Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XIII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Selections from the Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim the Syrian and from the Demonstrations of Aphrahat the Persian Sage.: The Life, as Amplified by Mediaeval Biographers.
III.—The Life, as Amplified by Mediaeval Biographers.
1. His Early Years.—Ephraim, according to this biography, was a Syrian of Mesopotamia, by birth, and by parentage on both sides. His mother was of Amid (now Diarbekr) a central city of that region; his father belonged to the older and more famous City of Nisibis, not far from Amid but near the Persian frontier, where he was priest of an idol named Abnil (or Abizal) in the days of Constantine the Great (306–337). This idol was afterwards destroyed by Jovian (who became Emperor in 363 after the extinction of the Flavian dynasty by the death of Julian). In Nisibis, then included within the Roman Empire, Ephraim was born. The date of his birth is not stated, but it cannot have been later than the earliest years of Constantines reign. Though the son of such a father, he was from his childhood preserved, by Divine grace which “chose him like Jeremiah from his mothers womb,” from all taint of idolatrous worship and its attendant impurities, to be, like St. Paul, a “chosen vessel” to spread the light of truth and to quench heresy. The biographer records farther on, but without fixing its time, an intimation of his future work which Ephraim himself relates in his “Testament” as belonging to the days “when his mother carried him on her bosom.” He saw in dream or vision a vine springing from his mouth, which grew so high as to fill all that was under the heavens, and produced clusters whereon the fowls of the air p. 122 fed, and which multiplied the more, the more they were fed on. These clusters (the Testament explains) were his Sermons; the leaves of the vine, his Hymns.
But his entrance into the Christian fold was not to be without hindrance and suffering. His father, finding the youth one day in converse with some Christians, was filled with anger, chastised him with cruel and almost fatal severity, and repaired to the shrine of his god to seek pardon for his son by sacrifice and prayer. A voice issuing from the idol rejected his intercession, warned him that his son was destined to be the persecutor of his fathers gods, and commanded his expulsion from home. The father obeyed: the son received the sentence with joy, and went out from his fathers house, carrying nothing with him and not knowing whither he went. His way was divinely directed to the famous and saintly Bishop, Jacob of Nisibis, to whom he told his story and by whom he was affectionately welcomed and admitted into the number of “Hearers,”—that is, Catechumens in the first stage of preparatory instruction. From the first he showed himself a diligent disciple, in fasting and prayer, and in daily attendance on the teaching of the Scriptures. He frequented the Bishops abode, imitated his virtues, attracted his special notice, and acquired a high place in his love as well as in that of all the Church.
A slanderous charge, however, was laid against him in his youthful manhood, which, but for supernatural interposition granted to his prayer, would have ruined his good name. A damsel of noble birth had been seduced by an official (Paramonarius, i.e., sacristan, or perhaps rather, steward) of the church, named likewise Ephraim. When pregnancy ensued and her frailty was detected, she at the instance of her paramour charged Ephraim the pious Catechumen as being the author of her shame. Her father laid the matter before the Bishop, who in much grief and consternation summoned his disciple to answer the accusation. The youth received it at first in amazed silence; but finally made answer, “Yea, I have sinned; but I entreat thy Holiness to pardon me.” Even after this seeming acknowledgment of guilt, however, the Bishop was unconvinced, and prayed earnestly that the truth might be revealed to him: but in vain,—a more signal clearing was in store for the humble and blameless youth. When the child of shame was born, and the father of the frail damsel required him to undertake the charge of it, he repeated his seeming confession of guilt to the Bishop; he received the infant into his arms: he openly entered the church carrying it; and he besought the congregation with tears, saying, “Entreat for me, my brethren, that this sin be pardoned to me.” After thus bearing for some days the burden of unmerited reproach, he perceived the great scandal caused to the people, and began to reflect that his meek acceptance of calumny was doing harm. On the following Sunday, therefore, after the Eucharist had been administered, he approached the Bishop in church in presence of the people, carrying the infant under his mantle, and obtained his permission to enter the bema (not the pulpit, but the raised sanctuary where the altar stood). Before the eyes of the astonished congregation, he produced the babe, held it up in his right hand, facing the altar, and cried aloud, “Child, I call on thee and adjure thee by the living God, who made heaven and earth and all that therein is, that thou confess and tell me truly, who is thy father?” The infant opened its mouth and said, “Ephraim the paramonarius.” Having thus spoken, it died that same hour. The people and the Bishop received this miraculous vindication of the wrongfully accused with amazement and tears; the father of the sinful mother fell on his knees and cried for forgiveness; the true partner of her sin fled and was seen in Nisibis no more; Satan was confounded; and Ephraim was restored to more than all the favour and affection he enjoyed before.
Not long after, the young disciple received a singular proof of the high esteem in p. 123 which he was held by his Bishop. When summoned with the other prelates to the great Council of Nicæa (a.d. 325), Jacob took Ephraim with him as his attendant or secretary, and brought him into that holy Synod. It is to be inferred that a youth so chosen must have shown early maturity and zeal for the Faith. His presence on this first great battlefield of the Churchs war against heresy must have given a keen stimulus to his polemic activity, and influenced his subsequent life as a student and teacher of theology.
