FW: [agade] REVIEWS: Of "Ephraem der Syrer"
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Subject: [agade] REVIEWS: Of "Ephraem der Syrer"
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.10
Christian Lange (ed.), Ephraem der Syrer: Kommentar zum Diatessaron I.
Fontes Christiani Bd. 54/1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. 366.
ISBN 9782503519746. €37.29 (pb).
Christian Lange (ed.), Ephraem der Syrer: Kommentar zum Diatessaron
II. Fontes Christiani Bd. 54/2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. viii,
332. ISBN 9782503528694. €37.29 (pb).
Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University (kingdh@...)
Word count: 2796 words
Two branches of research within Early Christianity converge in the
text here translated into German. The first is the problem of the
Diatessaron, a harmony of the four gospels written by Tatian in the
second century which had a long afterlife in many parts of Europe and
the Near East but which can be reconstructed only from quotations and
late translations.1 The other is the religious oeuvre of Ephrem the
Syrian, one of the most fascinating of the 'Fathers of the Church'. As
well as a highly productive poet of elegant and vivid Christian poetry
in Syriac, Ephrem wrote prose commentaries, including this commentary
on the Diatessaron, in his day the standard version of the Gospels
within the Syrian church. For a long time known only through an
Armenian version, the Syriac original of Ephrem's Commentary was
gradually made known through the discovery and publication of a
sixth-century Syriac ms in the Chester Beatty collection.2 It has
since been the object of a number of studies, both
literary/philological and theological. The present two volume work by
Christian Lange in the Fontes Christiani series adds a German
translation to the existing Latin, French and English versions
available,3 though perhaps its most important contribution will be
found in the Einleitung, in which Lange seeks to resolve the various
difficulties that surround the text, especially the disagreements
between the two recensions and the undoubted presence of secondary
interpolations within both branches of the tradition. Chapter I is an
overview of Ephrem's life and religious background in which Lange goes
over the basic questions, such as that of Ephrem's coenobitic status.
He follows Beck and others in using for the most part references from
within the genuine works rather than external testimony for the
reconstruction of Ephrem's career. Important questions are briefly
raised, such as the source of Ephrem's 'Jewish' exegeses and his
anti-semitic polemics (p.17f.).
Brief descriptions of the Marcionites, Bardesanites and Manichaeans
are to be found in the section on the Nisibene period, although they
might be more appropriately placed under the section on Edessa, since
the Hymns against the Heresies is more likely to date from that later
period, as Lange himself will argue (p.41f.).
There is an interesting discussion on the question of whether the
Nicene homoousios was really (as Beck claimed) the basis of Ephrem's
theology, a suggestion which Lange refutes on the basis that Ephrem is
more interested in plurality in the Godhead than in unity, and never
mentions the Nicene buzzwords (p.26ff.). He suggests that the Ephremic
theology found in the Commentary is rather closer to that found in the
creed of the Synod of Antioch (341), and it is notable that the
Emperor Constantius is not vilified as an Arian but praised as a
Christian Emperor who defended Nisibis against the Persians. In the
later Edessene period, by contrast, Ephrem was clearly aware both of
Nicaea and of the later Antiochene schism (p.32-4).
In Chapter II, Lange tries to map out the chronological order of
Ephrem's works as a means of tracing the development of his thought
over time, an approach that has unfortunately (he believes) not often
been tried before. This approach, as he admits, involves the
(dangerous) assumption that the hymn cycles found in the tradition
represent groupings designed by Ephrem himself rather than by later
editors. The Diatessaron Commentary is to be placed among the late
works on account of the nature of the doctrinal debates which underlie
much of its text.
Chapter III is a little disparate - it begins by highlighting the
importance the Diatessaron had in the Syrian churches of the fourth
and fifth centuries, and also its importance to modern research as a
witness to the second century state of the gospel text; the
reconstruction of the Diatessaron itself from quotations in Ephrem
therefore constitutes one of the principal interests of the present
text and the justification for its publication in a modern
translation, although this possibility is not further explored within
these volumes. This chapter also reviews the history of research,
especially on the questions of the authenticity and unity of the text.
