Ephraim Hymns Against Julian

Ephraim (ca. 306-73) lived in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire, where the language of daily life was Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic, related to Hebrew). Until 363, Ephraim was a teacher and hymnographer for the church in Nisibis; following Julian's disastrous campaign against the Persians and the surrender of Julian's successor Jovian (in 363), Nisibis was ceded to the Persian Empire. Ephraim, along with other Christian refugees, found himself transplanted to the city of Edessa. There Ephraim served as a deacon and directed choirs that chanted his compositions. Although Ephraim's many hymns and prose compositions are often used to show the particularities of Syriac Christianity, Ephraim was also, in many ways, a typical Christian author of the Roman Empire. He was a voracious defender of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arians (see Chapter 7). His Hymns Agains t Julian (the first and third of which are reproduced here) also show an affinity to other Christian attempts to come to terms with Julian's non-Christian imperial rule.

Hymn 1 describes Julian's ascent to the imperial throne as the coming of the "bad shepherd": apostates and Jews (the "People") helped Julian usher in a season of demonic confusion. Hymn 2 describes Julian's attempts to revive "paganism" in the empire, drawing on familiar biblical parallels between idolatry and sexual license. Hymn 3 describes the death of Julian in particularly gruesome and joyful terms, as one pagan king fell to another while Christ triumphed over both. Hymn 4 continues the mocking description of Julian's failed pagan campaign against the Persians and discusses Julian's abortive attempt to allow the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem.

Ephraim seems familiar with Julian's religious agenda: he calls Julian the "Hellenic" king (Julian's own preferred term for his religious system was "Hellenism"). He makes fun of Julian, who wrote a long treatise in praise of the Greek god of the sun (a "Hymn to Helios") for setting out to attack his fellow sun worshippers, the Persians. He refers to Julian's famous long, philosopher's beard, which was apparently the butt of jokes during Julian's life. Ephraim's tone throughout is triumphant (the "Galilean" has definitively conquered "the Hellenic king"), but also mournful: the price of Julian's brief, demonic rampage has been the loss of Nisibis and the transplantation of Ephraim and his fellow Nisibene Christians.

Excerpts from Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns. Translated by Kathleen McVey. Copyright © Paulist Press, 1989. Used with permission of Paulist Press.

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