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Ephrem the Syrian: his complex relationship with Judaism

February 27, 2012

Victoria has another post discussing Ephrem the Syrian; the most famous religious writer in Syriac. 

Ephrem is often represented a crude and vulgar anti-Semite, on the basis of some of his surviving works.  Undoubtedly this is a distortion of his true genius, since so much of his original work was destroyed, and a fair amount of work attributed to Ephrem is falsely attributed.  Andrew Palmer (School of Oriental and African Studies) writes:

The lesson from the past is that each culture constructs a picture of Ephraim according to its own lights. Whatever picture we ourselves can reconstruct, it is likely to bear the stamp of our own concerns, even if we make an effort to be objective. For example, a young, secular Englishman is likely to give a greater emphasis to sexual language than a monk of Mount Athos would do.

What makes the subject so worthwhile is that Ephraim can appeal both to the monk of Mount Athos and to the young secular Englishman. Ephraim, or Pseudo-Ephraim, seemed to John Wesley “the most awakening of the ancients;”” to Edward Pusey, whose churchmanship was so different from that of the Wesleys, the genuine Ephraim seemed the great exponent of mystical typology.[…]

Ephraim’’s entire output was probably still being copied out anew up to two hundred years after his death. Fifth and sixth century manuscripts must have come into the possession of various Mesopotamian monasteries. In the following centuries they were excerpted for use in the Liturgy and from then on only these excerpts were transmitted by the Syriac scribes of East and West.

The reputation of Ephraim did not decline, although knowledge of his work declined sharply. What knowledge there was now existed only among the monks who learned the ancient language. They were not much interested in speculation. The monk Aaron washed out most of the only extant copy of the refutations of Marcion, Bardesanes and Mani and wrote out other texts on the leaves.

Before washing the leaves, Aaron copied out the only text which did interest him: a short series of words of advice to a female virgin in poetic prose. This single action sums up the whole process by which the sensitive, fanciful and ingenious wordpainter and speculative philosopher was reduced to a fanatical and humourless moralist and an ungentlemanly opponent of the heretics and the Jews.

This might be seen as poetic justice. Ephraim owed his genius not to his devotion or his memory of the Bible, impressive as they undoubtedly were, but to his education in a wide-ranging speculative school and his exposure to laymen as well as clergy, women and children as well as men, the married (like his own sister, whose son ’’Absamya became a poet) as well as the celibate.

Other sources claim that Ephrem, who lived near the border of the Roman empire and the Sassanian Persian Empire in the city now called Nusaybin (today it is Kurdish on Turkey’s southern border with Syria) where came into broad contact with Rabbinic Judaism.  Most interestingly to me is that regardless of his opinions of the Jews, he adopted their literary forms, particularly in wordplay (see Puns and Pundits:  Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature which has a chapter on Ephrem.)

As an example of his wordplay, here is a portion of Ephrem’s commentary on the Diatesseron (Tatian’s famous harmonized gospel), as translated by Palmer:

When he heard the promise of John from the angel,
but did not believe it, he was silent;
but when he saw that John had come out of the womb he spoke.
The word which came out of the angel
passed by his mouth and closed it,
and so came to the womb and opened it;
and the same reversed these operations,
closing the womb which it had opened,
that it might not give birth again,
and opening the mouth which it had closed,
that it might not be closed again.

It was right that the mouth should be closed
for not believing that the barren womb could be opened;
and it was right that the womb which gave birth to John
should be closed and not give birth again,
so that an only-begotten son
should be the herald of the Only-Begotten Son.

Moreover, even if Zechariah alone doubted,
all the same, by doubting,
he removed all doubt from people’s minds.

This rendering seems very modern to me – much like Samuel Beckett’s Watt, with its extreme regard for symmetry.  (If this whets your taste for Ephrem’s commentary, Carmel McCarthy [University College, Dublin] has translated this entire work.)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 11:15 pm

    Thanks for this post, Theophrastus. I do find the sections of Ephrem’s work that discuss the Jewish people to be difficult, because they are at best supercessionist. Similarly, although he praises many of the righteous persons of the Old Testament, he does so through an explicitly Christian, “everything in the Old Covenant prefigures the New” perspective that thoroughly appropriates the Shared Scriptures into the Christian Old Testament.

    But, we must judge people by the standards of their time, and he does not particularly stand out from the other patristic writers in this regard, at least as far as I am aware.

    I’m intrigued that rabbinic Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Persian mysticism all seem to have influenced his work.

  2. February 28, 2012 12:35 am

    I think that one of Palmer’s points here is that we cannot know Ephrem well, because so much of his work has been lost, while other statements are attributed to him that he may not have said. (Most Syraic writings in seven syllable couplets are attributed to him!)

    We do not know Ephrem’s original views, and Palmer suggests that he may have been much more open to Judaism than his “writings” indicate. In fact, it is only in the last few years that scholars have attempted to separate Ephrem and the pseudo-Ephrem writings.

    And, as Palmer describes in the passage I quote above, large amounts of Ephrem have simply been lost.

  3. February 28, 2012 10:02 am

    “Undoubtedly this is a distortion of his true genius, since so much of his original work was destroyed, and a fair amount of work attributed to Ephrem is falsely attributed.”

    The “undoubtedly” certainly does not follow. If much of his original work was destroyed, it is possible the original work was even more antisemitic. And if much of what survives is falsely attributed it is possible that all of it is, and that the genius was never with the original but with the forger. Forgers, after all, don’t forge theological stuff in the names of genius — they forge it in the name of names with authority. It is, therefore, automatically more likely that the genius lies with the forger!

  4. February 28, 2012 11:29 am

    The undoubtedly refers to the crudeness of his work — results that are directly an effect of non-Ephrem works being attributed to Ephrem. Ephrem was far too interested in clever word-play to express himself in a vulgar fashion.

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