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.: Chronology of the Life of Ephraim.
VII.—Chronology of the Life of Ephraim.
Thus the fixed points for determining the chronology of Ephraims life are:
1. The death of his patron, St. Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis, in 338, after the first siege of that city.
2. The third siege, in which he was among the defenders of the city, in 350.
3. The surrender of Nisibis by Jovian, and its abandonment by its Christian inhabitants, 363; followed by Ephraims removal to Edessa.
4. The consecration of Basil to the see of Cæsarea, late in 370, followed by Ephraims visit to him there.
5. The deliverance of the Edessenes from the persecution of Valens (370–372), celebrated by Ephraim in a hymn.
6. Ephraims death, 373.
To this list it would be right to prefix the meeting of the Council of Nicæa in 325, if the evidence of Ephraims presence at it, along with St. Jacob, were sufficient. But it has no early attestation; and no writer prior to Theodoret (Hist. Eccles. II. 30) associates the name of Jacob with any incident in Ephraims life.
p. 145 The date of Ephraims birth is nowhere directly stated, but it is usually assumed to have been early in the reign of Constantine (306–337), on the authority of the Vatican Life, which says, “In the days of the victorious Constantine, true believer, was born the holy man Ephraim.” But the statement of the Parisian Life is less explicit, and is capable of a different meaning:—“He was in the days of the victorious Constantine.” This merely implies that Ephraim (if the pronoun represent him) lived in the reign of that emperor. But it rather appears that Ephraims father is meant, inasmuch as he is the subject of the immediately preceding sentence which describes him as a heathen priest; and the purport of the passage is, that the saint was the son of a man who not merely had been one of an idolatrous priesthood, but continued to be so after Constantine had acknowledged the Christian religion. 297
The earlier authorities give no express statement on this point; but a late tenth-century Greek menologium, that of the Emperor Basil (Porphyrogenitus), says that he “continued from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens,” 298 —implying as it seems that he was born, as the Vatican Life represents, after Constantines accession in 306.
Considering, however, that the Life in both its forms affirms that Ephraim was brought by St. Jacob to the Council of Nicæa in 325—in which it is borne out by Gregory Barhebræus in his Ecclesiastical Chronicle 299 (who though a very late writer (1226–1286) had access to early authorities and judgment in using them)—it is hard to reconcile the chronology, for the improbability of the admission of a lad of nineteen, in any capacity, to that venerable assembly, is very great. If we accept it as a fact that he was chosen by Jacob to accompany him, and was permitted to be present among the Fathers at Nicæa, it seems almost necessary to place his birth before Constantine became emperor. 300
Farther: the menologium above cited adds that he died “in extreme old age;” and the tone and tenor of his testament go far to confirm the truth of these words. But as he died in 373, he cannot have been more than 67 years old in that year if he was born in 306. No doubt 67 is a ripe age, but hardly sufficient to warrant the strong expression of the menologium. Without pressing its language unduly, we may surely take it as implying that he had passed the “threescore years and ten” of the Psalmist at the time of his death—in other words that he was born not later than the first or second year of the fourth century.
Thus by rectifying the text and rendering of the opening sentences of the Life, we relieve ourselves of the supposed necessity of placing his birth in or after 306. And his presence in the Council of 325, and his extreme old age in 373, concur in pointing to the beginning of the fourth century—if not to the later years of the third—as the probable time of that event.
However this may be, whether he was born in 306 or earlier, it is certain that by far the greater part of the long life of the “Deacon of Edessa”—all of it save its last p. 146 ten or eleven years (363–373) was passed in his native Nisibis; and that he did not even attain the diaconate till he was considerably over sixty years of age, and within three years of his end.
The passage is as follows: “Ephraim was a Syrian by birth. His father was of Nisibis, and his mother of Amid. And his father was priest in Nisibis of an idol named Abizal, which afterwards the victorious Emperor Jovian broke. He [or it, scil., the idol] was in the days of the victorious Emperor Constantine, true believer. But his father had this famous son, of whom is our narrative.” The meaning may be that the idol was suffered to exist during Constantines reign and after, till Jovian destroyed it: but it is now natural to understand it, as above, of Ephraims father. The Vatican editor seems to have misunderstood his original, which the Parisian transcriber has preserved faithfully,—and to have altered it into accordance with his misunderstanding, by recasting the passage and substituting “was born” for “was.”145:298
In Mignes Patrologia Græca, CXVI I., p. 254.145:299
I., 23 (Abbeloos and Lamys edition).145:300
Gregory Barhebr. (Chron. Eccles., II., 10) mentions, but doubtfully, a tradition that Ephraim wrote a letter circ. 334 in which he took the part of Papas, the Catholicus, against “the Bishops of the East” who accused him of neglect and misconduct. If this be accepted, it is additional evidence for the early date of Ephraims birth.
Next: His Writings: Their Characteristics.
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