Wednesday, 13 December 2017

St Ephraim the Syrian: Hymns of the Pearl (1)

On Tuesday the 21st of November Bata Bardak gave a paper on St Ephraim the Syrian’s ‘Hymns of the Pearl’ to the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library. His selection of readings from the hymns is found at (2) on this blog, following the paper here.

A prolific writer of hymns, poems and sermons, St Ephraim (or Ephrem) the Syrian has been described as the most significant of all the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition. Celebrated by all the Orthodox Churches as well as the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, he remains an especially beloved saint of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Alongside his poetic works he also produced numerous works of practical theology that were so popular they were translated into Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Georgian, and later into other languages including Latin and Slavonic.

Ephraim lived in a time that is variously labelled Early Byzantine, Late Antiquity and Early Christian. The fourth century was a time of great cultural and religious change and witnessed a clash of empires and cultures – and Ephraim was caught up in the midst of these events.

One of the most significant developments in the fourth century was the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by a number of kingdoms. In 301 King Tiridates III established Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, making Armenian the first Christian nation. In Ethiopia, King Ezana of Axum established Christianity as the state religion in 330, and shortly afterwards, in 334, Mirian III, King of Iberia, established Christianity as the state religion in Georgia.

Meanwhile, in the Roman Empire, the Edict of Milan decriminalized Christianity in 313, and in 330 the Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium where he established a Christian court.

During the early centuries of the Church the Sees had functioned independently and had variations in their teachings. A dispute developed when Arius, a priest in Alexandria, asserted that Christ was a created being thus refuting the Incarnation. Constantine summoned a council at Nicea in 325, known as the First Ecumenical Council, to address the heresy of Arianism and to define orthodox doctrine for the whole Church. According to tradition the participants included 318 bishops. (1)  The council formulated the first draft of the Nicene Creed, also known as the Symbol of Faith, which defined orthodoxy. Only two bishops refused to sign and were subsequently deposed by the Church. In 380 the Edict of Thessalonika made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

However, bordering three of these new Christian states was one of the leading world powers, the Sassanian Persian Empire, the arch-rival of the Roman-Byzantine Empire for more than 400 years, and constant threat to the Armenians. The Persian religion was Zoroastrianism. The Sasanian rulers of Persia had initially tolerated Christianity but with their neighbouring rivals officially adopting Christianity, Christians came to be viewed with suspicion, being perceived as enemies of the Persian Empire and were persecuted.

Saint Ephraim was born c.306 in the city of Nisibis in the contested border region between Sassanid Assyria and Roman Mesopotamia. Rome had only recently acquired the region from the Persians, in 298. Ephraim’s parents were part of the growing Christian community of Nisibis. At that time Nisibis was a cosmopolitan city that included Jews, Christians and pagans and where numerous languages were spoken. The Christian community used Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ.

In his youth Ephraim was a disciple of Saint Jacob (James), Bishop of Nisibis, and one of the 318 participants at the Nicene Council. Ephraim was baptized as a youth which was the common practice at the time, and appears to have become a ‘son of the covenant’, an unusual form of Syriac proto-monasticism.

The ‘members of the covenant’ played an important role in early Syriac Christianity. Before the development of monasticism proper, most Syriac churches included a community of men and women who had committed themselves to sexual abstinence and the service of the church. Members of these communities were known as sons or daughters of the covenant. These communities differed somewhat from later concepts of the ascetic life in that the members lived among the community, both Christian and non-Christian, adhering to a strict ascetic lifestyle while maintaining full contact with the world around them. They viewed the spiritual life as a journey of steps towards God.

Jacob appointed Ephraim as a teacher and he was ordained as a deacon shortly after his baptism. As part of his educational office Ephraim started composing hymns and writing biblical commentaries. He sometimes referred to himself as a herdsman and his community as a fold. He is regarded as the founder of the School of Nisibis which later developed as the centre of learning in the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Following the death of the Emperor Constantine in 337, Shapur II of Persia began a series of campaigns into Roman North Mesopotamia. After numerous sieges over a twenty-five year period, Nisibis eventually surrendered in 363 and the entire Christian population was expelled. Ephraim, along with the other Christians, eventually settled in Edessa in upper Mesopotamia.

Ephraim was in his late fifties by this time but he was immediately given a ministry in a new church and appears to have continued teaching, possibly at the School of Edessa. Edessa had long been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world and was full of rival philosophical and religious communities. Numerous sects including Arians and gnostic sects were proclaiming themselves as the true church. Surrounded by this confusion, Ephraim set about actively defending Nicene orthodoxy. A particular rival was the gnostic Bardaisan, a popular and charismatic preacher who had attracted a large following. Ephraim’s response was novel and highly successful. He set about writing a great number of hymns defending orthodoxy. He then rehearsed all-female choirs to sing these hymns, set to Syriac folk tunes, in the forum of Edessa.

Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies which contained doctrinal themes designed to protect Christians from the heresies that threatened to divide the early church. These hymns used colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as fully human and divine and asserted that this unity represented peace, perfection and salvation.

