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“All humans are cast into battle:” Ephrem the Syrian’s Theology of Spiritual Struggle and Ascetic Heroism

posted on 2024-03-25, 02:16 authored by Vincenz Heereman

Ephrem the Syrian (306–307 CE) is widely celebrated as one of the greatest Christian poets. Previous scholarship has shown that symbolic language is for him a matter of theological necessity. Symbols and metaphors are the idiom of Revelation—they must also be the idiom of theology, of human language about God. If this is true, the study of Ephrem’s use of metaphors should cast into relief theological patterns embedded in his poetry, patterns so subtle and unthematized that they can easily remain undetected (chap. 1).

This dissertation examines one specific set of metaphors in the hymns (madrashe) and sermons (memre) of Ephrem: the images of warfare and athletic competition. Agonistic language, it appears, serves Ephrem primarily to describe the ascetic dimension of human existence. The struggle (aguna) into which all humans are cast is the birthright of human freedom, situated between good and evil. A fascinating pattern emerges from Ephrem’s construal of ascetic practices: even as he highlights human agency, he forestalls any potential lapse into voluntarism. Spiritual warfare and ascetic efforts, to Ephrem’s mind, are not a matter of the strong and the elite, but the domain of the weak (chap. 2).

Bringing “aguna” as hermeneutical key to biblical stories, often in dialogue with rabbinic traditions, Ephrem highlights such aspects of the patriarchs’ struggles as are applicable to all Christians, showing the extraordinary nature of the seemingly inconspicuous (chaps. 3 and 4). The “Memra on Jonah and the Repentance of Nineveh,” read against the backdrop of ancient epic literature, reveals that Ephrem seeks to create a Christian ideal in which repentance, construed as a battle, is the epitome of heroism (chap. 5).

These findings force us to reexamine our understanding of Ephrem as an ascetic author. He has been wrongly characterized as largely uninterested in the concerns of lay life. With his constant emphasis on the heroic nature of ordinary struggles and his insistence on the prominent place of the weak in Christ’s army, Ephrem should instead be seen as an early proponent of an ascetic spirituality for the lay.


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Defense Date


CIP Code

  • 39.0601

Research Director(s)

Gary A. Anderson


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation

Alternate Identifier


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Program Name

  • Theology

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