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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Syriac Theological Heritage

More about the Antiochian tradition.

"The early Syriac theological tradition was quite distinct from that which developed in Hellenistic culture. Whereas the Greek theological tradition tended to focus on the abstract philosophical terminology, the Syriac tradition preferred to express itself in symbol and imagery. For example, many early Syriac works, like the forty-two Odes of Solomon, expressed an ecstatic love for God using the imagery of a sacred wedding, an image foreign to Hellenistic thought, wheras Christ as the "Heavenly Bridegroom" dominates much of early Syriac literature. Also, the Church is equated with Paradise (Ode 11:15-16), which continued to be a favorite theme in Syrian catechetical works. There are also interesting points of contact between the "speaking water" of Ode 9 and the "living and speaking" water mentioned in Ignatius' Epistle to the Romans.

The place of Prayer.
A number of Syriac writers from the fourth and fifth centuries deserve mention, like Shemon Bar Sebaai (d. 341) and Aphrahat the persian Sage, a bishop of the monastery of Saint Matthew on the Eastern shore of the Tigris (d. 350). Aphrat's writings, especially the Demonstrations, are marked by a spiritual transparency stemming from the life of prayer. To Aphrat, paryer is necessarily beautiful and its works salutary; however, it is only heard by God when forgiveness is found in it, and beloved by God when free of every guile. Prayer is powerful when the power of God is made effective in it. Other Syriac writers from this period- like Corlona, Gregory the Monk, Marotha of Mepharkeen (350-429), and Ibas of Edessa- were biblical exegetes, teachers, poets, hymnographers, and theologians. St. Ephraem, among the most brilliant of the Fathers of the Syrian Church deserves special notice here. He was born around the year 306 in Nisibis, a frontier town on the precarious border between Rome and Persia. Early on St. Ephraem gained a reputation as a scholar and as one who genuinely cared for the poor....................................(I skipped two paragraphs)............Although Ephraem represents a non-hellenized form of Christianity, he cannot be isolated from the theology of contempories like St. Athanasius the Great, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian. Ephraem shared the same Faith with them; only his manner of expressing it was uniquely Syriac. Avoiding Greek philosophical terminology, Ephraim did his theology by way of paradox and symbolism. For example, in Hymn 8 of his Hymns on Virginity we find a paradoxical observation of Christ's death: "By means of death they silenced You [Christ]. Your death itself became endowed with speech; it instructs and teaches the universe" (22). Poetry for him was the best vehicle for expressing his spiritual experience. His beautiful poetry enabled him to go beyond words to reach their inner truth and theological meaning. Among the many disciples of Ephraem was Mar aba, the author of numerous commentaries on the Gospels, as well as a homily on Job; Zenobius, deacons of Edessa, who wrote treatises against both Marcion and Pamphylus, as well as a Life of St. Ephraem; and also Abraham and Maras, mentioned in Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History as men "in whom the Syrians and whoever among them pursued accurate learning make a great boast. Sozomen also mentions that in the region of Osrhoene there flourished a certain Syrian named Harmonius deeply versed in Greek erudition, and who propagated Greek philosophical opinions concerning the soul and the impossibility of the resurrection of the body. He also composed Syriac hymns based on Greek meters and musical theory, popularizing his heretical opinions in lyrics. Sozomen even asserts that St. Ephraem began composing his great hymns in response to Harmonius, thus writing Verse "In accordance with the doctrines of the church.....From that period the Syrians sang the odes of Ephraem" according to the Law of the ode established by Harmonius." Be that as it may, Greek influence on Syriac literature only became pronounced following St. Ephraem's death in 373, steadily growing from the fifth century onwards. This interaction with Greek ideas, however, did not alter the basic structure of Syriac thought, but it did give it a new mode of expression."
[1] pages pages 77-80


[1] pages 77-80 from the book Antioch:Incarnational theology & Ministry" Edited by Joseph Allen & Michel Najim @ 2006


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