Ephraem Graecus, “Threni” or “The Lamentations of the Virgin Mary before the cross” (CPG 4085)

Yesterday I discussed a short but spurious piece attributed to Ephraem Graecus, the “Threni” or “Lamentatins of the Virgin Mary before the cross” (CPG 4085).  It’s actually a set of Greek verses from the 14th or 15th century.  Assemani only printed – or rather pirated – a Latin translation of the early modern period.  But since it is a short text, I thought that it would be fun to translate it, and put the results online.  Here they are:

It’s also on Archive.org here.  As usual these files and everything in them are public domain – do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.


A “Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)”: actually an excerpt from Ephraem Graecus, CPG 4085

Here’s an interesting one, from a random link: a “Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)”:

Blessed Virgin, immaculate and pure, you are the sinless Mother of your Son, who is the mighty Lord of the universe. Since you are holy and inviolate, the hope of the hopeless and sinful, I sing your praises. I praise you as full of every grace, for you bore the God-Man. I venerate you; I invoke you and implore your aid. Holy and Immaculate Virgin, help me in every need that presses upon me and free me from all the temptations of the devil. Be my intercessor and advocate at the hour of death and judgment. Deliver me from the fire that is not extinguished and from the outer darkness. Make me worthy of the glory of your Son. O dearest and most kind Virgin Mother. You indeed are my most secure and only hope, for you are holy in the sight of God, to whom be honor and glory, majesty and power forever. Amen.

The same can be found on many Catholic websites, but always unreferenced. I encountered it in a tweet by a youthful Catholic, arguing that Ephrem lived at the time of Nicaea, so Church teaching at that time must have endorsed the idea that Mary was sinless. It can’t be Nicene, of course: Ephraem was a teenager at that time, and his major works belong to the mid-4th century.

So where does it come from?  Is it actually by Ephraem?

The English text of the prayer is taken from something called the “Raccolta”.  This was a “Collection of Indulgenced Prayers & Good Works”, to be used every day in order to obtain indulgences.  It first appeared in Italy in the 19th century – the word means “collection”, and the work was taken on by the church and revised until replaced in the 1960s by a new volume for the same purpose.

In the 1957 edition, p.265, with parallel Latin and English, the prayer appears as section 371:

O pura et immaculata, eademque benedicta Virgo, magni Filii tui universorum Domini Mater inculpata, integra et sacrosanctissima, desperantium atque reorum spes, te collaudamus. Tibi ut gratia plenissimae benedicimus, quae Christum genuisti Deum et Hominem: omnes coram te prosternimur: omnes te invocamus et auxilium tuum imploramus. Eripe nos, o Virgo sancta atque intemerata, a quacumque ingruente necessitate et a cunctis tentationibus diaboli.  Nostra conciliatrix et advocata in hora mortis atque iudicii esto: nosque a futuro inexstinguibili igne et a tenebris exterioribus libera: et Filii tui nos gloria dignare, o Virgo et Mater dulcissima ac clementissima. Tu siquidem unica spes nostra es securissima et sanctissima apud Deum, cui gloria et honor, decus atque imperium in sempiterna saecula saeculorum. Amen.  (S. Ephraem C. D.)

Not sure what C. D. means – confessor?  doctor?  The English is as above, and adds:

St Ephrem the Syrian
An indulgence of 3 years.
A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if the daily recitation of this prayer be continued for a month (S. P. Ap., Dec. 21, 1920 and Jan. 9, 1933).

S. P. Ap. = Sacra Poenitentiaria Apostolica, and I presume the reference is to some instructions somewhere by that body, the “Apostolic Penitentiary.”  The prayer also appears in the 1943 edition, as section 339, but not in the 1910 edition.

The Latin text of the prayer is taken from our old friend, Ephraem Graecus.  It is an excerpt from a work printed by Assemani, in Latin only, in volume 3 of the Opera Graeca, on p.575, column 2, lines A-C.[1]  The work in question is “Threni, id est, Lamentationes gloriosissimae Virginis Matris Mariae super passione domini,” “Lamentations of the most glorious Virgin Mother Mary on the Passion of the Lord.”  The reference number is CPG 4085, although the CPG gives no useful information.  The text begins on p.574 of Assemani. There is no indication of where Assemani found it.  Here is the relevant passage:

Willem F. Bakker has made a study of this obscure text.  His useful article with D. M. L. Philippides from 2000, “The Lament of the Virgin by Ephraem the Syrian,” is online here.[2] From this I learn that there is indeed a Greek text, which was printed in a 3-volume collection of articles, although I was unable to access this:

Μ. Ι. Μανούσακας, “Ἑλληνικὰ ποιήματα γιὰ τὴ σταύρωση τοῦ Χριστοῦ”, in: Mélanges Octave et Melpo Merlier, II, Athens (1956), 49-60.  Text on pp.65-9.