2. Siege of Nisibis.—After some years his course of assiduous study, obedience, and devout piety, was rudely broken by the alarm of war. Soon after the death of Constantine (a.d. 337), Sapor, king of Persia was moved to seize the opportunity offered by the removal of the great Emperor and the inexperience of his sons, and to attempt the recovery of the provinces on the Tigris which had been ceded by Narses his predecessor to Diocletian (under the treaty of a.d. 297), so as to push his border westward in advance of the line which had for forty years defined the eastern limits of the Roman Empire. To this end it was essential that he should obtain possession of Nisibis, 251 the strength and situation of that city marking it as a necessary safeguard for the frontier he sought to attain; and to it accordingly he laid siege in great force. After seventy days successful resistance, he had recourse to a novel mode of assault by which the city was wellnigh overpowered. The river (Mygdonius 252 ) which flowed through it was by his orders embanked and its waters intercepted, and then let loose so as to bear with destructive rush against the city wall. It gave way; and Sapor prepared to enter and take possession. To his dismay he found his advance vigorously repelled; he saw the breach filled by a fresh wall, manned and equipped with engines of war. The holy Bishop Jacob and the devout Ephraim, by their unceasing prayers within the church and their exhortations, had stimulated the garrison and the people to accomplish this work with incredible rapidity, and had secured the divine blessing on its timely completion. But a more amazing sight than the newly-built wall awaited Sapor. On the ramparts there appeared a Figure in royal apparel of radiant brightness,—the Emperor Constantius in outward semblance; though he was known to be far off, in Antioch. Sapor in blind fury assailed this majestic phantom with missiles, but soon desisted when he perceived the futility of his attack. His final discomfiture was brought to pass by Ephraim. Having first sought and obtained the Bishops sanction, he ascended a tower whence he could view the besieging host, and there he offered prayer to God that He should send on them a plague of gnats and mosquitos, and show by what puny agents Divine Power could effectually work the ruin of its adversaries. The prayer was instantly answered by a cloud of these insects, tiny but irresistible assailants, descending on the Persian host. Maddened by this plague, the horses flung their riders; the elephants broke loose and trampled down the men; the camp was thrown into irretrievable confusion; a storm of wind, rain, and thunder (adds another chronicler) enhanced the panic; and Sapor was forced to raise the siege and retire with ignominy and heavy loss instead of success.
Soon after, the saintly Bishop Jacob died, in the fulness of his virtues and his fame; and Ephraim in deep affliction conducted his funeral.
3. Removal to Edessa.—Our biographer then, passing over the remaining years of Constantius, goes on to the accession of Julian (a.d. 361). The troubles of the intervening period he assigns to the reign of Constans, whom (though he died before his p. 124 brother Constantius) he supposes to have reigned after him and before Julian. He records the persecutions suffered by the Christians under the latter, the judgment that overtook him in his defeat and death by the hands of the Persians, the succession of Jovian, and the treaty concluded by him with Sapor, under which Nisibis was surrendered to Persia and emptied of its Christian inhabitants. Of Ephraim he tells us only that he raised his voice against Julian and his persecutions, and remained in Nisibis until its surrender, and then retired to a place called Beth-Garbaia, 253 where he had been baptized at the age of eighteen and had received his first instruction in the Scriptures and in psalmody. Persecution having arisen there against the Church, he fled to Amid, where he spent a year; and thence proceeded to Edessa (now Urfa), which city, as soon as he came in sight of it, he fixed on as his permanent and final abode. As he was about to enter it, an incident occurred which nearly all the narratives of his life relate with variations, and which the historian Sozomen states to have been recorded in one of the writings of Ephraim himself. Beside the river Daisan which surrounds the city, he saw some women washing clothes in its waters. As he stood and watched them, one of them fixed her eyes on him and gazed at him so long as to move his anger. “Woman,” he said, “art thou not ashamed?” She answered, “It is for thee to look on the ground, for from thence thou art; but for me it is to look at thee, for from thee was I taken.” He marvelled at the reply and acknowledged the womans wisdom; and left the spot saying to himself, “If the women of this city are so wise, how much more exceedingly wise must its men be!”
Other authorities (including Ephraims contemporary, Gregory of Nyssa, who professes to collect the facts of his Encomium exclusively from Ephraims own written remains) give a somewhat different turn to this story. According to them, Ephraim approached the city, praying and expecting to meet at his first entrance there some holy and wise man by whose converse he might profit. The first person whom he encountered at the gate was a harlot. Shocked and bitterly disappointed, he eyed her, and was passing on; but when he noticed that she eyed him, in turn, he asked the meaning of her bold gaze. In this version of the incident, her answer was, “It is meet and fit that I gaze on thee, for from thee, as man, I was taken; but look not thou on me, but rather on the ground whence thou wast taken.” Ephraim owned that he had learned something of value even from this outcast woman; and praised God, who from the mouth of such an unlooked-for teacher, had fulfilled his desire for edification.
Another woman of Edessa is related by some of these authorities to have accosted the holy man, expecting that, even if she failed to tempt him to unchastity, she might at least move him to the sin, against which he strove no less sedulously to guard himself, of anger. He affected to yield to her solicitation; but when she invited him to fix on a place of assignation, he proposed that it should be in the open and frequented street. When she objected to such shameless publicity, he replied, “If we are ashamed in sight of men, how much more ought we to be ashamed in the sight of God, who knows all secret things and will bring all to His judgment!” By this reply the woman was moved to repentance and amendment, and gave up her sinful life,—and finally (as some add) retired from the world into a convent.
In Edessa, Ephraim at first earned a humble livelihood in the service of a bath-keeper, while giving his free time to the task of making the Scriptures known to the heathen who then formed a large part of the population of the city. But before long he was led, by the advice of a monk whom he casually met, to join himself to one of p. 125 the Solitaries (or anchorites) who dwelt in the caves of the adjacent “Mount of Edessa” (a rocky range of hills, now Nimrud Dagh). There he passed his time in prayer, fasting, and study of the Scriptures.
But a divine intimation was sent to call him back from his retreat into active life in the city. A vision came to the Solitary under whom Ephraim had placed himself. This man, as he stood at midnight outside his cell after prayer and psalmody, saw an angel descending from heaven and bearing in his hands a great roll written on both sides, and heard him say to them that stood by, “To whom shall I give this volume that is in my hands?” They answered, “To Eugenius 254 the Solitary of the desert of Egypt.” Again he asked, “Who is worthy of it?” They answered, “Julian the Solitary.” The Angel rejoined, “None among men is this day worthy of it, save Ephraim the Syrian of the Mount of Edessa.”
