But along with the genuine and trustworthy matter, the compiler has embodied much that is unattested and in many cases inherently improbable, and even some things that are demonstrably untrue.
i. The Miraculous Details. -- To the category of the improbable -- the fiction of hagiology or the growth of myth -- belong the miracles so freely ascribed to Ephraim and the miraculous events represented as attending on his career. It is noteworthy that Ephraim himself, though no doubt he believed that he was the recipient of Divine intimations in dream or vision, never lays claim to supernatural powers. Nor does Gregory in the Encomium attribute to him any such -- except in the case of the rich friend who for his mistaken zeal was given over to an evil spirit; and on his repentance relieved through Ephraim's intercession. The voice that issued from his father's idol foretelling his future war against idolatry -- the answer of the new-born babe that cleared him from calumny -- the crowned phantom on the walls of Nisibis that scared the besiegers -- the plague of insects that drove them into disastrous flight -- the Angel sent to call him back to Edessa when he had fled thence -- the storm hushed and the sea-monster slain by his word on the voyage to Egypt -- the monk whom he delivered at once from demoniacal possession and from heresy -- the sudden gift of tongues which enabled him to speak Coptic with Bishoi and Greek with Basil -- the restoration to life of the youth who had died of a viper's bite at Samosata -- the paralytic healed at the church door in Edessa -- the disappearance of the record of guilt from the scroll on which the penitent of C√¶sarea had written her confession -- all these belong to the later growth of legend that springs up naturally over the tomb of a saint. Some of them may be safely set aside as purely fictitious; others are probably due to metaphoric expressions mistaken for literal assertions, or to rhetorical amplification throwing a false coloring of the supernatural over ordinary events. Most of them, moreover, bear evident signs of having been dressed by the compiler into spurious resemblance to the miraculous narrations in the Old and New Testaments, of the Divine dealings with Prophets and Apostles, -- Elisha, Jonah, St. Peter, St. Paul, or even of the works of power which attested the mission of our Lord Himself on earth. In reading these, one cannot fail to feel painfully -- though the narrator seems quite unconscious of -- the irreverence of the travesty. It is noteworthy that some, even of the non-miraculous incidents of the Life appear to have been similarly handled. Thus the account of the stoning of Ephraim outside of Edessa seems modelled after that of St. Paul at Lystra, (Acts xiv.19, 20): and the simulated madness by which he evaded the call of the Episcopate is apparently borrowed from the history of David's behavior before Achish and his servants at Gath (1 Sam. xxi.13-15).
ii. The Demonstrably Incorrect or Contradictory Statements. -- Farther, even when we have laid aside all that is seemingly exaggerated, invented or mythical in the Life, there remains much in it that, when critically examined, proves to need correction or to deserve rejection. We proceed to deal with some questions which arise affecting the historical credibility of its narrative.
1. Ephraim's Alleged Heathen Parentage. -- The heathen parentage assigned to Ephraim, and consequently the whole narrative of his conversion to Christianity and his consequent troubles, may be without hesitation discredited. They are irreconcilable with his own words (Adv. H√¶reses, XXVI.), |I was born in the way of truth: though my boyhood understood not the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came.| So again more explicitly (if we may trust a Confession which is extant only in Greek), |I had been early taught about Christ by my parents; they who begat me after the flesh, had trained me in the fear of the Lord....My parents were confessors before the judge: yea, I am the kindred of martyrs.|
2. The First and Third Sieges of Nisibis. -- In the narrative of the siege of Nisibis, and especially of the presence and intercession of St. Jacob the Bishop, there is confusion and grave error. It is certain that in the reign of Constantius (337-361), Nisibis was three times besieged by Sapor. The siege in which St. Jacob was within the city took place in the year 338, and he died the same year. The attempt of Sapor to employ the intercepted waters of the Mygdonius for the destruction of its walls, belongs to a later siege -- the third, of the year 350 -- twelve years after the death of Jacob. These two sieges are expressly recorded in the |Paschal (otherwise Alexandrine Chronicle),| followed by Theophanes in his Chronographia (who also mentions briefly the intervening siege of 346); and the account given by the former of these chroniclers (who wrote in the seventh century) rests on the authority of an Epistle written by Valgesh, Bishop of Nisibis in 350, who is eulogized by Ephraim in five of the Nisibene Hymns contained in the present volume (XIII-XVII.). Other contemporary evidence, fuller, and at first hand, to the same effect, is forthcoming from two widely different sources. -- As already intimated, the Apostate is here alone with the champion of the Faith.
