Reflection on the Saying of a Desert Christian: St. Ephraim the Syprian

“My brother, take care with all of your heart, when you study the Divine Scriptures, to drink in avidly the richness which proceeds from your study, exactly as a baby drinks milk from the maternal breast. From the study of Divine Scripture, you will learn of the bright feats of virtue and thus your heart will be filled with joy and delight.

“If the interpreters of the writings of the wise of this world carefully study non-existent wisdom (for the wisdom of the present world ‘is foolishness before God’), with far greater enthusiasm we should study and learn by heart the words of God, for the salvation of our souls; and this the Holy Spirit lauds, blessing those who explore ‘His testimonies,’ because such as these will have sought God with all of their hearts.

“Is there anyone more perverted than he who has sweet and savory water and does not give a drink to his thirsty soul? Is there anyone more selfish than he who holds on to a beneficial book and does not give it to his brother to build him up spiritually? And can you imagine a lazier man than one who is thirsty and sits next to a well, not raising his hand to take water and satisfy his thirst? Is there a man more unprogressive and spiritually indifferent than the one who has, or receives, a religious book, yet does not care to read it?

“My brother, labor with anyone who asks you to teach him to read in order to study the wonders of God and to bless His majestic Name. And be certain that God will reward you for this labor” (Saint Ephraim).”

Saint Ephraim the Syrian lived approximately ca. 306 – 373.  I point that out because while all the texts that we have come to know had been written, there was not yet a consensus among the bishops which texts were canonical. That is to say, at the time of St. Ephraim, the word “Scriptures” referred to the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jewish scholars had codified their Scriptures at the Council of Jamnia in about 90 CE.

There were various collections of what different people thought might be considered canonical Christian Scriptures.  These lists were passed around the Roman Empire as were copies of various contenders for the title “canonical.” We know from excavations at Nag Hammadi that the monks collected a great many documents that today are considered heretical, although they are a fascinating glimpse into what kinds of ideas people grappled with back then.

St. Ephraim could have been referring to all of these as “Divine Scripture.” The Hebrew Scriptures, definitely, the Gospels and Acts, letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, what we now call the New Testament Apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi Library, who knows what all else.

Just look at the value he places upon the study of the Scriptures.  Look with what enthusiasm he implores people to teach others to read so that they could all read the Scriptures.  Since we know that the printing press is still some twelve to thirteen centuries in their future, we are talking about handwritten copies.

People back then had to go to great lengths to get reading material.  We take it for granted. Would that we had their zeal to study Divine Scripture.


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