Ephrem (d. 373)

Deacon, poet, and theologian. Born probably of Christian parents in the early years of the 4th cent. in the region of Nisibis, he spent most of his life in Nisibis, serving a series of bishops (beginning with Yaʿqub of Nisibis, d. 338). As part of the peace treaty between the Roman and Persian Empires in 363, Nisibis was handed over to the Persians and the Christian population had to leave. Ephrem may have gone first to Amid, but ended up settling in Edessa, where he spent the last ten years of his life. He probably died on 9 June 373. His biography, written perhaps 200 years after his death, is full of unreliable information (see Ephrem, Life of).

Ephrem’s genuine writings fall into four main categories, prose, artistic prose, stanzaic poetry (madrāše), and 7+7 syllable couplets (memre).

1. Prose: Commentary on Genesis and part of Exodus (ed. R. M. Tonneau, CSCO 152–3); Commentary on the Diatessaron (ed. L. Leloir, 1963, 1990), whose final editing was probably after his death; Commentaries on Acts and the Pauline Letters which only survive in Armenian translation; various works against Bardaiṣan, Marcion, and Mani (ed. C. Mitchell and F. C. Burkitt, Prose Refutations, I–II [1912, 1921]).

2. Artistic prose: memrā on our Lord (ed. Beck, CSCO 270–1); Letter to Publius (ed. S. P. Brock, LM 89, 1976); memrā on the signs performed by Moses in Egypt (ed. Overbeck, S. Ephraemi ... Opera Selecta [1865], 88–94).

3. Madrāše (‘Hymni’). Nearly 400 madrāše survive, using some 50 different metrical patterns, designated by their melody titles (qāle). According to Yaʿqub of Serugh, Ephrem instituted women’s choirs to sing his madrāše. These are transmitted in collections of various sizes, and are all edited by E. Beck: on the Church (CSCO 198–9); on the Crucifixion (CSCO 248–9); on Faith (CSCO 154-5); on the Fast (CSCO 246–7); against Heresies (CSCO 169–70); against Julian the Apostate (CSCO 174–5); on the Nativity (CSCO 186–7); of the Nisibenes (CSCO 218–9, 240–1); on Paradise (CSCO 174–5); on the Resurrection (CSCO 248–9); on Unleavened Bread (CSCO 248–9); and on Virginity (CSCO 222–3). Collections attributed to Ephrem, but which largely contain madrāše that must be slightly later, are: on Abraham of Qidun and Yulyana Saba (ed. Beck, CSCO 322–3); on the Confessors (ed. Beck, CSCO 363–4); on Epiphany (ed. Beck, CSCO 186–7).

4. Memre (‘Sermones’). Since the seven-syllable meter, used by Ephrem, became known as the ‘meter of Mar Ephrem’, a large number of memre, certainly not by Ephrem, came to be attributed to him. The six memre on Faith (ed. Beck, CSCO 212–3) are definitely genuine. Of the four further collections of memre edited by Beck (Sermones I–IV, CSCO 305–6, 311–2, 320–1, 334–5), only the following are considered by him to be genuine: I, 1–3; II, 1 (on Jonah and Nineveh) and the core of 4 (On the Sinful Woman, Luke 7); and IV, 2 (perhaps). All the rest in these volumes date from times later than Ephrem; this also applies to memre in Beck’s further volumes, CSCO 363–4 (Nachträge) and 412–3 (on Holy Week). Only some excerpts from a collection of memre on Nicomedia survive in Syriac, but a complete Armenian translation preserves it (ed. C. Renoux, PO 37, 2–3).

The dating of Ephrem’s writings, to before or after his move from Nisibis in 363, for the most part remains uncertain. Very probably composed before 363 are the memre on Faith, the madrāše on Paradise, and at least most of the Nisibene collection (the first can be dated exactly, since it describes the flooding of the surroundings during the siege of Nisibis in 350). The madrāše against Julian must date from shortly after the emperor’s death in 363, during his Persian campaign. It would seem reasonable to date with confidence to his Edessan period those works which include references to Bardaiṣan (Prose Refutations, madrāše against Heresies); likewise the madrāše on Faith, many of which are concerned with the later developments of Arianism.

The madrāše collections are preserved in 6th-cent. mss. (not always quite complete). This is fortunate since later mss. (almost all liturgical) provide only excerpts, often mixed in with later material; furthermore they attribute to Ephrem numerous poems which are certainly not by him (see Studia Patristica 33 [1997], 490–505). An important clue to the early transmission of the collections is provided by an early index of qāle (ed. A. de Halleux, LM 85 [1972], 171–99). Three of the six-volume Roman edition of Ephrem’s works (1732–6) provided the first printed edition of his works in Syriac (the other volumes contain texts in Greek). In the 19th cent. editions of further works were published by Overbeck (1865), Bickell (1866), and especially Lamy (I–IV, 1882–1902). These older editions are now almost entirely replaced, as far as genuine works are concerned, by the 20th-century editions of Beck and others (a guide to all these editions is given in The Harp 3 [1990], 7–29; in S. Ephrem, un poète pour notre temps, 281–307; and in the Russian Theological Encyclopaedia [under Ephrem]).

