Scripture in Ephrem’s Madrashe

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

While most analysis of Syrian madrashe has focused on its metrical form, authorship, origins, and liturgical setting, comparatively little attention has been paid to the contents of the madrashe. To form a fully contextualized understanding of Syrian madrashe, additional attention should be paid to the theological nature and contents of madrashe, especially its relationship to scripture. Finally, the particular manner in which Ephrem “rewrites” scripture for his community of faith is worthy of additional attention, as this feature of his writing points to the need for study on how madrashe employ and co-opt scripture. The essay which follows reflects on the place and function of scripture in Ephrem’s madrashe.

Attendant facets of any project examining Ephrem’s use of scripture in his madrashe seem to be a) clarifying which scriptures and sources Ephrem had access to and b) determining more precisely what constitutes a “use” of scripture? As for this first task, it is too simple to presume that an English translation of Ephrem will mirror an English translation of the Bible, or even that reading Ephrem in Syriac will demonstrate the “verbal similarity” between his madrashe and the Biblical text. In order to better grasp Ephrem’s use of scripture, one must employ both Ephrem’s Bible (presumably the Peshitta) as well as many known examples of “re-written Bible” and “oral tradition” as possible. Only with a working knowledge of his scriptural context can one hope to locate instances where Ephrem appeals to scripture in his madrashe.

Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome

As for what constitutes a “use” of scripture, a good deal has already been written about this and I will not rehash those arguments here. However, whatever has been suggested for examining Greek and Latin prosaic works, this methodology must be significantly revised to account for use of scripture in poetic literary forms (memre and/or madrashe), as well for the Syriac literary and religious context. While there are years of scholarship investigating the manner in which First Clement, for example, employs scripture, considerably more work must be done with this question regarding Ephrem’s corpus. What counts as an “allusion” in Ephrem? How do we define a “citation” in his poetry? And what do these terms indicate, both in terms of knowledge and assumed authority of the source being cited as well as the exegetical and interpretive implications of the passage within a madrashe?

For example, in Ephrem’s ninth Hymn on Faith, Wickes notes several references to the narrative of the people of Israel wandering in the desert (9.12, in Wickes, Hymns on Faith, 81). Does this information come from a written source? If so, what source? And how does Ephrem view and use that source? Answers to these questions are not immediately clear from the context of the Hymn itself. Similarly, in the third Hymn Against Julian, we note use of the phrase ‘dust to dust’ (McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, 245). But this Biblical phrase, noted by McVey as similar to that found in Genesis 3.19, is applied rather differently than in its canonical context, and with a different theological emphasis. Is it possible that Ephrem is quoting (or rearranging a quote) from his scriptural source here? Or is he interpretively modifying the language of scripture to condemn Julian? Working toward answers for such questions will not only help provide a better understanding of Ephrem and his theology, but also provide invaluable information on the literary context and interpretive-matrices of early Syriac Christianity.

Sacred ScriptureFurthermore, if arguments concerning the liturgical performance of pre-Ephrem madrashe are accurate, then additional consideration must be given to the importance of “oral tradition” in the Syriac context. It has long been presumed that stories conveyed through song or delivered in community settings enjoyed a wider and more stable circulation in the ancient world; here both of these factors may have been at work. McVey notes that madrashe functioned as a powerful teaching device in the right hands—could it be that Ephrem was considerably impacted by madrashe performed in the church of Nisibis? Such an influence seems all the more likely if madrashe were sung beginning with Bardaisan years before the arrival of Ephrem (Brock, OHECS, 659). All this is to say that, given the context of “rewritten Bible,” competing Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretations, and the apparent fluidity of Syriac scriptural sources, it seems that attention must be paid to the possible influence of oral scriptural traditions upon Ephrem. Wickes has (rightly, I believe) noted that the Syriac interpretive context cannot be viewed as a tabula rosa into which the Christian scriptures simply appeared. Rather, the literary productions and scriptural interpretations early Syriac Christians must be considered within their wider cultural contexts if contemporary scholarship is to better understand the theologies and practices of that branch of the Church. It is this task to which the study of Ephrem’s use of scripture applies itself.


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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