Ephraim is reputedly the first to make the poetic expression of hymnody a vehicle of
orthodox theological teaching, incorporating it as an integral part of the Church’s worship. He is regarded as the first hymnographer of the Church and is referred to as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

Many of Ephraim’s sermons, commentaries and hymns were translated into Greek in his own lifetime. These Greek translations were greatly admired and some admirers claimed that they “surpassed the most approved writers of Greece” (2)

In 373 the plague broke out in Edessa, and while ministering to its victims, Ephraim himself succumbed and died shortly after. He had served in Edessa for ten years.

St Ephraim, in his writings, speaks of the natural world and the Bible as God’s two witnesses, nature and scripture both acting as pointers to spiritual reality and truth.
For example, in the Paradise hymns he writes:

            In his book Moses described
                 the creation of the natural world,
            so that both Nature and Scripture
                 might bear witness to the Creator:
            Nature, through man’s use of it,
                 Scripture, through his reading it;
            they are the witnesses
                 which reach everywhere,
            they are to be found at all times,
                 present at every hour.  (3)

For Ephraim nature and scripture testify to God by means of the symbols and types which they contain. Symbolism in the fourth-century, however, was used in a much stronger sense than our modern understanding where one object represents another but is essentially different. For example, the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit but the two are different things. The term used by Ephraim was raza which is usually translated as “symbol” but actually means “mystery”. In its plural form raze refers to the liturgical Mysteries and Sacraments. In Ephraim’s perception a symbol actually participates in some sense with the spiritual reality it symbolizes.

Sebastian Brock explains this in the following passage:

This difference in understanding affects St Ephraim’s attitude toward the material world. For St Ephraim every symbol “reveals” something of what is otherwise “hidden”
One understanding of the opposition between “hidden” and “revealed” is that “hiddenness” refers to God, knowledge of whom would have been totally inaccessible to created human beings had he not first revealed aspects of himself to his creation…..
“Hiddenness” is something characteristic of the “raze” both in the sense of “symbols” (whether in Nature or in Scripture) and in the sense of “Sacraments”. (4)

In Ephraim’s words:

            A yearning for Paradise
                 invited me to explore it,
            but awe at its majesty
                 restrained me from my search.
            With wisdom, however,
                 I reconciled the two;
            I revered what lay hidden
                 and meditated on what was revealed.
            The aim of my search was to gain profit,
                 the aim of my silence was to find succour. (5)

The Hymns of the Pearl
In his writings, Ephraim draws on a threefold heritage. He employs the methods of early Rabbinic Judaism while also drawing on Greek science and philosophy, and at the same time exploiting the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism. His most important works are his lyric, teaching hymns which are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. Among the most famous of these is a small group of five poems known as the Hymns of the Pearl, which are included at the end of his Hymns of Faith.

In the Hymns of the Pearl Ephraim uses the image of a pearl, which he turns over in his hand, for an extended series of meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation. The image of the pearl is universally recognised as a symbol of wisdom and purity, but in the Syriac tradition the pearl is particularly rich in meaning due to the mythology surrounding its origins. In Syriac mythology the pearl is born when lightning strikes the mussel in the sea. From this conjunction of fire and water the mussel opens and the pearl is born – “a precious stone born from flesh’. Ephraim draws on this myth to make an analogy with the Incarnation of Christ. The pearl’s miraculous birth from two disparate elements corresponds to Christ’s birth from the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. The raising of the pearl from the depths of the sea also represents the ascent from the Jordan as well as the ascent from the tomb. The pearl also reflects Christ-like qualities in that it is the only jewel that radiates light naturally without any tooling or cutting by human hands. Ephraim also engages in some word play between the word “diver” (amoda) and “baptized” (amida) that unfortunately is lost in translation. The diver’s action in diving for the pearl parallels that of the person who is baptized and finds the Pearl.

St Ephraim’s literary output was immense. The church historian Sozomen  credits him with having written over three million lines. (6) Although some works have been lost and many only survive in Armenian translations, over four hundred hymns composed by Ephraim are still extant.  Their literary quality is undisputed and they still breathe with the same freshness as the day they were written.

St Ephraim is commemorated throughout the Christian world. The Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate his feast day on the 28th of January, the Oriental Orthodox Churches on the 7th Saturday before Easter. In the west the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches commemorate him on the 9th of June. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared Ephraim a Doctor of the Church.


1.      230 signatures have survived but there are indications that the list of signatures is defective. Traditionally 318 bishops participated at the Council.

2.      Sozomen [Salminius Hermias Sozomenus] (c. 400 – c. 450)  Historia Ecclesiastica

3.      Ephrem the Syrian – Paradise Hymn No.5, verse 2 (Translated by Sebastian Brock)

4.      St Ephrem the Syrian – Hymns on Paradise,  Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Press, 1990. (Introduction and translation by Sebastian Brock). p.41 ff.

5.      Ephrem the Syrian – Paradise Hymn No.1, verse 2 (Translated by Sebastian Brock)

6.      Sozomen. Op. Cit.


St Ephrem the Syrian – The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian,
            Aquila Books, 3rd ed. 2013 (Introduction and translation by Sebastian Brock).

St Ephrem the Syrian – Hymns and Homilies of St Ephraim the Syrian: with an introductory
            dissertation by John Gwynn,  Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012

St Ephrem the Syrian – Hymns on Paradise,  Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Press, 1990.
            (Introduction and translation by Sebastian Brock).

John Anthony McGuckin (ed) – The Encyclopedia of Orthodox Christianity,  Wiley-
            Blackwell, 2011.

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