According to Bakker &c, the Greek text was circulating from the 16th century onwards, although never printed, and it was translated into Latin by a number of people.  Among them was a version by Vossius, which Assemani then silently copied for his own edition.  The literary theme of the work – the Virgin Mary before her son on the cross – is one that belongs to the Byzantine period, rather than the 4th century, and so the work must be 9th century or later.

A further article by Dr Bakker, from 2005, is paywalled hereanybody got access? * -, but we get a useful abstract:

The “Threnos seu lamentatio sanctissimae Dei genitricis, quae dicitur in sancta et magna Parasceve,” long since attributed to Ephraem the Syrian, appears to be a direct translation of the anonymous “Φρηνo τη υϕεραγία Φεoτόκoυ ει την σταυρωσιν τoυ δεσϕότoυ Xριστoυ,” published by Manousakas, and thus cannot be Ephraem’s work. The Greek original, based upon “troparia” in the versus politicus of the fourteenth century, the “Akolouthia” of Good Friday and the second version of the “Acta Pilati,” must have been composed around the year 1400. There are strong indications that this text, a sort of amplified “stavrotheotokion,” had been sung for some time on Good Friday, outside the official service.

So this is definitely not Ephraem, and certainly not a witness to any doctrinal position at the time of Nicaea, but a very late Byzantine work.

* Thank you to the kind colleague who sent me a copy!

Update: I have now made a translation of the whole thing which may be found here.

  1. [1]Using the Latin text, beginning “O pura et immaculata, eademque benedicta Virgo,” allows us to find the source.  Carlo Passaglia, De immaculato deiparae semper virginis conceptu Caroli Passaglia commentarius, vol. 3 (1855), p.125, quotes the Latin, and so gives us the reference to Assemani.
  2. [2]Willem F. Bakker & Dia Mary L. Philippides, “The lament of the virgin by Ephraem the Syrian” in: Enthymēsis Nikolaou M. Panagiōtakē, (2000), 39-56. http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:104925.

A big hole in Patristics – the neglect of Ephraim Graecus

We all know that Christianity spread west into the Greek and Latin-speaking world.  It also spread east, into the Syriac-speaking world.  Most important of the Christian writers in Syriac is Ephraim of Nisibis, known generally as Ephraim the Syrian, or Ephrem/Effrem Syrus, who flourished in the mid-to-late 4th century and died in 373 AD.  He wrote mainly in verse.  His work proved popular, and he was translated into or copied in most of the languages of the ancient world.

Ephraim’s Syriac works now exist in fine, modern critical editions, with German translation, thanks to the immense effort of E. Beck in the CSCO series.  Admittedly nobody actually has copies of them – unless somebody has bootlegged that series to PDF without my knowledge! – but the point is that they exist.  Sebastian Brock gives a masterly bibliography of them in his St. Ephrem: A Brief Guide to the Main Editions and Translations, now online at Syri.ac here, and this includes discussion of non-Syriac materials.

There is a huge collection of materials in Greek, attributed to Ephraim the Syrian.  Brock notes:

A glance at the second volume of the Clavis Patrum Graecorum (CPG)52 will indicate that the number of texts in Greek attributed to Ephrem (CPG 3905–4175, 366–468) is exceeded only by those attributed to John Chrysostom (CPG 4305–5197, 491–672). …

The second volume of CPG (1974) and the Supplement (1998)53 provide the essential guide to ‘Ephrem Graecus’, and include references to the main secondary literature.54 The corpus is in fact very disparate in character, consisting of at least three very different elements:

  • (1) translations of genuine works by Ephrem
  • (2) translations of Syriac works not by Ephrem
  • (3) a large body of material, itself disparate in character, for which Greek is the original language. Some of the Greek texts employ a syllabic metre; these may belong to any one of the three categories.

Another scholar writes:

The Greek manuscripts of Ephraem are so numerous that in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris he is counted as the fourth most popular of the Greek Fathers, after St Chrysostom, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Basil. The collection of Greek manuscripts of Ephraem in the Vatican Library is almost as numerous. The earliest witness is a papyrus in the Louvre containing fragments of the Life of St Abraamios.[1]

Unfortunately this great mass of material has attracted very little scholarly attention.  What we should like to see is a list of the material, with indications of whether it is (a) really by Ephrem Syrus and translated (b) really from Syriac, if not by Ephrem or (c) clearly a Greek originally composition.  Unfortunately I don’t believe that this basic list of works plus classification exists anywhere.

