Saint Ephrem the Syrian is a popularly misunderstood saint, because many have not put the time into reading him and his hymnography does not lend itself to a wooden interpretation. Nonetheless, Ephrem tends to a Bibically literalist position and preserves for us fourth century Syrian thought.
In this article, we offer highlights that give us insight how Ephrem understood Theosis, the salvation of the unborn, the Fall, and even the authenticity of his commentary on Genesis.
The Difference Between Heaven and Hell
Ephrem understands Hell similar to Saint Augustine’s view of purgation in the Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love. One suffers a feeling of “loss” due to an attachement to worldly goods. There seems to be a relatively close proximity between the saved and damned. Further, reward and punishment exists in gradations.
Blessed is He who was pierced and so removed the sword from the entry of Paradise. (2: Refrain)
When people see that they have lost everything, that riches do not endure and carnal desires no longer exist, that beauty and power disappear and vanish, then they recollect themselves and are filled with remorse, because, chocked with care, they heard with contempt those words, “Your possessions are but a passing dream, your inheritance, darkness.” (2:3)
What they once possessed they have lost, and found what they never had; they desired happiness, but it flew away, and the woe they had dreaded has arrived; what they had hoped on has proved an illusion, and what they never sought for they have no found. They groan because they are brought low and have been “robbed,” for their way of life deceived them while their torment is very real; their luxurious living has vanished, and their punishment does not come to an end. (2:4)
When the just ascend its various levels to receive their inheritance, with justice He raises up each one to the degree that accords with his labors; each is stopped at the level whereof he is worthy, there being sufficient levels in Paradise for everyone: the lowest parts for the repentant, the middle for the righteous, the heights for the victorious, while the summit is reserved for God’s presence. (2:11)
Noah made the animals live in the lowest part of the Ark; in the middle part he lodged the birds, while Noah himself, like the Deity, resided on the upper deck. On Mount Sinai it was the people who dwelt below, the priests round about it and Aaron halfway up, while Moses was on its heights, and the Glorious One on its summit. (2:12)
Who can endure to look on both sides, whose ears can stand the terrible cries of the wicked, who proclaim, in Gehenna, that the Just One is righteous, while the good utter praise in the Garden? The two sides gaze on each other in amazement, the works of each side, revealed, serve to admonish the other. (7:29)
[A]t the summit of that height where dwells the Glory, not even its symbol can be depicted in man’s thought; for what mind has the sensitivity to gaze upon it, or the faculties to explore it or the capacity to attain to that Garden whose riches are beyond comprehension. (3:1)
Ephrem’s hymnography emphasizes that Adam and Eve were deceived into original sin. Apparently, the tree of knowledge could have been eaten from, but only after cooperating with God’s will. Eating in a disobedient manner brought ruin.
The serpent could not enter paradise, for neither animal nor bird was permitted to approach the outer region of paradise, and Adam had to go out to meet them, so the serpent cunningly learned, through questioning Eve, the character of Paradise, what it was and how it was ordered. (3:4)
[T]he Tree of Knowledge, clothed with an injunction, served as a veil for the sanctuary…its fruit was they key of justice that would open the eyes of the bold. (3:5)
Adam boldly ran and ate of its fruit, this double knowledge…tore away and removed both veils from his eyes: he beheld the Glory of the Holy of Holies and trembled…the twofold knowledge he had gained had proved for him a torment. (3:7)
God had not allowed him to see…the Holy of Holies, in order that, if he kept the command, he might set eyes upon it and rejoice. (3:9)
The Just One saw how Adam had become audacious…and knew He would overstep again…Adam had trampled down that gentle and pleasant boundary. (4:1)
He [Satan] deceived the husbandman [Adam] so that he plucked prematurely the fruit which gives forth its sweetness only in due season–a fruit that, out of season, proves bitter to him who plucks it…for blessing becomes a curse to him who seizes it in sin. (12:3)
Satan the tyrant outwitted Samson with a woman, the same tyrant outwitted Adam with a woman. (13:12)
Two people did the evil one beguile and captivate whit his blandishments–promising to make Adam into a god. (15:9)