He, to whom this vision came, at first regarded it as a delusion; but he soon found reason to accept it as from God. Visiting Ephraims solitary cell, he found him engaged in writing a commentary on the Book of Genesis, and was amazed at the exegetical power shown in the work of a writer so untrained. When this was speedily followed by a Commentary on Exodus, the truth of the vision became apparent, and the Solitary hastened to the “School” of Edessa and showed the book to “the doctors and priests, and chief men of the city.” They were filled with admiration, and when they learned that Ephraim of Nisibis was the author, and heard of the vision by which his merit was revealed, they went at once to seek him out in his retreat. In his modesty he fled from their approach; but a second divine vision constrained him to return. In the valley where he had sought to hide, an Angel met him and asked, “Ephraim, wherefore fleest thou?” He answered, “Lord, that I may sit in silence, and escape from the tumult of the world.” “Look to it,” rejoined the Angel, “that the word be not spoken of thee, Ephraim hath fled from me as an heifer whose shoulder hath drawn back from the yoke” (Hos. 4:16, Hos. 10:11—quoted loosely). Ephraim pleaded with tears, “Lord, I am weak and unworthy;” but the Angel silenced his excuses with the Saviours words, No man lighteth a candle and putteth it under a bushel, but on a candlestick that all may see the light (Matt. 5:5, Luke 11:33). Accepting the rebuke, Ephraim returned to Edessa, with much prayer for strength from on high, to combat false doctrine. There he was ill received, and taunted as one who had fled in hypocritical affectation of reluctance, and was now returning in vainglorious quest of applause. This reproach he met with the meek reply, “Pardon me, my brethren, for I am a humble man;” at which they cried out the more against him, “Come, see the madman, the fool!” He held his ground notwithstanding, and taught many.
But this work which his adversaries failed to put down, the over-zeal of an admirer brought to a sudden close. One of the recluses of the Mount, having occasion to visit the city, saw him and followed him crying, “This is the fan in the Lords hand, wherewith He wilt purge all His floor, and the tares of heresy: this is the fire whereof our Lord said, I am come to send fire on the earth” (Matt. 3:12, Luke 12:49). Hearing this, certain chief men of the city, heretics, heathens, and Jews, seized him and drew him outside the gates, stoned him and left him wellnigh dead. Next morning he fled back to his cell on the Mount.
4. Work as a Teacher.—There, he gave himself to the work of refuting with his pen p. 126 the heresies and misbeliefs of his time, which he had thus been hindered by violence from combating in speech. Disciples gathered round him, and a school formed itself under the teacher in his retirement. The names are recorded by our narrator of Zenobius, Simeon, Isaac, Asuna, and Julian. Others add those of Abraham, Abba, and Mara. All these are named with favour in his Testament (a document of which we shall treat hereafter) except Isaac; but two others, Paulinus and Aurit (or Arnad) are denounced as false to the Faith.
The biographer introduces into his narrative of this stage of Ephraims life an account of his famous dream of the vine (above referred to), which foreshowed his future fertility as a writer, as related in his Testament. It will be given farther on, in his own words.
Remote and isolated as was his abode, the fame of the illustrious Basil, Archbishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, reached him there, and moved in him a desire to see and hear so great a divine. He prayed for divine guidance in the matter; and in answer a vision was sent to him. Before the Holy Table there seemed to stand a pillar of fire, whereof the top reached unto heaven, and a voice from heaven was heard to cry, “Such as thou seest this pillar of fire, such is the great Basil.”
5. Journey to Egypt, and Sojourn There.—Thus encouraged, Ephraim set out on his journey, taking with him an interpreter, for he was unable to speak Greek. In the first instance, however (according to the History), he made his way, not to Cappadocia, but to a seaport (not named by the writer—but probably Alexandretta is meant) where he took ship for Egypt. In the voyage the ship encountered perils, first in a storm, and afterwards from a sea-monster, but was delivered from both by his faith, which enabled him with words of power and the sign of the cross to rebuke the winds and waves into calm, and to slay the monster. Arrived in Egypt, he made his way to the city Antino (apparently Antinoë or Antinoopolis), 255 and thence towards the famous desert of Scete, in the Nitrian valley—then, and still, the place of many monasteries. Here he found an unoccupied cave, in which, as a cell, he and his companion took up their abode for eight years. His habits of life in this retreat—and (as it appears) at Edessa—were of the most austere. His food was barley bread, varied only by parched corn, pulse, or herbs; his drink, water; his clothing, squalid rags. His flesh was dried up like a potsherd, over his bones. He is described as being of short stature, bald, and beardless. He never laughed, but was of sad countenance. Other authorities, Gregory especially, dwell much and with admiration on his profuse and perpetual weeping. 256
In this Egyptian retreat he is related to have proved himself a victorious adversary against the Arians. On his arrival he had sought out and found a monk named Bishoi, to whom, because of his special sanctity, he had been divinely directed before he quitted Edessa; and with him he had sojourned for a week, communing with him by means of a miraculous gift which endowed each with the language of the other. By this gift p. 127 he was enabled to carry on controversy with Egyptian heretics, many of whom he reclaimed to orthodoxy. Over one of these, an aged monk who had been perverted to heresy by the possession of a demon, he exercised a further miraculous power for his restoration, by casting out the evil spirit and restoring the old man at once to his right mind and to the right faith. This gift of language, and the intercourse of Ephraim with Bishoi, are told only in the Vatican form of the History, which adds that he not only spoke Egyptian, but wrote discourses in that tongue. The other version of it represents him as having learned to speak Egyptian in the ordinary way. It is to be noted that the name of Bishoi (in Greek, Pasoës) is known as that of the founder (in the fourth century) of the monastery of Amba Bishoi, still occupied by a community of monks, in the Nitrian Desert; and that in those sequestered regions the tradition of Ephraims visit to Bishoi was lingering even within the last century and probably still lingers. To this subject we shall have occasion to recur, further on. 257
