A Brief Introduction to Ephrem the Syrian

“The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.” — Robert Murray

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Over the next several weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be running a series on reflections on the theology and hymns of St. Ephrem of Nisibis (often called Ephrem the Syrian). Before launching into these discussions of Ephrem’s theological mind and literary genius, however, I felt it prudent to offer a brief historical introduction to Ephrem. There are two primary reasons for this: first, because while some Christians may have heard Ephrem’s name associated with early Christianity before, few actually know much about the fourth century poet. And second, Ephrem’s context—ancient Syria—is somewhat different than the typical “Greco-Roman” culture that may be safely assumed for engaging most other early Christian writers. Continue reading

NT Canon: What You Need to Know

New TestamentMost Christians, and I would dare say most Americans, know some basic things about the Christian New Testament. But many people don’t know (or don’t want to know) how the New Testament came into being. Some people seem to think that Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation fell from the sky in a nicely leather bound English translation (whichever your church happens to use, of course). Hopefully, most of you know that wasn’t quite how it happened.

So how did the New Testament canon form? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

ECA: Definitions

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

DefinitionThe great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once said that “every argument about something which is rationally undertaken should proceed from a definition so that it is understood what is being disputed.”[1] The importance of clear definitions, however, has often been neglected by those studying early Christian conceptions of “scripture”, “tradition”, and “authority.” As this series on Early Christian Authority continues, over the next several weeks I will begin outlining the thought of (heretic) Marcion of Sinope. Before engaging Marcion, however, we must offer some tentative working definitions for these important terms. I say “tentative” and “working” because a) I expect the issue of clear definitions will be one that I return to, hopefully in greater depth, before too long and b) because my own thought on the definitions of these terms continues to be formed through the reading of secondary literature and my interactions with early Christian sources. Continue reading

Book Review: Ancient Christian Worship (McGowan)

Ancient Christian Worship (McGowan)There are few times in history so important and yet so obscure as the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, when the movement bearing his name transformed from a band of several dozen followers hiding in terror into an international community that would shape the subsequent history of the world. Despite the paucity of evidence from this period, historians and theologians alike continually return to the earliest years of the Jesus Movement, attempting to ascertain precisely who was doing what and how they were doing it. To help bring clarity to the all important aspect of Christian worship from this period comes Andrew B. McGowan’s masterful Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). Continue reading

Book Review: The Didache (O’Loughlin)

“There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways.” (Didache 1.1)

The Didache (O'Loughlin)Thus begins the Didache, that early Christian text also called the “Teaching of the Lord Given to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles.” Since its rediscovery in 1873 by Philotheos Bryennios, the Didache has fascinated scholars and Christians with its short yet dynamic statements on the manner in which Christians should live their lives. It was thus with great eagerness that I read Thomas O’Loughlin’s The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Continue reading

ECA: Shepherd of Hermas

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

Shepherd of HermasEven after nearly 2000 years, the Shepherd of Hermas remains an intriguing set of apocalyptic writings from the early Church. The central concern of Hermas revolves around post-baptismal sin: What can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after their baptism? In answering this question, Hermas writes down five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables, many of which he recounts in terms of divine visions and conversations with an angelic figure called the Shepherd (hence the title of the book). The Shepherd remains the longest extant text of early Christianity, much longer than a number of New Testament books, and was included in many early canonical lists and codices, including Codex Sinaiticus and some contemporaries of Eusebius and Athanasius. Ultimately, the Shepherd was rejected as canonical, due at least in part to its not being written by an apostle (as argued in the Muratorian Canon). Hermas may have been the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome from around 140 to 154, and Origen argues that he was the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16.14. Additionally, Hermas mentions someone named Clement in V8.2, which may be a reference to Clement of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Shepherd was likely written between 110-140 CE, perhaps over a period of time. Such as early date fits the writings widespread use in both East and West, as well as the claims to usefulness by the Church Fathers despite its ultimate non-canonical status. Continue reading

ECA: Epistle of Polycarp

This post is part of our ongoing series on Early Christian Authority.
St. Polycarp

St. Polycarp

Polycarp of Smyrna remains one of the best attested figures of the early Christian Church. As bishop of Smyrna (cx. Rev. 2.8), recipient of a letter from the Ignatius of Antioch, and a martyr of the church, Polycarp stands apart as an exceptional figure in early Christianity, in that there exists a comparatively good deal of extant material concerning his life. In addition to this letter having been written by the bishop, extant copies exist of Ignatius’ letter to him as well as a later account of his martyrdom. While his Letter to the Philippians has often been looked down upon for its lack of original content and heavy reliance upon other written sources, it remains useful for ascertaining relevant issues within the second century Philippian church and for its use of textual authority. Continue reading

ECA: Ignatius of Antioch

This post is part of our ongoing series on Early Christian Authority.
Ignatius of Antioch

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch and the letters he wrote on way to his martyrdom in Rome have long fascinated those studying early Christianity. Killed around 117 CE by the Emperor Trajan, Ignaitus’s tale reads like a drama: the bishop of Antioch (one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and home to one of the most important centers of early Christianity) Ignatius is arrested and set with a group of Roman soldiers across Asia Minor and Greece for execution in Rome. Along the way, he receives fellow Christians for encouragement and sends them back to their churches with letters for the edification of other Christian communities. Ignatius meets his end in Rome, but his letters live on and continue to influence Christians nearly two thousand years after their hasty composure. Continue reading

ECA: First Clement

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome

To “kick off” our Early Christian Authority Series, we begin with First Clement, which is the earliest non-canonical, specifically Christian, and still extant writing available to us today. First Clement claims to have been written from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth, and seems to have been written around 95-96 CE (though I hasten to note that it could have been composed almost anytime between 64 and 99 CE). Since at least the mid- to late- second century, First Clement was thought to have been written by Clement of Rome, who was the second or third bishop of Rome, holding office from around 92 to 99 CE. Additionally, from at least the mid-second century until sometime in the fifth century, First Clement was used a “scripture” by various Christian communities, being read aloud during corporate worship in Corinth and other Christian communities. This is attested to by Dionysius of Corinth and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 4.23), as well as the letter’s inclusion in the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. This post broadly examines First Clement’s use of existing sources of authority. Continue reading