Ephrem and Nicene Terminology: Trends Across Syriac Literary Genres

By: Dr. Vince Bantu

The Council of Nicaea, as Peter Brown has observed, was motivated—at least, from the perspective of Constantine—by a desire for a religious uniformity that would consolidate Roman religio in the worship of one God.[1] The universalizing nature of this “ecumenical”—or “worldwide”—council was discernible not only in its normalizing of liturgical practices and theological orthodoxy for Roman Christians but by the very language in which orthodoxy became cemented. The term homoousias—meaning “of the same substance”—became the banner of Nicene orthodoxy indicating the essential unity and ontological equality between God the Father and Christ the Son. The forerunner of Nicene theology and Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius, established this doctrine as the faith of the Egyptian Church by imposing it as the faith of the subject of his biography and Egypt’s most renowned ascetic figure—Anthony the Great.[2]

Yet, despite attempts at unifying the Christian world through this theological framework, the term homoousias had no biblical precedent, causing a certain degree of suspicion among even those who would vehemently oppose any Arian or subordinationist understanding of the Trinity. The early-fifth century historian Socrates Scholasticus attests to the confusion that the word homoousias was causing even among the bishops present at Nicaea.[3] The reticence displayed by some in the Greek-speaking segments of the Empire was exacerbated by linguistic and cultural factors for communities articulating theology in other languages. One of the most significant examples of the reception and alteration of Nicene orthodoxy on the peripheries of the Roman Empire was that of Ephrem the Syrian.

Ephrem lived entirely during the fourth century from around 306 to 373 CE; before, during and right up until the resolution of the Arian controversy. Ephrem was born to a Christian family near the Persian border of the Roman Empire at Nisibis. Ephrem lived most of his life in Nisibis serving as a deacon under the bishop Jacob, a signatory at the Council of Nicaea. Ephrem directed the School of Nisibis as a malphānā (or “teacher”), an ecclesiastical function unique to the Syriac tradition. Although he was not a monk in an official sense, Ephrem is often associated with the ascetic life and seems to have been associated with a Syrian form of proto-monasticism called bnai/bnat qyāmā (“Sons/Daughters of the Covenant”).[4] When Nisibis fell to the Persians after the death of the Roman emperor Julian in 363 CE, Ephrem evacuated Nisibis along with many other Christians and settled in the Syriac center of Urhoy (or, Edessa). It was in Urhoy that Ephrem assumed direction of the School of Edessa, provided leadership during a severe famine, and composed the majority of his theological writings.

Sebastian Brock has presented Ephrem’s writing in four primary categories:[5] straight prose—consisting of various polemical works and biblical commentaries; artistic, or rhythmic, prose; memre—a Syriac literary form typically called “verse homilies”; and madrāshe. Madrāshe are commonly considered the most theologically and literarily significant genre of writing in the Ephremian corpus.  A literary genre unique to the Syriac language and culture, madrāshe were stanzaic poems written in various syllable patterns involving the text read by the primary reader and a chorus (qālā) to be recited by the congregation. Madrāshe were meant to be sung and although the names of the melodies survive, the original music is unknown. Madrāshe are often translated in English as “hymns.” However, the Syriac name is most useful as this poetic method of theological expression has no exact modern equivalent.

Commonly understood as “mystical theology,” Ephrem’s theological approach is integral in discerning his approach toward communicating orthodox doctrine to his congregants. By contrast to a more systematic method in search for theological definitions common in the Greek and Latin-speaking segments of Roman Christianity, Ephrem pioneered a system of theological discourse that would continue to shape Syriac Christianity for centuries principally characterized by the use of symbolic and paradoxical imagery. Chief among Ephrem’s spiritual concerns, is a paramount respect for the rāze (or “mysteries” or “symbols”) of God, a deep sense of the human incapacity to fully understand the rāze of God, and the dangers of attempting to define the nature or activity of God. Ephrem articulates his concern against “investigating” God in his Madrāshe on Faith: “Whoever is capable of investigating becomes the container of what he investigates; a knowledge which is capable of containing the Omniscient is greater than Him, for it has proved capable of measuring the whole of Him. A person who investigates the Father and Son is thus greater than them! Far be it, then, and something anathema, that the Father and Son should be investigated, while dust and ashes exalts itself.”[6] It is in the context of his concerns for haughty investigations of God that Ephrem’s reception of Nicene language should be understood.

