- Historical context of the source
- Discussion of the source
- Questions for discussion
- Selected bibliography
- Further reading
- Useful web resources
1. Historical context of the source
1a. Syriac Christianity
Saint Ephrem is perhaps the most famous writer in Syriac Christianity, which in its earliest form is often regarded as a more ‘Semitic’ Christianity, in Antiquity, than that of the Mediterranean Greek- and Latin-speaking area. This is because Syriac is originally a local dialect of Aramaic in northern Mesopotamia, linguistically not too dissimilar from the Jewish Aramaic of the Babylonian rabbis, though written in different characters. The form of the Old Testament used in the Syriac churches is known as the Peshitta, a Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible, and not based on the Greek Septuagint version used further West by most Christians. The translators of most books of the Peshitta Old Testament version are therefore likely to have been Jews familiar with Hebrew who then converted to Christianity and brought their translations into the Syriac Church around the end of the second century CE. We also find early Syriac Christians like Ephrem interpreting the Bible in a way similar to the Jewish Midrashic approach. From the end of the fourth century, however, Greek Christian influences became stronger in the Syriac churches, and the ‘Semitic’ character less pronounced.
1b. Ephrem’s biography
The most reliable information on Ephrem’s life comes from his own works. Later biographical information is often tendentious and unreliable. Ephrem was born c.306 CE, of Christian parents, near or in the city of Nisibis on the frontier of Roman territory with the Sassanian Persian Empire. This is present-day Nusaybin, a mainly Kurdish city on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Ephrem became a deacon of the famous Church of St Jacob, and apparently lectured in the Christian “School” of Nisibis (in fact this was an institution of higher education for Syriac-speaking Christians of the region). Later tradition seems to have been embarrassed by the lowly ecclesiastical office he actually held, and makes him out to have been a priest, a proto-monk, or a hermit. Yet he was actively involved in church life and worship.
In this region, Christian “orthodoxy” as defined by the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 CE was much threatened by other groups and beliefs regarded as heretical, including Bardaisanites, Arians, Marcionites, Manicheans, Gnostics and so on. Judaism also presented a strong attraction to local Christians. Ephrem promoted an ‘orthodox’ understanding of Christian faith through the many hymns, or madrashe, that he wrote for liturgical use. These were sung in the church by choirs of consecrated women known as the Bnath Qyama, or ‘daughters of the Covenant’. The poetry of his work, which draws on the natural world as well as making allusions to Scripture, is sublime. The impact of this mode of teaching on a largely unlettered congregation was very successful.
When Jovian ceded Nisibis to the Persian ruler Shapur II in 363, Ephrem and many other Christians left the city for another very important centre for Christianity, Edessa (now Şanliurfa in modern Turkey). Here they established the ‘School of the Persians’ in the older School of Edessa, and Ephrem continued to write doctrinal hymns for use in the church, as well as sermons in verse, and prose commentaries on Scripture. His prestige as a writer was so great that some of his hymns were translated into other languages, and spurious works also circulated under his name. Though earlier scholars did not appreciate them because they did not conform to Victorian ideals of poetry, more recently there has been a great revival of interest in Ephrem’s works. His use of imagery from the natural world and his unusual respect for women has encouraged modern scholars to edit and translate his hymns. For members of Syriac Christian denominations, including Syriac Orthodox, Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, and Maronites, he also represents an ‘authentic’ form of Syriac Christianity before the divisive doctrinal splits of the mid-fifth century. Therefore his work is a rallying point for some ecumenical movements.
a) Three Hymns on Unleavened Bread (translated from the edition of Beck, 1964)
Hymn on Unleavened Bread XVII
1. Nisan that renews every plant
could not revive the aged People.
Refrain: Blessed is he who rejected the People and their matza
Since their hands were defiled with precious blood!
2. For when the People went forth they bore
leaven of idolatry along with matza.
3. In Egypt Moses forbade them to knead yeasted dough
together with(1) his matza. (Exod 12.15)
4. By this means he taught them not to hide
Egyptian leaven within their mind.
5. Matza is a symbol of the bread of life;
those of old ate the new mystery.
6. Moses disclosed the symbol of the One who renews all
and gave it to gluttons who craved flesh.
