Q – Are you familiar with Ephraim the Syrian? And, if so, what is the controversy surrounding him and the rapture? Thank you for taking my question. I really like the Q and A section of your website!
Jim – Well, there’s a question you don’t often see! But, you’re right. There is a controversy surrounding Ephraim the Syrian. So, let’s start with some history and then we’ll get into the document in question and the implications of that document.
The actual historic person is often referred to as St. Ephraim of Edessa, the Syrian. Edessa is a city in modern Turkey, near Antioch, which is now called Antakya. He was born in the city of Nisibis, Mesopotamia in 306 and died in 373. He was a monk, a poet, a hymn writer, and teacher. It is said that Ephraim attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, accompanying his bishop, James of Nisibis.
Ephraim (or alternately “Ephrem”) the Syrian is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. He grew to be one of the primary figures of importance in the Syrian church. Of his writings, we still have copies of his commentaries on the Old and New Testament, numerous sermons and some 72 hymns.
None of that is particularly controversial. That’s reasonably settled history. However, history also has produced a person who has come to be known as “Pseudo-Ephraim.” This was a person who wrote under the name “Ephraim the Syrian,” probably to give his writing credibility and added weight. But, historians doubt that these later documents were actually penned by the original saint.
Now, one of these documents in question is called “Sermon on the End of the World.” There is considerable variation over the time of its authorship, although estimates range anywhere from 373 to 627 AD. Now, this sermon is relatively short, just under 1500 words. It is preserved in four Latin manuscripts, but there are also Greek and Syriac versions remaining. Evidence leads scholars to conclude that the first version of the sermon was most likely written in Syriac, translated into Greek, and from there into Latin.
What’s interesting about the multiple early manuscripts, all dating from around the same period, is that the original sermon appears to have been so popular that it was quickly translated into the major languages of the day in order to circulate it widely among the early Church. This was not a hidden, or “shadowy” bit of teaching. This was a popular and well-read document.
The sermon itself is fascinating reading for many, many reasons. So, for those of you intrigued by such things, here is an English rendering of Pseudo-Ephraim’s popular sermon
On the Last Times, the Anti-Christ, and the End of the World
A Sermon by Pseudo-Ephraem
Dearly beloved brothers, believe the Holy Spirit who speaks in us. We have already told you that the end of the world is near, the consummation remains. Has not faith withered away among mankind? How many foolish things are seen among youths, how many crimes among prelates, how many lies among priests, how many perjuries among deacons! There are evil deeds among the ministers, adulteries in the aged, wantonness in the youths–in mature women false faces, in virgins dangerous traces! In the midst of all this there are the wars with the Persians, and we see struggles with diverse nations threatening and “kingdom rising against kingdom” (Matt. 24:7). When the Roman Empire begins to be consumed by the sword, the coming of the Evil One is at hand. It is necessary that the world come to an end at the completion of the Roman Empire.
In those days two brothers will come to the Roman Empire who will rule with one mind; but because one will surpass the other, there will be a schism between them. And so the Adversary will be loosed and will stir up hatred between the Persian and Roman empires. In those days many will rise up against Rome; the Jewish people will be her adversaries. There will be stirrings of nations and evil reports, pestilences, famines, and earthquakes in various places. All nations will receive captives; there will be wars and rumors of wars. From the rising to the setting of the sun the sword will devour much. The times will be so dangerous that in fear and trembling they will not permit thought of better things, because many will be the oppressions and desolations of regions that are to come.
We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled (consummated), and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of the Roman kingdom. Why therefore are we occupied with worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time. Or do you not believe unless you see with your eyes? See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: “Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord!” For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of the world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord. And we think that the earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early. Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and incursions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor of the appearance, in order that we may at least do penance; because they hurl fear at us, and we do not wish to be changed, although we at least stand in need of penance for our actions!
When therefore the end of the world comes, there arise diverse wars, commotions on all sides, horrible earthquakes, perturbations of nations, tempests throughout the lands, plagues, famine, drought throughout the thoroughfares, great danger throughout the sea and dry land, constant persecutions, slaughters and massacres everywhere, fear in the homes, panic in the cities, quaking in the thoroughfares, suspicions in the male, anxiety in the streets. In the desert people become senseless, spirits melt in the cities. A friend will not be grieved over a friend, neither a brother for a brother, nor parents for their children, nor a faithful servant for his master, but one inevitability shall overwhelm them all; neither is anyone able to be recovered in that time, who has not been made completely aware of the coming danger, but all people, who have been constricted by fear, are consumed because of the overhanging evils.
