August 23, 2023

St. Ephrem The Syrian And Islam's Early Emergence As A Christian Heresy

"Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies." - C.S. Lewis.

An excerpt from, "The Christian Origins of Islam" By Peter J. Leithart, First Things, December 7, 2012:

Like many medieval Christians, Dante views Islam less as a rival religion than as a schismatic form of Christianity.

A handful of Western scholars now think there is considerable historical truth to Dantes view. According to the standard Muslim account, the Quran contains revelations that Allah delivered to Mohammed through the angel Jibril between 609 and 632. They were fixed in written form under the third Caliph in the mid seventh century. Islamic scholar Christoph Luxenberg doubts most of this. In 2000, he published the German edition of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, whose restrained title and dispassionate tone belie its explosive arguments-explosive enough for the author to hide behind a pseudonym. The book has been banned in several Islamic countries.

One of Luxenbergs central arguments is that the Quran is an Arabic translation of an original Syriac/Aramaic text. Luxenberg is able to resolve oddities in the Arabic text by treating them as erroneous Arabic translations of an original Syriac text. Words that have no Arabic source turn out to be garbled versions of common Syriac terms. Luxenberg even finds evidence in the Quran itself for treating it as a translation. By his rendering, Sura 44:58 says “we have translated [the Koran] into your language so that they may allow themselves to be reminded.”

Luxenberg has become notorious for challenging the common translation of huri , usually understood as the hot-bodied virgins with whom faithful Islamic men hope to be rewarded in paradise. According to Luxenberg, they arent wide-eyed virgins, but white grapes, “juicy fruits hanging down,” ready for picking (Sura 38:52). Its a vision of paradise similar to that of the fourth-century Christian poet, Ephrem the Syrian: “He who abstained from the wine here below, for him yearn the grapevines of Paradise. Each of them extends him a drooping cluster.”

That reference to Ephrem is not accidental, for Luxenberg argues that the Quran derives from a Syriac Christian lectionary. Again, the evidence is hiding in plain sight. It has become commonplace among scholars of Islam to recognize that the word Quran means lectionarium , but few draw the controversial conclusion: “If Koran . . . really means lectionary, then one can assume that the Koran intended itself first of all to be understood as nothing more than a liturgical book with selected texts from the Scriptures (the Old and New Testament) and not at all as a substitute for the Scriptures . . . as an independent Scripture.”

Wikipedia - Ephrem the Syrian: 

Ephrem is venerated as a saint by all traditional Churches. He is especially revered in Syriac Christianity, both in East Syriac tradition and West Syriac tradition, and also counted as a Holy and Venerable Father (i.e., a sainted Monk) in the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in the Slovak Tradition. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church in 1920. Ephrem is also credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which, in later centuries, was the centre of learning of the Church of the East.

Ephrem wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems, and sermons in verse, as well as prose exegesis. These were works of practical theology for the edification of the Church in troubled times. Some of these works have been examined by feminist scholars who have analyzed the incorporation of feminine imagery in his texts. They also examine the performance practice of all-women choirs singing his madrāšê, or his teaching hymns. Ephrem's works were so popular that, for centuries after his death, Christian authors wrote hundreds of pseudepigraphal works in his name. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition. In Syriac Christian tradition, he is considered patron of the Syriac people.

Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies. Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies that threatened to divide the early church. He lamented that the faithful were "tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles" (Eph 4:14). He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as fully human and divine. Ephrem asserts that Christ's unity of humanity and divinity represents peace, perfection and salvation; in contrast, docetism and other heresies sought to divide or reduce Christ's nature and, in doing so, rend and devalue Christ's followers with their false teachings.

An excerpt from, "Venerable Ephraim the Syrian" Orthodox Church in America, January 28, 2016:

He also wrote the first Syriac commentary on the Pentateuch (i.e. “Five Books”) of Moses. He wrote many prayers and hymns, thereby enriching the Church’s liturgical services. Famous prayers of Saint Ephraim are to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Son of God, and to the Most Holy Theotokos. He composed hymns for the Twelve Great Feasts of the Lord (the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism, the Resurrection), and funeral hymns. Saint Ephraim’s Prayer of Repentance, “O Lord and Master of my life...”, is recited during Great Lent, and it summons Christians to spiritual renewal.

From ancient times the Church has valued the works of Saint Ephraim. His works were read publicly in certain churches after the Holy Scripture, as Saint Jerome tells us. At present, the Church Typikon prescribes certain of his instructions to be read on the days of Lent. Among the prophets, Saint David is the preeminent psalmodist; among the Fathers of the Church, Saint Ephraim the Syrian is the preeminent man of prayer. His spiritual experience made him a guide for monastics and a help to the pastors of Edessa. Saint Ephraim wrote in Syriac, but his works were very early translated into Greek and Armenian. Translations into Latin and Slavonic were made from the Greek text.

An excerpt from, "Saint Ephrem" Franciscan Media:

He had a prolific pen, and his writings best illumine his holiness. Although he was not a man of great scholarship, his works reflect deep insight and knowledge of the Scriptures. In writing about the mysteries of humanity’s redemption, Ephrem reveals a realistic and humanly sympathetic spirit and a great devotion to the humanity of Jesus. It is said that his poetic account of the Last Judgment inspired Dante.