In his second Oration (addressed, probably in the year 358, to Constantius, then Emperor) Julian describes the siege with even more circumstantial detail than our biographer, placing it after the death of Constans, which took place in January 350, and thus confirming the date assigned by the Paschal chronicler and by Theophanes. According to Julian's account, the embankment formed by Sapor, the work of four months, was so constructed as to encompass the whole circuit of Nisibis, so that the river intercepted by it |formed a lake in the middle of which the city stood as an island,| with |the battlements of its walls barely appearing above the surrounding waters|; and on the surface of this encircling lake, he launched armed vessels and floating war-engines. By these the fortifications were ceaselessly battered for several days, -- till of a sudden the river (then in flood) burst its barrier, and carried away not only the embankment but a hundred cubits of the city wall. Through the breach thus made, Sapor pushed forward his cavalry to lead the advance upon the city which lay thus seemingly at his mercy. But they proved unable to overcome the difficulties of the intervening ground -- torn up and flooded as it was by the torrent, and traversed moreover by an ancient moat -- while the Nisibenes in the energy inspired by their deadly peril, showered missiles upon their assailants as they strove to struggle onward. The Persian next sent on his elephants; but their unwieldly bulk served only to enhance the panic and confusion, and to complete the disaster of his repulse. And when, the next morning, he prepared to renew the assault, he found himself confronted by a new wall, hurriedly raised in the night, to fill the gap in the ramparts, reaching already the height of six feet and manned by fresh and well-armed defenders. Despairing of success against a resistance so obstinate, he raised the siege on which he had in vain expended so much time, labour, treasure, and blood, and retired ignominiously.
It is needless to add that of the miraculous incidents of the siege as related in the Life, no trace appears in Julian's account. The only Providence he discerns in the successful defence of Nisibis, is that which he attributes to his imperial kinsman to whom his fulsome oratory is addressed.
Of the leading facts, as related by Julian, ample corroboration will be found in the first three of the Nisibene Hymns above referred to. In the first, Ephraim makes Nisibis herself tell the tale of her peril: she compares herself to the Ark of the Flood, compassed, not like it by waters merely, but by |mounds and weapons and waves| (I., 3); but (ib., 6, 8) the wall had not yet given way, for he still speaks of it as standing, and prays that it may continue to stand. This Hymn was therefore written while the siege was still in progress. In the second Hymn he celebrates her deliverance and the manner of it, -- the very breach of her walls turned into triumph (II.5, 7) by their reconstruction and the assault of the besiegers with their elephants (ib., 17, 18, 19), repulsed in disgrace, ending in immediate retreat. In the third Hymn, he follows on similar lines; and adds a point, significant in his apprehension, that whereas the wall fell on the Sabbath, it was raised again on the Lord's day, the Day of the Resurrection (III.6). In all three Hymns, it is again and again implied or asserted that this was the third siege of Nisibis (I.11; II.5, 19; III.11, 12) -- and farther (as it seems) the third time that a breach had been effected in her walls (I.11; II.19). In later Hymns also (XI.14, 15; XIII.17) the embanked river, bursting forth and breaking down the defences of the city, more than once appears. From one of these we learn incidentally that the Mygdonius flowed past, not through, Nisibis (XIII.18, 19); from which fact it follows that the description in the Life, of the manner in which the Persian engineers employed the river waters against the walls, is to be set aside in so far as it differs from Julian's account as confirmed by the Hymns.
It is remarkable how closely these two accounts, both contemporary with the facts they treat of, agree in all essential points, though coming to us from sources not only independent, but even adverse, inter se, -- and in forms so little favourable to exactness of statement as thanksgiving Hymns and encomiastic Orations. When from Ephraim's strophes we omit his pious ascriptions of praise to God, and from Julian's periods, the fulsomeness of his panegyric on the Emperor, the residuum of material fact is in either case much the same; the main outlines of narrative (related or implied) are identical in both writers, each unconsciously attests the truthfulness of the other. Both are farther confirmed in great measure by the account of this siege embodied in the Pascha Chronicle above referred to, which (as already stated) rests on information drawn from a written record left by Valgesh who was Bishop of Nisibis at the time, and to whose prayers Ephraim (Hymn XIII.17) attributed the speedy restoration of the breach in the city wall.
