EPHRAEM (EPHREM) SYRUS ("Ephraim the Syrian"; Syriac 'Aphrem): Life. Theologian, exegete, and homilist; b. at or near Nisibis, in the beginning of the fourth century; d. probably near Edessa, possibly in June, 373, but the dates 378 and 379 are also given. His father is said to have been the priest of a deity or idol named Abnil or Abizal destroyed by Justinian. He was converted to Christianity by Bishop Jacob of Nisibis, with whom he is said to have attended the Council of Nicæa. He lived at Nisibis until 363, when he took up his residence near Edessa as an anchorite. He is said to have visited Basil of Cæsarea, to have been ordained deacon by him, and to have declined further ecclesiastical advancement. He went to Egypt and there remained for eight years, preaching to the monks in their own language. Shortly before his death he appeared as a public benefactor in the midst of a famine by opening a hospital for the sick in the monastery. His will forbade his burial in a church, and directed that he should be wrapped in his old cloak and laid in the common cemetery (cf. T. J. Lamy in Compte rendu du IV. congrès scientifique des Catholiques, Freiburg in Switzerland, 1898, and R. Duval, in JA, 1901, Sept.-Oct., pp. 234-319). According to the Chronicle of Edessa his death occurred in June, 373; Jerome places his death under the emperor Valens. If the former date be correct, the encomium upon Basil (d. Jan. 1, 379), ascribed to Ephraem, can not be by him. All ecclesiastical calendars celebrate him, the Latin on Feb. 1, the Greek and Syriac on Jan.. 28, the Coptic on 14 Epipi (July). At present his grave is shown in the Armenian cloister Dar Serkis west of Edessa (cf. C. E. Sachau, Reise in Syrien, Leipsic, 1883, p. 202).
Exegetical Works. The works of Ephraem were very numerous, according to Sozomen some 3,000,000 stichoi, a great part of which consisted of sermons and lectures. They do not easily separate into classes, though a provisional division is into exegetical, dogmatic-polemic, and poetical. In the latter branch he is credited with the invention of the "Controversial Hymn," called by Burkitt a "melancholy addition." From the standpoint of the intrinsic worth of the writings it is difficult to explain the great repute of this Father. The value consists in the fact that the great number of the productions and their excellent preservation afford many means of insight into the life and thought of the Church of his period. But Ephraem was prolix and repetitious, so that there is really little to reward the student for examination of his work. The difficulty in securing data is enhanced by the fact that many works ascribed to him are not his, and much of the work done upon Ephraem has to be done over in the light of better information, especially that gained from the Armenian version of his writings. Thus the examination of the New Testament quotations of Ephraem by F. H. Woods (Studia biblica et ecclesiastica, vol. iii., Oxford, 1891) was revised by F. C. Burkitt (Ephraim's Quotations from the Gospel, in TS, vii. 2, 1901). In his exegetical work upon the Gospels his basis was Tatian's Diatessaron (cf. J. H. Hill, Dissertation on the Gospel Commentary of S. Ephraem the Syrian, Edinburgh, 1896). That in his work on the Acts he used a "Western" text has been shown by J. R. Harris (Four Lectures on the Western Text, Cambridge, 1894, pp. 23 sqq.). His Commentary upon Zechariah has been studied by Lamy (Revue biblique, 1897). Burkitt asserts that Revelation is not referred to in Ephraem's exegetical works.
Theological and Poetical Works. The theological writings are less valuable for their contributions to theology than for their reference to the heresies of the time. In the biography it appears that no less than nine arose in Edessa during his times and that he combated them all, among them the heresies of Marcion, Mani, and Bardesanes. The type of his theology is best seen in his "Sermon on our Lord" (in T. J. Lamy, i. 145-274; Eng. transl. in NPNF, 2d ser., xiii. 305-330). This is a treatise on the incarnation; but the language is highly figurative and a clear idea of Ephraem's views is hard to obtain from it. It was for his poetry that he was in ancient times most celebrated, since this gained for him the titles “Lyre of the Holy Ghost” and “Prophet of the Syrians.” It was with this as a weapon that he fought against Bardesanes and his son Harmodius. In his hymn he used principally the measure of seven syllables, and the Syrian Church still makes use of his compositions (the "Nisibene Hymns" are in NPNF, ut sup., pp. 165-220).
