Our Righteous Father Jacob of Nisibis, also James of Nisibis, Jacob the Great, Jacob of Mygdonia,[note 1] or Mor Ya`qub, called the "Moses of Mesopotamia" for his wisdom and wonderworking abilities, was the second bishop of Nisibis,[note 2]spiritual father of the renowned Syriac writer and theologian Ephrem the Syrian, celebrated ascetic and one of the 318 fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea.
His feast days in the Orthodox Church are January 13/26 and October 31/November 13.[note 3]
Jacob was born at Nisibis (Antiochia Mygdoniae) towards the end of the third century, the son of Prince Gefal (Armenia). By some accounts he is said the have been nearly related to his contemporary Gregory the Illuminator, the Apostle of Armenia.[note 4] According to St. Eugene (Augin),[note 5] the Venerable St. Jacob came from the tribe and the family of St. James the brother of the Lord.
At an early age he devoted himself to the life of a solitary, practicing the severest self-discipline.[note 6] He liked the solitude and the peace of the desert, and he lived in the mountains around the city of Nisibis, on the border of the Persian and Roman empires. In the summer he lived in crevices of the mountains, and in the winter he lived for a short time in a cave. His food was not what he had sown, but what grew there on its own, such as fruits from wild trees and green plants that grew in the desert. His clothing was made of hard goat's hair.
He always fed on spiritual food which came through prayer which also kept his thoughts pure. Through his asceticism, he gained a deeper connection with God. He had the gift of foresight, and by the grace of the Spirit, he received the gift of miracles.
His contemporary St. Eugene (Augin) was a native of Egypt, who later retreated to Mount Izla near Nisibis, in order to do his missionary work there. At that time, there were many heathens and Marcionists and the fear of God was lost by many. Together, these two great saints worked many miracles and healings, and they baptized many who professed the true faith.
During this period of his life he went on a journey to Persia for the purpose of confirming the faith of the Christians there, who were enduring persecutions under Shapur II. Theodoret records several miracles as taking place at this time. In addition, Gennadius reports that Jacob was a courageous confessor during the Maximinian persecution as well.
After leading a severe life in the mountains of Kurdistan with St. Eugene (Augin), the founder of Persian monasticism, he became the second bishop of Nisibis in 309. Upon the vacancy of that see, which was his native city, Jacob was compelled by the demand of the people to become their bishop. He was then forced to exchange his desert life with life in the city. Although he moved to the city, he changed neither his food, nor his asceticism, nor his simple clothing. In his new position, he worked especially to help the oppressed, those in need, orphans, widows and the poor, for he was moved by awe and holy fear of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
His episcopate, according to Theodoret, was signalized by fresh miracles. A similar tale is told of him as with Gregory Thaumaturgus and Epiphanius, that is, his meeting with two beggars, one of whom while feigning death to impose on him, actually died by divine judgment.[note 7]
In 313 he began to build the great basilica in Nisibis, the ruins of which still bear his name.
As bishop of Nisibis, Jacob was the spiritual father of Ephrem the Syrian, who was baptized by him and remained by his side as long as he lived. The Bishop of Susa, Milles (Milas al-Razi), when visiting Nisibis to attend a synod for settling the differences between the bishops of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, ca. A.D. 341, found Jacob busily engaged in erecting his cathedral, towards which, on his return, he sent a large quantity of silk from Adiabene.
Council of Nicaea
In 325 Jacob was summoned to the Council of Nicaea. A leading part is ascribed to him by Theodoret in the debates of that council, as the champion of the whole Orthodox faith.[note 8] He is commended by Athanasius, together with Hosius, Alexander, Eustathius, and others. According to some Eastern accounts of the council, Jacob was one of those whom the Emperor Constantine marked out for peculiar honour.Nicephorus also adds, that similar to Paphnutius of Thebes, he was noticeable at the Council due to the the seams and scars left by his sufferings; Theodoret however is silent on this point.
Abraham Ecchellensis ascribed to him the compilation of the eighty-four Arabic Nicene canons, the spuriousness of which has been sufficiently proved.
His name also occurs among those who signed the decrees of the Council of Antioch "in Encaeniis" in A.D. 341, of doubtful authenticity, since no mention of his being present at this council occurs elsewhere.
Later Bishop Jacob was present at the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, on September 14, A.D. 335.