Lists of Works

What we do have is a list of works in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum vols 2 and supplement:   CPG 3905-4184, supplement pp.227-250, containing supplements – mainly but not exclusively of Arabic and Old Slavonic versions.  This often indicates connections with other versions; but it is quite unclear on what this information is based.

There is also an article by D. Hemmerdinger-Iliadou, in Dictionaire de Spiritualité, vol. 4 (1960), cols. 800-815, which answers some of these questions, in a rather disorganised manner.

There is Homilies of Ephraim Graecus at the Syri.ac site here, covering only the homilies, which suggests that all the homilies have some connection with Syriac.  This claim appears to be based on the CPG data.

A rather strangely formatted bibliography (but useful) is at A Comprehensive Bibliography on Syriac Christianity – Ephremiana [Greek], here.

There is also a dissertation which I have not been able to access: C. Emereau, Saint Ephrem le Syrien; son œuvre littéraire grecque, Paris (1918).

Likewise inaccesible is a festschrift where two papers seem interesting too:

  • S. P. Brock, “The Changing Faces of St. Ephrem as Read in the West”, (pp.65-80)
  • E. Lash, “The Greek Writings Ascribed to Saint Ephrem”, (pp. 81-98)

Both in K. Ware &c (edd.), Abba: the tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.


The original edition of Ephraim Graecus was that of Edmund Thwaites, S. Ephraim Syrus, Graece, e codicibus manuscriptis Bodleianis, Oxford, 1709.  This was Greek only, so in a single volume, and can be downloaded from here.

Hardly anybody uses this.  Thwaites edition was of 159 Greek works attributed to Ephraim, plus two Greek vitae.  Thwaite’s edition was made without ever leaving Oxford, so all the manuscripts that he used are in the Bodleian library.[2]

The “normal” edition of Ephraim Graecus is that of Joseph S. Assemani, Sancti patris nostri Ephraem Syri Opera Omnia quae extant graece, syriace, latine; in sex tomos distributa. Romae, 1732-1746.  The first three volumes contain the Greek and Latin versions, the last three the Syriac.  All may be downloaded from here.

But the first two volumes of Assemani were largely a reprint of Thwaites, minus the manuscript sources, so these also are based entirely on manuscripts from the Bodleian.  However he printed in parallel column the renaissance translation of Ambrogio Traversari, thereby making the edition much more useful.  His third volume contains material from other collections to which he had access.

A further problem with Assemani’s edition is the presence of doublets – passages that appear word for word in more than one work.  The CPG indicates these; but this only indicates how bad the Assemani edition is.

Yet another problem with Assemani is the sheer number of works with near-identical titles.  This causes problems in the CPG and the CPL, where the editors themselves became confused in at least one case (since fixed).

S. J. Mercati did his doctorate on Ephraem Graecus,[3] and began an edition in 1915: S. Ephraem Syri opera, textum Syriacum, Graecum, Latinum ad fidem codicum recensuit prolegominis, notis, indicibus instruxit Sylvius Joseph Mercati, Rom 1915 (online here and here).  But only a single volume (of Ephraem Graecus) appeared.

A new edition appeared 1988-98 in Greece, which I am told is from Assemani mostly.  But it also contains translations of all the texts into modern Greek.  It is Κων. Γ. Φραντζόλάς, Ὁσιοῦ Ἐφραίμ τοῦ Σύρου, Thessaloniki, 1988-98, 7 vols.[4]   A bookshop with stock is here (and my notes on using it here).  There is also a website with a list of the contents by volume here, and each work has a linked PDF containing Greek text with a Greek government copyright on it.


Twenty-seven translations exist online, at the marvellous Saint Ephrem blog here. This is run by Tikhon Alexander Pino, an Orthodox Christian husband and father, and a PhD candidate at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

Some have been translated by him; others by the late Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, whose blog is now gone but which is archived at Archive.org.  He includes links to both.


I have no list of manuscripts.  But I did discover that a 6th century papyrus fragment exists of a sermon, In secundum adventum domini nostri Iesu Christu, CPG 3920.[5]

    *    *    *    *

Frankly this looks a lot like a complete mess.

It’s not obvious to me how we might begin to solve such a mess.  The presence of the “doublets” makes it particularly difficult to say what any given work does or does not contain.  This in turn makes it very hard to do work on the corpus.

So there we are.  That’s what we have.  Rubbish, isn’t it.

UPDATE 23/10/2018: Added details on the Phrantzoles modern edition.
UPDATE 02/11/2018: Added details of translations.

