ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ

Archdiocese of the Western USA

St. Ephrem the Syrian, June 9

St. Ephrem (Ephraem, Ephraim) the Syrian, (A.D. 373)

"I was born in the way of truth: though my childhood was unaware of the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came." St. Ephrem

Poet, teacher, orator and defender of the faith, and known by the Syrian Orthodox church as ܡܠܦܢܐ ܕܥܕܬܐ ܩܕܝܫܬܐ (Doctor of the Holy Church) declared as the Doctor of the universal Holy Church. Also in 1920 Pope Benedict XV; declared him the doctor of the church and his feast day formerly June 18 and February 1 (the Roman Catholic Calendar).

Ephrem Born c. 303/6 in Nisibis (Today Nusaybin, Turkey), Mesopotamia; died at Edessa (Urfa, Turkey) on June 9, 373; Most historians infer from the lines quoted above that Ephrem was born into a Christian family -- although not baptized until an adult age (eighteen old) at St. Mary in Amid-Diyarbakir,Turkey, (the trial or furnace), which was common at the time. Ephrem passed his entire life in his native Mesopotamia (Syria) possibly in Nisibis where he spent most of his adult life.

From the time of his childhood Ephrem was known for his quick temper and irascible character, and in his youth he often had fights, he acted thoughtlessly, and even doubted of God's Providence, until he finally recovered his senses from the Lord's doing, guiding him on the path of repentance and salvation. One time he was unjustly accused of the theft of a sheep and was thrown into prison. And there in a dream he heard a voice, calling him to repentance and rectifying his life. After this, he was acquitted of the charges and set free.

Within Ephrem there took place a deep repentance. He came was served under Saint James bishop of Nisibis. Among the hermits especially prominent was the noted ascetic, a preacher of Christianity and denouncer of the Arians, the bishop of the Nisibis Church, Saint James (Comm. 12 May). The Monk Ephrem became one of his disciples. Under the graced guidance of the holy hierarch, the Monk Ephrem attained to Christian meekness, humility, submission to the Will of God, and the strength without murmur to undergo various temptations. Saint James knew the high qualities of his student and he used them for the good of the Nisibis Church -- he entrusted him to read sermons, to instruct children in the school, and he took Ephrem along with him to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (in the year 325). The Monk Ephrem was in obedience to Saint James until the bishop's death in 338.

Thenceforth he became more intimate with the holy bishop of Nisibis, who availed himself of the services of Ephrem 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. Ephrem went with his people, and settled first at Beth-Garbaya, then at Amid, finally at Edessa, the capital of Osrhoene, the site of a famous theological school, was where he did most of his writing, and where he spent the remaining ten years of his life, a hermit remarkable for his severe asceticism. St. Ephrem did not live in easy times in Nisibis.

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; Ephrem 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.

Tradition tells us that during the famine that hit Edessa in 372, Ephrem was horrified to learn that some citizens were hoarding food. When he confronted them, he received the age-old excuse that they couldn't find a fair way or honest person to distribute the food. Ephrem immediately volunteered himself and it is a sign of how respected he was that no one was able to argue with this choice. He and his helpers worked diligently to get food to the needy in the city and the surrounding area.

The famine ended in a year of abundant harvest the following year and Ephrem died shortly thereafter, as we are told, at an advanced age. St. Ephrem passed away on June 9, 373 as accepted by many. Ephrem relates in his dying testament a childhood vision of his life that he gloriously fulfilled:

"There grew a vine-shoot on my tongue: and increased and reached unto heaven, And it yielded fruit without measure: leaves likewise without number. It spread, it stretched wide, it bore fruit: all creation drew near, And the more they were that gathered: the more its clusters abounded. These clusters were the Homilies; and these leaves the Hymns. God was the giver of them: glory to Him for His grace! For He gave to me of His good pleasure: from the storehouse of His treasures."

At his death St. Ephrem 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 life of St. Ephrem, 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, Syrian Orthodox, 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. Ephrem.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, left us in Syriac hundreds of hymns and poems on the faith that inflamed and inspired the whole Church, and became so famous that his writings are publicly read in some churches after the Sacred Scriptures.  Sozomen pretends that St. Ephrem wrote 3,000,000 verses, and gives the names of some of his disciples, some of whom remained orthodox, while others fell into heresy (Hist. Eccl., III, xvi). From the Syrian and Byzantine Churches the fame of Ephrem spread among all Christians. The Roman Martyrology mentions him on February 1. In their menologies and synaxaria Greeks and Russians, Chaldeans, Copts, and Armenians honor the holy deacon of Edessa.

