Hymns of Saint Ephraem (Ephrem) the Syrian, on Apostle Thomas and India
The earliest author of the Eastern Church, is Saint Ephraem (Ephrem) , the Great Doctor of the Syrian Church. Known us Deacon, monk, musician, inspired poet and profound commentator of sacred Scripture, this church father is beloved by all branches of Christ’s Church. This fourth-century saint was so admired and influential that a great many of his writings were among the first works after the Bible to be rendered into many parts of Christendom.
He was a native of the city of Nisibis, and had lived there up to A.D 363, when the surrender of that town by the Emperor Jovian to Sapor, the King of Persia, took place after the death of his predecessor, Julian the Apostate, and the partial defeat of the army under the same.
The Saint then retired to Edessa, which had become the frontier town of the Empire (( Ammianus Marcellinus, History, Bohn’s ed., 1862, bk.xxv.chap.viii.p.397)).
As the Relics of the Apostle Thomas had been treasured in that city from an early period, and as Ephraem had lived there for fully ten years till his death, which occurred in the summer of 373, it certainly seemed strange that in the numerous published works of prolific writers the direct evidence from St. Ephraem hymns are missing about the Apostolate. Relics of the Apostle Thomas are so specially venerated in the very city in which Ephraem resided, the city which, largely owing to his influence, became the general centre of Syrian literature. It was not until past the middle of the nineteenth century that such evidence was forthcoming.
Bishop A E Medlycott has collected some of the Saint Ephraem hymns and published those in “India and the Apostle Thomas” .This article is an extract from the relevant pages dealing with St. Ephraem hymns.
1. First Three stanzas from Hymn 42
The first writing of Ephraem which threw clear light on this subject appeared in 1866. It is No. 42 of his “Carmina Nisibena”, so styled by the editor Bickell, because they refer chiefly to the city of Nisibis.
The hymn in question consists of ten strophes, and is composed in form not unlike that of Greek and Latin odes, with a ‘refrain’ to be sung after each strophe. Ephraem composed most of his hymns that they should be sung at the public services of the Church. ((S. Ephraemi Syri, Carmina Nisibena, Lipsiae, 1866, Introduction, p.33))
Bickell, the Editor of “Carmina Nisibena” remarks : “These refrains which always contain a prayer, or a doxology, were undoubtedly sung by the people in chorus, while the hymn was sung as a solo by a cleric.’ This style of singing took its origin in the Syrian Church, and Ephraem composed his hymns in order to prevent the people continuing any longer to sing those tainted hymns.
The collection of hymns edited by Bickell is from British Museum Add. MS 14572. The MS consists of 117 folios, and is assigned by Bickell to the sixth century; some folios of the text have been lost,
Translation of the first three strophes of Hymn 42; the remaining strophes have no direct bearing on our subject.
‘(Thus) howled the devil: into what land shall I fly from the just?
‘ I stirred up Death the Apostles to slay, that by their death I might escape their blows.
‘But harder still am I now stricken: the Apostle I slew in India
has overtaken me in Edessa; here and there he is all himself.
‘There went I, and there was he: here and there to my grief I find him.
‘The merchant brought the bones: nay, rather! they brought him. Lo, the mutual gain!
‘What profit were they to me, while theirs was the mutual gain?
Both brought me loss.
‘Who will show me the casket of Iscariot, whence courage I derived?
‘But the casket of Thomas is slaying me, for a hidden power there residing, tortures me.
‘With profit Moses, the elect, in faith transported bones.
‘If then so great a Prophet held that help from bones could be obtained, rightly did the merchant believe the same, and rightly a merchant he styled himself.
‘The merchant has made a profit, has become great and rules.
‘His treasury has greatly impoverished me, for to Edessa it is open, and the great city by his aid is enriched.’
2. Last Seven stanzas from Madrasha
Madrasha, or Hymn of St. Ephraem is published by the learned Syriac scholar, Monsignor Lamy, of the University of Louvain, in his S. Ephraemi Syri Hymni et Sermones, four volumes in quarto. He devoted to his researches for the material and to the editing of the last volume, from which the further quotations are taken, ten years of labour ((vol. iv., Mechliniae, 1902, col. 694 seq.)).
The hymn is taken from British Museum Add. MS 17141, folio 85; Wright assigns the MS to the eighth or ninth century : it contains a large collection of hymns ascribed to Ephraem, Isaac of Antioch, and Jacob of Batnae (Sarug). ((Catalogue of Syriac MSS in the British Museum, pp. 359-363))
The hymn now in question contains seventeen strophes or stanzas, the English version of the last seven are following:-
On Thomas the Apostle
‘Blessed art thou, Thomas, the Twin, in thy deeds! twin is thy
spiritual power; nor one thy power, nor one thy name:
‘But many and signal are they; renowned is thy name among the Apostles.