Ephrem’s caution against undue investigations should not obscure the unequivocal defense of the fourth-century emerging sense of orthodoxy that features prominently in his writings. The madrāshe written during Ephrem’s tenure in Urhoy contain some of the most vehement polemics against the most prominent heresiarchs of Late Antiquity. In Ephrem’s Madrāshe against the Heretics, the malphānā of Urhoy lays out a clear defense of Nicene orthodoxy: “The voice of our Lord counted them out, and their dwellings were lifted up—the Aetians, and Arians; Sabellians and Cathars; Photinians and Audians—They who accepted ordination from our Church and some of whom signed onto the faith which was written down at that glorious synod. Memorable is the king who convened them.”[7] Condemnation of the various heresies prevalent in fourth-century Urhoy became a central concern of Ephrem’s madrāshe as he encountered a much more theologically diverse population in Urhoy in comparison to his native Nisibis.[8] Indeed, his use of madrāshe in prescribing Nicene orthodoxy was an attempt at appropriating this poetic cultural phenomenon originally popularized by the heresiarch Bardaisan and experienced profound success in promulgating an alternative system of religious belief among the populace of Urhoy. The madrāshe of Ephrem represent the triumph of Nicene Christianity in Urhoy and the marginalization of the Bardaisanites, Marcionites, Manichaeans and several other alternative expressions of Christianity.

It is widely acknowledged that the “synod” Ephrem refers to in the Madrāshe against Heretics is Nicaea and the “king” is Constantine.[9] Jeffrey Wickes challenges the common assumption that Ephrem’s statement refers to Nicaea and Constantine as the process by which Nicene theology became dominant in the Syriac-speaking world was indirect and somewhat unclear.[10] It is significant that this reference to Nicaea is questionable and that there is no other direct reference to the council in the writings of Ephrem.[11] While it is clear that Ephrem opposes Arianism and any other theological attempt to posit a subordinationist status for the Son to the Father, he does so without reference to the famous council or its doctrinal language. Given the historical and theological significance of the Nicene council and its definition of orthodoxy, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of Ephrem’s decision to omit direct reference to the council and the word homoousias. Not only does Ephrem avoid the term, in one instance he refers to it negatively: “Why would we introduce some other thing into that truth he declared to us? The names that we have added (ܕܐܘܣܦܢܢ), these, brothers, have become a foundation for the presumptuous. For all hated additions (ܬܘ̈ܣܦܢ). You have added (ܐܘܣܦܬ) disputes, and added (ܐܘܣܦܬ) controversies. You have recited the things written and silenced troublesome things. Praises to your clarity!”[12]  

While not explicitly mentioned, it has been widely accepted that the “thing” that has been added to God’s truth by the “presumptuous” is the term homoousias. Ephrem stands in the company of many fourth-century writers who saw the term as an unnecessary addition that is held in suspect chiefly for its absence in Scripture.[13] The repeated use of the word “addition” reveals Ephrem’s central concern regarding any attempt at defining the indefinable or containing the uncontainable. Such an attempt is the action of the marāhe which can mean “presumptious,” “bold,” or “audacious”—all cardinal sins for Ephrem regarding theological discourse. Ephrem can be thought of as a supporter of Nicene orthodoxy insofar as he condemns Arianism and any subordinationist understanding of the Trinity. Ephrem speaks of the Father and Son existing in “one essence” (ḥda ’itutā),[14] instead of terms closer to the Greek homoousias (bar ’itutā or bar kyānā).

bar kyānā is used to translate homoousias in the earliest Syriac translation of the Nicene Creed.[15] The Syriac recension of the Nicene Creed that was accepted and adapted at the Synod of Isaac at Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410 CE in fact emphasizes the unity of nature between the Father and Son to a greater degree than the original Greek text. In addition to stating that the Son is bar kyānā with the Father, the Persian bishops inserted further support for this doctrine utilizing the appropriate Syriac terminology: “And in His Son, the only one (ihidaye), who is born of Him, that is, however, from the essence (’itutā) of His Father.”[16] The Syriac translation of the creed is a helpful reference point to understanding how the concept of homoousias entered Syriac language and thought. However, the equivalents that emerge in Syriac have not experienced the same level of primacy in the Syriac tradition as homoousias did in the West.

