Ephraim the Syrian (also spelled "Ephrem" or "Ephraem", and sometimes suffixed "of Edessa") (c.306 - June 10, 373) was a Christian deacon, monk and hymn writer. He was born in Nisibis, a town in Mesopotamia.
It is said that he accompanied his bishop to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Throughout his life, he fought against Gnosticism and Arianism. To counter the Gnostic heresies being spread through their songs, he wrote many hymns and poems proclaiming the Christian faith. One of his prayers is still extensively used today by Eastern Orthodox churches during the season of Great Lent leading up to Easter:
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk.
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love.
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
During a famine in 372 and 373, he worked long hours distributing food and caring for the sick; this hard work led to his death on June 10, 373. He is recognized as a saint by both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. In 1920 the Holy See declared him a Doctor of the Church.
Saint Ephraim (or Ephraem) the Syrian (ca 306? - June 9, 473 CE) a poet, commentator, preacher and defender of orthodoxy is the most influential of all Syriac authors. According to the ecclesiastic historian Sozomen he was credited with having written altogether 3,000,000 lines. His reputation lies partly in the elegance of his style and a certain measure of poetic inspiration, more perhaps to the strength and consistency of his personal character, and his ardour in defence of the Creed formulated at the First Council of Nicaea.
Two versions of a nearly contemporary Life of Ephraim, full of later interpolations and saturated with miraculous occurrences. From autobiographical references in his Carmina Nisibena it appears that e was born in the reign of Constantine (perhaps in 306) at or near Nisibis. His father was a pagan, a priest of Abnil or Abizal. The boy became a disciple of Jacob, bishop of Nisibis, (died in 338) who attended the council of Nicaea who baptized him as a Christian (at age 18 or 28). Though his position in the Christian church was modest he seems to have played an important part in guiding the city during the war begun by Shapur II in 337, who besieged the city in 338, 346 and 350. Ephraim remained at Nisibis till its surrender to the Persians by Jovian in 363. His close relations with Bishop Jacob continued with the three succeeding bishops: Babu (338 - 349), Vologaeses (?349361), and Abraham, on all of whom he wrote encomia.
The surrender of the city in 363 to the Persians resulted in a general exodus of the Christians, and Ephraim left with the rest. After visiting Amid (Diarbekr) he proceeded to Edessa, where he seems to have lived mainly as a hermit outside the city, devoting his remaining years to study, writing, teaching and the refutation of heresies. According to his biographer, from the time he beoame a monk to the end of his life his only food was barley bread and sometimes pulse and vegetables: his drink was water. And his flesh was dried upon his bones, like a potter's sherd. His clothes were of many pieces patched together, the color of dirt. In stature he was little; his countenance was always sad, and he never condescended to laughter. And he was bald and beardless.
It is possible that during these years he paid a visit to Basil at Caesarea. Near the end of his life he rendered great public service by distributing provisions in the city during a famine.
Eight years in Egypt refuting Arianism, a funeral panegyric on Basil (who survived him by three months) are probably legendary inventions. He probably wrote only in Syriac, though he may have possessed some knowledge of Greek and possibly of Hebrew. But many of his works must have been translated into other languages: there are manuscripts in Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. With the exception of his commentaries on scripture, nearly all his extant Syriac works are composed in metrical syllables. A more complicated arrangement is found in the strophes and recurring refrains of his Carmina Nisibena with many different varieties of poetic meters, which were set to music, and sung by antistrophic choirs of girls. His purpose was to superceed the hymns to heretical texts that had been sung in Edessa since the early 3rd century.
The subject-matter of Ephraim's discursive and repetitious poems ranges through exegetical discourses, hymns on the Nativity of Christ, hymns against heretics and unbelievers, a discourse against the Jews, funeral hymns, exhortations to repentance, or hymns on paradise. Other occasional poems celebrate church festivals.
Of Ephraim as a commentator on Scripture we have only imperfect means of judging. His commentaries on the O.T. are at present accessible to us only in. the form they had assumed in the Catena Patrum of Severus (compiled in 861), and to some extent in quotations by later Syriac commentators. His commentary on the Gospels is of great importance in connection with the textual history of the NT., for the text on which he composed it was that of the Diatessaron. The Syriac original is lost: but the ancient Armenian version. survives, and was published at Venice in 1836 along with Ephraims commentary on the Pauline epistles (also only extant in Armenian) and some other works. A Latin version of the Armenian Diatessaron commentary has been made by Aucher and Mosinger (Venice, 1876). Using this version as a clue, J. R. Harris has been able to identify a number of Syriac quotations from or references to this commentary in the works of Ishodadh, Bar-Kepha (Severus), Bar-~alibi and Barhebraeus. Although, as Harris points out, it is unlikely that the original text of the Diatessaron had come down unchanged through the two centuries to Ephraims day, the text on which he comments was in the main unaffected by the revision which produced the Peshitta. Side by side with this conclusion may be placed the result of F. C. Burkittsi careful examination of the quotations from the Gospels in the other works of Ephraim; he shows conclusively that in all the undoubtedly genuine works the quotations are from a pre-Peshitta text.
As a theologian, Ephraim was a stout defender of Nicaean orthodoxy, with no leanings in the direction of either the Nestorian or the Monophysite heresies which arose after his time. He regarded it as his special task to combat the views of Marcion, of Bardaisan and of Mani.