It is surprising to read that he wrote hymns against the heretics of his day. He would take the popular songs of the heretical groups and using their melodies, compose beautiful hymns embodying orthodox doctrine. Ephrem became one of the first to introduce song into the Church’s public worship as a means of instruction for the faithful. His many hymns have earned him the title “Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

An excerpt from, "A Spiritual Father For The Whole Church: the Universal Appeal of St. Ephraem the Syrian" By Sidney H. Griffith, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies (Volume 1), 1998:

In an encyclical letter issued on 5 October 1920, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed St. Ephraem the Syrian a Doctor of the Universal Church.1 This accolade may be seen as in some ways the culmination in Rome of a new fame in the twentieth century for Syria’s ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit,’ already widely acclaimed in east and west in medieval times. It was due to efforts exerted already for some two centuries by a number of scholars in the west to bring out modern editions of Ephraem’s works. One thinks initially of the publication in the eighteenth century of the six-volume Roman edition of the works attributed to Ephraem in Greek, Syriac, and Latin.2 While the Greek and Latin texts had long been known in the west, the publication of Ephraem’s works in Syriac, the only language in which he is known to have written, brought the first glimpse of the poet’s true genius to western Christians. The Syriac works, with Latin translations, were included in volumes IV to VI of the Editio Romana. They are largely the work of  Étienne Awad Assemani (1709–82) and Pierre Mobarak, S.J. (1660–1742), Maronite scholars who worked in close association with J.S. Assemani (1687–1768) and others in the Maronite College in Rome and the Vatican Library.3 While later scholars have sometimes been scathing in their comments about the quality of this edition, the fact remains that for all practical purposes it offered the first glimpse of the genuine works of Ephraem the Syrian to Europeans who had hitherto known only the works of Ephraem Graecus and their numerous translations and adaptations in other languages. It is surprising that in the nineteenth century the Abbé Migne did not include any of the published works of Ephraem in either the Patrologia Graeca or the Patrologia Latina.   

In subsequent years, beginning in the nineteenth century, and reaching well into the twentieth century, scholars in England, Belgium, and other parts of Europe, making use of the numerous manuscripts recently acquired in the west, made major strides in publishing the rest of the Syriac works attributed to Ephraem. T.J. Lamy’s edition of his Hymns and Homilies at the turn of the century brought Ephraem’s works in Syriac into the mainstream of religious discourse in Europe, and arguably led directly to Pope Benedict XIV’s proclamation in 1920. But already it was becoming clear that the first publications of Ephraem’s Syriac works left much to be desired in terms of the quality of the editions of the texts; many of them were not based on the best available manuscripts, and the work of many of the editors did not satisfy the requirements of truly critical editions. To remedy this  situation, Dom Edmund Beck, O.S.B. (1902–91) began in 1955, and continued for the next quarter century, to publish critical editions and German translations of the genuine, Syriac works of Ephraem in the Louvain series Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. While Beck has not been alone in the task of editing and publishing Ephraem’s works in the twentieth century, the sheer volume of his output in this enterprise makes his name almost synonymous with the production as it were of the ‘complete works’ of Ephraem the Syrian.  

The modern publication of the Syriac works of Ephraem has been accompanied by a crescendo in the number of studies devoted to them, and to his life and thought more generally. The effect of all this attention has been gradually to bring Ephraem’s Syriac works into the mainstream of modern patristic scholarship, although one can even now consult the index of too many studies of early Christian thought in areas on which he wrote extensively and still not find a mention of his name.

Well within the patristic period itself Ephraem’s reputation as a holy man, poet, and theologian of note was widely proclaimed, well beyond the borders of his native Syria and the territories where Syriac was spoken. Within fifty years of his death, Palladius included a notice of Ephraem among the ascetic saints whose memory he celebrated in the Lausiac History. Sozomen, the early fifth century historian, celebrated Ephraem’s memory as a popular ecclesiastical writer. He said of Ephraem’s works, “They were translated into Greek during his lifetime, ... and yet they preserve much of their original force and power, so that his works are not less admired when read in Greek than when read in Syriac.” Even Saint Jerome, a man not always ready with praise for the work of others, claimed to recognize Ephraem’s theological genius in a Greek translation he read of a book by Ephraem on the Holy Spirit. Later, in Byzantium, so important a monastic figure as Theodore of Stoudios (759–826) held up the example of Ephraem for the inspiration of his monks. In a sermon he put forward the ascetical example of John Chrysostom and of “Ephraem, famous in song.” In his Testament, Theodore confessed his acceptance of the example of the oriental monks, especially Barsanuphius, Antony, Ephraem and others. But surely the most striking testimony to the Syrian saint’s popularity in patristic and medieval times is the fact that in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum, the number of pages it takes to list the works in Greek attributed to Ephraem is second only to the number of pages devoted to listing the works of the ever popular John Chrysostom! In medieval Europe, these ascetical homilies, translated into Latin, found a home in many monastic libraries. In the monasteries of the Holy Land after the Arab conquest, some of these same Greek works attributed to Ephraem were among the earliest texts translated into Christian Arabic by the ‘Melkites’ who lived in the world of Islam. In Kievan Rus’, the Greek works of Ephraem were especially dear to the influential monk Abraham of Smolensk, whose principal disciple even adopted the religious name Ephraem. From these beginnings Ephraem’s name and fame spread widely in Russia.

Video Title: Harp of the Holy Spirit: The Life of Saint Ephrem the Syria. Source: Trisagion Films. Date Published: November 29, 2015.