Death of Arius
The sudden death of the heresiarch Arius at Constantinople, on the eve of his anticipated triumph, A.D. 336, is attributed especially to the prayers of Jacob of Nisibis. This theme is repeated in the Syriac and Roman Martyrology, which state that the prayers of Jacob and Alexander of Constantinople were responsible for the death of Arius and his "bowels gushing out". This tradition has been questioned however.[note 9]
No writings of Jacob of Nisibis are known, although he has been confused in the past with the fourth century Persian writer Aphrahat (ca.270-ca.345), who was the head of the monastery of Mar Mattai, near modern Mosul, with the rank of bishop and, apparently, the episcopal name Jacob, who composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies on points of Christian doctrine and practice.[note 10] The author of the homilies, who was earliest known as "the Persian sage", was a Persian subject, and tells us that he took the Christian name Jacob at his baptism. Hence he was already confused with Jacob of Nisibis by the time of Gennadius (before 496),[note 11] and the ancient Armenian version of nineteen of the homilies was published under this latter name.
Theodoret, from whom we obtain the amplest detail of his life, does not speak of his writings. And Jerome, who mentions him in his Chronicon, does not notice him in his book De Viris Illustribus.
The Liturgy which bears the name of Jacob of Nisibis (Syriac Liturgy of St James), said to have been formerly in use among the Syrians, is certainly not his, but is, rightly, ascribed to James of Sarug.[note 12]
Protection of Nisibis
The most famous miracle of St. Jacob was that by which he protected the city of Nisibis from the Persians, as is related by Theodoret both in his religious and ecclesiastical history, by Theophanes, and even by Philostorgius himself, who was a rank Arian, and cannot be suspected of being too favourable to St. Jacob.
After Constantine the Great died in the year 337 and his sons had taken over the kingdom, the Persian king Shapur II (309-379) besieged Nisibis three times over, during his war against the Romans.[note 13] St. Jacob and St. Ephraim prayed with the people in the church each time, asking God to help them. The bishops' intercession during the final siege in 350 saved the city:[note 14] Theodoret offers a particularly vivid picture of his contribution to the defence of the fortress. At the urging of Ephraim and the rest of the inhabitants he ascended the walls of Nisibis to pray for them and curse the Persians.
- The bishop would not pray for the destruction of any one; but he implored the divine mercy that the city might be delivered from the calamities of so long a siege. Afterwards, going to the top of a high tower, and turning his face towards the enemy, and seeing the prodigious multitude of men and beasts which covered the whole country, he said: “Lord, thou art able by the weakest means to humble the pride of thy enemies; defeat these multitudes by an army of gnats.” God heard the humble prayer of his servant, as he had done that of Moses against the Egyptians, and as he had by the like means vanquished the enemies of his people when he conducted them out of Egypt. For scarcely had the saint spoken those words, when whole clouds of gnats and flies came pouring down upon the Persians, got into the elephants’ trunks, and the horses’ ears and nostrils, which made them chafe and foam, throw their riders, and put the whole army into confusion and disorder. A famine and pestilence which followed, carried off a great part of the army; and Sapor, after lying above three months before the place, set fire to all his own engines of war, and was forced to abandon the siege and return home with the loss of twenty thousand men.
School of Nisibis
Around A.D. 350 St. Jacob founded the School of Nisibis, after the model of the school of Diodorus of Tarsus in Antioch, in which he himself was an instructor. Through the Holy Spirit he had a strong and holy influence on the hearts of his students. When the Persians conquered Nisibis in 363, the School was moved to Edessa and re-establised there by St. Ephrem the Syrian, where it operated from 363–489.
The Venerable Bishop Jacob died peacefully in Nisibis, according to some in A.D. 338, and according to others in A.D. 350.
He was honourably interred within the city, in pursuance, it is said, of an express charge of Constantine the Great to his son Constantius, indicative of the reverance he held for him, that after death his hallowed remains might continue to defend Nisibis against its enemies.
In 361 Julian the Apostate commanded that these sacred remains to be removed without the city. Soon after Julian's death, in order to obtain peace, Emperor Jovian was obliged to yield up Nisibis to the Persians in 363, along with the five Roman provinces situated on the Tigris, and a great part of Mesopotamia.[note 15]
When Nisibis was yielded to the Persian monarch in 363, the Christian inhabitants carried the sacred relics with them,  which, according to the Menologion of the Armenians at Venice, were brought to Constantinople about the year 970.
