Language and the Knowledge of God in Ephrem the Syrian Dr. David D. Bundy

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Language and the Knowledge of God
in Ephrem the Syrian

Dr. David D. Bundy


Ephrem’s influence in the Syriac speaking churches was perhaps the most important factor in their early intellectual and spiritual development.1 His work largely determined the relationships between theological investigation, spirituality and liturgy. To each of these he gave a form and function. Even today his hymns are found in the liturgies of each of the Syriac -Arabic churches of the Middle East as well as those of India and Ethiopia. His poetry, written in Syriac, has been translated into languages as different as Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Paleo-Slavic, Latin and Chinese. 2 Also, no other writer is as well represented in Greek manuscript collections, a wealth which (because of the complexity of the manuscript tradition) has frustrated all attempts at providing a critical edition. It must be noted that the influence of this forth century writer has not been limited to the east alone. His writings were one of the catalysts of the Wesleyan synthesis, as well as important in medieval Germanic literature.

These works reflect an understanding of the world and the process of discussing that world theologically, which, while not related to the Greek and Latin traditions, is different from his contemporaries. He apparently knew no Greek (or at least very little) and certainly no Latin. However, he was part of the Syrian-Hellenistic cultural system. He was well acquainted with some of the earlier Syrian theologians and aware of the results of Greek philosophical discussions.

It is the intent of this essay to provide a brief introduction to Ephrem’s life and context before examing his epistemology, concept of the language, and the function of these in his understanding of how man is to know God. It is hoped that this will allow another tradition to speak to us who are steeped in what Ephrem called, “the poison of the Greeks” (HdF 2,5; 47, 11).

Who was Ephrem?

This question has long vexed those who have appreciated Ephrem’s artistry or perspective. Because his work became known in the Western churches even during his own lifetime, a number of “Lives of Ephrem” were produced to satisfy the demand. Legend has it that one of his students, a certain Symeon of the Samosata, wrote a biography; but if so, it is lost. All we have are the accounts of Palladius and of Sozomenos which have served generations of hagiographers as a basic for their own efforts. From the Syriac world, the earliest is the eulogy of Jacob of Serug delivered more than a century after Ephrem’s death and devoid of any biographical details.

The only authentic sources for Ephrem’s life are the occasional autobiographical allusions in his own work. The fact that these usually contradict the popular “Lives” adds credibility to their statements. He was born near Nisibis, a military outpost on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. He was the child of Christian parents (CHaer. 26, 10). The often cited date of his birth, 306, cannot be substantiated. He became a believer at an early age. (Hvirg 37, 10), and was probably baptized in his early teenage tears (CHaer 3, 13). He became an early participant in the church of Nisibis and is our principle source for its early history. He describes the first four bishops: Jacob (c. 308-338), Babou (+346), Vologes (346-361) and Abraham (HNis 13-21). Ephrem himself was not ordained but was a member of a sort of lay order, the gyama, a group of persons who by their spirituality, asceticism and celibacy sought to achieve the “ideal” Christian life. That such vows require celibacy (NHis 15, 9), poverty and a contemplative life style is not to be confused with monasticism, as has often been the case. He eventually became a deacon (CHaer 56, 10) and would be known in the west as the “deacon of Edessa.”

Ephrem became, in 363, a war refugee as the city of Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians after the defeat and death of the Emperor Julian. He made his way to Edessa where he put himself in the service of Barses, the bishop of Edessa. Here he wrote extensively, and, in order to counter other interpretations of Christianity current of Edessa, taught choirs of women (probably from among the gyama) to sing his compositions. Unfortunately the music is lost, although some of the names of the melodies have been preserved. Ephrem’s simplicity of life-style became legendary, as did his efforts to alleviate the suffering of victims of disease and famine. He died in the famine of 373, on June 9th.

