Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Seed and Seeding in Ephrem's Hymns

As discussed in class on Monday, the four text selections that we read over the weekend were all concerned with establishing Mary as the New Eve. The early Christians who authored these texts were aware that drawing parallels between Adam and Jesus, between the Creator God and the Redeemer God, and between Eve and Mary would help them secure two important cornerstones in the structure of Christian theology without which the rest of the edifice would crumble: first, the fact that Jesus was, in all ways, a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scripture; and second, that Mary was a virgin born without sin who imparted her flesh and blood to her son, Jesus, who was therefore both fully human and fully divine.

Tertullian's "On the Flesh of Christ," perhaps, elucidated the basic concept of Mary as the New Eve most succinctly; we find in his words the crucial points in Mary’s Eve-ness and Jesus’s Adam-ness, and the implications of these points for Christian theology and truth. It is in the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, though, that we find an entire compendium of implications of these parallels.

Ephrem’s hymns are wonderfully full of statements that have been left unexplicated and revelations that have been left partially concealed. Reading through them, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, trying to find glints of connections and relationships that Ephrem intended readers to establish. The writings of Tertullian (and Irenaeus,  though not quite as solidly, I thought) set in place the beams and supports of the concepts we considered in class, and Ephrem give that building nooks and crannies, narrow attic passageways, private corners in hidden places.

Fully exploring even just the handful of hymns we read would take a book (maybe more than one). There was a certain area, though, that I found particularly intriguing: Ephrem’s concern with seeds, and how he uses language of seeds and seeding to develop the parallels between Mary and Eve and Jesus and Adam. In this post, I’ll discuss a few of examples of this phenomenon in Ephrem’s work and attempt to follow the language he uses out to its conclusion.

1. Eve as losing paradise, Mary as regaining it. In Hymn 2, str. 7, Ephrem invokes Mary as a speaker, having her say, “In the place in which Eve succumbed, I shall glorify Him.” Here Ephrem confirms that Eve, having “succumbed” to evil in Eden, lost paradise for mankind. (According to Christian tradition, life after death did not include the possibility of paradise until the coming of Jesus.) Then, in Hymn 17, str. 5, Ephrem states that Mary "is the King’s castle.” Because Mary was able to contain Jesus during her pregnancy—and, by doing so, contain the entire world—Ephrem uses the metaphor of a castle to represent Mary’s body as a glorious dwelling place for Christ. But what else is a glorious dwelling place for Christ? Paradise. Turning to Hymn 2, str. 21, we read that it is “as if He were a seed in our garden…He shone forth and diffused and filled the earth.” Jesus is the seed of God, and has been sown in Mary, who can then be understood as the garden, the untilled, virgin soil, in which Jesus is sown. Mary is the divine garden, the virgin soil of Eden from which Adam is made, the glorious dwelling place of God: she embodies paradise. So as Eve lost paradise for mankind, Mary regained it by allowing the seed of God to be sown in her.

(Additional note: this is not something that Ephrem suggests in the hymns we read [at least, not that I can find; I wouldn’t be surprised if it is there, though], but I did think of this while following this previous train of thought. Eve eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; in Genesis, it is repeatedly mentioned that all of the fruits in paradise contains seeds by which they can multiply. Eve, then, may have consumed seeds of the fruit she ate, and these seeds could be thought to have planted in her [and in Adam, as well] sin. Mary, on the other hand, was sown with the seed that planted in her the redemption of sin.)

2.  Mary and Eve’s blood spilt as sacrifice to allow reentrance to paradise. In Hymn 8, str. 4, Ephrem makes an amazing connection between the sword barring the entrance to paradise and the lance that pierces Jesus’ side while he is on the cross, saying that they are one and the same: “Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,/ the lance that barred the way/ to the Tree of Life. He came to take up/ the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side/ He might break through the way into paradise.” When we think about this with relation to the fact that (as both Tertullian and Ephrem note) Mary is also a descendant of David, and therefore of Eve, it leads to an interesting conclusion. If Mary is of the seed of Adam and Eve, and if Jesus is the seed both of Mary and of God, then the sword that was put in front of paradise because of Adam and Eve received a sacrifice of Adam and Eve’s blood when it pierced the side of Christ, a sacrifice that allowed for the way to paradise finally to be reopened. By passing down Eve’s flesh and blood to Christ, Mary allowed for this sacrifice to occur.