In confusing this siege (of 350, in the time of Valgesh), with the previous one (of 338, in the time of Jacob), our biographer, with most subsequent writers down to the eighteenth century, has been misled by following Theodoret's narration in his Ecclesiastical History (II.30). The account of the siege given in the Life is in fact a mere reproduction, somewhat abridged, and slightly varied, of Theodoret's, from which it derives also its computation of the time occupied by the siege as but twenty days, -- a period obviously inadequate for the vast engineering works for which the four months assigned by Julian are certainly not too much, -- as well as its description of the method and aim of those works. In Theodoret likewise are found the two supernatural incidents of Sapor's discomfiture, both repeated in the Life, -- neither of which is affirmed or even hinted at by Ephraim any more than by Julian; the appearance of the Imperial Phantom on the wall, and the plague of insects sent in answer to Jacob's, or, as the Life has it, to Ephraim's prayer. Of these, the former, but not the latter, finds place in the Paschal Chronicle, and (in exaggerated form) in Theophanes. Whether, in this instance, the chronicler's statement, which is guardedly expressed, or any nucleus of it, was derived from the Epistle of Valgesh, -- or whether he borrowed it from Theodoret or some one of Theodoret's sources, or some such authority -- is matter of conjecture.
3. Constantius and Constans. -- The Life errs grossly (as already noticed) in making Constans, who died in 350, and never reigned in the East, the successor of his brother Constantius, who survived till 361.
4. The Alleged Sojourn in Egypt. -- The sojourn of Ephraim for eight years in Egypt, after he had taken up his abode in Egypt, and before his visit to Cappadocia, is impossible. It was in July, 363, that Nisibis was surrendered to Persia by Jovian, which court was the cause, as the Life (no doubt rightly) states, of Ephraim's final departure from that city to Beth-Garbaia, thence to Amid, and finally, |at the end of the year,| to Edessa. It follows, therefore, that he did not reach Edessa till 364. In Edessa, or in his cell on the adjacent |Mount| according to the Life, he lived, worked, wrote commentaries and polemical discourses, taught, and formed a school of disciples, before his alleged journey to Egypt. It is therefore implied that he spent years in or near Edessa before he set out on that journey, which cannot therefore be placed so early as 365. Even if we assign to it the improbably early date of 366, the eight years in Egypt bring us to 374, or at earliest 373, for his visit to the C√¶sarean Cappadocia. Now there is a prevailing weight of testimony to the effect that Ephraim died in 373, which date, if accepted, leaves no time for the incidents of his life after his return to Edessa. This, however, cannot be urged against our biographer, who (as will be shown) assumes that he lived till 379. But the Life represents him as resident in or near Edessa during the persecution which that city suffered from the Emperor Valens, which (as stated above, p.132) took place probably in 371; certainly not later than 372, at which date (according to the biographer) he was still in Egypt. In fact, even without going into particulars, it is evident that between Ephraim's arrival in Edessa in 364 and the persecution of Valens in 370-2, the eight years' sojourn in Egypt and the visit to Cappadocia would so fill the interval as to leave no time for the prolonged Edessa residence, before and after that sojourn, which the Life, in common with all other authorities, attributes to Ephraim, and in virtue of which his name is inseparably associated with the history of Edessa.
If, with the Vatican recension of the Life, we read |Julian| for Valens, as the name of the persecutor of Edessa, the impossibility becomes yet more absurdly glaring. For Julian died in 363, and before that year Ephraim had not migrated from Nisibis to Edessa.
