Reflections on Ephrem’s Commentaries

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Though said to have written a commentary on every book of the Bible, the only authentic and extant prose commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian are those on Genesis and (part of) Exodus. These commentaries, following the more traditional “text and gloss” approach, represent a distinct departure from Ephrem’s approach in his Hymns to commentary and theology. This essay offers several reflections on these commentaries, concluding that they represent an important part of any attempted reconstruction of Ephrem’s conception of scripture and theology.

The most immediately striking difference between these commentaries and the Hymns involves the dearth of language surrounding “investigation.” As noted consistently throughout the semester, an important hermeneutical principle of Ephrem’s seems to have been his desire to write, worship, and theologize within the bounded order of revelation. That is, that any investigation of God, the World, Humanity, and the Scriptures should follow the revealed boundaries of investigatory practice and interpretation. In stark contrast to his Hymns (and the Homily on Our Lord and Letter to Publius), in these commentaries Ephrem nary makes any sort of allusion to the proper boundaries of offering commentary on the events and meanings of Genesis and Exodus. Indeed, at times he seems to “throw caution to the wind” and offer fairly speculative explanations. While it is possible that the subject matter at hand—for Ephrem, historical events instead of the identity of God or reality of Paradise—leads to this shift, the change from Ephrem’s other literary productions is considerable.


Additionally, while there are certainly apologetic (or rhetorical) statements directed towards theological opponents—most notably Bardaisan, Mani, and Marcion—these commentaries by-and-large avoid the strongly worded and easily identifiable critiques that are noteworthy in the Hymns. Mathews and Amar note that these commentaries contain sections unavoidably in contact with the theologies of these movements; however, engagement with these perspectives comes across with measure and finesse. These two factors—the movement away from language of “investigation” and care in critiquing theological opponents—seem to suggest that these commentaries were composed in significantly different contexts than the Hymns, Homily on Our Lord, and Letter to Publius. If I were to speculate, these tendencies might suggest these commentaries’ intended use in a classroom setting. In such a setting, warnings about rightly ordered investigation would be presumed, especially when considering the contents of scripture. Furthermore, criticism of opponents could be more nuanced, given the more mindful concerns of a classroom audience in contrast to a public worship service.

Set as restatements of the contents of the Hymns (ComGen 1.1), in these commentaries Ephrem also demonstrates his ability to offer lengthy sections of “traditional” commentary, complete with text, gloss, awareness of other interpretations, and nuanced arguments of his own. While Ephrem clearly makes use of the canonical versions of Genesis and Exodus as the basis for this commentary, there remain numerous examples of commentary on passages not recorded in the Peshitta. Some of passages may simply be Ephrem’s commentary style taking on an authoritative air and explaining without pause (ComGen 2.35.2). And of course, it is admittedly difficult to clearly delineate between Ephrem’s commentary and that which could originate with another commentator. Numerous passages, however, as rather lengthy “additions” to the canonical narrative; for example, the story of Lot and his daughters (ComGen 16.9.1-2), Joseph’s interaction with Potiphar (ComGen 35.7), Joseph’s interaction with his brothers (ComGen 37.5; 39.2), the conversations between Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter (ComEx 2.1.2-2.3.2), and Moses’ dialogue with Sephora (ComEx 4.4-5). Again, whether these passages are simply Ephrem’s commentary on why and how certain narratives events occurred or are something else entirely remains difficult to parse. One cannot help but note, however, the similarities between some of these accounts and a source like Jubilees, which fits nicely into the category of “re-written Bible.” Whether or not Ephrem is reliant upon traditions of re-written Bible here requires further attention.

BibleConsiderations of Ephrem’s Commentaries on Genesis and Exodus remain an important component of understanding his literary concerns and theology. Ephrem’s versatility in writing for apparently different audiences comes across clearly in these commentaries, as does his ability to offer nuanced arguments. His relationship to other commentaries, especially those of Judaism and the genre of “re-written Bible”, calls for additional study and consideration, as Ephrem’s relationship to these types of literature may help shed further light on his methods of interpretation.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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