lacking in your cell and enclosure?" "Yes, a few stones and cement in order to block up the window you are looking through." "Look, I spoke to you first and you have responded. I would like to sleep with you, and would you really want to not have anything to do with me?" "Well, if you want to sleep with me, come with me to a place of my choosing and sleep with me there." "Tell me where and I will come." "If you really want to sleep with me I would not be able to do it anywhere else but in the middle of the city." "Wouldn't you be ashamed for people to see you doing that?" "If human beings can make us feel ashamed, how much more should the God whom we ought to fear make us feel ashamed! He knows all human secrets, for he it is who shall come to judge the world and reward each one of us according to our works " (Romans 2.5-6). The prostitute was pricked in her conscience at these words. She came out to him and fell at his feet weeping. "Servant of God," she said, "lead me into the way of salvation, and deliver me from my many sins and wicked doings." So the holy old man gave her many things from the holy Scriptures to think about and confirm her in her repentance. He then took her into a monastery, and thus rescued her from the company of the reprobate.
Chapter VI He left that city and went to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he went into the church and found the holy Basil the Archbishop preaching to the people. The blessed Ephraem began to sing his praises in a loud voice. Some of the crowd wondered who this stranger was, praising Basil like that. "He's fawning upon him hoping to get some reward!" they said. After he had finished preaching, Basil said, "Bring that man to me who is standing there singing my praises." They brought him. "Why are you standing there lifting up your voice in my praise, master Ephraem?" "I kept on shouting and praising because I saw a pure white dove standing on your right shoulder and whispering into your ear what you were to say to the people." The great Basil, full of the holy Spirit, then recognised him. "You are that Ephraem from Syria, are you not? I see in you something which I have always understood you to possess, a love of quiet. As it is written in the prophet David, Ephraem is the strength of my head (Psalms 60.7 & 108.8). For your gentleness, clemency and simplicity are as unmistakeable as a light visible to all."
Chapter VII (This chapter almost the same as in Book V.x.21) Ephraem travelled on a bit further and was again approached by a prostitute trying to trip him up. She hoped to get him agree to commit fornication or at least to make him lose his temper, which nobody had ever seen him do. He said to her, "Follow me", and took her to a very crowded part of the city. "Here is the place," he said. "Come on, let's do what you want." "How can we do that here?" she said, looking at the crowd. "Wouldn't we be ashamed?" "If you are ashamed because of human beings seeing you, ought you not to be ashamed because of God who brings to light all the hidden things of darkness?" The deed was not done. Thoroughly confused, she went away, unable to prevail against him in the slightest, not even making him lose his temper.
Chapter VIII And there you have the contests undergone by the great Ephraem, who was a man most patient, gentle, pure and simple, seeking God without guile, as was written of Job (Job 1.1), unassuming and modest, humble and full of compunction beyond belief. Even when remaining silent, his countenance was enough to teach something to any one gazing upon him, for he was intent upon pouring out all his prayers to God. This holy father of ours lived a good and blessed life, he provided an example of divine virtue, he produced many instructions on holy doctrine, and when at last he was aware of his approaching death he left a last testament for his disciples and for monks in general, warning them about future events. He was ill for only a short while before he fell asleep in the Lord and was buried by his disciples in the desert. By his prayers and intercessions may Christ our God make us worthy of imitating his divine life, and obtain mercy and the remission of all the sins into which we may have fallen. To Christ our God belongs all honour and worship, with the Father and the holy and life-giving Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.