Ephraim, Apapphrat 24
24 The Life, whence the above narrative is mainly derived, though evidently put into its present form by compilers many generations later than the time of Ephraim, is in its leading outlines to be accepted as historically trustworthy, though it has no doubt been largely amplified by the incorporation of exaggerated or fictitious details. Of its essential points, not a few are confirmed by his own writings; and many more (as has been said above, p. 121), by evidence of hardly later date,—especially by the Encomium of Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), who assures us that he derives his account from Ephraim’s written statements and from no other source.29 This Father, as being brother of Basil with whom Ephraim was so closely associated in his later life, may well have known personally the man of whom he wrote, and was at least in a position to collect and verify with discrimination the facts of his life. Further, the general historical framework of the biography is sufficiently attested as correct by the contemporary secular historians, non-Christian as well as Christian—notably (as will appear farther on), as regards the siege of Nisibis, by one whom Ephraim most abhorred, the Emperor Julian.
It may be briefly affirmed that the external independent evidence covers all the facts included in the summary given above (pp. 120,121), at the opening of this Section. It extends farther to many incidents related in the Life,—such as the attempt of Sapor to take Nisibis by turning the river against its walls, Ephraim’s encounter with the woman who met him as he entered Edessa and her retort to his rebuke, his borrowing the music of the heretic in order to popularize the orthodox teaching of his own hymns, the call to the Episcopate and his evasion of it, the constancy of the faith of the Edessenes when threatened by the persecutor Valens, the famine and the work of relief organized by Ephraim in the last year of his life; also to a few of the details which belong to or verge on the supernatural,—the dream of the vine-shoot which foreshadowed his literary fertility, the vision of the Angel with the book who appeared to his brother-anchorite, and that of the dove, which he himself seemed to see, inspiring the discourses of Basil. In these facts, greater and smaller taken together, we have sufficient data for the derivation of the main outlines of his life and the leading features of his character.
25 But along with the genuine and trustworthy matter, the compiler has embodied much that is unattested and in many cases inherently improbable, and even some things that are demonstrably untrue).
i). The Miraculous Details.—To the category of the improbable—the fiction of hagiology or the growth of myth—belong the miracles so freely ascribed to Ephraim and the miraculous events represented as attending on his career. It is noteworthy that Ephraim himself, though no doubt he believed that he was the recipient of Divine intimations in dream or vision, never lays claim to supernatural powers. Nor does Gregory in the Encomium attribute to him any such—except in the case of the rich friend who for his mistaken zeal was given over to an evil spirit; and on his repentance relieved through Ephraim’s intercession.30 The voice that issued from his father’s idol foretelling his future war against idolatry—the answer of the new-born babe that cleared him from calumny—the crowned phantom on the walls of Nisibis that scared the besiegers—the plague of insects that drove them into disastrous flight—the Angel sent to call him back to Edessa when he had fled thence—the storm hushed and the sea-monster slain by his word on the voyage to Egypt—the monk whom he delivered at once from demoniacal possession and from heresy—the sudden gift of tongues which enabled him to speak Coptic with Bishoi and Greek with Basil—the restoration to life of the youth who had died of a viper’s bite at Samosata—the paralytic healed at the church door in Edessa—the disappearance of the record of guilt from the scroll on which the penitent of Caesarea had written her confession—all these belong to the later growth of legend that springs up naturally over the tomb of a saint. Some of them may be safely set aside as purely fictitious; others are probably due to metaphoric expressions mistaken for literal assertions, or to rhetorical amplification throwing a false coloring of the supernatural over ordinary events. Most of them, moreover, bear evident signs of having been dressed by the compiler into spurious resemblance to the miraculous narrations in the Old and New Testaments, of the Divine dealings with Prophets and Apostles,—Elisha, Jonah, St. Peter, St. Paul, or even of the works of power which attested the mission of our Lord Himself on earth. In reading these, one cannot fail to feel painfully—though the narrator seems quite unconscious of—the irreverence of the travesty. It is noteworthy that some, even of the non-miraculous incidents of the Life appear to have been similarly handled. Thus the account of the stoning of Ephraim outside of Edessa seems modelled after that of St. Paul at Lystra, (Ac 14,19, 20): and the simulated madness by which he evaded the call of the Episcopate is apparently borrowed from the history of David’s behavior before Achish and his servants at Gath (1S 21,13–15).
ii). The Demonstrably Incorrect or Contradictory Statements.—Farther, even when we have laid aside all that is seemingly exaggerated, invented or mythical in the Life, there remains much in it that, when critically examined, proves to need correction or to deserve rejection. We proceed to deal with some questions which arise affecting the historical credibility of its narrative.