Ephrem argues clearly for the equality of the Son and the Father. Edmund Beck highlights this in his more emphatic translation of hda ‘itutā in the Madrāshe on Faith as “eine einzige Wesenheit” or “one single essence.”[17] Ephrem establishes Nicene orthodoxy in the Syriac-speaking world while avoiding the “presumptuous” attempts at theological innovation. Early in the Madrāshe on Faith, Ephrem cautions against inappropriate “investigations” into divine mysteries: “A thousand thousands stand; ten thousand ten thousands hasten; thousands and ten thousands—to the One they cannot investigate All of them in silence stand to serve. No one shares his throne except the Child who is from him. Investigation of him exists within silence. Whenever the watchers go to investigate, they arrive at silence and are kept back.”[18] The Madrāshe on Faith consistently make the case that attempts at fully understanding something is tantamount to acquiring mastery over it. Beck perceives a connection between Ephrem’s concerns about attempts to “investigate” God and his overall distrust of “Greek wisdom.”[19]

This feature of Ephremian thought has often led modern readers in two problematic directions. The first erroneous conclusion that has been often reached concerning Ephrem is that he was anti-intellectual. Like many fourth-century Christian writers, Ephrem was critical towards Hellenistic thought and was concerned over what he saw as an unhealthy influence of Greek philosophy on the formulation Christian doctrine.[20] This is not an indication that Ephrem was anti-intellectual. Ephrem was the head of the School of Edessa and was deeply influenced by the Hellenistic educational system.[21] The Madrāshe on Faith demonstrate Ephrem’s familiarity with the prevailing views in the Hellenistic world on the nature of the soul[22] and prescribe Ephrem’s balanced approach at theological investigation: “There is intellectual enquiry in the Church, investigating what is revealed: the intellect was not intended to pry into hidden things.”[23]

 The second conclusion to be avoided is that Ephrem was anti-Greek. Although he sometimes speaks of the “poison of the yawnaye (or, Greeks),” this statement should not be understood as disdain for Greeks in any national, cultural, or ethnic sense. Like many early Christian writers, polemical language addressed at “Greeks” was aimed at traditional Hellenistic, or pagan, religious practice. Despite the claims of his biography that came about two centuries after his death and the sizeable Greek corpus attributed to him, Ephrem likely did not speak or write in Greek. Theodoret of Cyrrhus claims that Ephrem was “unacquainted with the language of the Greeks.”[24] Ephrem was, however, intimately familiar with Hellenistic culture and even made occasional references to classical mythology.[25]

Because Ephrem’s hesitations against Nicene terminology cannot be attributed to any anti-Greek or anti-intellectual dynamic, the literary and oratorical context of his madrāshe can provide helpful insight into the varied responses in the Ephremian corpus to the term homoousias. Both Syriac equivalents for homoousias that appear in the Syriac version of the Nicene Creed—bar ’itutā and bar kyānā—each appear in the writings of Ephrem. In Ephrem’s commentary on Tatian’s four-part Gospel harmony—or Diatessaron—Ephrem uses bar ’itutā in defense of the full equality of the Father and Son with respect to essence: “If the Son was not of the same essence (ܒܪ ܐܝܬܘܬܐ) as the Father, life would be something supplementary to him; and it is not likely that it would be grafted onto him. If, however, life would have been grafted onto him, then he would become of his own account both of the same essence (ܒܪ ܐܬܘܬܐ) and of a foreign essence to the Father.” Because this statement comes at an awkward place in Ephrem’s discussion of John 5:26 and that this is the only place the term appears, Christian Lange claims that this statement was a later interpolation.[26] The instance in which Ephrem uses bar kyānā in Trinitarian terms comes in the prologue to his Commentary on Genesis: “Moses then wrote about the work of the six days that were created by means of a Mediator who was of the same nature and equal in skill to the Maker.”[27] Both of these examples with Ephrem conceding to translations of homoousias was in a smaller, academic context in contrast to the more public, liturgical setting in which the madrāshe would be sung.[28]

Jeffrey Wickes offers three possibilities to explain the use of bar kyānā in the Commentary on Genesis in contrast to the absence of any equivalent in the majority of Ephrem’s corpus: 1.) Ephrem eventually made peace with the term; 2.) Ephrem assented to the term for the small, scholastic audience of the Commentary on Genesis as opposed to the liturgical context of the madrāshe; and 3.) the introduction of the Commentary on Genesis was added by a later scribe.[29] It is entirely likely that, given the unique nature of the introduction of the Commentary on Genesis, that it was a later addition. It remains of interest, however, that such later insertions of Nicene terminology in Syriac was not inserted into Ephrem’s madrāshe. This fact gives support to the suggestion from Wickes that the pastoral nature of Ephrem’s madrāshe provides a significant clue as to the selective appropriation of Nicene terminology.

