Ephraim the Syrian on the Borborites / Phibionites

A rather baffling reference to “Ephraem the Syrian, Contra Haereses 79″[1] turns out to be a reference to Hymns against Heresies 22, 4, which, by happy chance, was translated for us a while back here.  Here’s the relevant section:


The Arians, because they added and erred;
The Aetians, because they were subtle;
The Paulinians, because they acted perversely;
The Sabellians, because they acted with guile;
The Photinians, because they were cunning;
The Borborians, because they were defiled;
The Katharaites, because they kept themselves pure;
The Audians, because they were ensnared;
The Mesallians, because they were unrestrained.

Response: May the good one turn them to his fold!

(This stanza has no main verb: it seems to be a list of why these groups are considered heretics.)

This does not tell us much.  But it would seem that this was written before Epiphanius wrote the Panarion, as Ephraim died on 9th July 373 AD,[2] and the Panarion was written as a continuation of the Ancoratus (374 AD), and was in progress in 375 and completed in 377.[3]  If so, it must be independent of it.

The same source also refers to “Pseudo-Ephraim, Testament 58″.  I have not been able to discover what this text is, unfortunately.

  1. [1] Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of early Christianity, 2nd ed.
  2. [2] S. Brock, A brief outline of Syriac literature, Moran Etho 9, Kottayam:SEERI, 1997,  p.22.  One wonders how so precise a date is known.
  3. [3] Panarion 1, 2; Panarion 66, 20; Quasten, Patrology III, 386 and 388.  I do not know how the Anchoratus is dated, however.

Ephraim Syrus, Hymns 23 and 24 against heresies now online in English

Adam McCollum has kindly translated for us hymns 23 and 24 from the collection of Hymns against heresies by Ephraim Syrus, and I have placed them in the public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

I’ve uploaded the PDF and RTF files to Archive.org:


I will do an HTML version when I get to it.

From my diary

It’s remarkable how much one can achieve in a few dedicated days.  I’ve managed to get my new Mithras site up and functional, although far from complete.  It may be found here.


I don’t think that there is very much more to do to the PHP scripts, which is nice.  The content needs to be reviewed, checked, and worked over, but that can happen in slow time.

One of the drivers for the new site was that I want to make use of all the photographs of statues of Mithras (etc) that are online.  The printed literature tends to have few photographs, and all of those black and white.  But there are very many colour images of statues, inscriptions, frescos, and so on, online.  These convey information … if, if, we know what we are looking at, and can get an overview of more than one of them.

The first thing that might be done is to link as many as possible to their entry in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentum Religionis Mithriacae.  These descriptions are very useful, in that they explain much of what we are looking at.  Without this information, the images by themselves are little more than decoration.

I’ve created a few pages in the new site for individual images, but I’m not happy with how that is going.  I’m looking at the moment at how Wikimedia Commons handles images, and galleries of images.  This will require some thought, some design and some special scripting.  Since I don’t quite know what I am trying to achieve, I will put that to one side this evening.

Instead I shall review translations of Ephraim the Syrian’s Hymns against Heresies, nos. 23 and 24.  Adam McCollum has sent these in, and I need to read over them for glitches of any sort.  Once I am sure that they are complete, I will post them online and announce them.

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the workhouse…

It is now Christmas Eve.  A minority of people will be sat at home, in a traditional Dickensian family circle, waiting for Christmas.  In rather more households there will be excited children rushing around, and all blessing to them and their harried parents.

But for a great many people, including most people who spend their lives online, this evening will be spent on their own, as will tomorrow and many more days.  We need not be surprised.  In our age this is normal.  Let us never regret that we do not enjoy the kind of Christmas that the TV advertisers tell us that we all should.  The reality of this world in these days is that a great number of people will be on their own.

It is traditional for bloggers to wish their readers a happy Christmas, and I shall not omit this courtesy.  I wish everyone reading these words a merry Christmas, and every blessing.

I include in these words those who I count as my friends, and those who have worked with me during the year.

I include in these words those who have written to me, those who have encouraged me, those who have shared in this work of education and learning.

I include everyone who intends to do good to his fellow man; and I include those who are simply trying to get by.

