"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ephraim the Semitic Syrian?

Oxford's Sebastian Brock, the great scholar of Ephraim the Syrian who has a review of a new book on Syriac realities in the forthcoming issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, has raised the question of how to consider the Syriac tradition of Eastern Christianity ("The Syriac Orient: a Third 'Lung' for the Church?," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 71 [2005]: 5-20). The Syriac tradition (as it is increasingly generally known, especially in North America, to avoid calling it "Syrian" and so conflating ancient theological realities with the politics of the modern nation-state) is neither Latin nor Greek, and its early development predated the Hellenization of Christianity and preserved much closer and more obviously Semitic roots outside of Greek philosophical categories.

Just how Semitic--just how Jewish--was, and is, that tradition, and its chief spokesman, Ephraim? Such is the question under examination in a new book:

E. Narinskaya, Ephrem, a 'Jewish' Sage: A Comparison of Exegetical Writings of St. Ephrem in the Syrian and Jewish Tradition (Studia Traditionis Theologiae) (Brepols, 2010), xix+357pp. 

The author holds a doctorate from the University of Durham.

The publisher provides us the following description of the book:
This book seeks to reconsider the commonly held view that some of Ephrem’s writings are anti-Semitic, and that his relationship with Judaism is polemical and controversial. The outcome of the research highlights several key issues. First, it indicates that the whole emphasis of Ephrem’s critical remarks about Jews and Judaism is directed towards Christian conduct, and not towards Jews; and second, it considers Ephrem’s negative remarks towards Jews strictly within the context of his awareness of the need for a more clearly defined identity for the Syriac Church.
Furthermore, this book examines discernible parallels between Ephrem’s commentaries on Scripture and Jewish sources. Such an exercise contributes to a general portrait of Ephrem within the context of his Semitic background. And in addition, the book offers an alternative reading of Ephrem’s exegetical writings, suggesting that Ephrem was aiming to include Jews together with Christians among his target audience. Further analysis of Ephrem’s biblical commentaries suggests that his exegetical style resembles in many respects approaches to Scripture familiar to us from the writings of Jewish scholars.
A comparison of Ephrem’s writings with Jewish sources represents a legitimate exercise, considering ideas that Ephrem emphasises, exegetical techniques that he uses, and his great appreciation of ‘the People’ – the Jews as a chosen nation and the people of God – an appreciation which becomes apparent from Ephrem’s presentation of them. The process of reading Ephrem’s exegetical writings in parallel with Jewish sources strongly identifies him as an heir of Jewish exegetical tradition who is comfortably and thoroughly grounded in it. This reading identifies Ephrem on a theological, exegetical and methodological level as a Christian writer demonstrating the qualities and features of a Jewish sage.
I look forward to having this book reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies later this year.

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