‘From my lowly state thee I haste to sing.
‘Blessed art thou, O Light, like the lamp, the sun amidst darkness
hath placed; the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate.
‘A land of people dark fell to thy lot that these in white robes
thou shouldest clothe and cleanse by baptism: a tainted land Thomas has purified.
the solar ray from the great orb; thy
grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel.
‘Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the
Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.
‘Blessed art thou whom the Great King hath sent, that India to
his One-Begotten thou shouldest espouse; above snow and linen white,
thou the dark bride didst make fair.
‘Blessed art thou, who the unkempt hast adorned, that having
become beautiful and radiant, to her Spouse she might advance.
‘Blessed art thou, who hast faith in the bride, whom from heathenism,
from demons’ errors, and from enslavement to sacrifices thou didst rescue.
‘Her with saving bath thou cleansest, the sunburnt thou hast made
fair, the Cross of Light her darkened shades effacing.
‘Blessed art thou, O merchant, a treasure who broughtest where
so greatly it was needed; thou the wise man, who to secure the great
pearl, of thy riches all else thou givest;
‘The finder it enriches and ennobles: indeed thou art the merchant who the world endowest!
‘Blessed art thou, O Thrice-Blessed City! that hast acquired this
pearl, none greater doth India yield;
‘Blessed art thou, worthy to possess the priceless gem! Praise to
thee, O Gracious Son, Who thus Thy adorers dost enrich!’
3. Last Six stanzas from Breviary
The third quotation is from another hymn given in the same Breviary, vol. vi. p. 635, and is taken from col. 704 of Monsignor Lamy’s fourth volume. The hymn consists of eight stanzas; following are six from the same :-
On Thomas the Apostle
‘Thomas, whence thy lineage,
That so illustrious thou shouldst become ?
A merchant thy bones conveys;
A pontiff assigns thee a feast ; ((. The Chronicon Edessenum assigns the translation to A.D. 394, and gives the day of the month as the 22nd of August.))
A King a shrine erects. (( This possibly refers to the concluding statement in the Acts of Thomas. King Mazdai (Misdeus) is there stated to have opened the grave of the Apostle, and not finding his bones, took some of the dust and applied it to his son, and thus delivered him from the devil’s possession. After this the king may perhaps have become a Christian, and have joined the brethren under Sifur. If so, he would probably be the founder of the first church built over the original tomb of the Apostle at the town now known as Mylapore. It is to some such tradition that Ephraem appears to refer.))
The bones the merchant hath brought,
Over them an outward watch he kept,
They from within guard over him keep.
Since on divers trades he embarked
Nothing so priceless did he acquire.
In his several journeys to India,
And thence on his returns,
All riches, which there he found,
Dirt in his eyes he did repute
When to thy [sacred] bones compared.
Neither promised nor hoped for,
One thing more did he [the creator] give.
Lo, in India thy wonders, (( From this it would appear that in Ephraem’s time merchants who had visited the Indian shrine brought back reports of miracles wrought there, and of favours obtained: this is also implied in the Nisibine hymn quoted above. Thus also Marco Polo and others bear witness to similar occurrences at a later period Ephraem moreover expressly affirms that the inhabitants of Edessa were aware of miracles and favours granted in their city, and that the fame of St.Thomas had spread far and wide.))
In our land thy triumph,
Everywhere thy festival.
Wonders during life thou performest,
These, after death, thou still continuest:
Under great bodily fatigue
In one region only didst thou heal.
Now, everywhere, without labour thou dost cure.
As thou wast taught [by the Lord],
With the sign of the Cross and oil thou didst heal;
But now, without speech, demons thou expellest;
Without speech human ills thou curest;
Without prayer the dead do arise.’
4. Three stanzas from Breviary
Fourth quotation from St. Ephraem comes also from the Breviary, vol. vi. p. 638. In Monsignor Lamy’s fourth volume it will be found at col. 706. It consists of six strophes; of three are quoted :-
On Thomas the Apostle
‘The One-Begotten his Apostles chose,
Among them Thomas, whom he sent
To baptize peoples perverse, in darkness steeped.
A dark night then India’s land enveloped,
Like the sun’s ray Thomas did dart forth;
There he dawned, and her illumined.
What dweller on earth was ever seen,
But Thomas, the Lord’s Apostle,
On earth designing and a dwelling in Heaven erecting? ((Ephraem refers to a vision related in the Acts of Thomas. It was the vision of a beautiful building in heaven which the Apostle had erected by his preachings and good works in India. See Wright’s translation of the Syriac Acts, p. 162; and pp. 141- 142 of Max Bonnet’s Acta.