I include those who disagree with me.  I hope that disagreement may be generous, at least on our own side.

I also include, this Christmas time, one poor unhappy soul far away.  I don’t know his name, for he has taken pains to be anonymous.  I include him because I believe that this poor soul has little to enjoy at Christmas, and is an unhappy man.  I infer this because last year he had nothing better to do on Christmas day, the best of days, than to go online and attempt to cause me an injury.  Pathetically, he failed, in that I did not even learn of his deed until months later, and didn’t care even then.  I suspect that he reads this blog occasionally.  If so, I wish him a happy Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

This Christmas I will be blogging away, and will try to provide something for people to read.  I’m still busy with the Mithras pages, which are beginning to assume a form which is not altogether horrible.  I hope to have a couple of Hymns by St. Ephraim the Syrian, newly translated into English, for you tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Soliciting donations

For some years now I have commissioned translations of previously untranslated texts.  These I make freely available on the web.

A correspondent has suggested that I should make it possible for generous-minded people to contribute.  As an experiment, I’ve added a “Donate” button on the right hand side.

Not quite sure how I feel about this, but if you would like to contribute, feel free to click the button.

At the moment we have a number of translations going forward.  Ephraem Syrus, Hymns against heresies 23 and 24 are in the works.  I have today commissioned a translation of “February” from John the Lydian’s, De mensibus book 4.  Just so that you know where funds go!

Ephrem Syrus, Hymn 22 against heresies now online in English

Adam McCollum has kindly translated this lengthy hymn by Ephraim the Syrian into English for us.  The translation is public domain; do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

These files can also be found at Archive.org here.

I will produce an HTML version when I can.

An Armenian version of Ephraim’s commentary on Hebrews?

An email in the ABTAPL list raised a very interesting question.

In the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, in the volume on Hebrews, there is an excerpt from Ephraim the Syrian.  Looking at the reference, we find this:

Marco Conti, trans. Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Works of Ephrem in Armenian.  ACCS translation project.

Except that no publication appears to exist.  According to IVP:

Marco Conti (Ph.D., University of Leeds) is professor of medieval and humanistic Latin literature at the Ateneo Salesiano and lecturer in classical mythology and religions of the Roman Empire at the Richmond University in Rome.

In 1836, the Mechitarist Fathers in Venice published the works of Ephraim from the ancient Armenian versions, in 4 volumes.  Some of Ephraim’s works, indeed, no longer exist in the original Syriac, and the Armenian versions are all there is.  A bibliography is here.  But I have not been able to locate this Venice edition online.

However in 1895 they published a Latin translation of the commentaries on the letters of Paul.  This I did find, here.  And in the PDF, on p.217 of the PDF (p.200 of the printed text) there is the start of material on Hebrews!

It would be interesting to know whether Dr Conti prepared a complete translation of Ephraim’s Commentary on Hebrews.  I hope to find out!

Ephraim the Syrian, Hymn 23 Against Heresies

I have produced a rough translation of the BKV German translation of this hymn, mainly while reading it to see what it said.  I make no claims for reliability, but it gives an idea of what the content is. The line divisions are my own.

23.  To the same melody.

1. The twelve apostles were the cultivators of the whole world,
But no place and no location was named after their name,
Then appeared all sorts of weeds
After the cultivators had died
And the weed called the wheat by their name;
But on the day of harvest it will be destroyed.

Refrain: Blessed be He, whose harvest is imminent!

2.  They [the false teachers] teach me to hate them
Because they have hidden the secret writings that they have written
Like a man who hides his shame, so that they are not disseminated.
But the church shows her glory, her open beauty is famous.
There is no stain to hide, no flaw that must be covered,
Clear as the light its teaching radiates.

Blessed is he, who shines with its truth!

3.  Joab had captured a city; namely the capital city of the state,
But he did not therefore give it his own name.
As Joab, the commander, he had conquered,
He sent to David, who hastened there himself,
To enter in as king, and as such to name what he had conquered.
Joab acted as a servant, and it was called after the name of the king.

To you be glory from the faithful!