1). Ephraim’s Alleged Heathen Parentage.—The heathen parentage assigned to Ephraim, and consequently the whole narrative of his conversion to Christianity and his consequent troubles, may be without hesitation discredited. They are irreconcilable with his own words31 (Adv. Haereses, XXVI)., “I was born in the way of truth: though my boyhood understood not the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came.” So again more explicitly (if we may trust a Confession which is extant only in Greek), “I had been early taught about Christ by my parents; they who begat me after the flesh, had trained me in the fear of the Lord. . . .My parents were confessors before the judge: yea, I am the kindred of martyrs.”
2). The First and Third Sieges of Nisibis.—In the narrative of the siege of Nisibis, and especially of the presence and intercession of St. Jacob the Bishop, there is confusion and grave error. It is certain that in the reign of Constantius (337–361), Nisibis was three times besieged by Sapor.32 The siege in which St. Jacob was within the city took place in the year 338, and he died the same year. The attempt of Sapor to employ the intercepted waters of the Mygdonius for the destruction of its walls, belongs to a later siege—the third, of the year 350—twelve years after the death of Jacob. These two sieges are expressly recorded in the “Paschal (otherwise Alexandrine Chronicle),” followed by Theophanes in his Chronographia (who also mentions briefly the intervening siege of 346); and the account given by the former of these chroniclers (who wrote in the seventh century) rests on the authority of an Epistle written by Valgesh, Bishop of Nisibis in 350, who is eulogized by Ephraim in five of the Nisibene Hymns contained in the present volume (XIII-XVII).. Other contemporary evidence, fuller, and at first hand, to the same effect, is forthcoming from two widely different sources.—As already intimated, the Apostate is here alone with the champion of the Faith.
In his second Oration33 (addressed, probably in the year 358, to Constantius, then Emperor) Julian describes the siege with even more circumstantial detail than our biographer, placing it after the death of Constans, which took place in January 350, and thus confirming the date assigned by the Paschal chronicler and by Theophanes. According to Julian’s account, the embankment formed by Sapor, the work of four months,34 was so constructed as to encompass the whole circuit of Nisibis, so that the river intercepted by it “formed a lake in the middle of which the city stood as an island,” with “the battlements of its walls barely appearing above the surrounding waters”; and on the surface of this encircling lake, he launched armed vessels and floating war-engines. By these the fortifications were ceaselessly battered for several days,—till of a sudden the river (then in flood) burst its barrier, and carried away not only the embankment but a hundred cubits of the city wall. Through the breach thus made, Sapor pushed forward his cavalry to lead the advance upon the city which lay thus seemingly at his mercy. But they proved unable to overcome the difficulties of the intervening ground—torn up and flooded as it was by the torrent, and traversed moreover by an ancient moat—while the Nisibenes in the energy inspired by their deadly peril, showered missiles upon their assailants as they strove to struggle onward. The Persian next sent on his elephants; but their unwieldly bulk served only to enhance the panic and confusion, and to complete the disaster of his repulse. And when, the next morning, he prepared to renew the assault, he found himself confronted by a new wall, hurriedly raised in the night, to fill the gap in the ramparts, reaching already the height of six feet and manned by fresh and well-armed defenders. Despairing of success against a resistance so obstinate, he raised the siege on which he bad in vain expended so much time, labour, treasure, and blood, and retired ignominiously.
It is needless to add that of the miraculous incidents of the siege as related in the Life, no trace appears in Julian’s account. The only Providence he discerns in the successful defence of Nisibis, is that which he attributes to his imperial kinsman to whom his fulsome oratory is addressed).
Of the leading facts, as related by Julian, ample corroboration will be found in the first three of the Nisibene Hymns above referred to. In the first, Ephraim makes Nisibis herself tell the tale of her peril: she compares herself to the Ark of the Flood, compassed, not like it by waters merely, but by “mounds and weapons and waves” (I., 3); but (IB 6,8) the wall had not yet given way, for he still speaks of it as standing, and prays that it may continue to stand. This Hymn was therefore written while the siege was still in progress. In the second Hymn he celebrates her deliverance and the manner of it,—the very breach of her walls turned into triumph (II. 5, 7) by their reconstruction and the assault of the besiegers with their elephants (IB 17, 18, 19), repulsed in disgrace, ending in immediate retreat.35 In the third Hymn, he follows on similar lines; and adds a point, significant in his apprehension, that whereas the wall fell on the Sabbath, it was raised again on the Lord’s day, the Day of the Resurrection (III. 6). In all three Hymns, it is again and again implied or asserted that this was the third siege of Nisibis (I. II; II. 5, 19; III. 11, 12)—and farther (as it seems)the third time that a breach had been effected in her walls (I. II; II. 19). In later Hymns also (XI. 14, 15; XIII. 17) the embanked river, bursting forth and breaking down the defences of the city, more than once appears. From one of these we learn incidentally that the Mygdonius flowed past, not through, Nisibis (XIII. 18, 19);36 from which fact it follows that the description in the Life, of the manner in which the Persian engineers employed the river waters against the walls, is to be set aside in so far as it differs from Julian’s account as confirmed by the Hymns.
