Intro to Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise


Sebastian Brock gives an outstanding introduction to the thought-world of Ephrem the Syrian.  At the risk of people crying “Harnack Thesis,” Brock teaches you how to view reality as a Semite.  Brock’s introduction is doubly good, for St Ephrem’s mindset is not always easy to crack.

This is the best way to explain the problem.  For the Hellenized Greek, priority was given to the Form or the Real.  Whether Ephrem would have agreed or not, we don’t know. But instead of Forms, in Ephrem we see symbols.  Further, Ephrem often moves from individual to corporate to individual without telling the reader. Brock alerts us to these moves: “The Semitic mentality of the biblical writers and of the Syriac poets, such as St Ephrem, finds it very easy to move from the collective to the individual, and from the individual to the collective” (Brock 27).

Key Concepts and Symbols

While St Ephrem held to virginity as the ideal, he didn’t take it in the nigh-Galatianist heretical ways that guys like Methodius of Olympus would.  For the word “singleness” Ephrem uses a broader term, ihidaya (wholeness). “Let one such man who is divided/collect himself and become ihidaya before You.”

The meter of the poems doesn’t perfectly translate to English.  It was originally some variant of 5 + 5. 5 + 5. 7. 5 + 5. 5 + 5.

While St Ephrem has a strong theology of transcendence, he didn’t do away with the material world.  There is a symbolic link between the material and spiritual realms.

Hayla kasya: hidden power, meaning.

The Greek philosopher defined a term by its opposite, which implied a limit to both.  Not so with a Semitic thinker like Ephrem. Imagine a circle whose center is inaccessible (think of God’s essence).  Ephrem will then juxtapose paradoxical statement on the circumference. Brock explains: “The central point is left undefined, but something of its nature can be inferred by joining up the various opposite points around the circumference” (40).

Raza: symbol. Actually participates in some sense with the spiritual reality.  It expresses “relationships and connections” (42).

Kasyutha: hiddenness.  That which is to be revealed in Christ.

Galyutha: an objective reality but can only be experienced in a hidden way.

The garment of words.  God, who is inacessible, puts on names.  This is what Eastern fathers would say by the energies’ revealing who God is.


Brock argues that for the Syriac tradition there was an opinion that Paradise was an abode of sacred time, as the Peshitta translated miqqedem (to the East) as “from the beginning.”  Brock then ties all of Ephrem’s topological details about the paradisical mountain: it is circular (I.8), encircles the Great Sea (II.6), the Flood only reached the foothills (I.4), on which is seated a barrier (syaga) guarded by the Cherub.  The Tree of Knowledge is halfway up (III.3). This is the point at which Adam and Even, presumably after death, could not cross (51-52).

The threefold concentric structure of the mountain is an analogue to the threefold structure of the human person: intellectual spirit (tar’itha), soul (naphsha), and body (gushma).


2 thoughts on “Intro to Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise

  1. An acquaintance wrote the following, and I think it’s an interesting and fruitful mode of thinking about extracting best of Hellenizing Thesis:

    “On one hand, there is a strong and still strengthening case– made chiefly by Jews and evangelicals– for seeing early Christianity as the fruition of currents in 2TJ. On the other, more than a century of Orthodox scholarship has argued that the patristic response to rabbinical critics and the conquest of Hellenism happened with an uneven acquaintance with those currents. The contrast is not the old liberal opposition between Judaism and Hellenism– even Ephrem wrote in both Greek and Syriac, and all late antique fathers confronted some sort of Platonism– but between the presence or absence of Judaic themes beyond those in core Christian dogma. So what do we make of Gregory of Nyssa’s arguments that pistis is not the lowest mode of knowing as in Plato’s Republic, but the highest as in the NT? Anti-Platonist, yes, and from a region of Antiochian influence, yes, but also defending a core truth that Augustine himself defended. Some candidates for themes that might better filter for 2TJ influence are– relative universalism, modes of exegesis also found in OT pseudoepigrapha, interest in Mary and a quasi-canonical status for the Protoevangelium of St James, a spirituality in which warfare predominates. Augustine fails these tests and Ephrem aces them.

    The precise measure of 2TJ influence on each particular father, calibrated in the standard millizions would not command the same consensus of theological laboratories. But hypothetically, one might set up a crude Moh’s Scale in which Augustine of Hippo = 0, Irenaeus of Lyon = 5, and Ephrem of Edessa = 10, see where the others fall among them, and then adjust the scale as more precise comparisons allow. There are several ways of assigning initial positions. For example, anti-jewish polemic in a father’s corpus usually means that he lived in a hot spot where judaizing Christians of significant numbers or influence were not accepting the division of the Judaic tradition into two religions (cf Melito of Sardis); that sets some pins in the map of influences. Wherever we finally place him on the scale, John Chrysostom lived among those pins, so that he probably falls somewhere in the range 5-10. But provisionally, we might say that Gregory of Nazianzus, although an exemplary Hellenist, continued more 2TJ themes in his advocacy of the divinity of the Holy Spirit and an exegesis that links the Resurrection to the patriarchs (cf Easter sermon of 381/382), so that we place him between John and Ephrem, arbitrarily of course, at 8.

    Is it only a coincidence that Gregory’s hearers in Arianzus were also geographically midway between John’s Constantinople and Ephrem’s Edessa? Yes and no. Constantinople was the empire’s power center, but it had no distinctive theology of its own. The changing winds from the imperial palace made a stable theological tradition in the capital impossible. But Arianzus had at least one adherent to the Torah who believed in a fire mysticism related to Moses (cf Acts 2:5,9)– Gregory’s father in his youth– for Cappadocia was attuned to developments from the south as was Edessa in the adjacent Mesopotamia. This is a reminder, I think, that the influence networks of interest are fundamentally ethnic and geographic. Jerome may have known all that his eastern brothers did, but if Rome gave him no occasion to mention it, he didn’t.”


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