Ephrem’s Context

Nisibis was, during Ephrem’s life there, a military and trading center, with all of the problems incumbent to such a city (HNis, HNic). When he moved to Edessa, he experienced what can only be described as culture shock. Edessa was, as it had been for centuries, the intellectual and cultural center of central Syria. It was well known that during the early third century Edessa had a Christian ruler. However, it was the center in which, until the advent of imperial Christianity, there was not a center Ephrem would have considered orthodox. To be a “Christian” was to be a Marcionite, and the alternative was to be either a follower of Bardaisan, of Mani, or of Tatian-Palut. Imperial Christianity would recognize this last group as “orthodoxy” but in Ephrem’s time the “Palutians” were still the minority (CHaer 22, 5-6). Pagan cults were still active, especially after the Julian period, and the Arian ideas had split the Palutians into two groups. The Arian Emperor Valens would transfer Ephrem’s Bishop, Barses, to Harran and then exile him in 372 C.E. (HNis 13, 7-8). Only after Ephrem’s time were the “orthodox” strong enough to insist on “orthodoxy.” It was in this context of uncertainty and flux that Ephrem was most creative as he sought to articulate his perspective on faith, God and the world.

Let us look briefly at some of the formative influences on Edessan Christianity with which Ephrem was forced to compete”

Marcion. 3

Ephrem argued that Marcion had established a dualism: a good God, the Maker, and the divine Stranger, the Just God who disrupted the universe which had been formed from already existing matter (PrRef II, 50-142; trans. xxiii-Ivx). Matter (the world) contains evil and causes the soul to be polluted. Man has no recourse against this pollution and must purify himself (hence marcionite asceticism and sexual rigorism), but is predestined to evil by this nature. This led Marcionites to a docetic Christology and denial of the human resurrection of body, soul and spirit (CHaer 52, 5-13).

Bardaisan. 4

(as later would Ephrem) argued against marcion. Nardaisan is presented by his disciple, Philippus, in The book of the Laws off the Countries, as an apologist for an “orthodox” Christianity. He argues that God is one (BLC, 4), that faith is necessary for a “firm” knowledge of God, for hope and for freedom from fear (BLC 8), and that humans have the freedom to choose evil or good (BLC 10). After recounting different customs and laws throughout the world to prove their diversity (against determinism) (BLC 40-59), he asserts that Christians are to determine their own ethic in freedom in accordance with the “law of their messiah” (BLC 60). He also criticized Marcion’s disparagement of sexuality. Sexuality is not evil, it is the abuse of it which is evil (BLC 34). At the same time, he does not deny that evil can happen. Children do die, people do starve. But that is due to fate (bad luck), not to inherent evil.
All of this is sustained by a cosmological understanding which is monotheistic, but with attendant ideas of emanations which Ephrem understood the verge on polytheism. But just as Ephrem, Bardsisan asserted that evil did not have a personality of its own, but evolved from the abuse of freedom, the misuse of natural objects and processes, or just misfortune. However, bardaisan (and/or his followers) retained some use of the horoscope and of astrology for which Ephrem accuses him of inconsistency (CHaer 51, 13).


From circa 240 C.E. Manichaeism became a powerful contender with other Christian traditions in the Middle East. By the forth century it would attract Augustine in Rome. By the eighth century it would spread throughout China and central Asia. It must have been very successful, judging from the shift in apologetic literature late in the third century and throughout the fourth, the most important of which are the not always temperate polemical writings of Ephrem.

Manichaeism, as Ephrem pointed out, assimilated many ideas, and probably attracted adherents from the Bardaisanite and Marcionite persuasions. Many understood his mission as the “apostle” of Jesus Christ, the paraclete promised in the Gospels. The Manichaean movement offered a more complete vision of the universe and the salvation, butressed (importantly for the Syrian population) by a determined asceticism. The ideal life of the Manichaean “elect” was not very different from that of the Tatianic (or ps. Clementine) “perfect” or the Marcionite ascetic. The liturgy required only a minor shift for many Christians: from eucharist to bema, from one sort of hymnody to another, from one iconography to another.

The primary differences with the other groups were concepts of cosmology (with attendant implications for the nature of divine), the lack of freedom of the will (determinism) and the revelatory role of Mani. Ephrem accused Mani of having taken over the Greek concept of matter (CHaer 14, 7-8) and Indian dualism (CHaer 3, 17).


