Among the writers of the Syriac Christian tradition, none is as renowned as St. Ephrem of Nisibis (ca. 307–373), known to much of the later Christian world simply as "the Syrian." The great majority of Ephrem’s works are poetry, with the madrāšē ("teaching songs") especially prominent.
This volume presents English translations of four complete madrāšē cycles of Ephrem: On the Fast, On the Unleavened Bread, On the Crucifixion, and On the Resurrection. These collections include some of the most liturgically oriented songs in Ephrem’s corpus, and, as such, provide a window into the celebration of Lent and Easter in the Syriac-speaking churches of northern Mesopotamia in the fourth century. Even more significantly, they represent some of the oldest surviving poetry composed for these liturgical seasons in the entire Christian tradition. Not only are the liturgical occasions of the springtime months a source of colorful imagery in these texts, but Ephrem also employs traditional motifs of warm weather, spring rainstorms, and revived vegetation, which likely reflect Hellenistic literary influences.
Like all of Ephrem’s poetry, these songs express early Christian theology in language that is symbolic, terse, and vibrant. They are rich with biblical allusions and references, especially to the Exodus and Passion narratives. They also reveal a contested religious environment in which Ephrem strove to promote the Christian Pascha and Christian interpretations of Scripture over and against those of Jewish communities in the region, thus maintaining firm boundaries around the identity and practices of the churches.