It is no doubt possible that Ephraim may have visited Egypt, as the Life affirms, before proceeding to C√¶sarea: as an anchorite he would naturally be drawn to the land where the anchorite life had its origin and its greatest development. Yet it is hardly probable that, eager as he was to see Basil at C√¶sarea, he would, when setting out on his travels, have directed his course to Egypt first, -- a country so distant, and lying in a direction so different, from Cappadocia. This improbability would naturally fail to strike our biographer, who appears to have supposed Basil's C√¶sarea (if indeed he had any definite idea of its situation) to have been the maritime city of that name in Palestine. One can hardly avoid suspecting that this whole narrative of the visit to Egypt -- unknown as it is to all authorities save our Life (in its twofold recension), and the shorter form of the same -- may have been invented by some compiler or reviser, writing in, or for, one of the Egyptian monasteries of the Nitrian Desert, and seeking to gratify the Syrian ascetics who were numerous in that region, by making it the scene of an episode in the life of the most famous of Syrian ascetics. It certainly has the air of an interpolation, coming as it does between the description of Ephraim's longing desire to see Basil, and the narrative of the fulfilment of that desire by his visit to C√¶sarea. More particularly, as regards the story of the visit of Ephraim to the Nitrian Saint Peso√ęs (or Bishoi), it is to be noted that it is mentioned, not in the Parisian recension of the Life, but only in that of the Vatican ms. It is a significant fact that this ms., which is thus our only written authority for the alleged visit, was written (probably) about the year 1100, in the Nitrian monastery of |Amba Bishoi| (St. Peso√ęs). On the other hand, it is to be added that a tradition of Ephraim's sojourn in Egypt, connecting him with Peso√ęs, lingered in quite recent times, and may probably still linger, among the monks, Syrian and Coptic, of the Nitrian region. Travellers of the seventeenth, and even eighteenth, century, tell of a tamarind tree which was shown to them within the precincts of the Syrian monastery of the Theotokos in that region, reputed to have grown from Ephraim's staff which he set in the ground on his arrival there, as he was about to enter the cell of Peso√ęs. It is probable that this legend of the staff (which reminds one of that of the staff of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury thorn tree) may have grown out of the belief that Ephraim once visited the monastery, -- which belief again may have been originated by the pious fiction of the compiler or interpolator of the Life in its Vatican form. It is easy to imagine how gladly a community of Syrian monks in this Egyptian solitude would listen to what professed to be a record of the greatest of Syrian monks, a recluse like themselves, the author of the Sermons to Ascetics which they had read or listened to, and of the many hymns which enriched their offices and quickened their devotions; -- and how ready they would be to welcome as fact the story of his sojourn in their valley, and to imagine that a memorial of it survived among the trees of their garden.
5. Interval between Visit to Basil and Persecution by Valens. -- The interval of four years or more, which the Life seems to place between Ephraim's return from C√¶sarea to Edessa, and the persecution of the Edessenes by Valens, is likewise impossible. For at C√¶sarea all agree that Ephraim found Basil Archbishop. But Basil was consecrated late in 370, and therefore Ephraim's first meeting with him, which was on the Feast of the Epiphany, cannot be placed earlier than January, 371. But the persecution took place probably in 371, or at latest in 373 -- thus reducing the possible length of interval to two years at most -- probably to a few months. It may be said, however, that the biographer, though he relates the persecution after mentioning the four years' interval, does not mean to imply that it was subsequent in time to that interval. But it will be shown farther on (under next head) that the four years' interval is inadmissible, independently of the date of that persecution; inasmuch as Ephraim survived only three years after his visit to Basil.
6. Death of Basil before that of Ephraim. -- The story of the lady who was sent by Basil to Ephraim, and by Ephraim back to Basil, only in time to see his corpse, -- and of Ephraim's grief for Basil's death, cannot be accepted unless we set aside the consent of the chronologers, who agree that Ephraim died in 373, -- whereas Basil survived to 1st January, 379. It is true that there is extant among the Greek works ascribed to Ephraim, an encomium on Basil, which seems to be genuine. This, however, is not to be regarded as an eulogium pronounced after Basil's death; but rather as a panegyric in which the living man is apostrophized. We may safely conclude that the story, which rests on a basis of erroneous chronology, is itself a fiction.
But the story of Ephraim's helpful intervention and activity in a time of famine, which is undated, having early attestation, may well be accepted as true, and assigned to the winter of 372-3. The authorities who attest the date of his death as 373, place it in the month of Haziran (June); and we may reasonably conjecture that the exertions and anxieties of the season of famine had told too heavily on a frame already wasted by years and by excessive austerities, and had thus hastened his end.