7. Meat from the earth weighed them down –
their mind stooped to greed.
8. The earthly ones ate heavenly manna (Exodus 16 etc.)
They became dust on the earth through their sins
9. Spiritual bread flew lightly away
The Gentiles soared up and settled in the midst of Paradise.
14. Matza’s nature is heavy
Symbolising the People that cannot fly.
15. Elijah ate from the pitcher and jug (1 Kings 17.14)
the light symbol that flew through the air
16. It was not a Daughter of Jacob who provided the symbol:
Elijah ate it through that Daughter of the Gentiles (i.e. the widow of Zarephath)
17.If the [mere] symbol of [Christ’s] bread made [Elijah] fly like that (2 Kings 2.11)
How much more may it transport Gentiles to Eden?
Notes on this hymn:
(1) Reading ‘am for the edition’s ‘oq.
Note the opposition of People (= Jews) to the Peoples (Gentile Christians).
Ephrem frequently uses paradox and contrast for effect, e.g. heavy—light, old—new, earthly—heavenly/spiritual, manna—Eucharistic bread.
Another feature of all his hymns (anti-Jewish or not) is the emphasis on symbol or mystery, for which he uses the Persian loanword raza.
Hymn on Unleavened Bread XVIII
Refrain: Give thanks to the Son who gave us his body
In place of that matza that he gave the People.
3. For see, there is fresh pasture in Nisan
— the ox prone to goring eats it (Exodus 21.19)
4. And when the People ate that matza
They gored the Son with a spear in Nisan (John 19.34).
5. In new pasture the ass grows fat
Like it the People ‘waxed fat and kicked’ (Deuteronomy 32.15).
6. If fresh food really brings benefit
a beast is better than that People!
7. A beast is superior to them too, because they are reproached through it:
Unlike it, they do not know their master (Isaiah 1.3)
8. A serpent sheds its skin and is made new;
however often the People sheds its exterior, inside they grow old.
9. See how the People refresh their outward appearance
While in their heart dwells deadly poison.
10. For [the People] resembles the first serpent
Who deceived us by giving us deadly fruit.
11. For see, they offer us some of their matza
To become a deadly drug within us.
12. O aged People who by matza
and leaven alike make the fresh stale!
13. O matza that little by little
draws those who eat it towards the infidels!
14. In fresh matza they secretly offer
the old leaven of unbelief.
15. Moses hid a sign of the Son
Within that matza, like an elixir of life.
16. [Christ] rinsed the elixir from the matza
and gave it to Judas [Iscariot] as a deadly drug (John 13.26)
17. So whoever takes some of that matza
takes the lethal drug of [Judas] Iscariot!
Notes on this hymn:
The People, Ephrem’s contemporaries the Jews, are compared to animals in Scripture: to a goring ox, a complacent and recalcitrant ass, to a domestic animal that does not know its Master, and finally to the serpent in Eden (Genesis 3), origin of evil and death in the world.
Ephrem does not deny that Jesus himself ate matza at the Last Supper before his crucifixion (stanza 16), but he argues that by giving it to his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, Jesus marked the end of Passover as a salvific feast. It has no more utility, and in fact is now deadly, whereas the Eucharistic bread is the medicine of life (see the earlier hymns above).
Hymns on Unleavened Bread XIX
1. The True Lamb rose and broke his body
for the perfect ones who ate the Passover Lamb.
Refrain: Glory to Christ who by his body
Brought an end to the People’s matza along with the People.
5. The wicked People who desire our death
enticingly offer us death through food.
6. The tree that Eve saw was desirable
And matza is just as desirable.
7. But from that lovely tree was revealed death:
death is concealed in fine matza.
8. Although the dead lion was very unclean
its bitterness offered sweetness (Judges 14.9)
9. In a bitter lion there was fine honey (Judges 14.9)
In sweet matza, a deadly poison!
10. Angels longed for that unleavened bread
that Sarah baked, because it symbolised [Christ] (Genesis 18.6).
11. Loathe matza, brethren!
It signifies Iscariot.
12. Again, flee from matza, brethren!
Its purity harbours a stench.