6. Visit to St. Basil of Cæsarea.—This long sojourn ended, he resumed his purpose of visiting Basil, and left Egypt for Cæsarea (which our narrator evidently supposes to be a maritime city—probably confusing it with the Cæsarea which was the metropolis of Palestine). 258 He was anxious that his first sight of the great Archbishop should be on the Feast of the Epiphany, and he succeeded in so timing his journey as to arrive the day before that Feast. On enquiry, he learned that Basil would take his part in its celebration in the great church; and thither accordingly on the morrow he and his interpreter repaired. On the same day (adds our historian) was the commemoration of St. Mamas. 259 At first, when he saw the great Prelate in gorgeous vestments attended by his train of richly-robed clergy, the heart of the humble ascetic failed him: this man so surrounded with state and splendor could not be (he thought) the pillar of fire revealed to him in his vision. But when Basil ascended the bema to preach, Ephraim, though he could understand little if anything of the orators eloquence, was speedily brought to another mind. As he listened he saw the Holy Ghost (in the form of a dove, says Gregory, as also the Vatican History,—or, according to another account, 260 of a tongue of fire), speaking from his mouth, (Gregory says, hovering by his ear and inspiring his words); and he joined in the applause which each period of the oration drew from the audience,—so vehemently that while others were content to utter the cry of approval (ahâ) but once, he reiterated it (ahâ, ahâ). Basil noticing this sent his Archdeacon to invite the stranger into the Sanctuary; but the invitation was modestly declined. Another version of the story places this invitation before the sermon, attributing to Basil a spiritual insight which discerned the holy mans presence and identified him. Again the Archdeacon was sent to summon him—this time, by name: “Come, my lord Ephraim, before the bema; the Archbishop bids thee.” Amazed to find himself thus discovered, Ephraim yielded, and praised God, saying, “Great art Thou in very truth; Basil is the pillar of fire; through his mouth speaks the Holy Ghost.” He begged, however, to be excused from coming into the Archbishops presence publicly, and asked to be allowed instead to salute him privately in the “Treasury,” “after the Sacred Oblation.” Accordingly, when “the Divine Mysteries” had been completed, the Archbishops Syncellus repeated the invitation, saying, “Draw near, Apostle of Christ, that we may enjoy thy presence.” He complied, and in his mean rags, silent, and with p. 128 downcast looks, stood before the magnificent Prelate. Basil rose from his seat, received him with the kiss of brotherhood, then bowed his head, and even prostrated himself before the humble monk, greeting him as the “Father of the Desert,” the foe of unclean spirits; and asked the purpose of his journey,—“Art thou come to visit one who is a sinner? The Lord reward thy labor.” He then proceeded to give the Holy Eucharist to both the strangers. In the interchange of speech (through the interpreter) that ensued, Basil enquired how it was that one who spoke no Greek had followed his discourse with such applause. When he heard, in reply, of the visible manifestation of the Holy Ghost, he exclaimed, “I would I were Ephraim, to be counted worthy by the Lord of such a boon!” Ephraim then entreated of him a boon; “I know, O holy man, that whatsoever thou shalt ask of God, He will give it thee: ask Him, therefore, to enable me to speak Greek.” Basil in reply disclaimed such intercessory power, but proposed that they should join in prayer for the desired gift, reminding him of the promise, “He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him” (Ps. cxlv. 19). They prayed accordingly for a long space; and when they had ceased, Basil enquired, “Why, my Lord Ephraim, receivest thou not the Order of Priesthood, which befits thee?” “Because I am a sinner,” answered Ephraim (through the interpreter). “I would thy sins were mine!” exclaimed Basil. He then desired Ephraim to bow his head, laid his hand on him and recited over him the Prayer of Ordination to the Diaconate, inviting him to respond. Forthwith, to the amazement of all, Ephraim answered in Greek, with the due form, “Save, and lift me up, O God.” And thenceforth he was able to speak Greek with ease and correctness. He persisted, however, in declining the higher Order of the Priesthood; but his interpreter was admitted both Deacon and Priest by Basil before they departed. Their sojourn lasted about a fortnight. Other writers, however, call Ephraim a Priest; and there is a passage where he himself seems to speak of himself, as holding the Priesthood (koh nîyô); 261 but Palladius, Jerome, Sozomen, and others of the best-informed writers, confirm our History. He is in fact frequently styled Ephraim the Deacon, as if to emphasize the fact that one so high in repute never rose above that lowly rank.
Traces of Ephraims influence are to be found in two places of Basils writings. It can scarcely be doubted that he points to Ephraim when (De Spiritu Sancto, xxix. 74), in defending the familiar formula “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,”—and again (Homil. in Hexaêm. ii. 6), in explaining the action of the Spirit on the waters (Genesis i. 2)—he appeals to the authority of an unnamed man of great knowledge and judgment, “as closely conversant with the knowledge of all that is true, as he is far removed from worldly wisdom,” a “Mesopotamian,” a “Syrian.” From him he says he learned—in the former instance, that “and” was to be inserted before the name of the Holy Ghost as well as before that of the Son;—and, in the latter, that the Spirit was not to be conceived as being “carried upon” the waters (as the Septuagint represents); but (as the Peshitto more truly represents the Hebrew), as “brooding upon” them, to cherish them into life—as a bird on her nest. The verb thus variously rendered is common to the Hebrew with the cognate Syriac; and the explanation of it given by Basil is in fact found in Ephraims extant Commentary on the passage of Genesis: 262 but he understands the “spirit” to be the wind—not (as Basil) the Holy Ghost.
7. Return to Edessa.—Ephraims return to Edessa was hastened by the tidings that in his absence no less than nine new heresies had appeared there. His way thither lay through p. 129 Samosata; and there he fell in with a chief man of the city, a heretic, who was passing by with a train of attendant youths. As the holy man sat by the wayside to eat bread, these followers mocked him, and one of them wantonly smote him on the cheek. The injury was borne in meek silence; but it was speedily avenged on the smiter, by a viper which came out from under a stone whereon he sat, and bit him so that he died on the spot. His master and companions hastened after Ephraim, and overlook him as he was begging his food in a village beyond the city which he had just passed through. At their entreaty he turned back with them, and by his prayers restored the dead youth to life. The nobleman and his followers, seeing this miracle, were converted to the orthodox faith.
8. Controversies.—Arrived at Edessa, he engaged at once in the conflict against the multiform heresies of the place, old and new—Manichean and Marcionite, as well as Arian. Of all the forms of error he encountered, the one that gave him most grief and trouble was that which had been originated about the year 200 by a Syrian, Bardesan. 263 Of this heresiarch he writes, in one of his Nisibene Hymns (the 51st; 264 not included in the following selection):
1. I have chanced upon tares, my brethren,
That wear the color of wheat,
To choke the good seed;
Concerning which the husbandmen are commanded,
Take them not away nor root them out;
And though the husbandmen heeded not,
The seed waxed stronger than they,
Grew and multiplied and covered and choked them.
2. I have chanced upon a book of Bardaisan,
And I was troubled for an hours space;
It tainted my pure ears,
And made them a passage
For words filled with blasphemy.
I hastened to purge them
With the goodly and pure reading
Of the Scriptures of truth.
3. I heard as I read them
How he blasphemes justice,
And grace her fellow-worker.