Jacob of Nisibis
300 - 309
|Bishop of Nisibis|
309 - 350
- ↑Antiochia Mygdonia was a Seleucid colony in ancient Mesopotamia; in the classical Roman period it was known as Nisibis; today it is the Turkish town of Nusaybin.
- ↑"The See of Nisibis was founded in 300 by Babu (d. 309). His successor, the celebrated St. James, defended the city by his prayers during the siege of Sapor II." (Siméon Vailhé. "Nisibis: Titular Archdiocese of Mesopotamia".Original Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913. El Cajon, California: Catholic Answers. Retrieved 2011-01-22.)
- ↑In the Roman Catholic Church his feast day is July 15; in the Coptic Synaxarion it is held on the 18th day of the Month of Tobi (usually January 26); the Armenians observe his feast on December 15; and the Syrians on May 12 and July 15.
- ↑However according to Jacob's biographical entry at CCEL: "The Armenians mistakenly call him the friend of Gregory the Illuminator." (Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). JACOB (JAMES) OF NISIBIS.)
- ↑"...tradition ascribes Persian monasticism to a certain Eugene (Augin), who brought it from the Egyptian desert, and founded the famous monastery of Mount Izla near Nisibis in the early 4th century." (Fr. Dr. Adrian Fortescue. Lesser Eastern Churches. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1913. p.43.)
- ↑The celebrity that Jacob acquired by the strictness of his asceticism and his spiritual gifts, caused Theodoret to assign him the first place in his Religiosa Historia or Vitae Patrum - where he is entitled "Ο μέγας" ("the great") - in which his self-imposed austerities, and the miracles of which he was the reputed worker, are fully detailed.
- ↑One day as he was travelling, he was accosted by a gang of beggars who had concerted a plot whereby to impose upon the servant of God, with the view of extorting money from him on pretence to bury their companion, who lay stretched on the ground as if he had been dead. The holy man gave them what they asked, and “offering up supplications to God as for a soul departed, he prayed that his divine majesty would pardon him the sins he had committed whilst he lived, and that he would admit him into the company of the saints,” says Theodoret. As soon as the saint was gone by, his companions calling upon him to rise and take his share of the booty, were strangely surprised to find him really dead. They rushed to St. Jacob, begged him, kissed his hands and feet, confessed their evil deeds and intentions, and begged his forgiveness. As he accepted their apology and petition, he prayed for the deceased, who then rose again.
- ↑"οία τις αριστεύς καὶ πρόμαχος ἁπάσης φάλαγγος" (Theod. u. s. p. 1114.)
- ↑According to one source:
- "...That on this emergency he had exhorted the faithful to devote a whole week to uninterrupted fasting and public supplication in the churches, rests only on the authority of one passage, in the Religiosa Historia of Theodoret, the spuriousness of which is acknowledged by all sound critics. The gross blunders of making the death of the heresiarch contemporaneous with the Council of Nicaea, and of confounding Alexander of Alexandria with Alexander of Constantinople, prove it to be an ignorant forgery. In the account of the death of Arius given by Theodoret, in his Ecclesiastical History, from Athanasius (Theod. H. E. i. 14; Soz. H. E. ii. 20.) no mention is made of Jacob in connection with the death of Arius; and he is equally absent from that given by Athanasius in his letter to the bishops." (Sir William Smith. "JACOBUS (4) or JAMES bishop of Nisibis in Mesopotamia". In: Volume 3 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Being a Continuation of 'The Dictionary of the Bible'. J. Murray, 1882. p.326.)
- ↑According to Professor T.D. Barnes (University of Toronto):
- The twenty-three Demonstrations of Aphrahat are not likely to be familiar to most students of Roman history or of Constantine. Aphrahat was head of the monastery of Mar Mattai, near modern Mosul, with the rank of bishop and, apparently, the episcopal name Jacob: as a consequence, he was soon confused with the better known Jacob of Nisibis, and independent knowledge of his life and career virtually disappeared. Fortunately, however, twenty-three treatises survived, whose attribution to 'Aphrahat the Persian sage' seems beyond doubt. Aphrahat wrote in Syriac and composed works of edification and polemic for a Mesopotamian audience outside the Roman Empire. (T. D. Barnes. "Constantine and the Christians of Persia."The Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 75 (1985), pp. 126-136. Page 126.)
- ↑Gennadius speaks of Jacob as a copious writer, and gives the titles of twenty-six different treatises of which he was the author.
