Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon and Hymn-writer
10 June 373
Ephrem (or Ephren or Ephraim or Ephrain) of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the Faith. (To English-speakers, the most familiar form of his name will be "Ephraim." It is the name of the younger son of Joseph, son of Jacob (see Genesis 41:52), and is thus the name of one of the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel.) Edessa, a city of Syria not far from Antioch, was a an early center for the spread of Christian teaching in the East. It is said that in 325 he accompanied his bishop, James of Nisibis, to the Council of Nicea. Certainly his writings are an eloquent defense of the Nicene faith in the Deity of Jesus Christ. He countered the Gnostics' practice of spreading their message through popular songs by composing Christian songs and hymns of his own, with great effect. He is known to the Syrian church as "the harp of the Holy Spirit."

Ephrem retired to a cave outside Edessa, where he lived in great simplicity and devoted himself to writing. He frequently went into the city to preach. During a famine in 372-3 he worked distributing food to the hungry, and organizing a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He worked long hours at this, and became exhausted and sick, and so died.

Of his writings there remain 72 hymns, commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and numerous sermons. One of his hymns follows:

From God Christ's deity came forth,
   His manhood from humanity;
his priesthood from Melchizedek,
   his royalty from David's tree:
praised be his Oneness.
He joined with guests at wedding feast,
   Yet in the wilderness did fast;
he taught within the temple's gates;
   his people saw him die at last:
praised be his teaching.
The dissolute he did not scorn,
   Nor turn from those who were in sin;
he for the righteous did rejoice
   but bade the fallen to come in:
praised be his mercy.
He did not disregard the sick;
   To simple ones his word was given;
and he descended to the earth
   and, his work done, went up to heaven:
praised be his coming.
Who then, my Lord, compares to you?
   The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
   the King abased to honor all:
praised be your glory.
By Ephrem of Edessa, translated by John Howard Rhys, Adapted and altered by F Bland Tucker, (Episcopal) Hymnbook 1982

From St. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Faith 10 To Christ on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments

1. Lord, you have had it written:
            'Open your mouth and I will fill it'
    See, Lord, your servant's mouth and his mind are open to you!
Fill it, O Lord, with your gift,
  That I may sing your praise according to your will.

Refrain: Make me worthy to approach your Gift with awe!
3. Though your nature is one, its expressions are many;
    They find three levels, high, middle, and lowly.
Make me worthy of the lowly part,
   Of picking up crumbs from the table of your wisdom.
4. Your highest expression is hidden with your Father,
    Your middle riches are the wonder of the Watchers [i.e. angels]
A tiny stream from your teaching, Lord,
   For us below makes a flood of interpretations.
8. In your Bread is hidden a Spirit not to be eaten,
    In your Wine dwells a Fire not to be drunk.
Spirit in your Bread, Fire in your Wine,
   A wonder set apart, [yet] received by our lips!
17. See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you!
    See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized!
Fire and Spirit in our Baptism;
   In the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!
18. Your Bread kills the Devourer [death] who had made us his bread,
    Your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you,
   Not to exhaust you, but to live by you.
22. See, Lord, my arms are filled with the crumbs from your table;
     There is not room left in my lap.
As I kneel before you, hold back your Gift;
    Keep it in your storehouse to give us again!

[Translation by R Murray, Eastern Churches Review 3 (1970), copied from T.M.Finn, "Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria", The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1992]

Other hymns are available at:


Syriac Writers

Among Orthodox he is best known for a fasting prayer:

The Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of Laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk. (prostration)
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty,
Humility, patience, and love. (prostration)
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults,
And not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto
ages of ages. Amen. (prostration)
     (Twelve deep bows, saying each time:  O God, be gracious to me,
     a sinner.)
[Translation by Fr James Silver, Drew University; recently
Posted on the Orthodox list]

PRAYER (traditional language)

Pour out upon us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which thy deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to thee alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

Pour out on us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Psalm 98:5-10 or 33:1-5,20-21
Proverbs 3:1-7
Matthew 13:4-52 (St1)

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.