"I have chanced upon weeds, my brothers, That wear the color of wheat, To choke the good seed."

According to tradition, Ephrem began to write hymns in order to counteract the heresies that were rampant at that time. For those who think of hymns simply as the song at the end of Mass that keeps us from leaving the church early, it may come as a surprise that Ephrem and others recognized and developed the power of music to get their points across. Tradition tells us that Ephrem heard the heretical ideas put into song first and in order to counteract them made up his own hymns. In the one below, his target is a heretic Bardesan who denied the truth of the Resurrection:

"How he blasphemes justice, And grace her fellow-worker. For if the body was not raised, This is a great insult against grace, To say grace created the body for decay; And this is slander against justice, to say justice sends the body to destruction."

The originality, imagery, and skill of his hymns captured the hearts of the Christians so well, that Ephrem is given credit for awakening the Church to the important of music and poetry in spreading and fortifying the faith.

Many Churches still find singing in church a problem, probably because of the rather individualistic piety that they inherited. Yet singing has been a tradition of both the Old and the New Testament. It is an excellent way of expressing and creating a community spirit of unity as well as joy. St. Ephrem's hymns, an ancient historian testifies, "lent luster to the Christian assemblies." We need some modern Ephrems—and cooperating singers—to do the same for our Christian assemblies in Diaspora today.


Lay me not with sweet spices,
For this honor avails me not,
Nor yet use incense and perfumes,
For the honor befits me not.
Burn yet the incense in the holy place;
As for me, escort me only with your prayers,
Give ye your incense to God,
And over me send up hymns.
Instead of perfumes and spices,
Be mindful of me in your intercessions.

(From The Testament of St. Ephrem)


By: Jerome Labourt
Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett

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.

(1) 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 into Greek 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 Syrian Orthodox, it is well known, were wont from an early date to translate or adapt many Syriac works. The writings of Ephrem 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. Ephrem. 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 (159-1619), 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 of Lord Prudhol (1828), Curzon (1832), and Tattam (1839, 1841). All recent editions of the Syriac original of Ephrem'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 Ephrem 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 labors were continued by Stephanus Evodius Assemani. Finally this monumental edition of the works of Ephrem appeared at Rome (1732-46) in six folio volumes. It was completed by the labors 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. Ephrem 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.

(2) Exegetical Writings

Ephrem 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 Ephrem 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 Ephrem 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 Ephrem is that of the Syriac writers generally, whether hellenized or not, and is closely related to that of Aphrahat, 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 of Theodoret. 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.

(3) Poetical Writings

Most of Ephrem'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 memrę, 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 were often taken from the homilies of Ephrem. The hymns (Syriac madrashę, 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 vigor 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 Ephrem signed several of his hymns. In Syriac poetry St. Ephrem is a pioneer of genius, the master often imitated but never equaled. He is not, however, the inventor of Syriac poetry; this honor seems due to the aforesaid heretic Bardesanes of Edessa. Ephrem himself tells us that in the neighborhood of Nisibis and Edessa the poems of this Gnostic and his son Harmonius contributed efficaciously to the success of their false teachings. Indeed, if Ephrem 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 Ephrem 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, colorless, 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.

As stated above there is no complete edition of the works of St. Ephraem; nor is there any satisfactory life of the great doctor. Mention has been made of the Assemani edition of his works: Opera omnia quae extant graece syriace latine in sex tomos distributa (Rome, 1732-46). It is considered imperfect from the textual standpoint, while the Latin translation is rather a paraphrase. OVERBECK, S. Ephraemi Syri opera sclecta (Oxford, 1865); BICKELL, Carmina Nisibena (Leipzig, 1866); LAMY, Hymni et Sermones (Mechlin, 1882-86 and 1902). Among the versions it may suffice to mention the Armenian version edited by the MECHITARISTS (Venice, 1856, 1893). See also BICKELL, Conspectus rei Syrorum literariae (Munster, 1871); WRIGHT, A Short History of Syriac Literature (London, 1894); Zingerle in Kirchenlex., s. v. Ephraem; especially BARDENHEWER, Patrology, tr. SHAHAN (Freiburg im Br., 1908), 387-93, excellent appreciation and extensive bibliography; RODIGER-NESTLE in Realencyk. F. prof. Theol. und Kirche, s. v. Ephram; DUVAL, Hist. de la litt. Syriaque (3d. ed., Paris, 1906); IDEM, Histoire d' Edesse, 150-61; LAMY, Prolegomena to Vols. I and II of the Hymni et Sermones.

Here are some links and suggestions for further reading on St Ephrem