- "These, or some of them, eighteen in number, were found by Assemani in the Armenian convent of St. Anthony at Venice...The titles of these treatises - De Fide, De Dilectione, De Jejunio, De Oratione, De Bello, De Devotis, De Poenitentia, De Resurrectione, etc. - correspond generally with those given by Gennadius, but the order is different. In the same collection he found the letter of Jacob to the bishops of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, on the Assyrian schism. It is a lengthy document, in thirty-one sections, lamenting the divisions of the church and the pride and arrogance which were their cause, and exhorting them to study peace and concord. These were all published with a Latin translation and a learned preface establishing their authenticity and notes by Nicholas Maria Antonelli in 1756. They were also printed in the collection of the Armenian fathers, published at Venice in 1765, and again at Constantinople in 1824. The Latin translation is found in the Patres Apostolici of Caillau, tom. 25, pp.254-543." (Sir William Smith. "JACOBUS (4) or JAMES bishop of Nisibis in Mesopotamia". In: Volume 3 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Being a Continuation of 'The Dictionary of the Bible'. J. Murray, 1882. p.326.)
- ↑The Syro-Antiochene ("Jacobite") Rite was gradually enriched with elements of Aramaic origin, especially the poetic compositions attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian or to James of Sarug. (Aimé Georges Martimort, Pierre-Marie Gy, Pierre Jounel. The Church at Prayer: Principles of the Liturgy. Liturgical Press, 1987. p.32.)
- ↑From 337-350, the Persian King Shapur II attacked Nisibis on three occasions, as it was the great city of Northern Mesopotamia and the bulwark of the eastern provinces. The first Siege of Nisibis took place in A.D. 338; the second in A.D. 346; and the third in A.D. 350, lasting three months.
- ↑The tale of the final siege of 350, which lasted three months, and of the bishop's successful efforts to save his city, can be read in the passages of Gibbon (ch. xviii. vol. ii. pp.385ff.), or de Broglie (L'Eglise et L'Empire, tom. iii. pp.180-195.).
- ↑At the time of its cession to the Persians, Nisibis was a Christian center important enough to become the ecclesiastical metropolis of the Province of Beit-Arbayé (Arbayé; Turkish: Alayurt; the area around Nisibis; in today's Turkish province of Mardin). In 410 it had six suffragan sees and as early as the middle of the fifth century was the most important episcopal see of the Persian Church after Seleucia-Ctesiphon. (S. VAILHE. Nisibis: Titular Archdiocese of Mesopotamia. The Original Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913.)
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). JACOB (JAMES) OF NISIBIS.
- Antiochian Syriac Orthodox Church. St. Jacob of Nisibis.
- Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch: Archdiocese of the Western U.S. St. James (Jacob) bishop of Nisibis, July 15.
- St. James, Bishop of Nisibis, Confessor at Bartleby.com.
- Jacob of Nisibis at Wikipedia.
- S. V. Bulgakov. Handbook for Church Servers. 2nd Ed. Kharkov, 1900. 1274pp. (Translated by Archpriest Eugene D. Tarris, December 13, 2006).
- Sir William Smith. "JACOBUS (4) or JAMES bishop of Nisibis in Mesopotamia". In: Volume 3 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Being a Continuation of 'The Dictionary of the Bible'. J. Murray, 1882.
- Sir William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology: Earinus-Nyx. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1880.
- C. S. Lightfoot. Facts and Fiction: The Third Siege of Nisibis (A.D. 350).Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. Vol. 37, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1988), pp.105-125.
- Prof. T. D. Barnes. Constantine and the Christians of Persia.The Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 75 (1985), pp. 126-136.
- W. H. C. Frend. The Monks and the Survival of the East Roman Empire in the Fifth Century.Past & Present. No. 54 (Feb., 1972), pp. 3-24.
- ↑ 1.01.1Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch: Archdiocese of the Western U.S. St. James (Jacob) bishop of Nisibis, July 15.
- ↑ 2.02.1Sir William Smith. "JACOBUS (4) or JAMES bishop of Nisibis in Mesopotamia". In: Volume 3 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Being a Continuation of 'The Dictionary of the Bible'. J. Murray, 1882. p.326.
- ↑ 3.03.13.2S. V. Bulgakov. Handbook for Church Servers. 2nd Ed. Kharkov, 1900. 1274pp. (Translated by Archpriest Eugene D. Tarris, December 13, 2006).
