Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ephrem the Syrian and the Parables (part 1)

Ephrem the Syrian 

Writing this book has given me a great opportunity to explore further some people (and images, music, literature, etc.) with whom I was already very familiar, but it also has given me a fantastic chance to explore people (and images, music, literature, etc.) with whom I was not very familiar (e.g., Macrina the Younger was especially fascinating). Ephrem the Syrian is another example of someone whose work I was not very familiar with, but whose work was a delight to read and to learn more about. 

Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373) was a prolific poet, hymnist, teacher, theologian, polemicist, and biblical interpreter. Ephrem (also Ephraim or Ephraem) is the most celebrated voice within the Syriac tradition of Christianity—Sebastian Brock even calls him “the finest poet in any language of the patristic period” (The Syriac Fathers 1987: xv)—and one of the most revered Christians during Late Antiquity. Jerome’s brief biography of Ephrem tells us that he composed many “distinguished” works in the Syriac language (a dialect of Aramaic) and exhibited the “incisive power of lofty genius” (Lives 115).

Ephrem lived in Nisibis (in the southeast of modern Turkey, near the Syrian border) for most of his life, writing hymns, serving in the catechetical school, tending to the poor, and performing other duties in episcopal service. In 363, however, Emperor Jovian surrendered Nisibis to the Persians, causing Ephrem and other Christians to flee the city. Ephrem settled in Edessa for the last ten years of his life, living a life of poverty and asceticism in a cave, until he died on 9 June 373.

Ephrem’s legacy—especially the influence of his hymns and the musical precedents they set—is tremendously important for Syriac Christianity. The majority of Ephrem’s extant works are hymns (madrāshē). He wrote hundreds of hymns, and many of them were sung/recited in the church’s liturgy, complementing—as Jerome notes—the chanting of Scripture in worship services. As a result of his influence, the liturgy of the Eastern church is still more based on poetry and hymns than is the liturgy of other church traditions (MacCulloch 2009: 183). These hymns are sometimes called “teaching songs,” because they are intended to be chanted and accompanied by a lyre in the style Christians envisioned King David doing in the Hebrew Bible (Griffith 2004: 1399; cf. the Kontakion during the Byzantine era).

Ephrem’s mode of biblical interpretation also became the sole approach adopted by Syriac Christian writers, and his works were translated into a number of different languages. His prose works include commentaries on the Bible and the Diatessaron (a harmony of the four New Testament Gospels compiled into a single narrative by Tatian around 150-160 CE), as well as polemical works against the followers of Marcion and others.

In my next post, I will write a little bit about Ephrem's parable interpretation in his commentary on the Diatessaron.

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