Ephrem believed that the Arians, by their acceptance of Greek conceptual frameworks (HdF 2, et passim), and abandonment of faith in the scriptural testimony (HdF 64:9) resulting in unfounded theological speculation (HdF 51) about God, Christ and the world, had departed from the faith. For Ephrem the worst consequence of their “deviation” was its effect on the mission of the church, the dissention which makes the church ridiculous to the “pagans” outside.

The Issues

A number of theological problems were raised. Cosmology was a central concern, as were the questions of the nature of God, the nature of matter, the process of creation, the organization of the creation and the structure and function of the non-visible world. Also important were the questions posed by the “Christ event.” Did revelation stop with Christ? What kinds of holy texts can be used to interpret the life of Christ? How do people became a new creation and what is their moral responsibility in that process?

Ephrem, as would be expected, affirmed monotheism (within a subdued trinitarian framework), argued that matter was created ex nihilo and organized according to Judaeo-Christian design. Christ was the fulfillment of the Scriptures and of the world’s longing for renewal. Nature and the Scripture were revelatory. No other sources of revelation were allowed. Humans were to respond to the revelation in Christ, which was confirmed by nature, and, by responsible exercise of their free will, renew themselves and their context.

Ephrem acknowledged all of these concerns but suggested that there were two primary issues underlying the entire discussion which were determinative for its outcome. They were the concept of knowledge (and the degree of knowledge to which humans are capable) and the nature of language.


The problem faced by Ephrem as an apologist was that his ideas about the person and nature of Christ, the creation and God, were very simple and vague compared to the more carefully and explicitly defined doctrines of the Arians and the Manichaean. Therefore, he argued that the extent to which people know any given thing is limited. Human beings are confronted with this fact even in their awareness of themselves, their feelings, desires and motivations. Neither can one be certain how one knows. For that which one knows is a series of images and words which are stored in the mind. One does not possess the reality itself (HdF 57, 1-5). We are, for instance, capable of affirming our free will and can gather evidence for its actuality from different cultural traditions, from observing the results of our decisions in daily life, from the exhortations of the Scripture and from the teaching of the church (here he means the Tatian-Bardaisan-Palutian traditions) as well as the generally agreed upon need for salvation. However, the exact manner in which free will operates cannot be known. Describing something, even proving its existence or affirming its truth does not resolve the how of its working or the extent of its functioning. This is, Ephrem muses, a pedagogical technique of the creator:

But that (free will) which has ventured to make statements concerning God, itself is not able to state its own nature perfectly. But concerning this, also, we say to anyone who asks, that this is a marvel which is very easy for us to perceive, but it is very difficult to give proof of it. But this is not so only in this matter, but it is the same with everything. For whatever exists may be discussed without being searched out: it can be known that the thing exists, but it is not possible to search out how it exists. For see that we can perceive everything, but we cannot search out even perfectly worthless things. But thanks be to him who has allowed us to know the external side of things in order that we may learn how we excel, but he has not allowed us to know their (inward) secrets that we might understand how we are lacking. 5

This reasoning is also used to address the question of God:

If, then, our knowledge cannot even achieve a knowledge of itself, how does it dare to investigate the birth of Him who knows all things? How can the servant, who does not properly know himself, pry into the nature of his Maker? 6

Thus we can affirm God’s existence on the basis of evidence presented by the design of natural phenomena (designs which are divinely provided analogies or reflections of God) as well as the assertions of the Old and New Testaments, and importantly for Ephrem, the experience of faith. This last element has two aspects. The first is positive, giving the three sources equal descriptive, analogical and existential value. The second is negative, that is the acceptance of not being able to know the what, how and why of God. This latter is the way of faith. To try to go beyond this is counterproductive:

The fool whose faith is fenced in by all sorts of questions rubs it like a sore eye: as the finger’s probing touch can blind the eye, much more so can probing investigation blind faith. 7

“Probing investigation” (or as he usually terms it, “deep investigation”) is the arrogance of posing questions which ought not to be asked, or trying to define that which is not definable. And althought Ephrem gives no list of forbidden foci of investigation, it would appear to include more than strictly theological concerns. It includes natural phenomena, feelings, intuitions, processed, and luck. However, he goes to great length to insist that the exclusion of “deep investigation” does not mean the advocating of ignorance. “Cultivated Ignorance” keeps one from perceiving what can be known. Neither “cultivated ignorance” nor “deep investigation” provide a solid basis for knowledge and understanding. He summarizes:

