(ca 305-373)

Selected Hymns

 The Death of Ephrem, Athos, Iveron, 1450

Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, tr. & introd. Kathleen E. McVey, ser. Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist, 1989) pp. 153-157.  The same melody i.e. “Who is able to Speak?” cf. Hymn 5, p. 106






(1) “The Babe that I carry has carried me,”

said Mary. “He bent down  His pinions [p. 154]  

and took and put me between His wings

and soared into the air. He promised me,

‘the height and the depth will be your Son’s.’”373


REFRAIN: Praise to You, Son of the Creator,

                         Who loves all!


(2) “I saw Gabriel who called him Lord

and the High Priest, the aged servant374

who solemnly carried him. I saw the Magi

bowing down and Herod

dismayed that the King had come.


(3) “Satan, too, who drowned boys

so that Moses would perish, kills boys [now]

so that the Living One will die. I shall flee to Egypt 371

since [Satan] has come to Judah, so that he will become weary confused­

he who seeks to hunt his Hunter.


(4) “In her virginity Eve put on

leaves of shame. 376

Your mother put on, in her virginity, the garment of glory

 that suffices for all. I gave

the small mantle 377 of the body to the One who covers all.


(5) “Blessed is the woman in whose heart

and mind You are. She is the King’s castle 378

for 379 You, the King’s Son, and the Holy of Holies

for You, the High Priest. She has neither the anxiety

nor the toil of a household and husband. 380


(6) “On the other hand, Eve became a cave and grave

for the accursed serpent, for his evil counsel

entered and dwelt in her; she who became dust

became bread for him.381 [But] You are our bread,

and You are our bridal chamber and the robe of our glory.


(7) “If she who is chaste 382 is afraid,

behold the guard [of her chastity]. If she [commits] a wrong,

behold its pardoner. If she has a demon,

behold its pursuer. And [for] those who have pains,

behold the binder of their wounds.


(8) “Whoever 183” has a body, let him come to be

a brother to my Beloved. Whoever has a daughter

or kinswoman, let her come to be

the bride of my Honorable One. And whoever has a slave,

let him release him to come to serve his Lord.


(9) “My Son, one is the wage of the free-born man

who has taken up Your yoke. But the slave who has borne

the double yoke of two lords,

of the One above and one below, receives two blessings

and the two wages of the two burdens.


(10) “My Son, the free--born woman is also Your handmaiden

if she serves You, and the enslaved woman

in You is a freewoman. By You she is consoled

that she is a freed woman. Invisible emancipation

is placed in her bosom if she love; You.


(11) “O chaste woman, eagerly await my Beloved

so that He may dwell in you, and unclean women, too, [p.156]

so that He may purify you; churches, too,

so that He may adorn you. He is the Son of the Creator

Who came to restore the whole creation.


(12) “He renewed the sky since fools worshipped

all the luminaries. He renewed the earth

that had grown old because of Adam. A new creation

384 came to be by His spittle,385 and the All-sufficient

set straight bodies and minds.


(13) “Come, you blind, and without money 386

receive sight. Come, you lame,

receive your feet. You mute and deaf,

receive your voices. And let those with maimed hands 387

receive [whole] hands.


(14) “The Son of the Creator is He Whose treasures are full

of all benefits. Let the one

who needs eyes come to Him.

He will make clay and transform it.

He will make flesh. He will enlighten eyes.


(15) “With a little clay He showed that by His hand

our dust was formed. The soul of the dead man

also witnessed that the human soul

was breathed in by Him. By the latter witnesses

it is verified that He is the Son of the First One.


(16) “Gather, you lepers, and without effort

receive your purification. For He does not need

as Elisha [did] to have [you] plunge in

seven times.” Nor again will He weary [you]

as the priests did with their sprinklings. 391


(17) “The seven of Elisha in a symbol cleansed the seven spirits, 392

 and hyssop and blood

are a great type:393 There is no place

for strangeness; the Son of the Lord of the universe

is not estranged from the Lord of the universe.394


(18) “For if the just One makes the body leprous,

and You purify [it], [then] the One Who formed the body

hates the body and You love it!