For if the body be not raised,
It were foul reproach for grace,
To have created it unto corruption;
And it were slander against justice,
To send it unto destruction.
4. This then that I read was grievous
For soul and for body alike;
And between these partners it casts
The severance of despair.
The body it cuts off from its resurrection,
And the soul from her comrade,
And the loss which the serpent threw on us
Bardaisan counts it for gain.
The controversy against the disciples of this man gave to the literary work of Ephraim an impulse to which his fame is largely due. His polemic in the above instance took, as we see, the form of a hymn; and his biographer informs us that it was in this controversy he first was led to adopt hymnody as a vehicle for teaching truth and confuting error. Of his hymns we possess some which can be confidently assigned to an earlier period—the first twenty-one of the Nisibene collection (which are the Nisibene Hymns proper), belonging to the epoch of the third siege (a.d. 350); but those are songs of triumph and thanksgiving, or of personal eulogy and exhortation,—not of controversy. The idea of the controversial use of hymnody he borrowed (we are told) p. 130 from his adversaries. It appears that Harmodius, the son of Bardesan, had popularized the false teaching of his father, as embodied in a series of a hundred and fifty hymns (in profane rivalry with the Psalms of David), by setting them to attractive tunes, which caught the ear of the multitude, and inclined them to receive his doctrines. So Ephraim himself tells us (attributing the work, however, to Bardesan solely) in his Homily (metrical) LIII., “Against Heretics” (not included in our selection). “He fashioned hymns, and joined them with tunes; and composed psalms, and brought in moods. By weights and measures, he portioned language. He blended for the simple poison with sweetness. The sick will not choose the food of wholesomeness. He would look to David, that he might be adorned with his beauty, and commended by his likeness. An hundred and fifty psalms, he likewise composed.” 265
To confute the heresies thus circulated, Ephraim borrowed the tunes employed by Harmodius; and his hymns, set to these tunes, soon carried the day in favor of orthodoxy, partly by the force of their truth, partly by their superior literary power, and partly by the help of a choir formed among the nuns whom he employed to sing them, morning and evening, in the churches. Thus the rival hymnody of heresy was superseded, and the hymns of Ephraim gained the place they have ever since held in the Church, wherever Syriac is the ecclesiastical language,—even though it is no longer the vernacular.
He celebrated this victory in the following strain of triumphant imprecation:—
“Cursed be our trust [if it be] on the Seven; 266 the Æons which Bardaisan confesses!
Anathema [be he] who says, as he said: that from them descend the rain and the dew!
Anathema who affirms, like him: that from them are the showers and the frosts!
Cursed be he who says, as he said: that from them are the snow and the ice!
[Cursed be he who affirms, like him]: that from them are the seeds for the husbandmen!
Anathema who confesses, as he confessed: that from them are the fruits for the labourer!
Anathema who believes, like him: that from them are famine and plenty!
Anathema who confesses, as he taught: that from them are summer and winter!
Anathema be on the man: and on the woman who thus speaks!
Anathema be on the house: wherein it is thus affirmed!
Anathema his doctrine which rests: its trust on the Sevenfold!
Cursed be he who reproaches his Creator: and ascribes dominion to the Seven!
Cursed be he who reads the Scriptures: and becomes a gainsayer of the Scriptures!
Cursed be he who reads the Prophets: and breaks the words of the Prophets!
Cursed be he who reads the Apostles: and abides not by their words!”
To this is subjoined a verse, the response of Balai (Balæus) a disciple:—
“The Lord exalt thy horn: O Church that art faithful!
For the King, and the Kings son: are established in thine ark.”
Another demonstration of Ephraims zeal against heresy, which the compiler of the History judiciously omits, is (unhappily for the fame of both) attested, and with evident approval, by Gregory of Nyssa.
p. 131 Apollinaris, who was his contemporary, and whose erroneous teaching he held in abhorrence, had committed his heresies to writing in two volumes which he gave into the keeping of a woman, a follower of his sect. Ephraim approached this woman and persuaded her to lend him the books, pretending that he agreed with the doctrine of their author and desired to use them in controversy against its opponents. At her instance he returned them in a short time; but before so doing, he treated them with fish-glue in such fashion that the leaves of each cohered into a solid mass, while to outward appearance they were unharmed. Soon after, he challenged Apollinaris to meet him in a public disputation concerning the articles of faith which the heretic had impugned. The latter sought to decline the controversy, pleading his old age 267 and infirmities; but consented to it,—only on condition, however, that he should be allowed to read from these volumes the statement and defence of his tenets therein written by him. On these terms, the disputants met. Apollinaris was called on to maintain his thesis, and his writings were placed in his hands; but when he went to open the books, it was in vain. No part of either volume would yield to his fingers; he was obliged to desist and to retire, baffled and ashamed; in such dismay as to bring on an illness that nearly proved fatal.
Another incident of this period, related in the History, is a miracle (a genuine one this time, if true) wrought by Ephraim on a paralytic. Seeing him as he sat and begged at the door of a church in Edessa, the holy man asked him: “Wilt thou be made whole?” “Yea, my Lord; lay thy hand on me,” was the reply. With the words, “In the Name of Christ, arise and walk,” he was cured instantly; and departed, glorifying God.
At the end of four years, messengers came to him from Basil, summoning him to come and receive consecration to the Episcopate, for some see unnamed (to which, as Sozomen relates, he had been elected;—Hist. Eccles. II. 16). When he learned their errand, he feigned madness, going to and fro in the streets in unseemly fashion, in motley garb, eating bread as he went and letting his spittle run down. Thus he succeeded in evading the undesired elevation: the messengers, shocked at his behaviour, returned without him, and reported that they found him a madman. “O hidden pearl of price” (cried Basil) “whom the world knows not! Ye are the madmen, and he the sane.”
The city and the Mount of Edessa suffered in these days from an invasion of the Huns, who plundered, murdered, and ravished, without mercy,—not even sparing the cells and convents. This calamity Ephraim is said to have recorded, in writings which have not reached us.
