Ephrem the Syrian and His Scriptural Songs

Ephrem was still a young man when his quick understanding, knowledge of Scriptures, literary skills, and love for the church captured the attention of the local bishop. Jacob had been bishop of the Christian community of Nisibis (a commercial center on the Persian border) since 309, when Ephrem was only three. Over the years, he had invested time and efforts to prepare the promising young man for service in the church. Finally, he appointed Ephrem as deacon, as well as teacher and interpreter of Scriptures.

            And interpreting Ephrem did, both in person and in writings. Gifted with a unique mastery with words, he wrote many types of texts - including exegetical, doctrinal, and polemic works. His best genre, however, was poetry, as expressed in his hymns. That’s where his language soared to lyrical heights, unveiling a rare sensibility and capacity to delve into common feelings and elicit sympathy, foster immediacy, and magnify God’s glory.

            One example of this ability is his description of Joseph as new father of Jesus.

Joseph caressed the Son

as a babe, He served Him

as God, He rejoiced in Him

as in a blessing, and he was attentive to Him

as to the Just one – a great paradox![1]

            These simple verses reveal more than ordinary emotions. They include a clear theology of Christ’s full divinity and humanity, an issue which was much debated in Ephrem’s day and was initially resolved in the decision of the Council of Nicea (which bishop Jacob heartily signed). Ephrem believed it was important to place the truth of God’s word on people’s lips, so they could meditate as they sang it.

            It is often said that orthodox Christians had no imagination in their response to Arius. He had, after all, devised a catchy jingle (“There was when He was not”), to which they could only oppose an unoriginal, “There wasn’t when He was not.” This critique, however, doesn’t take Ephrem’s poems into account. His lyrics contained more than clever slogans. They gave a breathtaking glimpse of the magnificence of God’s truth as reflected in ordinary human feelings.

            In the same song, Ephrem conveys another weighty theological reality through a commonplace image. A baby’s swaddling clothes – a familiar item in most households – gave him occasion to teach about Christ as Second Adam who came to succeed where the First Adam had failed.

The Lord of David and Son of David

hid His glory in swaddling clothes.

His swaddling clothes gave

a robe of glory to human beings.

On this day our Lord exchanged

radiance for shame, as the Humble One.

For Adam exchanged truth for evil

as a rebel. The Gracious One took pity:

His upright [deeds] conquered those of the perverse.[2]

            In case anyone found these images too ordinary, Ephrem wakes them up with a stirring thought:

Let everyone chase away his boredom

because it was not boring for that Majesty

to be in the womb nine months for our sake

and to be thirty years in Sodom among madmen.[3]

Let the Women Sing

            Ephrem’s desire to bring this magnificence to the minds, hearts, and lips of Christians extended to women, who in many ancient cultures were excluded from the men’s religious practices. Ephrem believed it was important for Christian women to be as armed as men against the heresies which were spreading at an alarming speed. 

            His songs include the voices of women of all ages. A hymn on the nativity and infancy of Christ explodes in a succession of joyful praises by “the old women of the town of David” who had been expecting the promise of the Messiah on David’s throne, the women whose babies had been killed but who could now rejoice in the hope of the resurrection, and the barren women who “hovered over and held” the infant Christ, caressing him as they asked him to bless their womb.[4]

            Ephrem names many women from Scriptures (such as Eve, Sarah, Rachael, Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, Anna, and Elizabeth) and their offspring as types of Christ. With these images, he points the eyes of his listeners (men and women alike) on the larger biblical story and the ultimate goal of their lives.

            His vision to equip women to share the good news of the gospel is especially obvious in one of two hymns on the woman at the well.

Blessed are you, o woman,

drawer of ordinary water,

who turned out to be a drawer of living water.

You found the treasure, another Source,

from whom a flood of mercies flows.[5]

            The poem, a poetic interpretation of John 4:1-42, ends with a bold comparison between the Samaritan woman and Mary – equally blessed by God – and the surprising observation that – like the women at Jesus’s grave – the Samaritan preceded the disciples as carrier of good news.

Mary planted Him in the manger,

but you planted Him in the ears of His hearers.

Your voice, O woman, first brought forth fruit,

before even the apostles, with the kerygma[6].

The apostles were forbidden to announce Him

among pagans and Samaritans.

Blessed is your mouth that He opened and confirmed.[7]

Ephrem’s Last Years and Legacy

            Ephrem remained in Nisibis until 363 (at almost 60 years of age), when a Persian invasion forced him to move to Edessa (in today’s Turkey). Edessa was an ancient and respected cultural center. When Ephrem arrived, it was also a cosmopolitan city with a syncretistic culture, which included both pagan and heterodox Christian cults. Ephrem was shocked to find that the people who adhered to the decisions of the Council of Nicea were considered a sect, while the word Christian was used to indicate the followers of Marcion (who separated the God of the Old Testament – in his view inferior – from the God of the New).

            Scholars believe Ephrem did most of his writing in Edessa, where he also opened a theological school. The last recorded event of his life is related to a famine which devastated the city. Apparently, Ephrem organized a distribution of goods, persuading the rich to give to the poor. He died on June 9, 373.

            His hymns, composed in Syriac, were soon translated into Armenian, Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Arabic. Writing a few decades after Ephrem’s death in 373, Jerome attested to his fame in the churches in Rome. Ephrem was also a major influence on the development of Syriac and Byzantine hymns.

            His encouragement to women was noticed and repeated by a later Syrian poet, Jacob of Serug, who compared his predecessor and his female choirs to Moses and the singing women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea. Jacob also praised Ephrem’s opposition against heretical views (such as Arianism, Marcionism, Manicheism, and Gnosticism) and his efforts to educate the local community on the truth of Scriptures. Both Ephrem and Jacob are remembered as remarkable theologians and hymn-writers – respectively as “the Harp” and “the Flute” of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Ephrem the Syrian, Kathleen E. McVey, ed., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1989, p. 108.

[2] Ibid, p. 106.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 117.

[5] Ibid, p. 355.

[6] Gospel proclamation.

[7] Ibid., p. 363


Simonetta Carr