13. For the ‘putrid name’ that Moses wrote (Exodus. 32.25 in Syriac)
lies in matza’s wholesomeness
14. The People craved garlic and onions (Numeri 11.5)
their matza reeks along with their food.
15. Elijah took bread from unclean ravens (1 Kings 17.6)
Because he knew that it was pure.
16. Don’t take that matza, brethren,
from the People with blood-spattered hands
17. Lest some of that filth in which their hands are steeped
should cling to that unleavened bread.
18. Even if meat is clean, no one eats
from what’s been sacrificed, since it’s defiled.
19. How much more unclean is matza,
kneaded by hands that killed the Son!
20. It’s an abomination to take food
from a hand defiled with animal blood.
21. Who would take anything from the hand
utterly defiled with the prophets’ blood?
22. My brethren, don’t eat the matza of the People
– deadly poison – together with the elixir of life
23. For the blood of the Messiah is present, mixed into
the People’s matza and our Eucharist
24. Anyone who takes it in the Eucharist takes the elixir of life:
Anyone who eats it with the People takes a lethal drug
25. For that blood of which they cried, ‘Let it be upon us!’ (Matthew 27.25)
is mixed into their feasts and their Sabbaths.
26. Whoever joins in their feasts
he too becomes spattered with the blood.
27. The People that did not eat pork
is a blood-stained pig.
28. Flee from it, keep your distance as it shakes itself
lest it stain you with a spattering of the blood.
Notes on this hymn:
The second line of the refrain is highly alliterative: baṭṭel pṭir ‘ama ‘ameh d-‘ama. This kind of stylistic device, coupled with Ephrem’s vivid use of imagery, was an important factor in his success as a poet.
Ephrem states clearly that the Jews carry the blood-guilt of Christ’s death and that those Christians who associate with them become defiled too.
Stanza 18 refers to the early Christian prohibition on eating meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15.28-29; cf. the allusions to anxieties over eating meat in Romans ch 14).
Stanza 27 invokes two of the greatest sources of religious pollution, from a Jewish point of view: pigs and blood. (However, archaeologists note evidence that pork was not eaten in Syria other than by Roman soldiers stationed there, so the abhorrence of pigs may have been a common cultural feature shared by local Christians.) The crude imagery ends the hymn with an exhortation to keep one’s distance from Jews in order not to share that pollution.
Carmina Nisibena LXVII
1. Come, let us hear Death rebuking the People
whose sword was even crueller to the righteous than Death!
Refrain: Praise to you, who by your sacrifice made amends for our reproach
Your death was substituted for all our own deaths,
that he might raise all alive!
2. [Death speaks:] æIt wasn’t Death who crucified Jesus, but the People!
How much hatred, then, the People showed, since they hated more than I did!
3. ‘They threw Jeremiah into that muddy pit (Jeremiah 38.6)
but I honoured his bones in Sheol.
4. ‘They hurled stones at Naboth like a dog, (1 Kings 21.14)
how much better am I, who have never battered even a dog!
5. ‘The Hebrew women ate their children during famine (Deuteronomy 28.53; 2 Kings 6.26-29; Jeremiah 19.9; Lamentations 2.20; 4.10; Ezekiel 5.10)
Sheol is better because she delivered them back painlessly.
6. ‘She gave back the widow’s son through Elijah (1 Kings 17.17-24)
and the Shulamite’s darling through Elisha (2 Kings 4.18-37)
7. ‘The greedy Hebrew women ate their children;
Sheol yielded up the dead and learned to fast decently!
8. ‘Sheol is not really Sheol, but just an image.
Jezebel who devoured the righteous is the true Sheol:
9. ‘She killed the prophets and sons of the prophets, and threw them aside (1 Kings 18.13; 19.1-9 etc.)
Elijah fled to heaven from her frenzy (2 Kings 2)
10. ‘How many deaths were there among the people for one death?
How many Sheols for the one that was there?
11. ‘Samaria and Jezreel her daughter, the house of Israel,
and Zion and Jerusalem her sister, the house of Judah.
12. ‘The prophets and righteous in Judah and Israel
Were drowned in these two abysses.
13. ‘So why is Sheol alone hated,
since there are many things more hateful then she?
14. ‘I hate the Jewish dead!
I loathe their bones in Sheol.