9. Persecution by Valens.—From another peril the Edessenes were saved by their faith and constancy. In the days of their Bishop Barses (361–378), the Arian Emperor Valens (364–378), in the course of his persecution of the orthodox, approached the city and summoned the inhabitants to wait upon him in his camp and hear his pleasure there. They disregarded the command, and gathered into the great Church of St. Thomas, 268 where they and their Bishop continued unceasingly in prayer. The historian p. 132 Socrates, a trustworthy and early (fifth century) authority, confirms our History here; and explains that Valens had ordered their Church to be surrendered to the Arians, and was enraged against them for resisting his decree, and against his Prefect Modestus for failing to carry it out. Valens then, finding them contumacious, ordered one of his generals (this same Modestus, according to Sozomen, who also relates the story) to enter the city and put the people to the sword. As Modestus, who was a humane man, sought to persuade them to yield, he met a woman leading her two sons to the Church. He strove to stop her, warning her of the danger she incurred; but her reply was, “I hear that they who fear God are to be slain, and I am in haste to win the crown with the rest.” “But what of these boys?” he asked. “Are they thy sons?” “They are,” she answered, “and we pray, both I and they, that we may be made an oblation to the Lord.” Amazed at her resolve, he reported the matter to Valens, to convince him that the Edessenes were prepared to die rather than submit. The Emperor was moved to relent; the people and their Bishop and priests came forth; he heard their plea, was ashamed of his cruel purpose, pardoned their disobedience, and departed. This well-attested incident is to be assigned to 371, or to the preceding or ensuing year. 269
This victory of faith was celebrated by Ephraim in the following verses:—
“The doors of her homes Edessa
Left open when she went forth
With the pastor to the grave, to die,
And not depart from her faith.
Let the city and fort and building
And houses be yielded to the king;
Our goods and our gold let us leave;
So we part not from our faith!
Edessa is full of chastity,
Full of prudence and understanding.
She is clad in discernment of soul;
Faith is the girdle of her loins;
Truth her armour all-prevailing;
Love her crown, all-exalting.
Christ bless them that dwell in her,
Edessa, whose name is His glory,
And the name of her champion her beauty!
City that is lady over her fellows,
City that is the shadow
Of the Jerusalem in heaven!”
After all was thus restored to peace and orthodoxy, Ephraim withdrew to his retreat on the Mount, which he is not recorded to have again quitted, save on one occasion, to be presently related.
10. Penitent sent to Ephraim by Basil: Basils Death.—The death of Basil (at the end of 378) is said by our author to have caused great grief to Ephraim, and to have been lamented by him in hymns. But (as will be shown below) this is hardly possible, even if the latest date for Ephraims death be accepted.
Another miraculous incident connected with Ephraims biography, belongs to the year of Basils death. A woman of high rank, but of evil life, in Cæsarea, being moved to penitence, wrote on a paper a full confession of her sins, and gave it to Basil, who at her entreaty laid it with prayer before the Lord. Her repentance and his intercession prevailed so far, that the record of all her guilt disappeared from the paper, save of one sin, more heinous than the rest. Disappointed thus of her hope of full pardon, she had recourse again to Basil, supplicating that this sin too might be wiped out. He encouraged her to persevere in prayer, and advised her to repair to the Mount of Edessa, to Ephraim, and through him obtain her desire. To Ephraim accordingly she made her way, and cried to him, saying, “Have pity on me, thou holy one of God.” When he heard Basils advice and her petition, he disavowed all such power to prevail with p. 133 God as Basil had ascribed to him, and advised her rather to hasten back and obtain her Archbishops farther intercession. She returned accordingly to Cæsarea; but, as it seemed, too late: Basil had died before her arrival, and she met his corpse as it was carried to burial. In despair, she prostrated herself in the dust, proclaimed her story to all that stood by, and upbraided the dead saint, “Woe is me, servant of God! why didst thou send me far away that I should return too late and meet thee borne to the grave! The Lord judge betwixt me and thee, who hast sent me to another, when thyself couldst have absolved me!” One of the attendant clergy, desiring to learn what was the sin for which pardon was so hard to win, took from her the paper she held, and opening found it blank. The last and deadliest of her list had vanished like the rest: and “thus, by the prayers of Basil and of Ephraim, and by the womans faith and perseverance, her sins were all of them blotted out.”
After this occurrence, the History places the following narrative of Ephraims last intervention in earthly concerns. It is related likewise by Palladius (Ephraims younger contemporary) and by Sozomen.
11. Exertions in Relief of Famine.—In a season of severe famine, he ascertained that grain was being hoarded in the stores of certain persons who gave nothing to the starving poor. When he rebuked their inhumanity, they excused themselves on the plea that none was to be found of such probity as to guarantee fairness and honesty in the distribution of relief. Ephraim at once offered his services, and was accepted as their agent throughout the famine season, to dispense large sums as the treasurer and steward of their bounty. Among other things, he provided three hundred letters, partly for removing the sick to stations where they were duly tended, partly for carrying the dead for interment. A body of helpers worked with him in administering relief, and their care extended not merely through the city, but to the country and villages adjacent. The year of dearth ended, a year of plenty ensued; Ephraim retired to his cell,—this time to leave it no more. He died a month after the close of the charitable labours. Of them his biographer, following for once the better instinct which recognizes higher worth in services of love than in ascetic practices or in miraculous pretensions, writes thus:—“God gave him this occasion that therein he might win the crown in the close of his life.”
12. His Testament.—In his Testament, which professes to have been composed in immediate anticipation of his end, he laid on his disciples a solemn charge that his body should be buried humbly, covered with no garment save his tunic (cothênô). Gregory of Nyssa adds that a rich friend who, though informed of his prohibition, had provided beforehand for this purpose a costly robe, was punished by the possession of an evil spirit, which tormented him until, on his confession, the dying saint relieved him, casting out the demon by prayer and laying on of hands.
From the extant Syriac of this document 270 (which is metrical), the following have been selected as the most striking verses:
“I Ephraim am at point to die: and I write my testament;
That I may leave for all men a memorial: of whatsoever is mine,
That though it be [but] for my words: they that know me may remember me.
Woe is me, for my times are ended: and the length of my years is fulfilled;
The spinning for me is shortened: the thread is nigh unto cutting;
The oil fails in the lamp: my days are spent, yea, mine hours;
p. 134 The hireling has finished his year: and the sojourner has fulfilled his season.
Around me are the summoners: on this side and that are they that lead me away.
I cry aloud, [but] none hears me: and I complain, [but] none delivers.