Ephrem was already known outside Syriac circles to Epiphanius (‘Panarion’, 51.22.7: ‘the sage among the Syrians’) and to Jerome (‘On Famous Men’, 115, written in 392), and translations of some of his works into Greek were soon made. Ephrem’s fame, however, led to a large number of Greek texts being attributed to him, only a few of which are really by him (and many are not even translations from Syriac); CPG 3905–4175 provides a guide to these. Translations were made from Greek into Latin, Slavonic, and other languages; those into Armenian, however, were directly from Syriac.

Ephrem was also a profound thinker, preferring to express his theological vision through poetry, rather than prose. Though his importance for the Christian tradition as a whole was recognised by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, when he proclaimed Ephrem to be a Doctor of the Universal Church, it is only in fairly recent years that his significance as a theologian has begun to be properly appreciated.

The iconographical tradition either depicts him as a deacon (thus on a 10th-cent. icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai), or (more frequently) as a monk, following the misleading 6th-century Life. A popular theme in Late Byzantine art was the Death of St. Ephrem.

The dates of his liturgical commemorations vary in the different Churches. Syr. Orth., Saturday of the 1st week of Lent (with St. Theodore); also 28 Jan. and 19 Feb.; Maron., 27 Jan.; Ch. of E., Friday of 5th week after Epiphany (Syriac Doctors). Greek and Russian Orthodox, 28 Jan. Roman Catholic, 9 June.

See Fig. 49c.


    • K.  den Biesen, Bibliography of St Ephrem (2002) provides very full coverage; subsequent studies can be located in ‘Syriac studies: a classified bibliography (2001–2005)’, ParOr 33 (2008), 325–331.

    Primary Sources

    • For Syr. editions, see above. There are bilingual editions of On the Nativity (Syr. with AT by J. Khoury 1994), and of 20 selected poems (Syr. with ET by S. P. Brock and G. A.  Kiraz 2006). Beck’s editions are all accompanied by GT; a GT of the Commentary on the Diatessaron recently appeared as C. Lange, Ephraem der Syrer. Kommentar zum Diatessaron (FC 54.1–2; 2008). For French, Italian, and other translations, see S. Ephrem, Un poète pour notre temps (2007), 294–307. ET are as follows:
    • S. P.  Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: 18 Poems of St Ephrem (2nd  ed. 1983).
    • S. P.  Brock, St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise (1990).
    • M.  Hansbury, Hymns [on the Table] of St Ephrem the Syrian (2006).
    • E. G.  Mathews and J. P. Amar, St Ephrem the Syrian. Selected Prose Works (1994).
    • C.  McCarthy, Saint Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron (1993).
    • K. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns (1989).

    Secondary Sources

    • E. Beck, Ephräms des Syrers Psychologie und Erkenntnislehre (CSCO 419; 1980).
    • T. Bou Mansour, La théologie symbolique de Saint Éphrem (1988).
    • S. P.  Brock, The Luminous Eye: the Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem (2nd ed. 1992; there are French, Italian, Malayalam, Romanian, Russian, and Swedish translations).
    • Centre d’Études et de Recherches Orientales (CERO), Saint Éphrem, un poète pour notre temps (Patrimoine syriaque, Colloque XI; 2007).
    • K.  den  Biesen, Simple and bold. Ephrem’s art of symbolic thought (2006).
    • S. H.  Griffith, ‘Ephrem the exegete’, in Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, ed. C. Kannengiesser (2004), vol. 2, 1395–448.
    • C.  Lange, The Portrayal of Christ in the Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron (CSCO 616; 2005).
    • Murray, Symbols.
    • U.  Possekel, Evidence of Greek philosophical concepts in the writings of Ephrem the Syrian (CSCO 580; 1999).
    • A.  Shemunkasho, Healing in the theology of St Ephrem (2002).
    • P.  Yousif, L’Eucharistie chez s. Éphrem de Nisibe (OCA 224; 1984).

| Ephrem |


Front Matter A (73) B (53) C (26) D (36) E (27) F (5) G (30) H (22) I (31) J (15) K (11) L (12) M (56) N (19) O (3) P (28) Q (11) R (8) S (71) T (39) U (1) V (5) W (3) X (1) Y (41) Z (4) Back Matter
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