O blessed Saint Ephrem,
intercede with Christ on behalf of those who celebrate your feast-day,
you who have drunk the flowing waters of grace
from the heavenly spiritual streams,
just as the ranks of the Apostles in the upper room
from the fiery tongues which you poured out abundantly
and distributed throughout the world for thirsty souls to drink
O blessed Saint Ephrem
-From the Sharakan by St. Nersess Shnorhali for the Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian
Translated by Dr. Edward G. Mathews Jr.
St. Ephrem the Syrian together with St. John Chrysostom “constituted the foundation of Armenian theology, especially her biblical exegesis and her early Mariology,” according to Edward G. Mathews Jr., one of the foremost experts on Ephrem in the Armenian tradition. These two, pictured together above and often depicted together in many Armenian miniature paintings, can symbolize the two major strands of Christianity influencing the development of the Armenian Church, the Syriac one coming from the South and the Greek one coming from West. Early Armenian histories have often preferred one strain to the other, often in service of powerful nakharar patrons. Yet both the Greek Septuagint and the Syriac Peshitta, Greek philosophy and Syriac monasticism, left their traces on Armenian Christianity. If these two can stand in for these larger traditions, they are also indisputably the most important early non-Armenian sources for Armenian Christianity. There are more manuscripts in Armenian of these two authors combined than any other patristic source. This veneration of these two figures and their theological contribution goes well beyond the borders of Armenia as well: the Greek writings attributed to Ephrem are “the largest of all the collections of Greek patristic writers with the sole exception of the works of John Chrysostom” (Mathews 2014, 4).
While we have previously discussed John Chrysostom and his contribution to Armenian thought in general as well as his incredibly influential Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, we have only briefly touched on St. Ephrem the Syrian, in a larger introduction to the Syriac influence on Armenian Christianity centered around the cities of Antioch and Edessa. These early centers of Christianity indelibly shaped not only the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Sister Churches, but also the whole of Christendom. Antioch was one of the most important early sees and the Syriac translation of the Bible known as the Peshitta was made around the city of Edessa. Ephrem had perhaps the most productive years of his life in the city of Edessa. This week is a particularly appropriate time to focus on St. Ephrem the Syrian—we again celebrate saints from Antioch and Edessa, it is less than a week after celebrating St. James of Nisibis, with whom Ephrem attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (according to some traditions), and it is in the month of December when the Armenian Apostolic Church often commemorates St. Ephrem (due to the complexities of the Armenian liturgical calendar his commemoration this liturgical year falls on January 4th). In particular, after a brief look at his biography and body of works, we will focus on the fascinating Commentary on Genesis in Armenian, which is attributed to him.
Little is actually known about Ephrem’s life, though there are many apocryphal tales and later writings about the saint’s life. He was born in Nisibis around 306 into a Christian family (Mathews 2014, 1). While the story that he attended the Council of Nicaea with St. James of Nisibis is probably apocryphal, he most likely did know the beloved saint, who is himself celebrated in the Armenian Christian tradition. In 363, the Roman Empire handed Nisibis over to the Persians and all Christians of the city were required to leave. St. Ephrem the Syrian settled in Edessa (modern Urfa in present-day Turkey), where he lived out his life. There, he was particularly productive, writing many of the things that would make him such a beloved saint. According to many traditions, Ephrem was one of the first hymnographers of the Christian Church, and the meter and style of his religious poetry is incredibly influential in many languages and Christian traditions. Much of this poetry is composed in two Syriac metrical forms known as mêmrê and madrāšê. Some of the Armenian translations of Ephrem’s works even try to replicate this meter. According to tradition, Ephrem also established a choir, including the very first women’s choir in all of Christendom, to which he taught his hymns. He wrote in prose as well, including in the exegetical works. These include commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and the Diatessaron (an early harmony of the Gospels as a coherent narrative), in addition to several other exegetical works that were attributed to him. According to tradition, he died in Edessa on June 9, 373 (Matthews 2014, 1-5).
