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AAR/SBL 2016: At the Baker Academic Booth
Thursday, November 24, 2016
The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 16): Ephrem the Syrian
I have returned from the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference. This year it was held in San Antonio, a lovely place for a conference, especially along the Riverwalk. It was great seeing and catching up with friends and colleagues, and it was also good seeing The Parables After Jesus at the Baker Academic booth bound and almost ready for publication (see above).
The sessions I attended also were good, with a few disappointments (which, in fairness, I won’t mention here, since I will not critique them in any detail; only one was directly connected to the parables of Jesus).
Instead, I will return to my posts on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, continuing with the great poet, hymnist, theologian, and biblical interpreter, Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373).
Ephrem spent most of his life in the southeast of modern Turkey, writing hymns, serving in the catechetical school, tending to the poor, and performing other duties in episcopal service, but had to flee to Edessa (in Greece) in 363 CE, where he lived as an ascetic (e.g., he lived in a cave), until he died on 9 June 373.
Jerome tells us that Ephrem composed many “distinguished works in the Syriac language” (a dialect of Aramaic) and exhibited the “incisive power of lofty genius” (Lives 115). Ephrem wrote hundreds of hymns, and many of them were sung/recited in the church’s liturgy, complementing the chanting of Scripture in worship services. 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). As a result of Ephrem’s 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).
Ephrem’s mode of biblical interpretation also became the approach adopted by Syriac Christian writers, and his writings 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 texts against the followers of Marcion and others.
Ephrem’s concern for the poor permeates his commentary on the Diatessaron. For example, he devotes extended sections on the rich man—so “confident in his earthly wealth” (15.3)—who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (e.g., Luke 18:18-25), before explaining the meaning of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable. After the rich man and Lazarus died, the rich man’s agony while he was being tortured in Hades was increased because he could also see Lazarus with Abraham. The context of the passage suggests, Ephrem argues, that Jesus was comparing the rich man to the Jewish priests and Lazarus to his disciples (15.12). Ephrem then, however, discusses the moral implications of the parable:
See then! The more the rich man lived sumptuously, the more [Lazarus] was humbled. The more Lazarus was made low, the greater was his crown. Why was it, therefore, that he should have seen Abraham above all the just, and Lazarus in his bosom? It was because Abraham loved the poor that he saw him, so that we might learn that we cannot hope for pardon at the end, unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us. If then Abraham, who was friendly to strangers, and had mercy on Sodom, was not able to have mercy on the one who did not show pity to Lazarus, how can we hope that there will be pardon for us? (15.13; Ephrem 1994: 235-36)
Ephrem interprets the parable in a similar way in The Hymns on Paradise by noting how Abraham, “who even had pity on Sodom,” has no pity for the rich man “who showed no pity” (1.12, cf. 1.17). In Hymn 7, Ephrem elaborates that we should learn about God’s justice from this parable:
And may I learn how much I will then have received
From that parable of the Rich Man
Who did not even give to the poor man
The leftovers from his banquet;
And may I see Lazarus,
Grazing in Paradise,
And look upon the Rich Man,
So that the might of justice outside
May cause me fear,
But the breath of grace within
May bring me comfort (7.27; Ephrem 1990: 129).
Ephrem’s legacy—especially the influence of his hymns (madrāshē) and the musical precedents they set—is tremendously important for Syriac Christianity. He deservedly is the most celebrated voice within the Syriac tradition of Christianity—Sebastian Brock even calls Ephrem “the finest poet in any language of the patristic period” (1987: xv)—and one of the most revered Christians during Late Antiquity.
As another (much more modern) reception history comment on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I want to not that Charles Blow’s column today in The New York Times exemplifies how we should react to such powerful rich men who abuse those with little or no power.
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