- ↑ 4.04.1Antiochian Syriac Orthodox Church. St. Jacob of Nisibis.
- ↑Theod. Vit. Patr. pp.1110 sq.)
- ↑de Script. Eccl. c.1.
- ↑Greg. Nyss. Vit. Greg. Thaumat.
- ↑Soz. vii. 27; Theod. u. s. p. 1112.
- ↑ 9.09.19.2Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). JACOB (JAMES) OF NISIBIS.
- ↑Asseman. Bibl. Or. tom. i. p.186.
- ↑Labbe, Council. ii. 52, 76.
- ↑Adv. Arian. tom. i. p.252.
- ↑Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church. New York, 1864. p.203
- ↑H. E. viii. 14
- ↑Bishop Pearson, Vind. Ignat. part i. p.187; Hefele, Hist. of Councils, v. i. p.366, Eng. Transl.
- ↑Labbe, Council. ii. 559.
- ↑Tillemont, Mem. Eccl. tom. vi. note 27, les Ariens; Hefele, Councils, ii, 58, Engl. Transl.
- ↑cf. the Synaxarium ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae [=Propylaeum ad ASB, Novembris], ed. H. Delehaye, Brussels, 1902, Jan. 13.
- ↑Sir William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology: Earinus-Nyx. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1880. p.547.
- ↑Abr. Ecchell.Not. in Catall. Ebed-Jesu, p.134; Bona, Liturg. i.9;
- ↑Renaudot, Lit. Or. tom. ii. p.4.
- ↑C. S. Lightfoot. Facts and Fiction: The Third Siege of Nisibis (A.D. 350).Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. Vol. 37, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1988), pp.105-125. Page 123.
- ↑ 23.023.1St. James, Bishop of Nisibis, Confessor at Bartleby.com.
- ↑W. H. C. Frend. The Monks and the Survival of the East Roman Empire in the Fifth Century.Past & Present. No. 54 (Feb., 1972), pp. 3-24. Page 8.
- ↑Theod. u. s. p.1119; Soz. H. E. v.3; Gennad. u. s. c.1.
St. Ephraim the Syrian (Syriac: Mor Afrêm Sûryāyâ; Greek: Ἐφραίμ ὁ Σῦρος; Latin: Ephraem Syrus; ca. 306 – 373) was a Syrian deacon and a prolific Syriac-language hymnographer and theologian of the 4th century. He is venerated by Christians throughout the world, and especially among Orthodox Christians, as a saint.
Ephraim wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems, and sermons in verse, as well as prose biblical exegesis. These were works of practical theology for the edification of the church in troubled times. So popular were his works, that, for centuries after his death, Christian authors wrote hundreds of pseudepigraphous works in his name. Ephraim’s works witness to an early form of Christianity in which western ideas take little part. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition.
Newly excavated Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis, where Ephraim taught and ministered.
Ephraim was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria, which had come into Roman hands only in 298). Internal evidence from Ephraim’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community in the city, although later hagiographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest. Numerous languages were spoken in the Nisibis of Ephraim’s day, mostly dialects of Aramaic. The Christian community used the Syriac dialect. The culture included pagan religions, Judaism and early Christian sects.
Jacob, the first bishop of Nisibis, was appointed in 308, and Ephraim grew up under his leadership of the community. Jacob of Nisibis is recorded as a signatory at the First Council of Nicea in 325. Ephraim was baptized as a youth, and almost certainly became a son of the covenant, an unusual form of Syrian proto-monasticism. Jacob appointed Ephraim as a teacher. He was ordained as a deacon either at his baptism or later. He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. In his hymns, he sometimes refers to himself as a ‘herdsman’, to his bishop as the ‘shepherd’ and his community as a ‘fold’. Ephraim is popularly credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which in later centuries was the centre of learning of the Church of the East.
In 337 Emperor Constantine I, who had legalised and promoted the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, died. Seizing on this opportunity, Shapur II began a series of attacks into Roman North Mesopotamia. Nisibis was besieged in 338, 346 and 350. During the first siege, Ephraim credits Bishop Jacob as defending the city with his prayers. In the third siege, of 350, Shapur rerouted the River Mygdonius to undermine the walls of Nisibis. The Nisibenes quickly repaired the walls while the Persian elephant cavalry became bogged down in the wet ground. Ephraim celebrated what he saw as the miraculous salvation of the city in a hymn which portrayed Nisibis as being like Noah’s Ark, floating to safety on the flood.