“Woe to thee, Ephraim, for the judgment: when thou shalt stand before the Sons judgment-seat,
And around thee they that know thee: on the right hand and the left,
Lo! there shalt thou be confounded: woe to him who is put to shame there!
Jesu, do Thou judge Ephraim: nor give his judgment to another;
For whoso has God for his Judge: he finds mercy in judgment;
For I have heard from the wise: yea, I have heard from men of knowledge,
That whoso sees the face of the King: though he has offended, he shall not die.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“By him who came down on Mount Sinai: and by him who spake on the rock,
By that Mouth which spake the “Eli”: 271 and made the bowels of creation tremble,
By him who was sold in Judah: and by him who was scourged in Jerusalem,
By the Might which was smitten on the cheek: and by the Glory which endured spitting,
By the threefold Names of fire: and by the one Assent and will,
I have not rebelled against the Church: nor against the might of God.
If in my thought I have magnified the Father: above the Son, let Him have no mercy on me!
And if I have accounted the Holy Spirit less: than God, let mine eyes be darkened!
If as I have said, I confessed not: let me go into outer darkness!
And if I speak in hypocrisy: let me burn with the wicked in fire!
* * * * * * * * * * *
“I adjure you my disciples: with adjurations that may not be loosed,
That my words be not set aside: that ye loose not my commandments.
Whoso lays me beneath the altar: he shall not see the Altar of heaven;
For it is not meet that foul stench: should be laid in the Holy Place;
Whoso has laid me within the temple: he shall not see the temple of the Kingdom.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Take nought from me as memorial: 272 my beloved, my brothers, my sons,
For as much as ye have a memorial: that which ye have heard of Jesus.
For if ye take aught from Ephraim: into reproach will Ephraim come;
For He, my Lord, will say unto me: More than in Me they have trusted in thee,
For if they had relied on Me: they had not sought a memorial from thee.
“Lay me not with the martyrs: for I am a sinner and unworthy,
And because of my unworthiness I fear: to be brought beside their bones;
For if stubble comes near to fire: it will scorch it, yea, devour it.
It is not that I hate their neigbourhood: because of mine unworthiness, I fear it.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Whoso carries me on his fingers: may his hands be leprous as Gehazi!
p. 135 On your shoulders carry me: and in haste conduct me [to the grave],
And as a mean man bury me: for I have worn out my days in sadness.
Why glorify ye me, O men: who before our Lord am ashamed?
And why give ye me [the name of] Blessed: who am disclosed in my works?
Should one show you my transgressions: ye would all of you spit in my face.
For if the stench of the sinner: could strike one that stood by him,
Ye would all of you flee away: from the loathsome stench of Ephraim.
“Whoso lays with me a pall: may he go forth into outer darkness!
And whoso has laid with me a shroud: may he be cast into Gehenna of fire!
In my coat and cowl shall ye bury me: for ornament beseems not the hateful,
Nor does praise profit the dead: who is laid and cast into the tomb.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Arise, my brethren of Edessa: my lords and my sons and my fathers!
Bring whatsoever ye have vowed: to lay along with your brother,
Bring and set it before me: whatsoever ye my brethren have vowed.
While I have yet a little memory: let me set on it a price;
And let there be bought pure vessels: and let there be hired workmen therewith,
And distribution be made among the poor: the needy and them that are in want.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Blessed is the city wherein ye dwell: Edessa, mother of the wise,
Which from the living mouth of the Son: was blessed by His Disciple. 273
This blessing shall abide in her: until the Holy One shall be revealed.
“Whoso withholds from me aught that he has vowed: shall die the death of Ananias,
Who sought to deceive the Apostles: and was stretched [dead] before their feet.
“Whoso carries before me a taper: may his fire be kindled beside him!
For to what end avails fire: for him whose fire is from himself?
For when the visible fire is kindled: in it is consumed the secret fire.
Sufficient for me is the pain without: add ye not to me that which is within.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Lay me not with sweet spices: for this honour avails me not;
Nor yet incense and perfumes: for the honour benefits me not.
Burn sweet spices in the Holy Place: and me, even me, conduct to the grave with prayer.
Give ye incense to God: and over me send up hymns.
Instead of perfumes of spices: in prayer make remembrance of me.
What can goodly odour profit: to the dead who cannot perceive it?
Bring them in and burn them in the Holy Place: that they which enter in may smell the savour.
Wrap thou not the fetid dung: in silk that profits it not.
Cast it down upon the dunghill: for it cannot perceive honour [done to it].
* * * * * * * * * * *
p. 136 “Lay me not in your sepulchres: for your magnificence profits me not;
For I have a covenant with God: that I shall be buried with strangers.
I am a stranger, as they were: with them, O my brethren, lay me!
For every bird loves its kind: and man loves him that is like himself.
In the cemetery lay me: where are the broken of heart,
That when the Son of God comes: He may embrace me 274 and raise me among them.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
[After blessing by name the five faithful disciples above mentioned (page 126), he leaves an anathema on the two, Paulinus and Urit, who had erred from the faith; and against]
“Arians and Anomœans: Cathari and those of the Serpent, 275
Marcionites and Manichœans: Bardesanites and Kukites,
Paulites and Vitalianites: Sabbatarians and Borborites,
With all the other doctrines: of superstitious that are unseemly.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
[The dying Saint recalls in the following lines the vision of his childhood, and praises God for its fulfilment.]
“I swear by your lives I lie not: in this thing that I tell.
For when I was a little child: and lay in my mothers bosom,
I saw (I was as in a dream): a thing which has come to pass in truth.
There grew a vine-shoot on my tongue: and increased and reached unto heaven,
And it yielded fruit without measure: leaves likewise without number.
It spread, it stretched wide, it bore fruit: all creation drew near,
And the more they were that gathered: the more its clusters abounded.
These clusters were the Homilies; and these leaves the Hymns.
God was the giver of them: glory to Him for His grace!
For He gave to me of His good pleasure: from the storehouse of His treasures.”
