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).