It is not right for us to cultivate ignorance or deep investigation, but intelligence sound and true between these two extremes. 8

Intelligence is the way of moderation. It involves realizing and accepting that because of our finite natures and because of the limitations imposed by that nature, we cannot “Know” the deepest structure of reality. It also requires restraining human boldness, curiosity and desire for intellectual power. It also means, as noted above, that one is able to consider as positive the reality of not knowing. “ By virtue of the fact that he knows he can not know, he is enable to know “.9 The resultant “Knowing” is the assurance of the nature and reality of God-or of anything else. It is a difficult way and those who attempt to attain to this balance run a spiritual risk, a risk greater even, he asserts, than Peter when he attempted to walk on the Sea of Galilee. “For in the waves of the sea (only) bodies are drowned but in the waves of investigation minds sink or are rescued.” 10 The way of “intelligence” is to be observant, analytical and carefully precise, but not dogmatically definitive, absolutist, arrogant or rigid. That which can be known is the “simple.” It is that which can be submitted to disinterested examination so that its meaning, derived by observing its relations with other realities and analyzing its own structures, can be known. The perspective is to be that of a humble creature with no pretensions of second guessing the creator. Knowledge is the ability to describe that what, but not to dominate the inward workings (the why and how) of God, humanity and salvation.
Ephrem argues that his religious competitors, the Arians and Manichaeans, have each in their own way endeavored to go beyond the limits of what can be known. Instead of a firm basis for faith and community, the result of their thought is a flurry of theories about God, the world, humanity and the salvific process. Human’s prespective on themselves become warped and transformed into “desires to know all things like him.”11 The focus becomes the novelty of the ideas, instead of an awareness of the mysteries of God and His creation.
Such fascination with the “clever” and the definition of reality concretizes our own imperfect knowledge, elevates our “evil will” to a position of unmerited authority and “builds a fence around the way of truth”12 by canonizing one human originated conception of truth. It makes holy the status quo and denies the possibility of participating in an experiential faith which has no place in the theoretical framework. Ephrem’s approach is rather agnostic: “Those who think themselves able to know everything by means of his knowledge gain for themselves ignorance.” 13 “Our chief knowledge is that we do not know anything “14
Yet one can enter into the deeper structures of reality by meditation and contemplation:

Because we do not have an eye (mind) which is able to look upon His (God’s) splendor, a mind was given to us which is able to contemplate His beauty. 15

This for Ephrem is the ultimate knowledge: the entry into the actuality of God by meditation on God in light of his scriptures and his creation.


Central to Ephrem’s critique of Arianism and Manchaeism in his insistence that language (including biblical language) is not to be appropriated in a woodenly literal fundementalist manner. For him it is symbolic of reality which neither defines nor equals reality.

There are some who hand on the fringes of truth, yet by its power keeps (them) from falling. Do not only ask the meaning of the words which taken in their outward sense can impede the (real) point; but search out their (true) sense and what they refer to. Do not take refuge in the byways, but in the strength of the essential argument, the Testament where Spirit has depicted the members of Christ, to reveal through manifest symbols his hidden form; for he has revealed great things by means of the small, by manifest things has made visible things that were hidden. He has signified times, given knowledge of numbers, ordained hours, given numbers their symbolic force and distinctions their subtlety. 16

Ephrem perceived the attempts of his competitors to define the secret inner workings of the universe as not only the epitome of intellectual arrogance but also an immature and irresponsible abuse of the metaphorical nature of language. He insisted that “Cleverness” of presentation and analysis has no implications for the truthfulness or adequacy of an affirmation.