It is remarkable how closely these two accounts, both contemporary with the facts they treat of, agree in all essential points, though coming to us from sources not only independent, but even adverse, inter se,—and in forms so little favourable to exactness of statement as thanksgiving Hymns and encomiastic Orations. When from Ephraim’s strophes we omit his pious ascriptions of praise to God, and from Julian’s periods, the fulsomeness of his panegyric on the Emperor, the residuum of material fact is in either case much the same; the main outlines of narrative (related or implied) are identical in both writers, each unconsciously attests the truthfulness of the other. Both are farther confirmed in great measure by the account of this siege embodied in the Pascha Chronicle above referred to, which (as already stated) rests on information drawn from a written record left by Valgesh who was Bishop of Nisibis at the time, and to whose prayers Ephraim (Hymn XIII. 17)37 attributed the speedy restoration of the breach in the city wall.
In confusing this siege (of 350, in the time of Valgesh), with the previous one (of 338, in the time of Jacob), our biographer, with most subsequent writers down to the eighteenth century, has been misled by following Theodoret’s narration in his Ecclesiastical History (II. 30).38 The account of the siege given in the Life is in fact a mere reproduction, somewhat abridged, and slightly varied, of Theodoret’s, from which it derives also its computation of the time occupied by the siege as but twenty days,—a period obviously inadequate for the vast engineering works for which the four months assigned by Julian are certainly not too much,—as well as its description of the method and aim of those works. In Theodoret likewise are found the two supernatural incidents of Sapor’s discomfiture, both repeated in the Life,—neither of which is affirmed or even hinted at by Ephraim any more than by Julian; the appearance of the Imperial Phantom on the wall, and the plague of insects sent in answer to Jacob’s, or, as the Life has it, to Ephraim’s prayer. Of these, the former, but not the latter, finds place in the Paschal Chronicle, and (in exaggerated form) in Theophanes. Whether, in this instance, the chronicler’s statement, which is guardedly expressed,39 or any nucleus of it, was derived from the Epistle of Valgesh,—or whether he borrowed it from Theodoret or some one of Theodoret’s sources, or some such authority—is matter of conjecture.40
3). Constantius and Constans.—The Life errs grossly (as already noticed) in making Constans, who died in 350, and never reigned in the East, the successor of his brother Constantius, who survived till 361.
4). The Alleged Sojourn in Egypt.—The sojourn of Ephraim for eight years in Egypt, after he had taken up his abode in Egypt, and before his visit to Cappadocia, is impossible. It was in July, 363, that Nisibis was surrendered to Persia by Jovian, which court was the cause, as the Life (no doubt rightly) states, of Ephraim’s final departure from that city to Beth-Garbaia, thence to Amid, and finally, “at the end of the year,” to Edessa. It follows, therefore, that he did not reach Edessa till 364. In Edessa, or in his cell on the adjacent “Mount” according to the Life, he lived, worked, wrote commentaries and polemical discourses, taught, and formed a school of disciples, before his alleged journey to Egypt. It is therefore implied that he spent years in or near Edessa before he set out on that journey, which cannot therefore be placed so early as 365. Even if we assign to it the improbably early date of 366, the eight years in Egypt bring us to 374, or at earliest 373, for his visit to the Caesarean Cappadocia. Now there is a prevailing weight of testimony to the effect that Ephraim died in 373, which date, if accepted, leaves no time for the incidents of his life after his return to Edessa. This, however, cannot be urged against our biographer, who (as will be shown) assumes that he lived till 379. But the Life represents him as resident in or near Edessa during the persecution which that city suffered from the Emperor Valens, which (as stated above, p. 132) took place probably in 371; certainly not later than 372, at which date (according to the biographer) he was still in Egypt. In fact, even without going into particulars, it is evident that between Ephraim’s arrival in Edessa in 364 and the persecution of Valens in 370–2, the eight years’ sojourn in Egypt and the visit to Cappadocia would so fill the interval as to leave no time for the prolonged Edessa residence, before and after that sojourn, which the Life, in common with all other authorities, attributes to Ephraim, and in virtue of which his name is inseparably associated with the history of Edessa.
If, with the Vatican recension of the Life, we read “Julian” for Valens, as the name of the persecutor of Edessa, the impossibility becomes yet more absurdly glaring. For Julian died in 363, and before that year Ephraim had not migrated from Nisibis to Edessa.