But You formed it! The pledges”‘ that you have cast

upon it cry out that You are the Son of the Creator.

Introduction to Hymn 17 on the Nativity,
by Kathleen E. McVey (p. 154)

   This hymn begins with an ascension motif. Like many of the supposed authors of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, Mary is trans­ported into the air to receive a revelation. The divine person of Christ in the form of a great bird is not only bearer and revealer but also the subject of the revelation. The content of the revelation to Mary is the cosmic role of Christ: “He promised me, `the height and the depth will be your Son’s “ (str. 1). Mary names a series of others who recognized the dig­nity of Christ: Gabriel, Simeon, Herod and Satan (str. 2-3). These are drawn from the canonical infancy narratives.
    By providing the body of Christ, Mary, the new Eve, has provided for all the garment of glory, the resurrection body (str. 4). The life of consecrated virginity is the means by which the new creation continues to transform the world. In contrast to Eve, especially, the woman conse­crated to virginity is the dwelling place of God. (str. 5-6). Yet all, male and female, slave and free, clean and unclean, are encouraged to take up the yoke of virginity (str. 8-11).
Christ is “the Son of the Creator Who came to renew the whole creation” (str. 11.4-5). This renewal has both cosmic and human dimen­sions (str. 12-14). In an anti-Marcionite vein, Ephrem argues that Jesus’ healings and his bringing the dead back to life prove that he is the Son of the Creator and himself the Creator as well. Jesus’ love for the human body is shown by his healings. They demonstrate that Jesus is not, as Marcion would have it, son of a Strange God, but he is Son of the just Lord of the Universe (str. 15-18).

Notes to Hymn 17 on the Nativity:

373. A similar motif occurs in The Apocalypse of Abraham 15. After Abraham and an angel have been carried up to the presence of God on the wings of a pigeon and a turtledove, respectively, Abraham joins in an angelic song of praise to God; cf. The Apocalypse of Abraham, ed.and trans by G. H. Box, SPCK (London, 1918). I am grateful to Martha Himmelfarb for pointing out this parallel. The representation of Christ as a bird also has some parallels in early Christian literature. In Matt. 23.37 Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. Various Greek and Latin Patristic writers saw the mother hen as a particularly appropriate image for Christ as the Divine Wisdom; cf. Bradley, Background, esp. 103-108. Beck comments briefly on this passage in Beck, Mariologie, 25.
374. Simeon; cf. Luke 2.25-35.
375. Matt. 2.13-18; in Ephrem’s version, Mary rather than Joseph seems to be the initiator of the flight. Ephrem explicitly draws the parallel implied by Matthew’s account; cf. Exodus 1.22.
376. Cf. HdP 2.7 and 6.9, Virg 35.2.
377. The word prys’ is rich in meanings. In addition to any small covering, mantle or rug, it may mean the breastplate of the high priest, the veil of the Temple, or (as a feminine) the flat wafer of the Eucharist (Margoliouth 460b). Further, cf. Beck, Mariologie, 30.
378. The Syriac is byrt’, not bykl’.
379. Or “by You.”
380. The freedom of the virgin-male or female-from the anxieties of the householder is a common theme is early Christian ascetic literature. Although the authority of 1 Cor. 7.32-35 is G often invoked, the catalogue of woes owes much to pagan literature, e.g., Tert. Exh. ad. cast. 12; Greg. Nyss de virg. 3; John Chrys., de virg. 14.6, 56.1.
381. The serpent is condemned to crawl on his belly and eat dust, cf. Gen. 3.14.
382. Literally, “who has chastity.”
383. In this strophe the hypothetical person having a son or daughter is addressed as ‘, female, whereas the hypothetical slaveowner is addressed as male.
384. The Syriac word, gbylt’ from the root gbl “to form, to shape” suggests the image of a potter. The image and the word itself (gbb appear in str. 14 and 15.
385. I.e., by his miracles of healing, cf. John 9.6. 386. Le., without paying a doctor or healer.
387. The Syriac has a singular here, plural in the following line.
388. Ephrem interprets John 9.6 in relation to Gen. 2.7; the healing shows that Christ is the same One Who created the first human being; cf. also job 4.19, 10.9. Although Ephrem’s interpretation of this detail in the Johannine pericope is not supported by modern scholars, the same idea was elaborated with the same anti .Marcionite polemical intent by Irenaeus in Adv. Haer. V 15.2; cf. Brown, Gospel According to John, I, 369-82, esp. 372.
389. John 11 is here interpreted in the light of Gen. 2.7. On the Creator breathing life into Adam, cf. Kronholm, Motifs, 216.
390. 2 Kgs. 5.10.
391 Lev 1.1-32. Here the Syriac word for priest is kbn’.
392. The seven washings prescribed by Elisha typologically represent the seven evil spirits cast out from Mary Magdalene; cf. Luke 8.2 and Mark 16.9. Or the reference may be to the seven evil spirits who replace one in the parable, cf. Matt. 12.45, Luke 11.26.
393. The priestly remedies, cf. Lev. 14.4-7, are also antetypes of Christ the High Priest.
394. Here and in the final strophe Ephrem makes an explicitly anti-Marcionite polemic: the Father of Jesus is not a Stranger God but is the Creator of the universe.
395. ie., the healings, as Bee
k suggests.