15. ‘If only there was a way I could get rid of their bones
from Sheol, for they make the place stink!
16. ‘By the Holy Spirit, I’m astonished at how long I’ve dwelt
among a People who smell as rank as their way of life!
17. ‘Onions and garlic are the heralds of their deeds — (Numeri 11.5)
The mind of that filthy People resembles their food.’
18. By the prayer of all who knelt and worshipped your Father,
have mercy on your worshipper who abused your love!
19. From Hebrews and heathens as well as from angels,
be there glory to you, and glory through you to your Father!
20. Instead of me being a mouthpiece for Death who has no mouth,
May the Son whose whole being is mouth, take my voice to his Father!
3. Discussion of the sources
The first three examples of Ephrem’s anti-Jewish works are taken from a series of hymns on the Unleavened Bread, for use in the days before the festival of Easter. It is clear from Ephrem, and from other writers of the period such as St John Chrysostom in Antioch in Syria, that Christians found participation in Jewish festivals attractive, with Pesach being a great favourite. Ephrem uses the strongest possible language to deter his congregants from eating matza with their Jewish neighbours. He also uses Old Testament Scripture very selectively and out of context, to support his argument that God has rejected the Jewish Chosen People, in favour of the ‘People from the Peoples’ (i.e., Gentile Christians). Ephrem’s goal is to get local Christians to accept the superior spiritual significance of Easter over Passover, and of Eucharistic bread (as symbol of the Body of Christ) over Jewish unleavened bread.
Regarding the fourth example, Carmina Nisibena LXVII, note how allusions to episodes in Scripture where the people of Israel are idolatrous, violent, cruel, rejecting the prophets, etc. are taken as paradigmatic of the character of contemporary Jews. Even Death cannot stomach them. The ribaldry and pantomimic nature of this hymn was probably especially effective in denigrating their Jewish neighbours in the sight of the congregation, thus enforcing religious boundaries.
Given Ephrem’s status as the Syriac writer par excellence for the Syriac churches, and for other Christians and scholars, the existence of a number of such virulently anti-Jewish works among his hymns causes considerable embarrassment for his modern proponents. Taken within the general context of his anti-heretical stance, their existence makes some sense: orthodox Christianity in Nisibis and Edessa was represented by a small and not very powerful group on the very edge of the Empire, to which Judaism was as much a threat if not a greater one than more ‘Christian’ heresies (Shepardson 2008). But that does not excuse the vulgarity and unpleasantness of the language Ephrem uses in the anti-Jewish hymns. Moreover, although even the finest of Ephrem’s hymns are rarely sung in full now, the legacy of the sentiments can linger in the modern churches. Isolated stanzas of Syriac hymns, including a few expressing anti-Jewish sentiments, sometimes appear in the printed liturgical texts of Syriac churches. This is a challenge for those translating the liturgies into Western languages for the use of the growing Diaspora communities of Syriac Christians. Often such verses are tacitly dropped or replaced, in line with the global change of attitude towards Judaism among Christians since the end of World War II in 1945, and the declaration Nostra Aetate following the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
Of course it is common enough today to have to wrestle with the problems of anti-Jewish content in widely admired writers, such as Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Jew Shylock, or Dickens’s Fagin. Most scholars prefer to focus on the many very fine examples of Ephrem’s poetry on more exalted themes, and to ignore these crude attacks on his Jewish neighbours.
4. Questions for discussion
- Are the problems raised more acute in the case of prominent religious writers who deliberately seek to mould beliefs and attitudes as opposed to the production of literature for aesthetic reasons?
- How far should our revulsion at Ephrem’s language in such places affect our admiration for his wider works? How should modern churches and scholars deal with this kind of difficulty?
- Rouwhorst [1989: vol I: 126] evidently prefers to note the reasons for the crude anti-Jewish sentiments but to pass over the details, perhaps with a certain amount of distaste: is this sufficient, or do scholars have a duty to denounce such ideas explicitly and at length? Should scholars be dispassionate and objective when analysing ancient sources containing ideas unacceptable in modern society?
- Are there any parallels in how we deal with other, now unacceptable depictions of groups such as African-Americans or women, in ‘classic’ literature of the past?