It is no doubt possible that Ephraim may have visited Egypt,41 as the Life affirms, before proceeding to Caesarea: as an anchorite he would naturally be drawn to the laud where the anchorite life had its origin and its greatest development. Yet it is hardly probable that, eager as he was to see Basil at Caesarea, he would, when setting out on his travels, have directed his course to Egypt first,—a country so distant, and lying in a direction so different, froth Cappadocia. This improbability would naturally fail to strike our biographer, who appears to have supposed Basil’s Caesarea (if indeed he had any definite idea of its situation) to have been the maritime city of that name in Palestine. One can hardly avoid suspecting that this whole narrative of the visit to Egypt—unknown as it is to all authorities save our Life (in its twofold recension), and the shorter form of the same—may have been invented by some compiler or reviser, writing in, or for, one of the Egyptian monasteries of the Nitrian Desert, and seeking to gratify the Syrian ascetics who were numerous in that region, by making it the scene of an episode in the life of the most famous of Syrian ascetics. It certainly has the air of an interpolation, coming as it does between the description of Ephraim’s longing desire to see Basil, and the narrative of the fulfilment of that desire by his visit to Caesarea. More particularly, as regards the story of the visit of Ephraim to the Nitrian Saint Pesoës (or Bishoi), it is to be noted that it is mentioned, not in the Parisian recension of the Life, but only in that of the Vatican ms. It is a significant fact that this ms., which is thus our only written authority for the alleged visit, was written (probably) about the year 1100, in the Nitrian monastery of “Amba Bishoi” (St. Pesoës).42 On the other hand, it is to be added that a tradition of Ephraim’s sojourn in Egypt, connecting him with Pesoës, lingered in quite recent times, and may probably still linger, among the monks, Syrian and Coptic, of the Nitrian region. Travellers of the seventeenth, and even eighteenth, century, tell of a tamarind tree which was shown to them within the precincts of the Syrian monastery of the Theotokos in that region, reputed to have grown from Ephraim’s staff which he set in the ground on his arrival there, as he was about to enter the cell of Pesoës.43 It is probable that this legend of the staff (which reminds one of that of the staff of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury thorn tree) may have grown out of the belief that Ephraim once visited the monastery,—which belief again may have been originated by the pious fiction of the compiler or interpolator of the Life in its Vatican form. It is easy to imagine how gladly a community of Syrian monks in this Egyptian solitude would listen to what professed to be a record of the greatest of Syrian monks, a recluse like themselves, the author of the Sermons to Ascetics which they had read or listened to, and of the many hymns which enriched their offices and quickened their devotions;—and how ready they would be to welcome as fact the story of his sojourn in their valley, and to imagine that a memorial of it survived among the trees of their garden.
5). Interval between Visit to Basil and Persecution by Valens.—The interval of four years or more, which the Life seems to place between Ephraim’s return from Caesarea to Edessa, and the persecution of the Edessenes by Valens, is likewise impossible. For at Caesarea all agree that Ephraim found Basil Archbishop. But Basil was consecrated late in 370, and therefore Ephraim’s first meeting with him, which was on the Feast of the Epiphany, cannot be placed earlier than January, 371. But the persecution took place probably in 371, or at latest in 373—thus reducing the possible length of interval to two years at most—probably to a few months. It may be said, however, that the biographer, though he relates the persecution after mentioning the four years’ interval, does not mean to imply that it was subsequent in time to that interval. Bat it will be shown farther on (under next head) that the four years’ interval is inadmissible, independently of the date of that persecution; inasmuch as Ephraim survived only three years after his visit to Basil.
6). Death of Basil before that of Ephraim.—The story of the lady who was sent by Basil to Ephraim, and by Ephraim back to Basil, only in time to see his corpse,—and of Ephraim’s grief for Basil’s death, cannot be accepted unless we set aside the consent of the chronologers, who agree that Ephraim died in 373,44 —whereas Basil survived to 1st January, 379. It is true that there is extant among the Greek works ascribed to Ephraim, an encomium on Basil,45 which seems to be genuine. This, however, is not to be regarded as an eulogium pronounced after Basil’s death; but rather as a panegyric in which the living man is apostrophized.46 We may safely conclude that the story, which rests on a basis of erroneous chronology, is itself a fiction.
But the story of Ephraim’s helpful intervention and activity in a time of famine, which is undated, having early attestation, may well be accepted as true, and assigned to the winter of 372–3. The authorities who attest the date of his death as 373, place it in the month of Haziran (June);47 and we may reasonably conjecture that the exertions and anxieties of the season of famine had told too heavily on a frame already wasted by years and by excessive austerities, and had thus hastened his end.