Whenever therefore the earth is agitated by the nations, people will hide themselves from the wars in the mountains and rocks, by caves and caverns of the earth, by graves and memorials of the dead, and there, as they waste away gradually by fear, they draw breath, because there is not any place at all to flee, but there will be concession and intolerable pressure. And those who are in the east will flee to the west, and moreover, those who are in the west shall flee to the east, and there is not a safer place anywhere, because the world shall be overwhelmed by worthless nations, whose aspect appears to be of wild animals more than that of men. Because those very much horrible nations, most profane and most defiled, who do not spare lives, and shall destroy the living from the dead, shall consume the dead, they eat dead flesh, they drink the blood of beasts, they pollute the world, contaminate all things, and the one who is able to resist them is not there. In those days people shall not be buried, neither Christian, nor heretic, neither Jew, nor pagan, because of fear and dread there is not one who buries them; because all people, while they are fleeing, ignore them.
Whenever the days of the times of those nations have been fulfilled, after they have destroyed the earth, it shall rest; and now the kingdom of the Romans is removed from everyday life, and the empire of the Christians is handed down by God and Peter; and then the consummation comes, when the kingdom of the Romans begins to be fulfilled, and all dominions and powers have been fulfilled. Then that worthless and abominable dragon shall appear, he, whom Moses named in Deuteronomy, saying: Dan is a young lion, reclining and leaping from Basan. Because he reclines in order that he may seize and destroy and slay. Indeed (he is) a young whelp of a lion not as the lion of the tribe of Judah, but roaring because of his wrath, that he may devour. “And he leaps out from Basan.” “Basan” certainly is interpreted “confusion.” He shall rise up from the confusion of his iniquity. The one who gathers together to himself a partridge the children of confusion, also shall call them, whom he has not brought forth, just as Jeremiah the prophet says. Also in the last day they shall relinquish him just as confused.
When therefore the end of the world comes, that abominable, lying and murderous one is born from the tribe of Dan. He is conceived from the seed of a man and from an unclean or most vile virgin, mixed with an evil or worthless spirit. But that abominable corrupter, more of spirits than of bodies, while a youth, the crafty dragon appears under the appearance of righteousness, before he takes the kingdom. Because he will be craftily gentle to all people, not receiving gifts, not placed before another person, loving to all people, quiet to everyone, not desiring gifts, appearing friendly among close friends, so that men may bless him, saying;-he is a just man, not knowing that a wolf lies concealed under the appearance of a lamb, and that a greedy man is inside under the skin of a sheep.
But when the time of the abomination of his desolation begins to approach, having been made legal, he takes the empire, and, just as it is said in the Psalm: They have been made for the undertaking for the sons of Loth, the Moabites and the Ammanites shall meet him first as their king. Therefore, when he receives the kingdom, he orders the temple of God to be rebuilt for himself, which is in Jerusalem; who, after coming into it, he shall sit as God and order that he be adored by all nations, since he is carnal and filthy and mixed with worthless spirit and flesh. Then that eloquence shall be fulfilled of Daniel the prophet: And he shall not know the God of their fathers, and he shall not know the desires of women. Because the very wicked serpent shall direct every worship to himself. Because he shall put forth an edict so that people may be circumcised according to the rite of the old law. Then the Jews shall congratulate him, because he gave them again the practice of the first covenant; then all people from everywhere shall flock together to him at the city of Jerusalem, and the holy city shall be trampled on by the nations for forty-two months, just as the holy apostle says in the Apocalypse, which become three and a half years, 1,260 days.
In these three years and a half the heaven shall suspend its dew; because there will be no rain upon the earth, and the clouds shall cease to pass through the air, and the stars shall be seen with difficulty in the sky because of the excessive dryness, which happens in the time of the very fierce dragon. Because all great rivers and very powerful fountains that overflow with themselves shall be dried up, torrents shall dry up their water-courses because of the intolerable age, and there will be a great tribulation, as there has not been, since people began to be upon the earth, and there will be famine and an insufferable thirst. And children shall waste away in the bosom of their mothers, and wives upon the knees of their husbands, by not having victuals to eat. Because there will be in those days lack of bread and water, and no one is able to sell or to buy of the grain of the fall harvest, unless he is one who has the serpentine sign on the forehead or on the hand. Then gold and silver and precious clothing or precious stones shall lie along the streets, and also even every type of pearls along the thoroughfares and streets of the cities, but there is not one who may extend the hand and take or desire them, but they consider all things as good as nothing because of the extreme lack and famine of bread, because the earth is not protected by the rains of heaven, and there will be neither dew nor moisture of the air upon the earth. But those who wander through the deserts, fleeing from the face of the serpent, bend their knees to God, just as lambs to the adders of their mothers, being sustained by the salvation of the Lord, and while wandering in states of desertion, they eat herbs.