Although Lange positions himself very much in the research trajectory
of Beck in his attempts to distinguish the authentic Ephremic sections
within the text, he nonetheless evidently feels some sympathy for the
view of Carmel McCarthy that Ephrem's name should not be removed from
the text, since he himself has not, in this translation, done so. We
shall return to this problem at the end of this review.
There is one minor error here: the date of the Chester Beatty ms is
given by Leloir as late fifth or early sixth century, not the first
half of the fifth (p.52).
Chapter IV provides a useful table of the passages that are extant in
the different recensions (Syriac and Armenian) followed by the results
of an analysis of these passages (a fuller version of how these
results are achieved can be found in Lange's monograph).4 On the
whole, passages to be found only in the Syriac (b) have different
exegeses from parallel passages which were undoubtedly in the Urtext
(because found in both recensions) and these must therefore be
interpreted as interpolations. Sections only in Armenian are also in
general shown to be interpolations, though some such passages may
reflect original material omitted from the extant Syriac. The
important conclusion is that both recensions include additions to the
The next critical question is whether, assuming the Urtext to be
recoverable, it is a unified text. Certainly not, argues Lange, for
"der Urtext stellt eher eine Sammlung verscheidener Vorlagen dar, die
ein syrischer Herausgaber zusammengestellt hat." (p.67). This
conclusion is reached largely through literary analysis (internal
contradictions, misplaced passages, variation of styles etc.) and
occasionally through a comparison of the Commentary with exegeses in
the 'genuine Ephrem', i.e. in the authentic poetic cycles. In this,
Lange falls largely on the side of Leloir in seeing evidence of
multiple authorship where others (e.g. Petersen and McCarthy) see only
variation in literary style.
Once the basic homogeneity of the Urtext has itself been called into
question, it is slightly unclear exactly what the next investigation,
into the 'authenticity' of the text, is meant to achieve, since a text
which comes from different hands can hardly be described as
'authentic' or 'inauthentic'. The discussion of the significance of
Jesus' baptism (p.71-2) is anyway from a passage which matches a
lacuna in the Syriac ms and which cannot therefore with any certainty
be ascribed to the Urtext. The discrepancy found here between the
theology of the Commentary and the theology of Ephrem does not prove
the inauthenticity of the Urtext, since the latter has been shown to
be a collection - rather one would be interested to hear Lange's
opinion on which parts of the text do go back to Ephrem himself and
which to his students.
Lange's conclusion to this section is then depicted in a stemma of the
recension in which the original commentary of Ephrem is assumed to
have been edited and expanded by a pupil of Ephrem's school, to
produce the Urtext. If there is a weakness here, it is in the implicit
assumption that something like a coherent text from the hand of Ephrem
himself ever existed. The perceptive conclusion (quoted from p.67 in
the last paragraph but one) surely casts doubt on whether his [S1] is
a hypothetical textual product at all rather than merely an oral
tradition deriving from the school of the master. Even if some of the
exegeses do derive from a literary tradition, need that have been a
coherent Ephremic 'Diatessaron Commentary'?
As to the date of the Urtext [U], Lange detects a number of references
to the ongoing Trinitarian disputes within the Greek-speaking world at
the time. He suggests from passages attributable to the post-Ephremic
compiler, that the latter was a follower of Meletius of Antioch,
writing between 381 and 394.
Most of the rest of the Introduction consists of an overview of the
theological ideas contained within the Commentary,by which Lange means
the Urtext of the extant recensions insofar as they can be recovered,
rather than the parts which go back to Ephrem himself. This is a
reasonable procedure since the recovery of U is relatively
straightforwardly achieved by treating only those passages present in
both recensions, whereas the isolation of the exegeses of Ephrem
himself would require a more thorough and uncertain source analysis.
A survey of the Christology of the Commentary (Chapter VII) highlights
the importance the compiler attached to certain issues such as the
pre-existence of Christ (against the Arians) and His complete and full
incarnation. It is in general the Arians who are predominantly in view
throughout the work and the compiler deals with many of the
commonplaces of the Arian debates. This marks an interesting
distinction between the Compiler and Ephrem, whose later works
(written in Edessa) tend to focus rather on Marcionites and
Bardesanites than Arians (who were the object of his earlier attacks).