HYMN 3: from the
Fifteen Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany

tr. A. Edward Johnston (NPNF ser. 2, vol. 13)  


1. Christ and chrism are conjoined; the secret with the visible is mingled: the chrism anoints visibly, - Christ seals secretly,the lambs newborn and spiritual,the prize of His twofold victory; for He engendered it of the chrism, and He gave it birth of the water.


REFRAIN: Christ with chrism, lo!
He is sealing the newborn lambs in His flock!


2. How exalted are your Orders! For she that was a sinner anointed, as a handmaid, the feet of her Lord. But for you, as though His minister, Christ by the hand of His servants, seals and anoints your bodies. It befits Him the Lord of the flock, that in His own person He seal His sheep.


3. Since then she, that sinner, stood in need of forgiveness, the anointing was for her an offering, and by it her love reconciled her Lord. But you who are the flock, among the profane and unbelievers, the Truth by the chrism is your seal, to separate you from the strayed.


4. From the peoples he separated the People, by the former seal of circumcision; but by the seal of anointing, the peoples He separates from the People. When the peoples were in error, the People He separated from the peoples; now when the People has erred from Him, He separates the peoples from thence.


5. Of the dust of the pure soil, Naaman bore away and returned to his place; that he by this holy dust, might be separated and known from the unclean. The chrism of Christ separates, the sons of the mystery from strangers: and by it they that are within are separated, and known from them that are without.


6. The oil which Elijah multiplied, might be tasted with the mouth; for the cruse was that of the widow, it was not that of the chrism. The oil of our Lord that is in the cruse, it is not food for the mouth: the sinner that was a wolf without, it makes him a lamb in the flock.


7. The chrism of the meek and lowly One, changes the stubborn to be like its Lord. The Gentiles were wolves and feared, the severe rod of Moses. Lo! the chrism sealsthem and makes, a flock of sheep out of the wolves! And the wolves that had fled from the rod, lo! they have taken refuge in the Cross!


8. The leaf of olive arrived, brought as a figure of the anointing; the sons of the Ark rejoiced to greet it, for it bore good tidings of deliverance. Thus also ye rejoiced to greet it, even this holy anointing. The bodies of sinners were glad in it, for it brought good tidings of deliverance.


9. The oil again that Jacob poured, upon the stone when he sealed it, that it should be between him and God, and that he might offer there his tithes; lo! in it is a symbol of your bodies, how by chrism they are sealed as holy, and become temples for God, where He shall be served by your sacrifices.


10. When Moses had sealed and anointed, the sons of Aaron the Levite, the fire consumed their bodies; the fire spared their vestments. But ye my brethren blessed are ye, for the fire of grace has come down, has consumed utterly your offences, and cleansed and hallowed your bodies!


