The fear of God illumines the soul, annihilates evil, weakens the passions, drives darkness from the soul and makes it pure. The fear of God is the summit of wisdom. Where it is not you will find nothing good. Whoever does not have the fear of God is open to diabolical falls.
(St. Ephraim Syrian)
Our Righteous Father Ephrem the Syrian was a prolific Syriac language hymn writer and theologian of the 4th century. He is venerated by Christians throughout the world, but especially among Syriac Christians, as a saint. His feast day in the Orthodox Church is January 28.
Ephrem was born around the year 306, in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria). Internal evidence from Ephrem’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community in the city, although later hagiographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest. Numerous languages were spoken in the Nisibis of Ephrem’s day, mostly dialects of Aramaic. The Christian community used the Syriac dialect. Various pagan religions, Judaism and early Christian sects vied with one another for the hearts and minds of the populace. It was a time of great religious and political tension. The Roman Emperor Diocletian had signed a treaty with his Persian counterpart, Nerses in 298 that transferred Nisibis into Roman hands. The savage persecution and martyrdom of Christians under Diocletian were an important part of Nisibene church heritage as Ephrem grew up.
St. James (Mar Jacob), the first bishop of Nisibis, was appointed in 308, and Ephrem grew up under his leadership of the community. St. James is recorded as a signatory at the First Ecumenical Council in 325. Ephrem was baptized as a youth, and James appointed him as a teacher (Syriac malpânâ, a title that still carries great respect for Syriac Christians). He was ordained as a deacon either at this time or later. He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. In his hymns, he sometimes refers to himself as a “herdsman” (`allânâ), to his bishop as the “shepherd” (râ`yâ) and his community as a “fold” (dayrâ). Ephrem is popularly credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which in later centuries was the centre of learning of the Assyrian Church of the East (i.e., the Nestorians).
In 337, emperor Constantine I, who had established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, died. Seizing on this opportunity, Shapur II of Persia began a series of attacks into Roman North Mesopotamia. Nisibis was besieged in 338, 346 and 350. During the first siege, Ephrem credits Bishop James as defending the city with his prayers. Ephrem’s beloved bishop died soon after the event, and Babu led the church through the turbulent times of border skirmishes. In the third siege, of 350, Shapur rerouted the River Mygdonius to undermine the walls of Nisibis. The Nisibenes quickly repaired the walls while the Persian elephant cavalry became bogged down in the wet ground. Ephrem celebrated the miraculous salvation of the city in a hymn as being like Noah’s Ark floating to safety on the flood.
One important physical link to Ephrem’s lifetime is the baptistry of Nisibis. The inscription tells that it was constructed under Bishop Vologeses in 359. That was the year that Shapur began to harry the region once again. The cities around Nisibis were destroyed one by one, and their citizens killed or deported. The Roman Empire was preoccupied in the west, and Constantius and Julian the Apostate struggled for overall control. Eventually, with Constantius dead, Julian began his march into Mesopotamia. He brought with him his increasingly stringent persecutions on Christians. Julian began a foolhardy march against the Persian capital Ctesiphon, where, overstretched and outnumbered, he began an immediate retreat back along the same road. Julian was killed defending his retreat, and the army elected Jovian as the new emperor. Unlike his predecessor, Jovian was a Nicene Christian. He was forced by circumstances to ask for terms from Shapur, and conceded Nisibis to Persia, with the rule that the city’s Christian community would leave. Bishop Abraham, the successor to Vologeses, led his people into exile.
Ephrem found himself among a large group of refugees that fled west, first to Amida (Diyarbakir), and eventually settling in Edessa (modern Sanli Urfa) in 363. Ephrem, in his late fifties, applied himself to ministry in his new church, and seems to have continued his work as a teacher (perhaps in the School of Edessa). Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world, and the city was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephrem comments that Orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called “Palutians” in Edessa, after a former bishop. Arians, Marcionites, Manichees, Bardaisanites and various Gnostic sects proclaimed themselves as the true Church. In this confusion, Ephrem wrote a great number of hymns defending Orthodoxy. A later Syriac writer, Jacob of Serugh, wrote that Ephrem rehearsed all female choirs to sing his hymns set to Syriac folk tunes in the forum of Edessa.
After a ten-year residency in Edessa, in his sixties, Ephrem reposed in peace, according to some in the year 373, according to others, 379.