Of the compositions contained in this volume, none yields internal evidence of its date, except the Nisibene Hymns of the first division. Hymns XXXV.-XLII. (not included here), apparently belong to the later (or Edessene) period of Ephraim's life, and to the reign of Valens, -- i.e., they are later than the year 363. The 21 Hymns which stand first in our collection may confidently be assigned to the year of the third siege (350) and the thirteen following years. Hymn I. was indubitably composed while the siege was still urgent; Hymns I. and III. immediately after the deliverance; Hymns IV.-XII. deal with the fortunes of the city and country in a troubled time of invasion that succeeded; the rest (XIII.-XXI.) treat of the four successive Bishops of Nisibis under whom Ephraim lived -- Jacob, Babu, Valgesh, and Abraham. The last-named is not elsewhere recorded except by Elias of Nisibis, but the death of Valgesh is known to have occurred in 361. The Hymns therefore which celebrate the accession of Abraham to the See (XVII.-XXI.) must be placed in the interval, 361-363, the latter being the year when Ephraim with all the Christian population of the city was driven out by Sapor. Hymns XIII.-XVI., being written while Valgesh was Bishop -- for they compare him with his two predecessors -- fall into the interval between the year of the siege (350) which they speak of as past, -- and the year of the death of Valgesh (361). Bickell assigns IV.-XII. to the months of Sapor's invasion in 359; XIII.-XVI. to 358 and 359; XVII.-XXI. to 363, in the short space between Julian's death and the surrender of Nisibis.
It is probable that most of his Hymns that are definitely controversial belong, like most of his controversial writings, to the years of his later life, at Edessa. And as we have seen, the earliest of them that can be confidently dated, is not earlier than 350. But it would be hasty to conclude that he had composed no Hymns before that date, and that in the Nisibene Hymns of the siege we have the first fruits of the vine of his vision. In 350 he must have been over forty -- perhaps over fifty years of age; and it is highly improbable that a fertility which proved to be so abundant, did not begin to manifest itself at a much earlier age; or that a literary offspring of such bulk and importance was all produced in the last five and twenty years of a long life. The earlier authorities concerning his life give no definite information on this head; and the Syriac Life is vague in its statements and untrustworthy in its chronology. The account given of Barhebræus, a well-informed but very late writer (thirteenth century), can hardly be accepted as embodying any genuine tradition, but has probability in its favor: -- |From the time of the Nicene Council (he writes ), Ephraim began to write canticles and hymns against the heresies of his time,| -- for few of his hymns are without a polemic spirit, though (as has been said) those that are purely controversial seem to be of a later period. A much later author indeed, Georgius |Bishop of the Arabians| (writing in 714) warns us that there is no evidence to assign any of Ephraim's writings to the twenty years' interval between the Nicene Council and the year 345 -- |especially (he adds) to the years before 337.| This writer, however, is here arguing in support of the claim of Aphrahat to be an independent author, against those who regarded him as a disciple of Ephraim; and he rests his case on the ground that whereas the Demonstrations of Aphrahat are (as we shall see presently) dated from 337 to 345, no composition of Ephraim's can be shown to have been written so early. And it must be admitted that the earliest date (as above noted) that can be fixed with certainty for any of Ephraim's innumerable productions in 350, -- thirteen years later than Aphrahat's earlier Demonstrations. Against this is to be set the tradition of Ephraim's presence at Nicæa, implying as it does that even in 325 he had made himself a notable person, -- and the probability that one who has left such ample proof of the copiousness of his literary gift, must have begun to exercise it before a date at which he would have passed his thirtieth year (supposing his birth to have been in 306), or even have entered middle life (if we place it at the beginning of the century). The two writers were unquestionably contemporary, and as yet no sufficient data have been discovered to determine to which of them seniority belongs.