  1. [1]T. S. Pattie, “Ephraem the Syrian and the Latin manuscripts of De Paenitentia”, in: British Library Journal 13 (1987) 1-24. Online here.
  2. [2]Hemmerdinger-Iliadou “Démocracie. Les manuscrits de l’Ephrem grec utilisés par Thwaites”. In: Scriptorium 13 (1959) pp. 261-262; Online here.
  3. [3]So German Wikipedia.
  4. [4]Konstantinos G. Phrantzolas (google search results use various spellings like Phrantzoles, Phrantsoles, etc; but Phrantzolas is on the copyright page of the first volume.), Ὁσιοῦ Ἐφραίμ τοῦ Σύρου  ἔργα, Thessaloniki: Το περιβόλι της Παναγίας / To Perivoli tis Panagias, 1988-98, 7 vols
  5. [5]T.M.Teeter, “A fragment of Ephraim the Syrian”, in: Fabian Reiter (ed.), Literarische Texte der Berliner Papyrussammlung, (2012), pp.44-47, and table viiia. Google Books here.

Ps.Chrysostom, De Salute Animae, now online in English

A rather splendid Greek sermon appears in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum as entry 4622 (vol. 2, p.577-8), among the spuria of Chrysostom, with the title De salute animae (on the salvation of the soul).  Some mss. attribute it to Chrysostom, others to Ephrem Syrus.  It exists in two versions in Greek, and also in Coptic, Georgian and Arabic versions.

The content of the sermon is terrific!  It is an exhortation to Christians not to be led astray by the things of this world, but instead to strive to work out our salvation and to be what Christ wants us to be.  The writer points out how futile the distractions will look on judgement day.

Adam McCollum drew my attention to this obscure work, and he has kindly translated the two Greek versions for us.  The translation is given in parallel columns, so that the differences can be seen.  As is quickly apparent, this is one sermon that has been reworked by a secondary author.

Here it is:

Since the two are in parallel format, there’s only a PDF of this at the moment.  (It is also on Archive.org here)

As with all my commissions, I place this in the public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.


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.

More on Ephraem Syrus’ “Hymni contra haereses”

The 56 Hymns against heresies of Ephraim the Syrian are not online in English, and it does not seem that any published English translation exists.  Sidney H. Griffith has published extracts in English.  The work was published by E. Beck in CSCO 169 (text) and 170 (Latin translation) in 1957, but of course none of us can access this.

Yet a German translation of the work appears in the old Bibliothek der Kirchenvater series, so this suggests that an older edition must exist, which might be online somewhere.  I can only suppose that it is buried in some complete edition of Ephraim’s works. Hmm.

The NPNF series includes some works by Ephraim, translated by John Gwynn, and the introduction refers to “the great Roman edition, S. Ephraemi Syri Opera Syriaca (Rome, 1743).”  The old Library of the Fathers series included a volume of Selected works, which includes a “rhythm against the Jews” which does not seem to be elsewhere and might profitably be placed online.

The “Roman edition” is not easy to find, unless you know that Brigham Young University has  a collection of Syriac books.  It is here.

UPDATE: Yes, well, it might be “here” but I can’t persuade the site to work, either in IE8 or in Chrome.  Why can’t I just download a PDF?!

UPDATE2: Looks as if another copy is here, at the Goussen library.    But it looks as if one can’t download whole volumes, which is very frustrating.  Looks as if there are two series, each of three volumes; series 1, the Greek and Latin works; series 2 the Syriac ones.

UPDATE3: Yay! Found one volume at Google books, here.  Wonder which one? Ah, it’s vol.2 of the Greek and Latin series.  Hit the “About this book” link, and somewhere down the bottom I’m getting other volumes (isn’t Google Books useless for multi-volume works?).  Here’s what I get, after much poking around:

OK, well, that’s something … indeed better than something! Now searching using “Sancti Ephraem Syri Opera omnia quae exstant, Graece” … and this gives me different results again, from what look like Spanish libraries.

Phew.  That was hard work.  But there we have it … all the volumes of this series.

Wonder if any of them contain the Hymni contra haereses?  I think that might be a question for tomorrow!

UPDATE4: vol. 1 of the Syriac is Old Testament commentaries.  Vol. 2 of the Syriac (TOC on p.35 of the PDF) continues this, Job-Malachi, and then has 11 “sermons” on various passages of scripture; then 13 on the Lord’s birthday; then 16 “sermones polemici adversus haereses”, on p.437 (p.472 of the PDF).  We have found our text!  Yay!


Materials from the Greek Ephraim

Dominique Gonnet from the Sources Chretiennes has drawn my attention to a little known Greek Orthodox site, http://www.anastasis.org.uk/.  It is the property of an “Archmandrite Ephrem” and it contains English translations of all sorts of snippets.  In particular there are a  number of letters and sermons by Ephrem the Syrian, translated here.  I think few of these exist in English otherwise.

There are no contact details on the site, and the last date I could find was 2008.