In the Acts the building to be erected is called a palace, while Ephraem speaks of a dwelling; the reader will keep in mind that while Thomas saw a palace in heaven in a dream, he was asked by the king to build him a mansion for his dwelling.
It is hardly probable that stone houses existed in Southern India in those days. There seem, however, to have been stone temples, and possibly there may have been some of these even in Malabar. Buildings of burnt brick are of comparatively recent date.
Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese on the Malabar coast the houses of a superior class were built of teak-wood, and used to last upwards of 400 years when kept well tarred on the outside, in spite of the very heavy annual rainfall (120 inches) in that
part of India. ))
Or on earth who so wise was found
Here of his genius essaying
What in Heaven a crowning secures ?
The client of Thomas needs not men his praises to sing :
Great is the crowd of his martyred followers.
Lo, his Bones, his Passion, his Work proclaim ; ((In these words Ephraem brings us practically face to face with realities. There is no longer anything vague or general as in the preceding reference to the ‘building’ the Apostle was erecting : but now we come to the realities of his martyrdom, his preachings, his conversion of the Indians, his miracles after death. No wonder, then, that St. Ephraem exclaims :‘Who dares doubt the truth of his Relics ?’ ))
His Miracles, him yet alive assert;
His Deeds the rough Indian convinced.
Who dares doubt the truth of his Relics ?’
The passages given above from the four Madrashas of Ephraem establish certain points as matters of history. This they do in spite of the limitations imposed by poetical language. The points established are the following:-
A.—By the Nisibine hymn 42.
(1) Thomas the Apostle suffered martyrdom in India (Strophe I.).
(2) His body was buried in India (I.).
(3) His bones were thence removed by a merchant to the city of
(4) His power and influence were felt in both places (I.-II.).
B.— By the first hymn given by Monsignor Lamy.
(1) Thomas was a lamp placed in darkness to illuminate the earth filled with the smoke of false sacrifices (XII.).
(2) It was to a land of dark people he was destined, to clothe them by baptism in white robes, and to purify the tainted land (XII.).
(3) His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness (XIII.).
(4) He, one of the Twelve, like a great lamp with oil from the Cross replenished, flooded India’s dark night with light (XIII.).
(5) It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten : this he did by making the unkempt beautiful and radiant for the Bridegroom’s acceptance (XIV.).
(6) He had faith in the Bride, so he rescued her from demons’ errors; the sunburnt he made fair with light from the Cross (XV.).
(7) The merchant is blessed for having brought so great a treasure to a place where it was greatly needed (XVI.).
(8) Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the GREATEST PEARL India could yield (XVII.).
C. — By the second hymn given by Monsignor Lamy.
(1) Thomas suddenly attains great honour, because his Bones are conveyed from India by a merchant; a Pontiff assigns a Feast in his honour; a King erects a Shrine to his memory (I.-III.).
(2) Thomas works miracles in India and at Edessa; and his festival is kept everywhere (VI.).
(3) During his life, with great bodily fatigue, he did good and healed the sick in one region only, but now without labour he does the same everywhere (VII.).
(4) The traditional apostolic custom, as taught or ordered by the Lord, of healing with blessed oil and the sign of the cross, is mentioned (VIII.).
D. — By the third hymn given by Monsignor Lamy.
(1) Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India (I.).
(2) Thomas, the Lord’s Apostle, has the singular power of designing an edifice on earth, and erecting it in heaven (II.).
(3) Thomas’ praises are well known : the result of his apostolate is attested by his martyred followers; his work attests his teaching; his miracles proclaim him living in heaven ; the rough Indians are converted by the deeds they have witnessed. Who, then, can possibly doubt the truth of his Relics ? (V.).
In order to seize the full weight and importance of the above evidence, it is most important for the reader to bear in mind that the facts relating to the Apostle in connection with his evangelisation of India, here set forth, are not attested only by the one individual, Ephraem, but carry with them the assent of a whole Church, that of Edessa.
Ephraem was not putting forward his personal views on the subject, as an ordinary writer would do, but he embodied in these hymns the local tradition and facts which were of common knowledge among the people. Moreover, as these hymns in great part became
incorporated in the Liturgy of the Syrian Church, and were sung in that Church, first at Edessa, they have received the most emphatic support a Christian people can give to facts, the knowledge of which regards them in some special manner.
Extract from “India and the Apostle Thomas” by A.E. Medlycott.
For further reading,
1] Online- India and the Apostle Thomas: An Inquiry, with a Critical Analysis of the Acta Thoma by A E Medlycott ( Google Books)
2] Online-India and the Apostle Thomas: An Inquiry, with a Critical Analysis of the Acta Thoma by A E Medlycott (indianchristianity.com)
3] Printed- The Nazranies – 1st vol. of the Indian Church History Classics by Prof George Menachery