Note: In Ephraim’s Commentary on Genesis, he makes several assertions which appear to contradict the general Orthodox consensus of what the prelapsarian state is. He asserts that the trees in paradise “existed [as] food for his hunger” (Chap 8) and that “hunger had not gained hold of her, for she had only just been created.” (Chap 19) This imputes blameless passions to Adam and Eve before the Fall, which is clearly incorrect. The commentary also implies they had gnomic willing. It is said that Adam and Eve were not “infants” for they knew full well what they were doing. (Chap 14) They are so repsonsible for their sin that “even if the tempter had not come, the Tree with all its beauty would have caused them a struggle with their greed…for it was their own greed, which conformed with the serpent’s counsel and went beyond it that brought harm upon them.” (Chap 16) The next chapter goes further, literally saying “she was not overcome by the counsel that entered her ear…she was defeated by the greed that issued from within herself.” Such an anthropology, if taken literally, is obviously deficient as it would posit Adam and Eve not merely being lacking in divinization, but actually deficient and fallen in the inclinations of their will. Some scholars simply say the text is “attributed” to Ephrem, which implies he is not its true author. In my own reading of his hymns, I have certainly seen hints of Adam and Eve being accused of “pride,” but Jesus is accused of the same (which means we are not speaking of literal pride). Furthermore, Ephrem elsewhere calls Adam and Eve children, contradicting his conjecture here that they were in “adulthood” (Chap 14). I think it is safest to presume that a later Monophysite or Nestorian author had in fact penned that text, as both theologies had the presupposition that human will, by nature, is opposed to the divine will. This led Saint Maximus to later clarify, in line with earlier saints, that human nature is in fact good and incapable of opposition to God apart from deception and the Fall. Ephrem’s authentic hymns appear to follow this model.
Paradise delighted me…How blessed is that person accounted worthy to receive it, if not by right, yet at least by grace, if not because of good works, yet at least through mercy. (5:12)
Accordingly as each here on earth purifies his eye for Him, so does he become more able to behold His incomparable glory; accordingly as each here on earth opens his ear to Him, so does he become more able to grasp His wisdom. (9:26)
Salvation of the Unborn
The following is from Ephrem’s 10th hymn. Due to this being a touchy subject, I will maintain the entire passage and offer brief comments to help the reader along:
9. Who has ever beheld flowers with pregnant wombs which each month brings to pangs of labor, then, suddenly, to give birth? As the month increases, so do the flowers mirror its progress; at full moon they reach maturity, blossoming out, while as the month advances towards old age the flowers too grow old, only to be rejuvenated.
[So, the point is that the flowers here bloom, die, and get replaced by different flowers that bloom according to a different season.]
10. Each month’s fruits and flowers possess individually their own particular treasures, but when these are cross-fertilized, they multiply: when two neighboring flowers, each with its distinctive color are crossed to become one, they produce a new color. When fruits are thus crossed they create a new and beautiful offspring whose foliage is different.
[I perceive an allegory. We are the flowers and we all bloom differently.]
11. In Paradise, the life cycle of trees resembles a necklace: when the fruits of the first are finished and plucked, then the second ones are ready, with a third species following them. Who has ever beheld the autumnal fruits grasping the heels of the first fruits, just as Jacob grasped hold of his brother’s heel?
[The preceding is a picture of eternal life and the existence of “blossoming” (i.e. experiencing grace) outside the constraints of time. Hence, people experience God’s gifts and manifest it differently, but all at the same time without the historical circumstances normally necessary to present opportunities in which to bear fruit.]
12. That cornucopia full of fruits in all stages of development resembles the course of human marriage; it contains old, young and middle-aged, children who have already been born, and babies still unborn [lit. “conceptions which are about to come out (of the womb)”]; its fruits follow one another and appear like the continuous succession of humankind.
[Ephrem now makes the connection: the flowers and fruits are all the different people in Paradise. He then says, explicitly, that humans of all age are there–including the unborn.]
13. The river of humanity consists of people of all ages, with old, young, children and babes, infants in their mothers’ arms and others still unborn in the womb [lit. “conceptions in womb”]. Such is the sequence of Paradise’s fruit: firstfruits issued forth with the autumn harvest, wave upon wave, fecund with blossoms and fruit.
[Ephrem doubles down on the same point.]
14. Blessed the sinner who has received mercy there and is deemed worthy to be given access to the environs of Paradise…