This perhaps reflects the fact that the Compiler was working after the
rise of the so-called Neo-Arian party, when these issues had become
urgent once again. The old chestnut of Prov 8.22, however, is never
It is interesting to note that the text uses both the idiomatic Syriac
metaphor for the incarnation, he took a body, while at the same time
using what is more a calque upon the Greek, he was embodied
(ethgsham). Although the compiler stresses that the different aspects
of Christ can be perceived in different parts of the Gospels, he
retains some sense of Christological unity by asserting the single
subjectivity of the Word. As was by the late fourth century common
practice amongst many Greek theologians, so for the compiler of the
Commentary, Christology is rooted in the need to express a coherent
soteriology. The Compiler is shown to represent the theology of the
late Ephrem rather than the early.
When Lange turns to the Trinitarian teaching of the Commentary, the
Compiler's various opponents come more clearly into view. As well as
Arians, they include Bardesanites, whose cosmology is roundly opposed,
and Marcionites, whose docetism, for example, is countered in the
exegesis of Christ's baptism. Both these groups figured prominently in
Ephrem's own polemic in Edessa. He is also keenly aware of the
Pneumatomachi, those who denied divinity to the Holy Spirit, an issue
which arose within Greek theological debate too late for Ephrem to
have engaged in it, but which must have been a significant problem for
his immediate followers.
Lange shows how the Compiler is thoroughly Ephremite in many of his
ideas and expressions but also goes far beyond the master. He "erweist
sich durch seine theologische Fachbegrifflichkeit nicht nur als
erstaunlich gut über die Diskussionen im griechischsprachigen Westen
informiert, sondern integriert diese auch in sein Werk." The student
is thus as worthy an object of study as the master.
The Introduction concludes with a number of short sections on other
issues of interest. Thus (Chapter VIII) it is shown that Ephrem/the
Compiler had access to a non-Diatessaronic text of the New Testament
which approximates to that of the Vetus Syra; Chapter IX discusses the
varied styles to be found in the text, sometimes homiletic, sometimes
more discursive; Chapter X briefly discusses the exegetical method of
the Compiler which follows that of Ephrem in using types and symbols
to bridge the gap between the outer/historical text and the
inner/spiritual one - this in contrast to the neo-Arian tendency to
maintain a strong metaphysical gap between creator and created.
Chapter XI discusses the various opponents that are in view in the
text, an issue mentioned more than once already.
Finally, Chapter XII introduces us to the German translation itself,
which he hopes will be a smooth and 'verständlichen deutschen Text'.
The translation follows the Syriac of the Chester Beatty ms where
extant (with only the more significant variations in the Armenian
being noted in the footnotes) and the Armenian version where the
former is missing. One finds that one has to keep a careful eye on the
footnotes in order to keep track of when the text being translated
comes from one of these lacunae - a marginal notation of some kind
might have been more helpful. The four small sections towards the end
of the Commentary which are in the Armenian but certainly missing from
the Syriac are included in the translation, though the fact is again
marked only in the footnotes.
The German translation is, as mentioned, designed to flow smoothly and
to be easily comprehensible to the occasional reader not accustomed to
the idioms, circumlocutions, and abbreviations of the Syriac. A few
examples will illustrate the style. "Why did you not reckon with your
mind?' becomes simply 'warum hast du nicht eingesehen?" [3,1]; again,
(lit.) "Pharaoh, however, because he did not know his lineage and his
mother and the time at which the redeemer of the Hebrews would be
born, killed the children, so that along with many would be killed
that one who was being sought by him" is rendered as "Der Pharao
hingegen tötete alle Kinder, weil er die Abstammungslinie, die Mutter
und die Zeit, zu der der Erlöser der Hebräer geboren warden sollte,
nicht kannte, damit er mit den vielen, die er tötete, auch zugleich
den einen, den er suchte, umbrachte," [3,5] and finally (lit.) "this
[one], where he says that they should be silent, [is] so that the
disciples might learn" is translated with "als er zu Jüngern sagte,
sie sollten schweigen, geschah dies, damit er sie lehre" [7,27b]. The
terms he uses are sometimes rather more graphic than their Syriac
equivalents, e.g. 'unbarmherzig' for 'awala' (evil) [3,1]. At other
times he unifies lexical variation, thus 'Böses' for both 'mesrah' and
'bishta' [3,5], while elsewhere the opposite happens: 'täuschen...in
die Irre zu führen...blenden', where there is only the single Syriac
term 'ta'a' [3,5].