The madrāshe make up the largest and most significant portion of Ephrem’s writing. These musical compositions were meant to be performed in a liturgical context for the purpose of memorial or biblical instruction. Ephrem’s madrāshe were often altered and added to in order to better suit the specific pastoral situation. A prominent example is the seventh-century edition of Ephrem’s madrāshe on Julian Saba which expands Ephrem’s specific focus on the holy man Julian to include the fullness of the Syrian monastic movement that had taken a more full shape than in Ephrem’s day.[30] This dynamic further illumines the practical, ministry-focused purpose of the madrāshe in comparison to a more academic, theological treatise. The rhetorical power of texts intended for public use—especially for polemical purposes as many madrāshe were intended—gives credence to the role of rhetoric and polemic in the formation of theological and social identity as put forth by Averil Cameron. Despite frequent alterations and adaptations of Ephrem’s liturgical compositions, there is no evidence for such terminology in the madrāshe. Later insertions of doctrinal terminology could have occurred in Ephrem’s liturgical compositions as they did in his biblical commentaries. The fact that they did not attests to the ministerial tone set by Ephrem in the madrāshe that was followed by Syriac Christians in succeeding generations. This further indicates that Ephrem’s concern was, to a certain degree, motivated by a desire to nurture the Syriac congregations with more culturally and theologically accessible language.

Madrāshe were a profound theological and cultural mechanism in the environs of Urhoy and therefore, not the appropriate context for “additions” of terminology that could serve as a stumbling block to spiritual formation and church life. In a smaller, academic setting, such terminology, while not frequently deployed, was occasionally acceptable for Ephrem. Ephrem’s goal was not to create an anti-Greek, pro-Syrian sentiment. Likewise, later traditions asserting Ephrem’s competence in Greek refutes any culturally-based, anti-Hellenistic sentiment in Syriac-speaking Christian communities. Rather, Ephrem selectively appropriated those helpful elements of Hellenism in Christian thought and liturgy while elevating indigenous forms of worship and concepts accessible to the Syriac community of Urhoy.


[1] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 61.

[2] David Brakke, Athanasius and Asceticism (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 130.     

[3] R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1988), 274. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 3rd ed. (London: Longman, 1972), 242-254.

[4][4] Steven K. Ross, Roman Edessa: Politics and Culture on the Eastern Fringes of the Roman Empire, 114-242 CE (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 130.

[5] Brock, Luminous Eye, 18.          

[6] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrāshe on Faith, 9:16.

[7] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrāshe against the Heretics, ed. Edmund Beck, Des Heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen Contra Haereses (Louvain: Secretariat du SCO, 1957), 22:20.

[8] Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 6-9; J.B. Segal, Edessa: ‘The Blessed City’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 62.

[9] Beck, Contra Haereses, 169-70. See also Sidney H. Grffith, “Setting Right the Church of Syria: Saint Ephraem’s Hymns Against Heresies,” in The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R.A. Markus, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Mark Vessey (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999), 102.

[10] Jeffrey T. Wickes, St. Ephrem the Syrian: The Hymns on Faith (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 21.

[11] Wickes, St. Ephrem the Syrian, 23.

[12] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrashe on Faith, ed. Edmund Beck, Des Heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Fide (Louvain: Secretariat du SCO, 1955), 52:14.

[13] Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 31.

[14] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrashe on Faith, 73:21.

[15] Arthur Vööbus, “New Sources for the Symbol in Early Syrian Christianity,” Vigililae Christianae 26 (1972): 295.

[16] Vööbus, 295. 

[17] Beck, Hymnen de Fide, 194.

[18] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrashe on Faith, 4:1.

[19] Edmund Beck, Die Theologie des heiligen Ephraem in seinen Hymnen über den Glauben, SA 21 (Rome: Pontificum Institutum S. Anselmi, 1949), 63.

[20] Peter Bruns, “Aithallaha’s Brief über den Glauben: Ein bedeutendes Dokument frühsyrischer Theologie,” OC 76 (1992): 46-73.

[21] Brock, The Luminous Eye, 21.

[22] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrashe on Faith, 1.

[23] Ephrem the Syrian, Madrāshe on Faith, 8:9.

[24] Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Ecclesiastical History, ed. G.C. Hansen (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1998), 4:29.

[25] Brock, Luminous Eye, 17. 

[26] Christian Lange, The Portrayal of Christ in the Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron (Louvain: Corpus du SCO, 2005), 75.

[27] Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, ed. Edward Matthews, Joseph Amar and Kathleen McVey in St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 69.

[28] Wickes, St. Ephrem the Syrian, 38, n. 153.

[29] Wickes, St. Ephrem the Syrian, 38, n. 153.

[30] Sidney Griffith, “Julian Saba, ‘Father of the Monks’ of Syria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 185-216.


Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.