3. Christ’s divine and human nature as allowing for mystery of the Eucharist. In Hymn 16, str. 5-6, Ephrem writes, "In bread and body/ the former and the latter have seen You./ Indeed, Child, Your bread is far more honorable/ than Your body. For even the unbelievers/ saw Your body, but they do not see/ Your living bread." In these statements, Ephrem explains how Mary's flesh and God's seed allow for the mystery of the Eucharist. The unseeable living bread is the bread that is made from the divine seed (God's seed implanted in Mary); it is the unseeable aspect of the Eucharist that allows it to be divine. Therefore, the divine seed that made Jesus that allows the Eucharist to be true bread while, at the same time, being true body (which, in turn, is allowed by the human flesh that Mary imparted to Jesus).

These are, to me, the most interesting of the connections between Mary and Eve and Adam and Jesus that Ephrem suggests through discussion of seeds and seeding. If anyone else has examples of this occurring elsewhere in the hymns—or arguments against these readings of Ephrem’s writings—I’d love to hear them.



  1. Wonderful meditation on the implications of Ephrem's seed metaphors! I particularly liked your additional note musing on the seeds that Eve ate: this is exactly the kind of thinking that Marian metaphors are made of. An image suggests a detail suggests another image, and from these the seeds of doctrine (e.g. Mary as the Second Eve) grow! I am interested as well that you chose to muse on Ephrem's hymns rather than on our more theological texts for the day: is it perhaps only in metaphor that the theology itself can be expressed, given the mysteries involved?


  2. Very nice observations, CCF. Your points remind me of one of the things that most struck me in the readings you discussed, and in Wednesday’s readings: the way *Mary’s* *flesh* is established as entirely indispensable to God’s salvation through Christ. As you articulately phrase it, “Mary’s flesh and God’s seed allow for the mystery of the Eucharist.” Certainly, the “symmetry” and logic of the parallels you discuss are compelling as self-contained “arguments.”

    I wonder about the way they drew on and resonated (or clashed) with broader cultural and intellectual traditions at the time. As was briefly brought up in class the other day, there are many images, narrative bits, and symbols in the Christian doctrines in formation that are common to the circum-Mediterranean world. I find the body/earth, human/agriculture homology in Ephrem and others fascinating not only because it is a very neat parallel, but also because it is resonant with religious agricultural metaphors from so many traditions. (In fact, Jesus seems to be directly evoking such themes from the practices of specific religious traditions when he refers to himself as “the *true* vine,” or the grain that falls to the earth to multiply hundred fold.) In later evangelization, such similarities (between Christian and non-Christian religions) would be dealt with in several ways. Here, I wonder how these “seed and seeding” themes not only worked to make an internally coherent argument and resonate with Hebrew prophecy, but also to “speak” to religious practitioners throughout the Mediterranean.

    (As an aside, I remember having a new experience with these comparisons several years ago as I was teaching two sections of World Civilization to 1500 during a semester in which I was planting and caring for my first garden [and last to date, as it turns out, having moved to the city a bit later]. The “magic” of agriculture–placing dry seeds in mounds of earth, watering and weeding them to see life spring forth–seemed miraculous.)

  3. I was also struck by the “blood tie” you proposed between Mary and Eve. Your point intrigues me and I think it tidies up the complicated theology nicely; it fits perfectly into the poetic spirit of the Adam/Christ, Eve/Mary analogy. The intricacies (?) of this point- or of the theology in general- were slightly difficult for me to grasp, however. Most of the works that we have read so far note that Mary is descended from David, further glorifying or legitimizing Jesus’ glorious earthly lineage. So I accept that Mary would, because of her humanity, be a descendent of Eve. What is troubling for me is this: how is it possible that Mary is free from sin and worthy to ‘contain that which cannot be contained’, if she is descended from Eve? Wouldn’t that mean she is stained with Eve’s original sin? And if so- how is it possible that she is purity itself, recalling the virgin earth of Eden? (It’s possible that I’ve missed a textual reference to this- I’ll admit, I’m not particularly familiar with the New Testament or Christian theology!) That being said- I think this is an interesting analysis of the Eve/Mary analogy, which is one of the Marian interpretations I find most convincing, or compelling.