This approach to translation is surely the correct one to adopt here,
especially where the audience is not expected to be able to read the
original text (although Fontes Christiani volumes are usually supplied
with the original Greek or Latin, this is not done for Syriac texts),
and the fluidity and lucidity of the translation is most welcome.
Perhaps the most difficult issue to resolve in relation to this book
is that of authorship. For despite the fact that throughout the
introduction Lange is at pains to name the author of the text as the
'Student of Ephrem' or as the 'Compiler' (in fact, he is more
insistent on this point than many earlier scholars such as Leloir,
McCarthy, and Petersen), it is nonetheless Ephrem's name that appears
on the cover of the volume. Nowhere is this adequately explained. If
it is justified of itself (and perhaps it is), then one feels that a
greater effort needs to be expended in differentiating those parts of
the text which may have come directly from the master's hand (or
mouth) and those which derive from the student. If the text was thus
divided up, it might detract from readability but it would surely then
justify the assertion that what we have in front of us is a commentary
by Ephrem. In view of the fact that in the title of his own monograph,
Lange calls the work the 'Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron', it is
possible that the appearance of Ephrem's name here is the result
rather of editorial pressure. If so, this is to be regretted. The
present text offers us a window into Ephrem's own world, but it is not
a text by Ephrem, though no less interesting for that.
As well as being a welcome new addition to the ever-growing number of
Syriac texts available in modern languages to wider audiences
interested in Early Christian literature, Lange has provided us with
an excellent and up-to-date overview of the state of research into
this fascinating but difficult text. His own research has complemented
and added in important ways to what has gone before and set a new
starting point for further work. The next stage is surely for a more
thorough attempt to distinguish the true Ephremic exegeses from those
of his school. Meanwhile, these volumes are an excellent introduction
both to this text in particular and to the area of Syriac Biblical
exegesis in general.
Table of Contents of the Introduction:
I. Das Leben Ephraems des Syrers
II. Das literarische Werk Ephraems
III. Der Kommentar zum Diatessaron
IV. Die Authentizität des Diatessaronkommentars
V. Die Abfassungszeit der Schrift
VI. Ein Schüler Ephraems als Kompilator
VII. Die theologischen Hauptgedanke des Kommentars
VIII. Die biblische Textvorlage des Kommentars
IX. Der Stil des Kommentars
X. Die exegetische Zugangsweise
XI. Aussagen über die Gegner des Kompilators
XII. Anmerkungen zur Übersetzung
1. The best overview and discussion is the late William L.
Petersen's Tatian's Diatessaron: Its Creation, Dissemination,
Significance, and History in Scholarship (VCSupp 25) (Brill, 1994).
2. L. Leloir (ed.), Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l'évangile
concordant. Texte syriaque (Manuscrit Chester Beatty 709) (Chester
Beatty Monographs 8) (Dublin, 1963), supplemented by a second volume,
Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l'évangile concordant. Texte syriaque
(Manuscrit Chester Beatty 709). Folios additionels (Chester Beatty
Monographs 8a) (Louvain, 1990).
3. The Latin is to be found in Leloir's editions, as cited above;
French in L. Leloir, Ephrem de Nisibe. Commentaire de l'évangile
concordant ou Diatessaron, traduit du syriaque et de l'arménien
(Sources Chrétiennes 121) (Paris, 1966); English in C. McCarthy, Saint
Ephrem's Commentary on the Diatessaron. An English Translation of the
Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709 with Introduction and Notes (Journal of
Semitic Studies, Suppl. 2) (Oxford, 1993).
4. C. Lange, The Portrayal of Christ in the Syriac Commentary on the
Diatessaron (CSCO 616, Subs.118) (Leuven, 2005), p.36-52.
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