26 If the Life had reached us in its Vatican form only, it would have been necessary to correct one or two farther errors:
I). Date of his Baptism Mistaken.—According to the Vatican Life, Ephraim was baptized at the age of 28, after the surrender of Nisibis by Jovian. The surrender was in 363, and the age assigned to him would therefore make 334 the earliest admissible date for his birth—ten years after the Council of Nicaea, at which the Life records that he was present! The Parisian Life corrects this absurdity and shows how the mistake arose. The statement, in this version of the story, is that after quitting Nisibis, “he retired to Beth-Garbaia, where he had received baptism at the age of 18.” By omitting the auxiliary “had” (which in Syriac, as in English, expresses the pluperfect) the Vatican scribe or editor introduces this blunder about the date of the baptism. It is probable that, without having any distinct knowledge of the date of the departure from Nisibis, he felt that Ephraim must have been more than 18 at this stage of the narrative, and strove to make the age cohere better with the time required for the events related, by changing 18 into 28.
2). Julian substituted for Valens.—The substitution of the name of Julian for that of Valens as the persecutor of Edessa, has been already noticed. That the story (with the incident of the martyr-mother with her two sons) belongs to the time of Valens, is established by the united testimony of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. The whole history is clear, and coherent with itself and with chronology, in the Parisian Life; whereas the Vatican version of it, by bringing Ephraim to Edessa in the reign of Julian, makes hopeless confusion.48 It is to be noted that the names Julianus and Valens, so distinct as written in Latin, differ but little when transliterated (without vowel-points) into Syriac.
27 1. The death of his patron, St. Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis, in 338, after the first siege of that city.2. The third siege, in which he was among the defenders of the city, in 350.
3. The surrender of Nisibis by Jovian, and its abandonment by its Christian inhabitants, 363; followed by Ephraim’s removal to Edessa.
4. The consecration of Basil to the see of Caesarea, late in 370, followed by Ephraim’s visit to him there.
5. The deliverance of the Edessenes from the persecution of Valens (370–372), celebrated by Ephraim in a hymn. 6. Ephraim’s death, 373.
To this list it would be right to prefix the meeting of the Council of Nicaea in 325, if the evidence of Ephraim’s presence at it, along with St. Jacob, were sufficient. But it has no early attestation; and no writer prior to Theodoret (Hist.Eccl. II. 30) associates the name of Jacob with any incident in Ephraim’s life).
The date of Ephraim’s birth is nowhere directly stated, but it is usually assumed to have been early in the reign of Constantine (306–337), on the authority of the Vatican Life, which says, “In the days of the victorious Constantine, true believer, was born the holy man Ephraim.” But the statement of the Parisian Life is less explicit, and is capable of a different meaning:—”(He was in the days of the victorious Constantine.” This merely implies that Ephraim (if the pronoun represent him) lived in the reign of that emperor. But it rather appears that Ephraim’s father is meant, inasmuch as he is the subject of the immediately preceding sentence which describes him as a heathen priest; and the purport of the passage is, that the saint was the son of a man who not merely had been one of an idolatrous priesthood, but continued to be so after Constantine had acknowledged the Christian religion.49
The earlier authorities give no express statement on this point; but a late tenth-century Greek menologium, that of the Emperor Basil (Porphyrogenitus), says that he “continued from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens,”50 —implying as it seems that he was born, as the Vatican Life represents, after Constantine’s accession in 306.
Considering, however, that the Life in both its forms affirms that Ephraim was brought by St. Jacob to the Council of Nicaea in 325—in which it is borne out by Gregory Barhebraeus in his Ecclesiastical Chronicle51 (who though a very late writer (1226–1286) had access to early authorities and judgment in using them)—it is hard to reconcile the chronology, for the improbability of the admission of a lad of nineteen, in any capacity, to that venerable assembly, is very great. If we accept it as a fact that he was chosen by Jacob to accompany him, and was permitted to be present among the Fathers at Nicaea, it seems almost necessary to place his birth before Constantine became emperor.52
Farther: the menologium above cited adds that he died “in extreme old age;” and the tone and tenor of his testament go far to confirm the truth of these words. But as he died in 373, he cannot have been more than 67 years old in that year if he was born in 306. No doubt 67 is a ripe age, but hardly sufficient to warrant the strong expression of the menologium. Without pressing its language unduly, we may surely take it as implying that he had passed the” threescore years and ten” of the Psalmist at the time of his death—in other words that he was born not later than the first or second year of the fourth century.
Thus by rectifying the text and rendering of the opening sentences of the Life, we relieve ourselves of the supposed necessity of placing his birth in or after 306. And his presence in the Council of 325, and his extreme old age in 373, concur in pointing to the beginning of the fourth century—if not to the later years of the third—as the probable time of that event.