For if we approach with polished wiles any matter which we ought to approach in a simple way, then our intelligence becomes non-intelligence. For in the case of every duty, whenever a man proceeds beyond what is its due, all the ingenuities in which the investigation slips from its truth, all the discoveries he may make, although his everything which is clever is not true, but whatever is true is clever. 17

The biblical record (as well as nature) is a presentation of the metaphors and images which the Creator has provided for our enlightenment and through which he has accommodated himself to our limitations of insight and knowledge. Thus Ephrem observes in a hymn:

If someone concentrates his attention solely on the metaphors used of God’s majesty by means of those metaphors with which God has clothes himself for man’s own benefit and he is ungrateful to that Grace which bent down its stature to the level of man’s childishness: although God had nothing in common with it, he clothed himself in the likeness of himself. Do not let your intellect be disturbed by mere names for Paradise has simply clothed itself in terms familiar to you: It is not because it is poor that it has put on your imagery, rather, your nature is far too weak to be able to attain to its greatness, and its beauties are much diminished by being depicted in the pale colours that you are familiar with. 18

Metaphors and images are to be comprehended as such. This is not to say that the realities represented are not congruent with biblical and natural symbols. Ephrem describes them as “mirrors” by which one see the glories beyond the symbols. 19They are consistent with reality because creation is a harmonious whole ordained and maintained by the Creator. Because God produced them, they reflect him.

It is our ability to contemplate the mysteries of God reflected in the images provided in Scripture and in the creation, and our free will to live out the implication of that contemplation which distinguishes us from other animals, and which brings into actuality the image of God in humanity. “Animals cannot form in themselves pure thoughts about God, because they have no speech, that which forms in us the image of truth.”20 If the individual does bot cultivate this gift of God for reflection and encounter, then “he degrades his natural rank to put on the likeness of animals.” 21


Ephrem proposed that God provides a harmonious world of nature and the Scriptures as a conglomerate of concepts, images, symbols and types which reveal their Maker. These are not to be dealt with on the level of the “sign” alone. Nor can we ever expect to analyze the “sign” to know it completely: the deeper meanings of reality are beyond our ability to comprehend. To attempt to remove the mystery from the divine by human theorizing is counter-productive. We should instead allow images, metaphors, and natural phenomena to lead us to contemplate that which is beyond even the limits of our God-given gift of language to adequately describe.

1- Ephrem and Ephremian studies see the bibliography in R. Murray, “Ephraem Syrus, ” Theologische Realenzklopr Sadie 9 (1982), 755-762; L. Leloir, “Ephrem Le Syrien,” Diction narie d’histoire et de geographie ecclesiastiques 15 (1962), 590-597; M.R. Roncaglia and S.Khalil, parole de l’orient 4 (1973), 343-391; A. baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen literature (Bonn, 1922, F.Rilliet, “Efrem Siro,” Dizionario pastristico e di antichita christiane 1 (1983), 1103-1107; S.Brock, The Harp of the Spirit (Studies Supplementary to Sobernost, 4;n.p., 1975), (Hereafter, Brock, Hrp). Other abbreviations:
BLC The Book of The Laws of the Countries. Dialogue on Fate of bardaisan of Edessa tran. H.J.W. Drijvers (Assen, 1965).
Chaer Des heiligen Ephrem des Syrers Hymnen contra haereses, hrsg. E. Beck (CSCO 169, 170, Syr. 76, 77; Louvain 1957)
CSCO Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium
HdF Des Heiligen Ephrem des Syrers Hymnen de Fide hrsg. E.Beck (CSCO 154-155, Syr. 73-74; Louvain 1955)
Hnic phrem de Nisibe memr e sur Nicomedie ed. Par C.Renoux (patrologia Orientalis 37, fasc. 2 et 3: Turnhout, 1975)
Hnis Des heiligen Ephrem des syrers Carmina Nisibena hrsg. E. Beck (CSCO 92-93, 240-241, Syr. 92-93, 102-103;Louvain, 1961, 1963)
Hvirg Des heiligen Ephrem des syrers Hymnen de Virginitate hrsg. E.Beck (CSCO 223-224, Syr. 94-95; Louvain , 1962)
PrRef S. Ephrem’s prose refutation of mani , marcion, and Baedaisn of which the greater part has been transcribed from the palimpsest of B.M. Add. 14,623 and is now published for the first time by C.W.Mitchell, I. The Discourses called “Of Domus” and six other writings completed by A.A. Bevan and F.C. Burkitt (London, 1921). The Syriac text of Discourse I and AD Hypatius is published only in J. Josephus Overbeck, S. Ephr aemi Syri, Rabulae Episcopi desseni, balaei aliorumnque Opera Selecta (Oxford, 1865), 21-58 (Hereafter Overbeck). A translation of Ad Hypatius was published by E. Beck, “Ephraems brief an Hypatius,” Oriens Christianus 58(1974), 75-120 (Hereafter, bech, Brief).