11. As for the anointing of Aaron my brethren, it was the vile blood of beasts, that it sprinkled in the horns of the altar. The anointing of truth is this; wherein the living and all-lifegiving Blood, is sprinkled inwardly in your bodies. is mingled in your understandings, is infused through your inmost chambers.


12. The anointed priests used to offer, the slain bodies of beasts; Ye, O anointed and excelling, your offerings are your own bodies. The anointed Levites offered, the inward parts taken, from beasts: ye have excelled the Levites, for your hearts ye have Consecrated.


13. The anointing of the People was-a foreshadowing of Christ; their rod a mystery of the Cross; their lamb a type of the Only begotten; their tabernacle a mystery of your Churches; their circumcision a sign of your sealing. Under the shadow of your goodly thing, sat the People of old.


14. Thus the truth is likened, to a great shadowing tree: it cast its shade on the People; it struck its root among the peoples. The People abode under its shadows, whose shadows were its mysteries; but the Gentiles lodged on its bough, and plucked and ate of its fruits.


15. As for the anointing of Saul to be king; the sweeter was its savour, so much fouler was the savour of his heart. The Spirit struck him and fled. Your anointing which ye have is greater; for your minds are censers, in your temples the Spirit exults, a chamber forever shall ye be unto Him.


16. As for the anointing of David my brethren; the Spirit came down and made sweet savour, in the heart of the man wherein He delighted; the savour of his heart was as the savour of his action. The Spirit dwelt in him and made song in him. Your anointing which ye have is greater, for Father and Son and Holy Ghost, have moved and come down to dwell in you.


17. When the leper of old was cleansed, the priest used to seal him with oil, and to lead him to the waterspring. The type has passed and the truth is come; lo! with chrism have ye been sealed, in baptism ye are perfected, in the flock ye are intermixed, from the Body ye are nourished.


18. What leper when he has been cleansed, turns again and desires his leprosy? Ye have put off transgressions-forsake it! None puts on the leprosy he had put off. It has fallen and sunk-let it not be drawn out! It is wasted and worn-let it not be renewed! Let not corruption come out upon you, whom the chrism of Christ has anointed!


19. The vessel moulded of clay, gains beauty from the water, receives strength from the fire; but if it slips it is ruined, it cannot be afresh renewed. Ye are vessels of grace; be ye ware of it, even of justice, for it grants not two renewals.


20. How like are ye in comparison, with the Prophet whom the fish yielded up! The Devourer has given you back for he was constrained, by the Power Which constrained the fish. Jonah was for you as a mirror, since not again did the fish swallow him, let not again the Devourer swallow you: being yielded up be ye like Jonah!


21. Goodly ointment on the head of our Lord did Mary pour; its savour was fragrant through all the house. Likewise the savour of your anointing, has been fragrant and perfumed the heavens, to the Watchers on high; doing pleasure to Satan its savour is overpowering; to God its odour is sweet.


22. The crowds in the desert were like unto sheep that have no shepherd. The Merciful became their shepherd, and multiplied to them the pasture of bread. Yea, blessed are ye that are perfect, that are sealed as lambs of Christ, that of His Body and Blood are made worthy; the Pastor Himself is become pasture for you!


23. Out of water He made the wine, He gave it for drink to the youths in the feast. For you who are keeping the fast, better is the unction than drink. In His wine the betrothed are wedded, by His oil the wedded are sanctified. By His wine is union; by His oil sanctification.


24. The sheep of Christ leaped for joy, to receive the seal of life, that ensign of kings which has ever put sin to flight. The Wicked by Thy ensign is routed, iniquities by Thy sign are scattered. Come, ye sheep, receive your seal, which puts to flight them that devour you!


25. Come, ye lambs, receive your seal, for it is truth that is your seal! This is the seal that separates, them of the household from strangers. The steel circumcised alike, the gainsayers and the sons of Hagar. If circumcision be the sign of the sheep, lo! by it the goats are signed.