However this may be, whether he was born in 306 or earlier, it is certain that by far the greater part of the long life of the “Deacon of Edessa”—all of it save its last ten or eleven years (363–373) was passed in his native Nisibis; and that he did not even attain the diaconate till he was considerably over sixty years of age, and within three years of his end.
28 Of the innumerable writings—controversial, expository, hortatory, devotional—which were for Ephraim the fulfilment of his dream in childhood, the fruit of the many years of literary activity that exercised his full heart and busy brain, enough remains to give an adequate idea of his powers and to amaze us by its variety and abundance. The exaggeration of Sozomen who reckons the number of lines written by him at “three hundred myriads” (three millions) is not to be taken as more than a rough guess at the probable total; but it is evidence of the impression made on the men of the generations to whom his works were transmitted by his fertility. That he himself was conscious of this gift appears in the fact that he records the dream and claims for his hymns and sermons that in them is to be found its interpretation. His faculty of speech, as Gregory informs us in a remarkable passage, though adequate to utter the thoughts of any other mind, was sometimes overborne by the rapid rush and abounding throng of the ideas with which his inspiration filled him, in such measure that he was forced to pray for the intermission of its flow, “Restrain, O Lord, the tide of Thy grace!”53 Copiousness is the characteristic, and its excess is the chief fault, of Ephraim as an author. The Syriac language has great capacity for condensation; and the parallelism of balanced clauses which Syriac literature affects, conduces to brevity. But on the other hand, the Syrian mind has a tendency to amplify; amplification is the besetting sin of Syriac writers,—of Ephraim not least. And thus, while each sentence has the severe precision of an epigram, the manifold reiteration of epigrammatic clauses amounts to verbosity: one and the same thought or fact is presented in a long-drawn series of slightly varied aspects, with change of expression or at most of illustration, till the recurrence becomes tedious. This criticism is meant primarily for his hymns; but it applies also to too many of his metrical homilies (to be described presently). In all his writings, metrical or otherwise, this habit of amplification leads him, in handling the narrations of Scripture, to fill out their simple outline with elaborate detail that wrongs their beauty and dignity. Of such treatment, examples will be found in this volume, in some of the hymns (such as the XIVth and XVth On the Epiphany, and in the Discourse on the Woman who was a Sinner.
His extant works (some of which are known to us only in a Greek version), and those of his lost works of which the titles are recorded, divide themselves into three classes;—Commentaries on Scripture, Homilies (mimre), and Hymns (madrashe).
1. Commentaries.—His Commentaries belonged (if we may trust the Life)to his later years, after his migration to Edessa, when he was past middle life. There he is related to have begun his exposition (still extant) of Genesis, in the preface to which he refers to the homilies and hymns which he had previously produced (Opp. Syr. Tom. 1P 1). He seems to have commented on almost all the canonical books of the Old Testament. His expositions of the Pentateuch, the chief historical books,54 the Prophets (including Lamentations), and Job, survive, and have been printed (in the Roman edition of 1732–43, supplemented by that of Professor Lamy, of Louvain, Tom. II., 1886);55 but those which he is recorded to have written on the Psalms and Proverbs, the books which may be presumed to have most influenced the religious spirit and literary form of his works, have not been preserved. None of the above, however, have reached us in a complete form, but rather as a series of extracts, apparently abridged, from the Commentaries as originally issued by their author. In commenting on the New Testament, he treated of the Gospels, not in their separate form, but in the continuous narrative known as the “Diatessaron” compiled from them by Tatian in the second century. This work, long lost, has been lately recovered in an Armenian version. His Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul has likewise been preserved for us in Armenian. Both have been published by the Mechetarist Fathers of St. Lazaro; first in Armenian, afterwards in a Latin version.56 In the present volume it has been judged best to include none of the Commentaries, inasmuch as the method and spirit of Ephraim’s treatment of Scripture are shown adequately, and in a more interesting form, in his Homilies and Hymns.
2. Homilies.—The Homilies are very varied in character. Many are controversial,—directed against the Jews, against heathenism in the person of the Emperor Julian, against the heresies of Manes, of Marcion, of Bardesan, of the Anomoean followers of Arius. Others set forth articles of the Faith—the Creation, the Fall, Redemption by the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord, His Descent into Hades, His Resurrection, the Mission of the Holy Spirit, the Rest of Paradise, the Second Coming, the End of the World. Others are expository, treating of narratives from the Old and the New Testaments, such as the life of Joseph, the Repentance of Nineveh, or the story of “the woman who was a sinner” of St. Lc 7, —Others again are hortatory—calling to repentance, warning against sin, threatening future retribution, extolling virginity. Of the Homilies two—one doctrinal, of Our Lord ; one expository, of the sinful woman, are given in this selection. It is to be noted that the Homilies are usually metrical in form, being written in regular stichoi (lines of uniform length). And some of them—for example, a series of nine for the “Rogation Days,”57 and another of eight for the “Passion Week” (week before Easter), and the vigil of “New Sunday” (first alter Easter)—were and still are regularly read as lessons, as part of the offices of the Church;58 a singular mark of reverence—extended. it seems, to the sermons of no other divine.
