The Importance of Syriac Christianity

Ancient Syriac ManuscriptDiversity is fascinating. The world is a big (big) place, full of all sorts of people, places, and ideas. And while certain schools of thought have elevated “diversity” to a buzzword demanding de-institutionalization and the destruction of truth claims, the term does not have to be used in such disproportionate ways. In the historic Christian Church, for example, there has been much faithful diversity–faith and practice that differs according to people, place, and culture, but all faithful in proclaiming Christ as risen from the dead. Unfortunately, American Christians are often either generally unaware of forms of Christianity different than their own or they are staunchly convinced that such people aren’t Christians. While this post isn’t about addressing that particular issue, I do want to briefly note that this perspective has often carried over into considerations of ancient Christianity as well. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Symbolic Transformation

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

TransformationIn his dissertation on Ephrem, Jeff Wickes argues that Ephrem’s symbolic universe constructs a symbolic self through the scriptural world of his hymns (Wickes, 3). In light of an earlier chapter, this is clarified to mean that Ephrem co-identified the scriptural and symbolic selves (Ibid., 3). Overall, Wickes’s presentation of how Ephrem assimilated biblical terminology in order to create a scriptural self for his audience is convincing, especially when read with the perspectives of Alford and Krueger. Yet there seems to be something missing from this presentation of the scriptural self, namely, the concrete manner in which the transformation of the believer through identification with Ephrem’s symbolic universe was to occur. This essay reflects upon the question of whether or not Ephrem’s scriptural universe required concrete expression, or remained a primarily abstract symbolic universe. Continue reading

Investigation and Scripture

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

Investigation and Scripture in Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith 1-9

Open BibleEphrem scholar Jeff Wickes contextualizes the Hymns on Faith as essentially belonging to the post-Nicaea “homoean” camp that remained anti-subordinationist while problematizing the language of Nicaea.[1] This characterization, I believe, proves most helpful for explicating Ephrem’s theology. Here we see that Ephrem’s unique perspective and approach to this stage of the Christological controversies demonstrates his attempt to reset the paradigm of the debate. For Ephrem, theological investigation needs to be done appropriately—there is a certain way to “do” theology. The Hymns on Faith are therefore not just a critique of subordinationist Arian theology, but of a way of doing theology.[2] This reflection examines Hymns on Faith 1-9, arguing that the Christian scriptures serve as Ephrem’s formative theological paradigm and the basis for all proper investigation of God. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Scriptural Simplicity

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

Ephrem the SyrianCentral to Ephrem’s scriptural presentation of Christ as beyond investigation (i.e., of the same order as the Father) is the relative simplicity of his arguments. Instead of constructing complex metaphysical arguments, Ephrem relies upon the re-presentation of narratives from the Old and New Testament’s to demonstrate Christ’s Sonship. In this post, I reflect upon the simplicity of Ephrem’s rewriting of scripture, as well as briefly consider the role of Tatian’s Diatessaron in his conception of Christ. Continue reading

Textual Plurality and Biblical Interpretation

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

BibleThis article reflects upon considerations of textual plurality and biblical interpretation as found in Lucas Van Rompay’s “The Christian Syriac Tradition of Interpretation”, James Kugel’s Traditions of the Bible, and the pseudepigraphal Jubilees. In each of these works there are concerns with how biblical texts were to be understood and how communities argued these texts should be properly interpreted, though this is relatively unsurprising in an era preceding any sort of formal scriptural canon. By my reading of these perspectives, there were at least two motivations in tension with each other during this period: inexact textual plurality and the desire for exact biblical interpretation. Continue reading

Reflections on “Ephrem, Athanasius, and the ‘Arian’ Threat”

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

Athanasius of Alexandria

In her chapter “Ephrem, Athanasius, and the ‘Arian’ threat” of Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth Century Syria (CUA Press, 2008), Christine Shepardson compares the anti-Arian rhetoric of these two great defenders of Nicene Christology, arguing that both deployed anti-Jewish rhetoric and language against the Arians in their efforts to defend Roman ‘orthodoxy’.[1] This essay reflects upon her arguments in this chapter, noting some convincing and unconvincing facets of her perspective. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Boundaries of Investigation: Scriptural and Natural

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

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Throughout his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem remains especially concerned with recasting the terms of the Arian-Orthodox debate concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of simply affirming a Nicene, Homoean, or Subordinationist perspective, Ephrem focuses on what he believes to be the root cause of the Christological controversy of his day: investigation. In Ephrem’s view, improper investigation has lead to the current turmoil and improper debate. While subordinationist theologies are in the wrong Christologically and methodologically, Ephrem does not hesitate to also problematize the methods of those with whom his Christology agree. In this essay, I briefly reflect on Ephrem’s two chief boundary markers for proper investigation: nature and scripture. Continue reading

Scriptural Poetics and Ephrem’s Theology of Names

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

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Those familiar with the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures cannot help but notice how the imagery and language of these writings pervades the writings of Ephrem. The problem with Ephrem’s extensive use of the metaphors and terminology of scripture throughout the fabric of his madrâŝe is that of genre; that is, while Ephrem very clearly employs and interprets scripture, discerning the framework of his interpretation remains far more difficult to parse. In response to this question, Jeff Wickes has suggested categorizing Ephrem’s madrâŝe as a “doxological genre”, more specifically that of “scriptural poetics.” This paradigm functions as a transition from traditional commentary, where readers examine scripture to understand and uncover its meaning, to the engagement of scripture as a means for understanding or uncovering some other thing (God, an event) in the presence of an audience. Through the lens of “scriptural poetics” the scriptures become the building materials for an applicable theology, the raw conceptual tools at the intersection between “Scripture, world, God, and audience.” This essay reflects upon the nature of “scriptural poetics”, especially in light of Ephrem’s theology of names. Continue reading