The two Fathers of the Syrian Church, from whose writings the present Volume presents a selection, are from more than one point of view fitly associated as examples of the leaders of Syriac theological thought and literature. They are the earliest Syriac authors of whom any considerable remains survive; and they both represent the religious mind of the Syrian Church, but little affected by influences from without, other than the all-pervading influence of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
Syriac Literature is, on the whole, of derivative growth. It consists largely of versions or adaptations from the Greek. The Syriac language, in the hands of those to whom the Syriac Church owes the admirable version of the Scriptures known as the “Peshitto,” proved itself capable of reproducing adequately, not only the sublime conceptions of God and of mans relations to God which belong to the cognate Hebrew of the Old Testament, but also—the wider, subtler, and more complex religious ideas for which the writers of the New Testament found their fit vehicle in the Greek. But the Peshitto, great as its value must have been to the religious life of Syriac-speaking Christians, never became to them what Luthers Bible has been to Germany, and the “Authorized” Bible of King Jamess translators to England—an inspiring force in literature, not merely to elevate and enrich its language, but to quicken it in every branch. Syriac literature was indeed deeply penetrated by the Syriac Bible, but its level was never raised above mediocrity. For the most part it is imitative not original;—nay, it rarely succeeds in assimilating so as to make its own what it has borrowed. The Syriac translator, if he worked on the writings of a Greek divine, would often paraphrase or even interpolate; if of a Greek historian, would subjoin a continuation; but he would seldom venture farther. Those who essayed independent authorship were few. A home-grown Syriac literature began with Ephraim and Aphrahat; but [setting aside a very small number of the writers who followed] it may almost be said to have ended with them. These two, and these alone, in place of being imitators or translators, were translated and imitated by the writers of foreign nations. Aphrahats literary lot was the singular one, that his work survived in an alien tongue for alien readers, when the original had wellnigh perished out of the memp. 120 ory of his own people. To Ephraim pertains the high and unique distinction of having originated—or at least given its living impulse to—a new departure in sacred literature; and that, not for his own country merely, but for Christendom. From him came, if not the first idea, at all events the first successful example, of making song an essential constituent of public worship, and an exponent of theological teaching; and from him it spread and prevailed through the Eastern Churches, and affected even those of the West. To the Hymns, on which chiefly his fame rests, the Syriac ritual in all its forms owes much of its strength and richness; and to them is largely due the place which Hymnody holds throughout the Church everywhere. And hence it has come to pass that, in the Church everywhere, he stands as the representative Syrian Father, as the fixed epithet appended to his name attests—“Ephraim the Syrian,”—the one Syrian known and reverenced in all Christendom.
Of the two, it has been usual of late to reckon Aphrahat as the elder. Further on, it will be shown in this Dissertation that the reasons for so reckoning him are inadequate. For the present it suffices to note that they were contemporaries—both living and writing about the middle of the fourth century, and that priority of treatment cannot with confidence be claimed for either. On grounds of convenience, therefore, we may properly proceed to deal first with Ephraim, as being indisputably far the first in order of importance, of copiousness, and of celebrity.
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