Ephraem was not the founder of a school of theology or exegesis like that of Antioch. It appear that his works were translated into Greek, since Sozomen states that they lose little by being so rendered. Jerome read but one in the Greek, that on the Holy Ghost. Burkitt criticizes Ephraem's theology as giving neither the historical Christ, nor the Christianity of the early Church, nor yet the clearly defined doctrine of post-Nicene times, and as failing in the point of intellectual seriousness.
Bibliography: The chief edition of the "Works," begun by Peter Mobarek (Benedict) and finished by J. S. A Assemani, was published, 6 vols., Rome, 1732-46. Other editions are: Opera selecta, ed. J. J. Overbeck, Oxford 1865; Carmina Nisibena, ed. G. Bickell, Leipsic, 1866; Hymni et Sermones, ed. T. J. Lamy, 3 vols., Mechlin 1882-86; "History of Joseph," Paris, 1891; fragments of the "Commentary on the Diatessaron," ed. J. R. Harris London, 1895. Transl. into Germ. are of selected work: by P. Zingerle, 6 vols., Innsbruck, 1831-45, and by F. X. Reithmeyer, in Bibliothek der Kirchenväter, Kempten, 1869. Of Eng. transl. may be mentioned: Select Works by J. B. Morris, Oxford, 1847; Repentance of Nineveh and Select Metrical Hymns and Homilies, by H. Burgess 3 vols., London, 1853; NPNF, 2d ser., xiii. 167-341 Eng. transls. of ten of his hymns are in B. Pick, Hymns and Poetry of the Eastern Church, New York, 1908.
The sources for a life are: the Encomium of Ephraem by Gregory of Nysse (best); and the briefer notices in Sozomen, Hist. eccl., iii. 16; Theodoret, Hist. eccl., ii. 30 iv. 29; Jerome, De vir. ill., 115. The best discussion of the life in Eng. is in NPNF, 2d ser., xiii. 119-146; valuable, however, is DCB, ii. 136-144. Consult further, J. F. Gaab, in Memorabilien, ii. 136 sqq., cf. i. 65 sqq. Leipsic, 1791-96; J. Alsleben, Das Leben des Ephraem des Syrers, Berlin, 1853; C. Ferry, S. Éphrem poète, Paris 1877; KL, iv. 677-682; Schaff, Christian Church, iii. 926-933.
On the writings consult: J. S. Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis, i. 59 sqq., Rome, 1719; C. von Lengerke, Commentatio critica d. S. Ephræmo Syro, HaIle, 1828; idem, De Ephræmi ... arte hermeneutica, Kónigsberg, 1831; A. Haase, S. Ephræmi Syri theologia, Halle, 1869; Moesinger, Evangelii concordantis expositio, Venice, 1876; E. A. W. Budge, On a Fragment of a Coptic Version of S. Ephraim . . on the Transfiguration, London, 1887; Ephræmi Syri commentarii in epistolas Pauli, Venice, 1893; H. Grimme, Der Strophenbau in den Gedichten Ephraems des Syrers, Freiburg, 1893; T. J. Lamy, L'Exégèse en l'orient au quatrième siècle, iv. 465-486, Paris, 1893; J. Gwynn, The Apocalypse of St. John, pp. cii.-ciii., Dublin, 1894; W. Wright, Short Hist. of Syriac Literature, London, 1894; R. Duval, La Littérature araméenne, Paris, 1895; H. Hering, Die Lehre von der Predigt, Berlin, 1897; NPNF, xiii. 146-152.