This farewell strain has no doubt suffered interpolation, but the main part of what is above translated is confirmed as genuine by the references to it of Gregory, who had undoubtedly read it in a Greek version. 276 As it has reached us, it ends with a narrative, which at most can only claim to be an appendix added by a disciple, of the lamentations uttered at his deathbed by a maiden named Lamprotate, daughter of a man of rank in Edessa, who entreated permission to make a tomb for him and another at his feet for herself. The narrative concludes with his consent to this petition, his parting commands to her, and her promise of obedience.
His body was followed to the grave by all the people of the city and neighborhood, and by the Bishops, priests, and deacons of the province, with the monks, whether “anchorites, stylites, or cœnobites”—solitary, or living in communities. It was laid (as he had desired) in the strangers burial-ground; but not long after, the citizens removed it thence, and made a grave for him, deacon as he was, among those of their Bishops,—probably in the monastery (now belonging to the Armenians) of St. Sergius p. 137 on the Mount of Edessa, where his tomb is shown to this day, as we learn from the Reise in Syr. u Mesopot. of Dr. Sachau (p. 202).
13. Death and Burial.—His death occurred in Haziran (June), on the 15th according to our History (Vat.), but other authorities differ, assigning it to the 9th, 18th, or 19th. The shorter Syriac Life gives the year as 372,—thus contradicting the History which represents him as living in the year of Basils death (378).
Even in the time of Gregory of Nyssa, an annual commemoration of Ephraim had become customary in the Church, which gave occasion for the Encomium above referred to. In the East, it was held on the 28th of January; but in the Roman Martyrology his name is recorded on the 1st of February.
The strong and ancient city…which, since the time of Lucullus had been deservedly esteemed the bulwark of the East. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. xviii.123:252
Now called Jaghjagh,—an affluent of the Khabur (Chaboras) which joins the Euphrates at Circesium.124:253
Not elsewhere named: perhaps we ought to read Beth-Garme; for which see B. O. II., De Monophysitis, s.v.125:254
So the Paris text: the Vatican has “Origen.” The person meant is probably the Eugenius who came from Egypt with 70 disciples to Nisibis, to introduce the ascetic life into that region, and lived there from the time of the consecration of St. Jacob till the surrender in 363. His life is related in the inedited ms. Add. 12174 (Lives of Saints), of the British Museum.126:255
This city lay quite out of the region of the Nitrian monasteries. Possibly in the original form of this biography, the “Enaton” (i.e. the Ninth District) of Alexandria was named as the place of Ephraims sojourn and subsequent transcribers changed the word into Antino.126:256
As represented by Gregory Ephraim was a very Democritus among saints:
“As with all men to breathe is a natural function unceasing in exercise, so with Ephraim was it to weep. There was no day, no night, no hour, no moment however brief, in which his eyes were not wakeful and filled with tears, while he bewailed the faults and follies, now of his own life, now of mankind. By groans he made a channel for the streams of his eyes or rather, by the outflow of the eyes he looked his groans.…There was no interval of time between them, groans succeeding to tears and they again to groans, as in a sort of circle; so that it was impossible to distinguish which made the beginning and which was the cause of the other. Any one who makes acquaintance with his writings will perceive this characteristic; for he will be found lamenting not only in his treatises on penitence, or morals, or right conduct, but even in his panegyrics, in which it is the habit of most writers to show an aspect of rejoicing. But he was every where the same, and abounded perpetually in this gift of compunction.”127:257
For this monastery, see below, p. 143, note 1. For the history of Pesoës, see Palladius, Hist. Lausiaca, XV.127:258
Cæsarea, the see of Basil, lay far from the sea, in the heart of the inland province of Cappadocia. The Cæsarea of the Acts of the Apostles (Stratonis), the metropolis of Palestine was a seaport.127:259
The feast of St. Mamas (a Cappadocian martyr) falls in August, not in January. A sermon of St. Basil for that feast is extant (Hom. XXIII.). Probably the author of this History knew that sermon, and was thus led to mention the commemoration here, carelessly disregarding the time of year.127:260
To the pseudo-Amphilochius.128:261
Parœnesisxxvi. 11 (Opera Syr.), Tom. III. p. 467. The word, however, is perhaps not to be taken literally.128:262
Opera Syriaca, Tom. I., p. 8.129:263
In Syriac, Bardaisan (son of Daisan), so called from his birthplace beside the river above mentioned.129:264
See Bickell, Carmina Nisibena, p. 101.130:265
Opera Syriaca, Tom. II., p. 554, see also Homily I.130:266
The Seven Æons (or Beings) of Bardesans heresy; see Opp. Syr. II., p. 550.131:267
The heretic Apollinaris seems to have been a younger man than Ephraim, whom he survived by some years. Possibly his father, the elder Apollinaris, is here intended. But he is not recorded as having taught heresy.131:268
To this church were translated the bones of St. Thomas the Apostle, from his burial place in India, in the time of Eulogius the successor of Barses (378–387),—as we learn from Barhebræus, Chronicon Eccles. I. 21 (p. 65 of Abbeloos and Lamys edition). But the above narrative, as confirmed by Socrates (IV. 18), shows that it had been built and was held in special reverence before that. It is the church at which our History places the healing of the paralytic (above). Sozomens account (VI. 17) in the main agrees; also Theodorets (IV. 17).132:269
Baronius, Annales, IV. p. 308. The Vatican Life reads Julian for Valens in this narrative, thus introducing inexplicable perplexity into the chronology. Julian died before Ephraim became a resident of Edessa.133:270
Printed in Overbecks Ephræmi S. Opera Selecta, p. 137; also in the (Roman) Opera Græca, at the end of Tom. II., p. 395.134:271
St. Matth. xxvii. 46.134:272
i.e., as a relic.135:273
The allusion is to the legend that Abgar, King of Edessa, hearing the fame of the Lord Jesus, sent a letter inviting him to his city, and received in reply a letter from Him conveying His blessing, and a promise to send a disciple to teach him and his people. This promise was afterwards fulfilled by the mission of Thaddeus (Addae) to Edessa. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. I. 13.)136:274
The Greek version has “may heal.” The Syriac may be brought to agree with this, by changing t into r in the verb used.136:275
The sect of Ophites.136:276
The Greek version that has reached us is paraphrastic, and interpolated; but on the whole represents the original with no great divergence. See Opera Græca, Tom. II., p. 230; Ephraim Syr. Græce, p. 365 (Oxford edition).
Next: Recapitulation of Authentic Facts of Life.
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