2- In addition to the sources listed above, and more schematically arranged with regard to liguistic tradition, se calvis patrum graecorum, 2 (Turnhout, 1974), 3905-4175. It approached completeness only for the Greek materials.-

3- Adolf Von harnack, marcion:Das Even gelium vom Fremden Gott. (Texte und undersuchungen, 45; leipzing, 1919), 276-284; E.C Blackman, marcion and His influence (London, 1948). Nabil El-Khoury, Die interpretation der Welt bei Ephrem dem Syrer (TrScubringer Theologische Studien, 6; Mainz 1976).

4- Ephrem’s critique of bardaisan and the Bardaisanites has been the subject of the investigation and discussion during the last several decades in the Dutch-Bardaisan discussions which began with the publication og H.J.W. Drijvers, bardaisan of Edessa (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, 6; Assen , 1966) and the response of T. Jansman natuur, Lot en Vrijheid, bardasanes, de Filosoof der AramerSeers en zijn Images (Cahiers bijhet Nederlands theologisch Tijdschrift, 6; waginingen, 1969). Ther is as well a series of articles in Nederlands theologisch Tijdschrift 24(1969-1970), 89-104 (Drijvers), 256-259 (Jansama), 260-262 (Drijvers).

5- PrRef I, vx-xvi, Overbeck, 41.
6- HdF I, 16; tr. Brock, Harp, 7.
7- PrRef I, viii, Overbeck, 30.
8- PrRef I, vii, Overbeck, 29.
9- PrRef I, xvii, Overbeck, 43.
10- PrRef I, vi, Overbeck, 28.
11- PrRef I, vii, Overbeck, 30.
12- PrRef I, viii, Overbeck, 30.
13- PrRef I, xvi-xvii, Overbeck, 42.
14- Ibid.
15- PrRef I, iv, Overbeck, 26.

16- Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l’Evangile Concordant. Texte Syriaque (Manuscrit Chester Beatty 709) ed. Et trad. Louis leloir (Chester Beatty Monograhps, 8; Dudlin, 1963. R. Murray. “The Theory of Symbolism in St. Ephrem’s Theology. ” parole de l’Orient 6-7(1975-1976), 6 (Melanges Graffin).

17- PrRef I, ix, Overbeck, 32.

18- Des heiligen Ephrem des Syrers Humnen de paradiso und Contra Julianum hrsg. E.Beck (CSCO 174-175, Syr 78-79; Louvain 1957), 11, 6-7. E.T. in Brock, Harp, 11.

19- E.Beck, ” Symbolum-Mysterium dei Aphrahat und EphrrSam, ” Oriens Christianus 42(1958), 19-40; R. Murray. Symbols of Church and Kindom: A study in early Syriac Tradition (cambridge, 1975); E.Beck, das Bild vom Spiegel bei EphrrSam, ” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 38(1954), 41-67.

20- PrRef I, ii, Overbeck, 22.

21- Ibid. On Ephrem’s oncept of knowledge, see also, E.Beck, EphrrSam des Syrers Psychologie und Erkenntinislehre(CSCO 419, Subsidia 58;Louvain, 1980). Note:The foregoing bibliographic refrences make no presumption of being complete, nut are intended as guides to reading and to other literature.

My God, my God, Thou art a direct God
May I say a literal God, a God that wouldest
Be understood literally, and according to
The plain sense of all that thou sayests?
But thou art also a figurative, a metaphorical
God too; a God in whose words there is such
hight of figures, such voyages, such peregri-
nations to fetch remote and precious metaphors,
such extensions, such spreadings, such Curtains
of Allegories, such third Heavens of Hyperboles,
such harmonious elocutions. O, what words
but thine can express the inexpressible texture,
and composition of thy word.

(John Donne)
The American Foundation for Syriac Studies