3. Hymns.—But it is in his Hymns that Ephraim lives,—for the Syrian Churches, and indirectly for the Christian world, of the East if not of the West.59 Throughout Syrian Christendom, divided as it has been for ages—in the Malkite, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite communities, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris, and beyond, even to the Malabar remnant of the Syro-Indian Church, all of which retain Syriac as the language of their ritual,—the whole body of public worship is shaped by his hymnody and animated with his spirit. It is literally the fact that the Hymns of Ephraim go with every member of every one of these Churches from the first to the last of his Christian life, from the font to the grave. The Epiphany Hymns (included in the present selection) are interwoven into the Baptismal Office; among the Funeral Hymns (which Dr. Burgess has made accessible to English readers)60 are to be found dirges proper for the obsequies of each and all, lay and cleric, young and old, male and female. Nor is it to be doubted that it was from these Syriac offices that those of the Greek-speaking Churches derived this characteristic, common to both, by which both are differentiated from those of the West,—”hymns occupying in the Eastern Church” (as Dr. Neale observes)61 “a space beyond all comparison greater than they do in the Latin,” so that “the body of the Eastern breviary is ecclesiastical poetry.” That the Syrian Church, and not the Greek, took the initiative in the development of ritual, appears from the facts that, though there is evidence of the use of Psalms and Canticles from Scripture throughout Christendom from the first, it is only with Ephraim’s contemporary, Gregory Nazianzen, that Greek sacred poetry can be said to have taken shape,—and that his verses failed to gain a place in public worship. He wrote in the metres of the heathen classics; and it was not until a later day, and from the hands of other writers, working on other lines, that the hymns appeared which won their way into the Greek ritual,—hymns written in rhythmic prose, in what seems to be conscious imitation of the Syriac model.62
The imitation, however, is by no means complete; it is apparent in the general tone and manner, but does not extend to the form: just as the Greek version of Ephraim’s Hymns, though faithfully reproducing his thoughts and literary method, makes no attempt to retain his metrical system; but is a rendering into what in form is prose of an original which is in verse. That this should be so is unavoidable, for Syriac metres are incapable of adaptation to the Greek language. Syriac literature, in all else imitative, here and here only has found out for itself an independent course. Elsewhere it leans on one side to the Hebrew model to which it was drawn by affinity of language and by the influence of the Old Testament; on the other to the Greek, as found in the New Testament and in the writings of the great Divines of the Alexandrian and Antiochian patriarchates, who were the leaders of religious thought for Eastern Christendom. In hymnody alone it struck out a line of its own; it set an example for the Greek-speaking Churches to follow, so far as was possible for them under the conditions above indicated. The Syriac Hymnody is constructed on the Hebrew principle of parallelism, in which thought answers to thought in clauses of repetitive or antithetical balance: but, unlike the Hebrew, its clauses are further regulated by strict equivalence of syllabic measure. But though in this latter respect it seems to approach to the forms of Western verse, ancient or modern, yet the resemblance is but superficial: Syriac verse is not measured by feet—whether determined by syllable quantity, as in Greek and Latin, or by accent, as in English and other modern languages. Thus the metre of Syriac poetry is substantially the “thought-metre” (as it has been well called) of Hebrew, reduced to regularity of form by the rule that each of the lines into which the balanced clauses fall, shall consist of a fixed number of syllables. There is no systematic rhyme; but the nature of the language which by reason of its uniformity of etymological structure abounds in words of like terminations, often causes correspondences of sound amounting to rhyme, or at least to assonance. The lines are very short; not exceeding twelve syllables, sometimes confined to four. Ephraim, though not the actual inventor, was the first master of this metrical system, the first to develop it into system and variety.63 His favorite metres are the five-syllabled and the seven-syllabled. In his more elaborate poems, such as the Nisibene series, which are rather Odes than Hymns, the strophes or stanzas into which the lines are arranged are often long and of complicated structure, each strophe consisting of many lines (ranging from four up to fourteen or more) of various lengths according to a fixed scheme rigidly adhered to throughout the poem—sometimes throughout a group of cognate poems. In other poems, especially in Hymns intended for popular or ecclesiastical use, where simplicity of structure is suitable, the lines which compose each strophe, whatever their number, are of uniform length. So easily do the Syriac tongue, and the genius of Syriac literature, lend themselves to this scheme of short, syllabically equal clauses, that (as has been already stated) many even of the Homilies are metrical; arranged not indeed in strophes, but in continuous succession of brief stichoi, all of one and the same length—usually of seven syllables; a sort of blank verse, but a blank verse with no animating accents, no varying pauses. A Homily so constructed would fatigue the ear of a modern audience by its monotony: but inasmuch as some portions of Ephraim’s Homilies were used in certain ecclesiastical Offices, probably recited in a sort of chant, it may be that in such use we have the explanation of their quasi-versified structure.