4.  The apostles and the prophets, the princes and the generals,
Laboured and worked, taught and lectured,
And captured towns and fortresses.
The prophets and apostles exerted themselves,
And were called by the name of God.
Our Lord worked and laboured and taught —
And was labelled a fraud,
So we should call ourselves by his name.

Blessed be He, by whose name they are exposed!

5.  The followers of Bardaisan should be asked,
How and why they are called by the name of Bardaisan,
And what was the occasion of the appointment;
Whether they are descended from him, as the Hebrews from Heber.
And if they get their teaching from him, because they are his disciples,
Then arises the accusation with his name on,
That he has devised an evil teaching.

Blessed is he who has discovered their fraud!

6.  Not everyone, however, who creates a school
Names his pupils after his own name;
The apostle taught the people, and no-one is named after his name;
In those names in which he taught did he baptise;
This name in which he baptised he taught them to honour;
He wrote that name on everything.

Blessed is he, whose name is all-worthy!

7.  Now a demon among the Greeks began to lure
Each [bride of Christ] to be a whore,
Making up whatever seemed to him attractive and plausible.
And even today he seduced women by all sorts of silly pretensions;
One he begins on through fasting,
Another by [pentitential] sack-cloth and vegetables,
Another still he captures through words.

Blessed is he who makes his wiles nothing.

8.  An ugly deception cannot be unless it decorates itself with truth,
And a lie cannot get on, without the footsteps of truth.
They won over the bride through [the semblance] of their beauty,
And this shows that they are shameful.
And after they had wooed her (for Christ) they took her for themselves,
And that reveals that they are fraudulent.
So who would not flee from them?

Blessed be he, where everyone finds his refuge!

9.  We speak these words loudly, so that we will be heard by the deaf;
You I make the arbiter, you decide, O listener;
What is greater or more noble, that you are named a Christian,
Or may be called a Christian, or a Daisanite weed?

Blessed be he, after whom everyone longs!

10.  Even before Bardaisan was, and Marcion was spoken of,
Let us go to the earliest, who are older than Marcion,
And let us see how the first churches were named,
And we want to be named by that name,
And to remove and discard the naming with later names.

Blessed be he, who through His name again is put forward!

Some notes on Ephraim the Syrian’s “Hymns against heresies”

I have been reading the prefatory material to E. Beck’s critical edition of this collection of hymns.[1]  The following is abstracted from these.

 Ephraim’s collection of hymns Contra Haereses was printed by Petrus Benedictus (Mubarak) in the 2nd volume (syr.-lat.) of the Editio Romana in 1740, based upon the only manuscript of this work contained in the Vatican library, codex vat. sir. 111.  He gave the hymns the title, Sermones polemici adversus haereses, since in this edition the Syriac terms madrâshâ and mēmrâ were both rendered as sermo.  The manuscripts have madrâshē (luqbal yulpâne).

Inevitably working from a single manuscript, which was not always legible, the Roman edition is unsatisfactory. 

The two oldest manuscripts also are the foundation for Ephraim’s hymns De Fide.  B is the basic witness, as A is missing more leaves.

  • B = Cod. vat. sir. 111.  6th century, from the Nitrian desert.  Described in CSCO 154 / Syr. 73, p.ii.  This is the only complete manuscript, but the writing is often very blurred, and becomes at times unreadable, as the manuscript fell into the Nile at one point.
  • A = British Library additional 12176.   6th century, from the Nitrian desert.  Also described in CSCO 154.  This was once complete, but is missing many leaves.  It is complete for the hymns De Fide.
  • E = British Library add. 17141.  A liturgical codex, of the 8-9th century, containing  hymns by Ephraim, Isaac of Antioch and Jacob of Serugh.  Contains extracts from the first 10 hymns against heresies, and selected verses from most of the others.
  • F = British Library add. 14574.  This is a few remaining leaves of a large codex containing collections of hymns by Ephraim: De ecclesia, de Virginitate, contra Haereses.  It is written in three columns.  The colophon refers to 56 hymns against heresies, but only a few pages remain.  It was probably written a bit later than B and A.

In B, A and F, we have the text of Ephraim as it was in the 6th century.

There are also two late manuscripts from the vaguely specified “patriarchal library of Homs”.  The first of these (H1) is 12-13th century, and contains a few pieces of the text.  The second (H2) is 15th century.