One important physical link to Ephraim’s lifetime is the baptistery of Nisibis. The inscription tells that it was constructed under Bishop Vologeses in 359. In that year Shapur attacked again. The cities around Nisibis were destroyed one by one, and their citizens killed or deported. Constantius II was unable to respond; the campaign of Julianended with his death in battle. His army elected Jovian as the new emperor, and to rescue his army he was forced to surrender Nisibis to Persia, and permit the expulsion of the entire Christian population.
Ephraim with the others went first to Amida (Diyarbakır), eventually settling in Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa) in 363. Ephraim, in his late fifties, applied himself to ministry in his new church, and seems to have continued his work as a teacher, perhaps in the School of Edessa. Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world and the city was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephraim comments that orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called ‘Palutians’ in Edessa, after a former bishop. Arians, Marcionites,Manichees, Bardaisanites and various Gnostic sects proclaimed themselves as the true church. In this confusion, Ephraim wrote a great number of hymns defending Nicene orthodoxy. A later Syriac writer, Jacob of Serugh, wrote that Ephraim rehearsed all-female choirs to sing his hymns set to Syriac folk tunes in the forum of Edessa. After a ten-year residency in Edessa, in his sixties, Ephraim succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims. The most reliable date for his death is 9 June 373.
Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephraim still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephraim’s productivity is not in doubt. The church historian Sozomen credits Ephraim with having written over three million lines. Ephraim combines in his writing a threefold heritage: he draws on the models and methods of early Rabbinic Judaism, he engages skillfully with Greek science and philosophy, and he delights in the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism.
The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns. These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. The madrāšê are written in stanzas of syllabic verse, and employ over fifty different metrical schemes. Each madrāšâ had its qālâ, a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qālê are now lost. It seems that Bardaisan and Mani composed madrāšê, and Ephraim felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims. The madrāšê are gathered into various hymn cycles. Each group has a title — Carmina Nisibena, On Faith, On Paradise, On Virginity, Against Heresies— but some of these titles do not do justice to the entirety of the collection (for instance, only the first half of the Carmina Nisibena is about Nisibis). Each madrāšâ usually had a refrain, which was repeated after each stanza. Later writers have suggested that the madrāšê were sung by all women choirs with an accompanying lyre.
Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies. Ephraim used these to warn his flock of the heresies which threatened to divide the early church. He lamented that the faithful were “tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as a fully human and divine. Ephraim asserts that Christ’s unity of humanity and divinity represents peace, perfection and salvation; in contrast, docetism and other heresies sought to divide or reduce Christ’s nature, and in doing so would rend and devalue Christ’s followers with their false teachings.
Ephraim also wrote verse homilies. These sermons in poetry are far fewer in number than the madrāšê. The mêmrê are written in a heptosyllabic couplets (pairs of lines of seven syllables each).
The third category of Ephraim’s writings is his prose work. He wrote biblical commentaries on the Diatessaron (the single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church), on Genesis and Exodus, and on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles. He also wrote refutations against Bardaisan, Mani, Marcion and others.
Ephraim wrote exclusively in the Syriac language, but translations of his writings exist in Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Greek and other languages. Some of his works are only extant in translation (particularly in Armenian). Syriac (Non Calcedonian) churches still use many of Ephraim’s hymns as part of the annual cycle of worship. However, most of these liturgical hymns are edited and conflated versions of the originals.
The most complete, critical text of authentic Ephraim was compiled between 1955 and 1979 by Dom Edmund Beck OSB as part of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium.
Ephraim’s artful meditations on the symbols of Christian faith and his stand against heresy made him a popular source of inspiration throughout the church. This occurred to the extent that there is a huge corpus of Ephraim pseudepigraphy and legendary hagiography. Some of these compositions are in verse, often a version of Ephraim’s heptosyllabic couplets. Most of these works are considerably later compositions in Greek. Students of Ephraim often refer to this corpus as having a single, imaginary author called “Greek Ephraim” or Ephraem Graecus (as opposed to the real Ephraim the Syrian). This is not to say that all texts ascribed to Ephraim in Greek are by others, but many are. Although Greek compositions are the main source of pseudepigraphal material, there are also works in Latin, Slavonic and Arabic. There has been very little critical examination of these works, and many are still treasured by churches as authentic.