26. But ye, who are the new flock, have put off the doings of wolves, and as lambs are made like to the Lamb. One by changing has changed all; the Lamb to the wolves gave Himself to be slain; the wolves rushed and devoured Him and became lambs; for the Shepherd was changed into a Lamb; likewise the wolf forgot his nature.


27. Look on me also in Thy mercy! be not branded on me the seal, of the goats the sons of the left hand! let not Thy sheep become a goat! For though to justify myself I sufficed not, yet to be a sinner I willed not. Turn thine eyes, O my Lord, from what I have done, and seek not only what I have willed.


28. From them that write and them that preach, from them that hear and them that are sealed, let glory go up to Christ, and through Him to His Father be exaltation! He Who gives words to them that speak, and gives voice to them that preach, has given understanding to them that hear, and consecrates chrism for him that is sealed.

(c.306–73), Syrian biblical exegete and hymn-writer. Acc. to late Syriac sources he was the son of a pagan priest at Nisibis, his native town; but from indications in his own writings most modern scholars believe that his parents were Christians. He was ordained deacon, perhaps by St James of Nisibis; but it is unlikely that he accompanied him to the Council of Nicaea (325). After the cession of Nisibis to Persia in 363 Ephraem withdrew into the Roman Empire and settled at Edessa, where most of his extant works were written. Later very unreliable legends report journeys to Egypt, where he is said to have spent eight years and confuted the Arians, and to the Cappadocian Caesarea, where he is stated to have visited St Basil. He became famous for the austerity and sanctity of his life as well as for his learning.

Ephraem’s voluminous exegetical, dogmatic, controversial, and ascetical writings are mostly in verse. Their inspiration is scriptural throughout and they make abundant use of typology and symbolism. Although Ephraem abhors any systematic presentation, his theological vision is nevertheless a coherent one. His poetry is divided into hymns (madrāshē) and verse homilies (mēmrē). Over 500 genuine hymns survive, often of great beauty and insight; they were arranged after his death into hymn cycles, of which the most famous are those on Faith (including the five ‘On the Pearl’), on Paradise, and on Nisibis (the second half of this cycle, however, is concerned with the Descent of Christ into Hell). Several of his works, verse as well as prose, were written to counter heretics, esp. Marcion, Bardesanes, and Mani, as well as the Arians and Anomoeans. Of the biblical commentaries those on Gen. and the Diatessaron are the most important. He wrote exclusively in Syriac, but his works were translated into Armenian and Greek at a very early date, and via the latter into Latin and Slavonic; many of the works attributed to him in these languages, however, are not genuine. His liturgical poetry had a great influence on the development of both Syriac and Greek hymnography. Feast day in the E., 28 Jan.; in the W., formerly 1 Feb.; from 1920, when he was declared a Doctor of the Church, 18 June; from 1969, 9 June (10 June in American BCP, 1979). See also codex ephraemi.