|The Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian||An Armenian Commentary on Genesis, traditionally attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian. Dr. Edward G. Mathews Jr. has prepared the Armenian text and translated it along with an informative introduction.|
|The Armenian Prayers Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian||Prepared and translated by Dr. Edward G. Mathews Jr., this is a lovely collection of prayers in Armenian attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian. In both Armenian and English.|
|Textes arméniens relatifs à S. Éphrem||A collection of Armenian writing about St. Ephrem the Syrian, including several versions of his hagiographical biography. In Armenian and French.|
On several occasions we have had the opportunity to discuss the unique Armenian hermeneutical or exegetical tradition, the ways Armenian Christians have interpreted Scripture and other texts and services in their tradition. A vast literature of commentaries, in addition to hermeneutical hymns and homilies comprises a large amount of the overall Armenian Christian literary tradition. Arguably, the highest calling of the Armenian vartabed, the priest-scholar of the Armenian Church, is to comment upon the words of Jesus Christ and all the Holy Scripture, making those words digestible for all believers in order to bring people closer to God. Over time, Armenian vartabeds have developed specific ways to interpret Scripture and to comment upon it. While it takes cues from the so-called allegorical method of Alexandria and literal method of Antioch (each of these traditions of interpretation are actually more complicated than this schematic presentation would suggest), Armenian exegesis develops its own unique set of methods. One of the major influences on the Armenian interpretation of Scripture is none other that St. Ephrem the Syrian.
However, these works come with a caveat: Ephrem the Syrian was so universally beloved that many texts that most likely were not written by him were nonetheless attributed to him. As Dr. Edward Mathews Jr. has begun to detail, the corpus of work attributed to Ephrem the Syrian in Syriac itself, in Greek, and in Armenian, are quite divergent. Many works exist only in one of the languages. While there is a high probability that some of the Greek and Armenian works attributed to Ephrem actually preserve true and original works by the great saint that would otherwise be lost, some of these other texts are clearly not written by him. When it comes to the commentary tradition, there are only three commentaries with Syriac originals: On Genesis, Exodus, and the Diatessaron. In Armenian, on the other hand, there are commentaries attributed to Ephrem on all of the first fourteen books of the Armenian Old Testament other than Ruth, plus commentaries on Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, and Daniel. New Testament commentaries include those on the Diatessaron, the fourteen letters of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, on Matthew, and on John (Mathews 1996, 153-157). Again, some of these very well may be genuine works of Ephrem the Syrian with lost Syriac originals. Yet research on the commentaries where both Armenian and Syriac versions exist demonstrate that there is a high probability that many of these works are later compositions attributed to Ephrem.
Most prominent among these is the Commentary on Genesis. As Dr. Mathews has shown, the Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian is actually based on the Scholia (collections of marginal notes) of Jacob of Edessa, who died in 708 (Mathews 1996, 158). A prominent Syriac churchman whose views are in line with the Armenian Apostolic Church, he nevertheless would not have carried the weight that St. Ephrem the Syrian did. From both stylistic evidence and the content of the commentary, Mathews demonstrates that Ephrem cannot have written this Armenian text. The clearest example is the discussion of the phrase in Genesis 1:2, “the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In the Syriac version of Ephrem’s commentary, Ephrem is explicit that this should be taken literally, to mean that wind was hovering/blowing over the water. Later commentators knew that this was Ephrem’s position. The Armenian version, though, insists that this verse should be interpreted such that the “spirit of God” here is the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Armenian version of the commentary has exactly the opposite interpretation than the Syriac original.
Even if this is the case and the Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian is not in fact an authentic work of Ephrem, this diminishes neither the importance of the commentary nor the centrality of Ephrem. In fact, quite the opposite. As Mathews notes, “the earliest native Armenian commentary on Genesis that survives complete is that attributed to Vardan Arewelc‘i (1200-1271)” and Vardan quotes Ephrem as saying that the “spirit of God” hovering over the waters is the Holy Spirit, “quoting the Armenian Commentary on Genesis attributed to Ephrem nearly word-for-word” (1996, 159). More research needs to be done to see how thoroughly this commentary on Genesis attributed to Ephrem influenced other authors who wrote commentaries on Genesis, but the high status of Arewelc‘i would suggest that he is unlikely to be the only one. As further evidence for the influence of this commentary on Genesis, Outtier suggested in 1984 that the frescoes in the famous Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the Island of Akhtamar depicting scenes from Genesis might actually be inspired by the Armenian Commentary on Genesis contributed to Ephrem. So, this commentary has shaped Armenian thinking about the book of Genesis and God’s creation. It has been attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian because he is universally recognized as one of the holiest and most important figures of the early Christian Church. Both his life and the fascinating commentary attributed to him can serve as sources for our own lives and work.
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