Beck’s text, despite his criticism of Petrus Benedictus, is also that of B, as this is the only complete manuscript where no pages have been lost.  But the codex fell into the Nile during its adventures, and so is damaged.  In hymns 22, 34, 35 and 38, where comparison with other codices is not possible, it is necessary to infer the readings, although I do not see large lacunae in Beck’s text.

I do wonder at this point, however, what modern multi-spectral imagining would make of this?  Could the text be recovered?

The work has been of interest to theologians ever since it was published, because of the valuable testimony that it bears to Marcion, Mani and Bardaisan.  Consequently it was translated into German by P. Zingerle from the Roman edition for the original Bibliothek der Kirchenvater series,[2] and again by A. Rücker for the new BKV series in 1928.

  1. [1] E. Beck, CSCO 169-170, 1957. The second volume is the German translation.
  2. [2] In the 1834 series, and in the 1873 series also.

Did early heretics call themselves “Christians”

I was answering an email in great haste earlier today, which contained the assertion that heretics like Marcionites or Valentinians (there was no specific) referred to themselves as Christians.  I think that I sort of assented, or at any rate did not disagree, in the rush to disagree with other parts of the email.

But I found myself wondering.  Do we know that this is true?  Did they, in fact, using the word for themselves?

We are accustomed to different church groups all identifying themselves as Christians.  We are accustomed to modern heretics — liberal clergy who endorse unnatural vice and don’t believe in God — demanding indignantly to be referred to as Christians (to the amused cynicism of everyone else).  But … do we know that the same was true in antiquity?  For antiquity was a different world, and anachronism is always our enemy.

Modern heretics demand the Name, because the name of Christian has a residual positive image in the modern western world: what was once Christendom.  But in ancient times, was this the case?  After all, “christianus” was the name of an illegal cult: non licet esse vos, — you are not allowed to exist, the pagans jeer in the pages of Tertullian’s Apologeticum.

The heresies essentially were pop-pagan philosophical schools, which is, of course, why the early Christians referred to them by the word “haereses”, used, with no pejorative context, for those schools.  But every philosopher made his living by teaching pupils for pay.  And what he had to teach was his own special teachings.  If he was the disciple of some famous earlier philosopher, he would innovate, unless he inherited the school from his master, in order to attract pupils and distinguish himself from other pupils.  To such people, a fresh source of ideas, such as Christianity, was just grist to the mill.  It is telling that the same is true of gnostic groups.  The disciples of Valentinus, such as Apelles, did not teach classical Valentinianism, but their own flavour of it.

In each case, the members of the heresy were not a church in the way that a modern church is organised.  They were more like “hearers”.  The loose organisation of these groups is commented on by Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum, who in chapter 6 lists the old-time philosophies from which the new heretics draw their teaching, and towards the end remarks on this lack of structure and definition.

Someone following a school would usually take, I believe, the name of his master, or of the school.  Thus we have the cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and so forth.

Likewise in Corinth, Paul has to tell the Christians not to do the same.  “I follow Paul … I follow Apollos …” is perhaps the same tendency. 

So … do we know that heretical groups generally did not do the same? 

When I read Ephraim the Syrian’s Madrasha 22 against heresies, I do not find that the Marcionites are saying “We are the Christians”.  What they are saying to the Christians is, “You are the followers of Palut”, an early Bishop.  And Ephraim spends a lot of time telling the Christians of the 4th century NOT to name themselves after anyone but Christ.  Do other patristic writers witness to this sort of thing, I wonder?

Did the Valentinians generally call themselves “Valentinians”, perhaps?  Or the Marcionites “Marcionites”?  What is the data, I wonder?

Of course the heretical groups of this period mainly sought to influence Christians, to persuade them to sacrifice and to take on board pagan teachings of one sort of another.  So perhaps it is possible that they found it useful to claim the Name.  I don’t know.  What we need to see, as always, is evidence.

As ever, we need to be so wary of an unconscious anachronism.

UPDATE: See the comments for a couple of examples.  The most interesting is that in the Life of Persian Syriac saint, Mar Aba.