June 9th was the feast of St Ephrem (or Ephraem) the Syrian, who was born around 306 in Nisibis (in modern Turkey by the Syrian border). The Roman presence in Nisibis (since 298) had resulted in the birth of a Syriac-speaking Christian community in which Ephrem was raised. He worked as a teacher on behalf of Jacob, the first bishop of Nisibis, and was ordained deacon, devoting much of his time to the composing of hymns and the writing of biblical commentaries.
On the death in 337 of the Emperor Constantine who had actively promoted the christianisation of the Empire, the Persian armies under Shapur II seized the opportunity to besiege Nisibis, but their elephants found themselves bogged down in the wet ground with the result that they were repelled – an event which Ephrem celebrated in a hymn replete with biblical imagery in which he discerned the hand of God bringing salvation to Nisibis as he had to Noah’s ark through the prayers of Bishop Jacob (seen as an antitype of Noah).
Finally, however, Nisibis fell to the Persians, and the Christian population was sent into exile, settling finally in Edessa in 363. Edessa stood at the epicentre of the Syriac-speaking world, and was a melting-pot of religions, philosophies and cultures – not to mention a whole range of heterodox versions of Christianity.
Orthodox Nicene Christianity (i.e. Christianity faithful to the Trinitarian theology of the Council of Nicea in 325) was just one kind of Christianity among many in Edessa, and Ephrem dedicated himself to writing a substantial corpus of hymns in defence of the faith of Nicea, teaching all-women choirs to perform his compositions to popular Syriac folk-tunes in the public square.
As many as 400 of his hymns still exist, and he my have written hundreds of others. His lyric hymns (sung by the all-female choirs and accompanied by a lyre) were written primarily for pedagogical purposes, and are full of biblical imagery, as well as symbolism derived from a variety of other sources.
Ephrem’s “Hymns Against Heresies” paid close attention to doctrinal detail, which should have been unpromising material for religious poetry, but Ephrem was gifted with the ability to invest even the most technical discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity or of the incarnation with metaphor and artistry.
He also wrote verse homilies (in other words, he preached in poetry rather than in prose), and a series of commentaries on scripture. He died in 373 while ministering to the plague-stricken people of Edessa, but his hymns live on (especially within Syrian Christianity), and he is known as “the lyre of the Holy Spirit”.