The best known of these writings is the Prayer of Saint Ephraim which is recited at every service during Great Lent and other fasting periods in Eastern Christianity.
Veneration as a saint
Soon after Ephraim’s death, legendary accounts of his life began to circulate. One of the earlier ‘modifications’ is the statement that Ephraim’s father was a pagan priest of Abnil or Abizal. However, internal evidence from his authentic writings suggest that he was raised by Christian parents. This legend may be anti-pagan polemic or reflect his father’s status prior to converting to Christianity.
The second legend attached to Ephraim is that he was a monk. In Ephraim’s day, monasticism was in its infancy in Egypt. He seems to have been a part of the members of the covenant, a close-knit, urban community of Christians that had ‘covenanted’ themselves to service and refrained from sexual activity. Some of the Syriac terms that Ephraim used to describe his community were later used to describe monastic communities, but the assertion that he was monk is anachronistic. Later hagiographers often painted a picture of Ephraim as an extreme ascetic, but the internal evidence of his authentic writings show him to have had a very active role, both within his church community and through witness to those outside of it. Ephraim is venerated as an example of monastic discipline in Eastern Christianity. In the Eastern Orthodox scheme of hagiography, Ephraim is counted as a Venerable and Righteous Father (i.e., a sainted Monk). His feast day is celebrated on 28 January and on the Saturday of the Venerable Fathers (Cheesefare Saturday), which is the Saturday before the beginning of Great Lent.
Ephraim is popularly believed to have taken legendary journeys. In one of these he visits Basil of Caesarea. This links the Syrian Ephraim with the Cappadocian Fathers, and is an important theological bridge between the spiritual view of the two, who held much in common. Ephraim is also supposed to have visited Saint Pishoy in the monasteries of Egypt. As with the legendary visit with Basil, this visit is a theological bridge between the origins of monasticism and its spread throughout the church.
The most popular title for Ephraim is Harp of the Holy Spirit (Syriac: Kenārâ d-Rûḥâ). He is also referred to as the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church.
Today, Saint Ephraim presents an engaging model of Asian Christianity, which might prove a valuable source of theological insight for Christian communities that wish to break out of the European cultural mold. Ephraim also shows that poetry is not only a valid vehicle for theology, but is in many ways superior to philosophical discourse for the purpose of doing theology. He also encourages a way of reading the Bible that is rooted more in faith than in critical analysis. Ephraim displays a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all created things, which could develop his role in the church into that of a ‘saint of ecology’. There are modern studies into Ephraim’s view of women that see him as a champion of women in the church. Other studies have focused on the importance of ‘healing’ imagery in Ephraim. Ephraim, then, confronts the contemporary church as an orthodox saint engaged in a theology that is at once non-western, poetic, ecological, and healing.
“The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.” — Robert Murray.
“The boldness of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord, just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.” — Ephraim the Syrian, “Hymns on Faith” 16:5.
“You (Jesus) alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?” — Ephraim the Syrian, Nisibene Hymns 27:8; ca. 361 AD.
Bou Mansour, Tanios (1988). La pensée symbolique de saint Ephrem le Syrien. Bibliothèque de l’Université Saint Esprit XVI. Kaslik, Lebanon.
Brock, Sebastian P (1985). The luminous eye: the spiritual world vision of Saint Ephrem. Cistercian Publications. ISBN 0-87907-624-0.
Brock, Sebastian (trans) (1990). Hymns on paradise: St. Ephrem the Syrian. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York. ISBN 0-88141-076-4.
den Biesen, Kees (2002). Bibliography of Ephrem the Syrian. Self-published, Giove in Umbria. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
den Biesen, Kees (2006). Simple and Bold: Ephrem’s Art of Symbolic Thought. Gorgias Press, Piscataway, New Jersey. ISBN 1-59333-397-8.
Griffith, Sidney H (1997). Faith adoring the mystery: reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. ISBN 0-87462-577-7.
Matthews, Jr., Edward G. and Joseph P. Amar (trans), Kathleen McVey (ed) (1994). Saint Ephrem the Syrian: selected prose works. Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 0-8132-0091-1.
McVey, Kathleen E (trans) (1989). Ephrem the Syrian: hymns. Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-3093-9.
Mourachian, Mark. “Hymns Against Heresies: Comments on St. Ephrem the Syrian”. Sophia, 17, No. 2, Winter 2007. ISSN 0194-7958.
Parry, Ken; David Melling (editors) (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23203-6.