St. Ephrem the Syrian was born about 306 at Nisibis in Mesopotamia. When the Persians forced Emperor Jovianus to relinquish Nisibis, Ephrem and many other Christians migrated to Edessa. Ephrem was already a famed teacher. In Edessa he either joined or founded a school of Bible interpretation which was neither as literal as that of Antioch nor as devoted to finding types in every Scripture as was that of Alexandria. He was the school's foremost representative.
During his years at Edessa, Ephrem lived in a cave, eating only barley bread and vegetables. Bald, short, without a beard, shriveled in his skin, he was a true ascetic. Nonetheless he took an active part in the affairs of the city where his dirty, patched robe must have made him a comical sight.
The Roman Catholic church finds support for much of its teaching in his work. Centuries before the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception became official dogma, Ephrem taught it. He believed in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, taught the primacy of Peter, purgatory, intercession of the saints, original sin and more.
St. Ephrem wrote many hymns. He so emphasized their place in formal worship that the practice spread from Edessa to the whole Christian world. He saw hymns as a means of Christian education. Hence many of his songs take faith as their theme. Others were written to counter the heresies of Marcion, Manes (founder of Manicheism) and Bardesanes. Some treat of crucifixion, paradise, the church and even virginity. These were widely sung and "lent luster to the Christian assemblies," according to one early church historian. The Syrians call him "the Harp of the Holy Ghost."
He produced commentaries on virtually the whole Bible. Of Christ he wrote this beautiful tribute: "He alone sufficeth for all, yet none for him sufficeth. Altar he is and lamb, victim and sacrificer, priest as well as food." His work was highly influential and was reproduced in the Georgian, Slavic, Coptic, Arabic, Greek and Latin languages. Jerome, famed as the translator who gave the church the Vulgate Bible, said of Ephrem that "his writings are publicly read in some churches after the Sacred Scriptures."
Ephrem's last public act was to distribute grain to Edessa's starving poor during a famine. No one else was trusted for the task. He is believed to have died old and withered on this day, June 18, 373. June 18 is his feast day. In 1920 he became the only Syrian father honored by the Roman church as a doctor of the universal church.
- "Ephraem Syrus, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Labourt, Jerome. "Ephraem, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "St. Ephrem, Doctor of the Church," in Butler's Lives of the Saints. Various editions.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated April, 2007.