In point of literary value as poems, a high place cannot be claimed for these Hymns. Some of them indeed have much of the devotional fervor, and not a little of the human pathos, of the Psalms of David: others show something of the antithetic point and epigrammatic terseness of the Proverbs of Solomon. Yet the devout aspirations and confessions of the poet are too often forced and artificial in their utterance; in his funeral dirges we seem here and there to detect the false note of the professional mourner in the effort to exhaust all possible topics of grief; in all his poems he tends to prolong the series of his parallelisms to a wearisome length and with an iteration that, though laboriously varied, is tedious,—an iteration that has no precedent in the poetry of the Old Testament, save in one or two of the latest Psalms, such as the CXXXVIIth with its recurring burden “For His mercy endureth for ever,” or the CXIXth with its artificial arrangement (often emulated in Syriac Hymnody) by which each of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet in turn is made to head each one of eight consecutive verses in praise of the Law of the Lord. On the whole, it must be admitted that the greater qualities of poetry, such as abound everywhere in nearly every writer of the Hebrew Scriptures,—of truth in rendering the inmost feelings of man’s heart in words of absolute simplicity, of aspiration that rises without effort to the highest things of God—to these Ephraim’s Hymns have no claim.
For these shortcomings in his poetry, two main causes may be assigned.
One is in the man himself,—or rather, in his mode of life. Naturally, he was prone to feel for and with his fellow-men; for the sorrows of the bereaved, the cares of the toiling poor whose lot (as he proved in the last and best episode of his history) moved him to sympathy and active succour. He can be simple accordingly when he deals with the homely facts of life. But the main tenor of his course was ascetic; he looked on this life and the life beyond—on man and to God—with a vision clouded by the gloom of unnatural solitude and self-mortification. An assiduous student of Scripture, he had an ear for its threatenings rather than its promises and consolations; dread and dismay entered into his heart more deeply than hope; the “Stand in awe and sin not” of the Psalmist was more familiar to his spirit than the “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous.” The perpetual proneness to tears on which his biographers dwell with admiration, and which he seems to have thought it right to foster, has its reflex in his writings, in the hysterical overflow of his fears, his lamentations and his self-reproach. He had lived as an anchorite till his nature became morbid, and its moral fibre was weakened. But to reach the highest levels in religious literature, whether in prose or in poetry, a man must be sane, his mind healthy and strong,—with a health and strength sustained and exercised by wholesome daily contact with the lives of other men.
The second cause is to be found in the method, above described as his—developed though not actually invented by him, and made his own—which he chose as the vehicle of his thoughts and emotions. The “thought-metre” of the Hebrew poets was regulated (as we have seen) by balance of sense, not of sound—member answering to member, verse by verse, in equivalence or contrast of substance merely, not of verbal form: and in this metre, which has been happily likened to the alternating beat of a bird’s wings as it mounts aloft, they had shown it to be possible to attain the highest reach of sublime expression of the utmost that man’s spirit can conceive of God and Heaven. The Syriac Hymnists had the unhappy idea of effecting a compromise between their two contrasted models, the Hebrew and the Greek; and to this end they compelled their verses into conformity by syllabic measure, of sound, as well as of sense. This artificial structure has an effectiveness of its own, and is suited to the popular ear; but it is incapable of the elevation which the earlier and simpler method attained without effort. As its Semitic parallelism of substance excluded Syriac poetry from the variety in topic and largeness in conception of the Greek, so this grecized regularity of form hampered its efforts to rise to the upper regions where the Hebrew is at home. The wings are free and ample by whose regulated stroke Hebrew poetry is borne, and they carry it to the supreme height: in Syriac poetry the flight is too commonly low and feeble, because its wings are clipped. In the former we are conscious of a uniformity as of the unconstrained waves of the sea, following in a succession of endless change—a uniformity that is majestic: in the latter we detect the uniformity of the water-wheel, that with artificial movement draws up and dispenses the waters of the well in vessels of fixed measure—a uniformity that is mechanical and monotonous.
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