CNEWA Connections: Ephrem and the Syriac Tradition

Recently CNEWA has been encouraging our readers to “look East.” There’s a good reason for that. One of the founding purposes of CNEWA is to educate Roman Catholics to the fact that we are not the only Catholics. The Christianity with which most Catholics are familiar developed around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, with two main centers: Rome and Constantinople. This was basically the oikouménē, “the inhabited, i.e., civilized, i.e., Greek-speaking world.” The great Catholic and many Orthodox traditions trace their roots back to churches in these cities.

However, there was another Christian world that became politically, geographically and eventually theologically separated from Western and Byzantine Christianity. One of the traditions in that world came to be known as the Syriac (and sometimes Nestorian) churches.

On 9 June, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373), a deacon and Doctor of the Church. While Ephrem is an extremely important person, he is also a very good starting point for learning more about a church and tradition with which most Christians are regrettably unfamiliar.

Ephrem was born in about 306 in the ancient city of Nisibis. He spent an important part of his life in the ancient city Edessa. These cities are very important. Nisibis is the modern city of Nusaybin in Turkey. Nusaybin is about 160 miles northwest of Mosul, Iraq, recently liberated from ISIS. Edessa is the modern Turkish city of Sanliurfa, located 125 miles west of Nusaybin. Between the two cities lay the frequently shifting border between the Greek, Christian, Byzantine Empire and the Persian, Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire. The two were at war for almost 200 years.

Because of the shifting border, Syriac-speaking Christians in Mesopotamia were sometimes under Byzantine control and sometimes under Sassanid control — and often enough neither was all that friendly.

Nisibis and Edessa were great centers of learning. Philosophy, theology and medicine were the primary faculties of learning. Ephrem taught at both Nisibis and of Edessa. The School of Nisibis was founded in 350, but the city was conquered by the Persians in 363 and the scholars, including Ephrem, moved westward to Edessa, which remained under Byzantine control. In 489, as a result of the Nestorian controversy, the Byzantine Emperor Zeno closed the School of Edessa, which he found too “Nestorian,” that is, heterodox. The school then returned to Nisibis.

Edessa and Nisibis compete for the questionable title “oldest university in the world.” Notwithstanding, the schools were highly regarded and Western scholars, such as Cassiodorus (487-585), used them as models for opening their own centers of learning in Latin Europe.

“Ephrem and the Syriac tradition show us that theology can be deep, serious and beautiful at the same time.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Syriac theology of Nisibis and Edessa, and certainly of Ephrem, is unusual to Roman Catholics, accustomed to the Medieval theologians and philosophers of Europe. Although Ephrem wrote several biblical commentaries in Syriac prose, he is best known for his sermons and hymns. Ephrem wrote more than 400 hymns. These are by no means simply pious, occasional accompaniments to more serious things. Ephrem’s hymns are what are called in Syriac, madrāša, “teaching” (cf. Hebrew midraš, “biblical commentary” and Arabic madrassa, “school”). These “teaching hymns” are essential to Ephrem’s articulation of his theology and analogous to the Summas of St. Thomas Aquinas. They are radically different literary genres, but each equally serious theology. Ephrem’s homilies are not straight prose, but rather a different poetic form called memre, “words,” in Syriac.

As we respond to CNEWA’s call to “look East,” Ephrem and the Schools of Edessa and Nisibis offer some interesting points to ponder. Taking Shakespeare’s warning that “comparisons are odorous” (“Much Ado about Nothing”), some comparisons, nonetheless, might be helpful. If in the West, theology was concerned with comprehensiveness, logic, philosophy, and so forth — all very important things — Syriac theology paid a great deal of attention to the aesthetic and to religious imagination. In all fairness, Aquinas did write poetry and was extremely fond of the biblical book Song of Songs. However, the aesthetic and religious imagination play a far lesser role in his Summas. Aquinas’s most important theological works are in Latin prose; Ephrem’s most important theological works are in Syriac poetry.

As we “look East,” we are not faced with an either/or. We are, however, faced with a very important challenge. Have we let our official, professional theologizing become overly formalistic and dry, something rather hard to connect with any euangelion or Good News? Can our message be made more attractive by appealing not only to the intellect but also to the emotions and to our aesthetic sense?

Ephrem and the Syriac tradition show us that theology can be deep, serious and beautiful at the same time, and the works of Ephrem alone offer us hundreds of examples as to how it can be done.

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