The collection of Ephraem’s works by J. S. and S. E. *Assemani and P. B. Mobarek, SJ (3 vols. of Syriac texts (Rome, 1737–46) and 3 vols. of Greek texts (ibid. 1732–46) ), is very unsatisfactory. Crit. edn. of Gk. text begun by S. J. Mercati (vol. 1, fasc. 1, Rome, 1915; all pub.). T. J. Lamy (ed.), S. Ephraem Syri Hymni et Sermones (4 vols., Malines, 1882–1902) contains only works not pub. in the Rome edn. Crit. edn., with Get. tr., of his hymns, by E. Beck: those De Fide (CSCO 154, with tr. 155; 1955), Contra Haereses (ibid. 169, with tr. 170; 1957), De Paradiso with Contra Julianum (ibid. 174, with tr. 175; 1957), De Nativitate (ibid. 186, with tr. 187; 1959), De Virginitate (ibid. 223, with tr. 224; 1962), De Ieiunio (ibid. 246, with tr. 247; 1964), and of his Paschahymnen (ibid. 248, with tr. 249; 1964); also by id. of his Carmina Nisibena (ibid. 218 and 240, with tr. 219 and 241; 1961–3), of his Sermones de Fide (ibid. 212, with tr. 213; 1961) and his Sermo de Domino Nostro (ibid. 270, with tr. 271; 1966); and of his Homiliae de Nicomedia, by C. Renoux, with Fr. tr. (PO 37, fascs. 1–2; 1975); C. W. Mitchell (ed.), St Ephrem’s Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion and Bardaisan (Text and Translation Society, 2 vols., 1912–21); commentaries on Gen. and Ex. ed. R. M. Tonneau (CSCO 152, with Lat. tr. 153; 1955) and on the Diatessaron, with Lat.tr., by L. Leloir, OSB (Chester Beatty Monographs, 8; Dublin, 1963; with additional pages, also Chester Beatty Monographs, 8; Louvain, 1990); Eng. tr. by C. McCarthy (Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement, 2; Oxford, 1993). Comm. on Acts and Epp. survive only in Armenian. Eng. trs. of Selections by J. Gwynn in NPNCF, 2nd ser., vol. 13, pt. 2 (1898), with introd. Dissertation, and of Selected Prose Works by E. G. Matthews and J. P. Amar (Fathers of the Church, 91 etc., 1994 ff.); also by S. [P.] Brock of 12 Poems, The Harp of the Spirit (London, 1975; enlarged to 18 Poems, 1983) and Hymns on Paradise (Crestwood, NY, 1990), and by K. E. McVey of Hymns [‘On the Nativity’, ‘Against *Julian the Apostate’, and, ‘On Virginity’] (Classics of Western Spirituality [1989]).

E. Beck, Ephräms Polemik gegen Mani und die Manichäer im Rahmen der zeitgenössischen griechischen Polemik und der des Augustinus (CSCO, Subsidia, 55; 1978). P. Yousif, L’Eucharistie chez saint Éphrem de Nisibe (Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 224; 1984). S. [P.] Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem (Rome, 1985; revised repr., Cistercian Studies Series, 124; Kalamazoo, Mich., 1992). T. Bou Mansour, La pensée symboligue de saint Ephrem le Syrien (Bibliothèque de l’Université Saint-Esprit, 16; Kaslik, 1988). U. Possekel, Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian (CSCO 580; Subsidia, 102; 1999). K. ben Biesen, Bibliography of Ephrem the Syrian (Giove, Italy, 2002). A. *Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (1922), pp. 31–52. I. Ortiz de Urbina, SJ, Patrologia Syriaca (2nd edn.; Rome, 1965), pp. 56–83. For texts in Gk under Ephraem’s name see CPG 2 (1974), pp. 366–468 (nos. 3905–4175), and Suppl. (1998), pp. 227–50. E. Beck in Dict. Sp. 4 (1960), cols. 788–800, s.v. ‘Ephrem le Syrien’ and D. Hemmerdinger-Iliadou and J. Kirchmeyer, SJ, ibid., cols. 800–22, s.v. ‘Éphrem (2) (Les Versions)’; R. M. Marray, SJ, in, A Catholic Dictionary of Theology, 2 (1967), pp. 220–3; id., in TRE 9 (1982), pp. 755–62, both s.v., with bibl.



Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium:

Scriptores Aethiopici (Paris etc., 1903–12; Louvain, 1953 ff.).

Scriptores Arabici (Paris etc., 1903–12; Rome, 1922; Louvain, 1926 ff.).

Scriptores Armeniaci (Louvain, 1953 ff.).

Scriptores Coptici (Paris etc., 1906–49; Louvain, 1949 ff.).

Scriptores Iberici (Louvain, 1950 ff.).

Scriptores Syri (Paris etc., 1907–19; Louvain, 1919 ff.).

Subsidia (Louvain, 1950 ff.).

Lat. Latin.

St Summa Theologica or *Summa Theologiae.

Beck H.-G. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Byzantinisches Handbuch, 2.2; Munich, 1959)

Dict. Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, ed. M. Viller, SJ, and others (16 vols. + index, 1937–95).


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