- Scripture is never cited directly, only alluded to. Does this make its employment more or less effective, and more problematic?
5. Selected bibliography
- * Beck, Edmund. (1964) Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Paschahymnen (de Azymis, de Crucifixione, de Resurrectione) CSCO 248, SS 108. Louvain, Peeters Press. (There is a German translation by Beck in the accompanying volume.).
- Cerbelaud, Dominique. (1995) ‘L’antijudaïsme dans les Hymnes de Pascha d’Éphrem le Syrien’, Parole de l’Orient 20, pp. 201-207.
- Darling Young, Robin A. (1987) ‘The ‘Church from the Nations’ in the Exegesis of Ephrem,’ in: H. J. W. Drijvers, R. Lavenant et al., eds. IV Symposium Syriacum, 1984 Literary Genres in Syriac Literature (Groningen – Oosterhesselen 10-12 September). Orientalia Christiana Analecta 229. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, pp. 111-122.
- McVey, K.E. (1990) ‘The Anti-Judaic Polemic of Ephrem Syrus’ Hymns on the Nativity”, in: H.W. Attridge, J.J. Collins, and T.H. Tobin (eds.), Of Scribes and Scrolls: Studies on the Hebrew Bible, Intertestamental Judaism, and Christian Origins Presented to J. Strugnell on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday. Lanham / New York / London: University Press of America, pp. 229-240.
- Rouwhorst, G.A.M. (1989) Les Hymnes Pascales d’Ephrem de Nisibe. I Etude; II Textes (French translation). Leiden: Brill.
- Shepardson, C.C. (2008) Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth-Century Syria. Patristic Monograph Series 20. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.
- Shepardson, C.C. (2002) ‘“Exchanging Reed for Reed”: Mapping Contemporary Heretics onto Biblical Jews in Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 5:1 [online journal].
6. Further Reading
- Benin, S.D. (1985) ‘Commandments, Covenants and the Jews in Aphrahat, Ephrem and Jacob of Sarug’, in: Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times. ed. David R. Blumenthal. Brown Judaic Studies 54. Chico, California: Scholars Press, pp. 135–156.
- Hayman, P. (1985) ‘The Image of the Jew in the Syriac Anti-Jewish Polemical Literature, in: “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity. eds. J. Neusner, and E.S. Frerichs. Scholars Press Studies in the Humanities. Chico, California: Scholars Press, pp. 423-441.
- Murray, R. (2006) Symbols of Church and Kingdom. A Study in early Syriac tradition. Rev. edn. London: T & T Clark.
- Sandwell, I. (2007) Religious Identity in Late Antiquity: Greeks, Jews, and Christians in Antioch. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Shepardson, C.C. (2008) ‘Paschal Politics: Deploying the Temple’s Destruction against Fourth-Century Judaizers’, Vigiliae Christianae 62(3), pp. 233-260.
- Shepardson, C.C. (2007) ‘Controlling Contested Places: John Chrysostom’s Adversus Iudaeos Homilies and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (4), pp. 483-516.
- Simon, M. (1986) Verus Israel: a study of the relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135-425). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter ‘The Judaizers within the Church’, pp. 306-338.
- Wilson, S.G. (1985) ‘Passover, Easter, and Anti-Judaism: Melito of Sardis and others’, in: eds. J. Neusner and E.S. Frerichs. “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity. Scholars Press Studies in the Humanities. Chico, California: Scholars Press.
For anti-Jewish preaching in a Greek-speaking context in late fourth century Antioch, see:
- Harkins, P. (1979) St. John Chrysostom, Discourses against Judaizing Christians. Fathers of the Church 68. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press.
- Meeks, W.A. and Wilken, R.L. (1978) Jews and Christians in Antioch in the first four centuries of the Common Era. SBL Sources for Biblical Study 13. Ann Arbor: Scholars Press.
- Wilken, R.L. (1982) John Chrysostom and the Jews. Rhetoric and Reality in the late fourth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
7. Useful web resources
There is a searchable bibliography of books and articles on Syriac Christianity at http://www.csc.huji.ac.il/db/db.aspx?db=SB.
The electronic journal of Syriac Studies is online at Hugoye: http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/, and can be searched.