Then, when this inevitability has overwhelmed all people, just and unjust, the just, so that they may be found good by their Lord; and indeed the unjust, so that they may be damned forever with their author the Devil, and, as God beholds the human race in danger and being tossed about by the breath of the horrible dragon, he sends to them consolatory proclamation by his attendants, the prophets Enoch and Elijah, who, while not yet tasting death, are the servants for the heralding of the second coming of Christ, and in order to accuse the enemy. And when those just ones have appeared, they confuse indeed the antagonistic serpent with his cleverness and they call back the faithful witnesses to God, in order to (free them) from his seduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And when the three and a half years have been completed, the time of the Antichrist, through which he will have seduced the world, after the resurrection of the two prophets, in the hour which the world does not know, and on the day which the enemy of son of perdition does not know, will come the sign of the Son of Man, and coming forward the Lord shall appear with great power and much majesty, with the sign of the wood of salvation going before him, and also even with all the powers of the heavens with the whole chorus of the saints, with those who bear the sign of the holy cross upon their shoulders, as the angelic trumpet precedes him, which shall sound and declare: Arise, O sleeping ones, arise, meet Christ, because his hour of judgment has come! Then Christ shall come and the enemy shall be thrown into confusion, and the Lord shall destroy him by the spirit of his mouth. And he shall be bound and shall be plunged into the abyss of everlasting fire alive with his father Satan; and all people, who do his wishes, shall perish with him forever; but the righteous ones shall inherit everlasting life with the Lord forever and ever.
It is not my intention to write a commentary on this whole document, incredibly interesting as it is. In particular, I am fascinated by Pseudo-Ephraim’s descriptions of the depravity of people in his time. We could read the opening sentences of section 1 of this document from any pulpit in the modern world and the words would ring just as true.
But, the phrase that has caught people’s attention is from Section 2, and it reads – “For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.”
Now, to give proper credit where due, Grant Jeffery is credited with rediscovering this statement in 1995 and recognizing its significance to Rapture teaching. “Grant Jeffrey found the statement in Paul J. Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition, by (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 2.10. The late Alexander found the sermon in C. P. Caspari, ed. Briefe, Abhandlungen und Predigten aus den zwei letzten Jahrhunderten des kirchlichen Altertums und dem Anfang des Mittelaters, (Christiania, 1890), 208-20.” 1
Following in his footsteps, Thomas Ice has written several informative and well-researched articles on Pseudo-Ephraim.
Now, here’s the core of the controversy. The belief that Jesus will return prior to the “Great Tribulation” and “catch away” His saints is called “pretribulationism.” That also happens to be the eschatology that I subscribe to. I have spelled out my reasoning, conclusions and exegesis concerning the Pre-Tribulation Rapture in the on-line book “A Brief History of the Future.”
However, there are also many opponents of that position. And, one of the chief arguments leveled against it is the notion that prior to John Nelson Darby in the early 1800’s, pre-tribulation rapture teaching was completely foreign to the Church. In other words, they argue that this position was unknown and untaught for the first 18 centuries of the Church’s existence. Therefore, inasmuch as the early Church knew nothing of it, pretribulationism must be a modern invention and not genuine apostolic doctrine.
Some go even further and argue that the first time this idea emerged was during an ecstatic vision by Margaret MacDonald back in 1830. She is reported to have predicted a two-stage return of Christ, with some believes raptured before the onset of the tribulation. She said these things while in a trance and also mentioned Mr. R. Owen, whom she said was the antichrist. Of course, she was wrong.
So, opponents of pretribulationism jump on this odd bit of history and discount the entire idea on the basis that a lunatic propounded it. But, that’s hardly a rock-solid refutation. Anyone versed in the rules of logic will recognize that as the “ad hominem” error.
Through the years, a host of scholarly, respected theologians of all stripes have based their teaching of pretribulationism on solid Bible exegesis. To say that the idea is faulty simply because it was propounded by someone whose sanity was suspect is like saying Christianity itself was invalidated when David Koresh claimed to be Christ. It fails to address the true merits of an argument by simply pointing fingers at the flaws of someone who agrees with it.
In any case, if Pseudo Ephraim did indeed propound pretribulationism, then all of those arguments are moot. This teaching was well known and widely distributed early on in the Church’s history. And, its wide acceptance proves that it was not a foreign idea to the early believers.
So, I said all that to say this — in the end, we must only teach and accept those things that can plainly and clearly be found in Scripture. I am a great advocate of reading the Bible at face value, standing toe-to-toe with what it actually says and adjusting our theology accordingly.
As such, I am convinced that there is a future time of trouble coming for planet Earth, a time such as never was nor ever will be again. Jesus said that, not me. But, prior to that time of tribulation, Christ will return to gather His bride to Himself. We will meet Him in the clouds of the air and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Paul said that, not me.
The critics of that position, far from being able to discount it from Scripture, have resorted to a most tenuous method, which is claiming that this teaching was completely foreign to the early church and therefore not the genuine way to understand Paul’s writing.
However, if Pseudo-Ephraim did indeed publish a widely read and accepted sermon that taught that all the saints and elect of God are taken to be with the Lord prior to the tribulation, then this teaching is far from unique, and can be proclaimed quite boldly as historic, apostolic doctrine.
And, that’s the deal with Ephraim the Syrian. Hope it helped! And, thanks for asking such an interesting question!
Yours for His sake,
1 Ice, Thomas. “Examining an Ancient Pre-Trib Rapture Statement.” www.according2prophecy.org/ancient.html End note number 8.