Syrian Clothing Terminology and the Goal of the Christian Life

Aramean-Edessa_AbgarThe use of “clothing terminology” by early Christians offers an opportunity to investigate the development of an important theological metaphor, one that would become rife with Christological implications by the fourth century. While Paul certainly employed clothing imagery in several of his letters (one immediately thinks of Romans 13, 1 Corinthians 15, and Ephesians 6), Syrian Christianity seems to have found a particular affinity for this theme. This is especially true for early Syrian documents like the Song of the Pearl and Odes of Solomon, which enhance clothing terminology and connect it with their respective theological teleologies, their understandings of the goal of the Christian life. This reflection will note several uses of clothing imagery in these early Syrian Christian writings before briefly exploring how these concepts may be developed by a later Syrian thinker, Ephrem of Nisibis.

Discussion of clothing runs throughout the Song of the Pearl, as the central crisis for the poet centers around the removal of his “shining robe” (section 2, page 109) and the subsequent journey attempting to regain his glorious attire through the recovery of the pearl. We learn that the author’s robe, along with a toga, represent his status as heir of the kingdom; without the pearl, there is no robe, and without the robe, there is no reward. Later, after the poet has forgotten his calling and purpose, his parents’ letter admonishes him to “Be mindful o your shining robe,/and think of your splendid toga” (6, 112). Upon his acquisition of the pearl and return home, the poet is rewarded with his robe and toga, and wrapped in the “toga with its lustrous colours” (13, 115) he is finally ready to appear before his king.

Pearl of Great PriceWhile the poet is not entirely clear in defining the goal of the Christian life,[1] throughout The Song of the Pearl his robe appears to represent its goal (or at least reward). From the outset the poet must find that pearl which enables him to regain the beauty and perfection which he has lost, perhaps a reference to the fall of humanity. Though distracted by forgetfulness and deceit (sinfulness), the poet is awoken by sound teaching (the prophets and apostles), seizes the pearl (of the Gospel), and is rewarded with that which he seeks (“salvation,” in some sense, the goal of the Christian life). Furthermore, once he receives his clothing, he finds own glory and likeness now mirror that of his pursuit—he has become like that which he has sought (10, 113-4). This would seem to be a telling portrayal of the goal of the Christian life—that after a lifetime of seeking Christ, we may find ourselves to be like Him in the end. Key for conveying this message in the Song of the Pearl is employment of clothing imagery.

Standing firmly within the wisdom tradition (Murray, 25), the Odes of Solomon offer further insights into the goal of the Christian life, again using clothing imagery. Yet where the Song of the Pearl was relatively silent about the precise nature of this goal, the Odes begin to paint a clearer picture: the goal of the Christian life is theosis, union with God. For the odist, “he who is joined to him who is immortal,/ truly will be immortal” (3.8). Later, speaking of Christ, he writes that, “He became like me, that I might receive him./ In form he was considered like me, that I might put him on” (7.4). Here we again see clothing terminology used—Christ came to earth in order that humanity may “put him on.” Of course, when human beings put on clothing, they often remove clothing as well. The odist’s reflection upon this takes something of a Docetic turn, as in Ode 25.8: “And I was covered with the covering of your spirit,/ and I removed from me my garments of skin.”[2] Yet this language may also be understood in terms of more traditional sacramental theology, where in baptism the fallen old Adam is replaced by the spiritual new Adam (6.8-18). Thus, like the Song of the Pearl, the Odes of Solomon use clothing terminology to theologically reflect upon the goal of the Christian life.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Briefly turning to Ephrem, we see that the literature he would have likely been exposed to as a Syrian Christian contained, among a rich body of images, considerable use of clothing imagery as a means of reflecting upon the culmination of the Christian life. And, as Sebastian Brock notes in The Luminous Eye, Ephrem seems to have employed this imagery with brilliance, using clothing terminology in a variety of settings to outline the “entire range of salvation history” through the “robe of glory” (Brock, 86f). Thus we find that Ephrem not only built upon earlier Syrian clothing imagery, but also reconstituted and developed it for his own needs as well.


[1] The closest we get to an actual definition seems to be in section thirteen, where “I was not with him in his kingdom” (115), perhaps a reference to fellowship with God.

[2] Central to reflecting upon any Gnostic tendencies of the Odes of Solomonv are incorporating a balanced perspective on the importance of “knowledge”, which is consistently spoken of as needing to bear fruit in order to be effectual (see Odes 4.4, 8.2, 12.1-2, and 15.6).

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