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In her chapter on “Defending Nicaea against Jews and Judaizers,” Christine Shepherdson noted that the relationship between Christians and Jews in Syria was complex, one in which Christians, in cities like Nisibis and Edessa, would associate with Jewish communities against the wishes of their spiritual leaders who wanted the two communities to be separate from each other.[1] She briefly notes that one of the reasons for this was due to their shared language (Syriac), culture, and that the Syriac version of the Old Testament, the Peshitta, was likely translated by Jews.[2].

Shepherdson argues that by looking into the writings of one of the first great Syriac Christian writers, St. Ephraim the Syrian, one can see by the rhetoric being used that there was some fluidity between the two communities, as Christians would regularly attend Jewish services and associate with them on a regular basis. She discusses how Ephraim implies that some of his congregants were visiting the local synagogues, attending Passover meals, and practicing Jewish law, including circumcision, and how he uses anti-Jewish rhetoric to dissuade them from doing these things.[3]

Her main argument can be summed up as follows: “Ephraim insults and criticizes the Jews in order to make them less appealing to his audience, contrasts them with Christians in order to highlight the differences that he sees, and warns his audience of the physical danger that Jews pose to them in order to fright them away from Judaism if his other tactics are not sufficiently effective.”[4]

A number of our primary sources, written a few centuries after Ephraim, continue this line of thought that is presented in his writings and hymns, demonstrating that Syrian Christians continued associating with Syrian Jews against the wishes of their spiritual leaders. John of Ephesus would later write hagiographies featuring saints like Sergius who, despite his very saintly lifestyle, exhibited a very strong disdain for the Jewish community in the area, even going so far as to burn down their synagogues. Sergius’ reasoning for doing this is based on the fact that he calls the Jews “slayers of God” and “crucifiers of the Son of God,” and that the local church was wrong to associate with them at all.[5]

Shepherdson discusses how Ephraim also describes the Jews as bloodthirsty murderers who not only killed Jesus and the Hebrew prophets but who are also a threat to their own lives. Ephraim describes the Jews in his sermons by implying that if they mixed with the Jews, Christians increased their chances of being seized and killed by the Jews also.[6]

Likewise, writing later, Jacob of Edessa responded to a question that asked if Christians were permitted to drink wine produced by Jews. Jacob tells him that he can only do this if it was a last resort, but that otherwise he should in no way associate himself with the Jews or buy anything from them because doing so would defile themselves and that they would be turned out of the church and numbered with the Jews.[7] The fact that Jacob was asked this question seems to suggest that Christians were still associating with Jewish communities on a regular basis even at this time.


[1] Christine Shepherdson, Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephraim’s Hymns in Fourth-Century Syria (Washington: Catholic University Press, 2008), 43.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid., 43-46.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] John of Ephesus, “History of Simeon and Sergius,” in Lives of the Eastern Saints, ed. And trans. E. W. Brooks, Patrologia Orientalis, 17:90-91.

[6] Sherpherdson, Anti-Judaism and Orthodoxy, 136.

[7] Jacob of Edessa, answers and canons, ed/ amd trans. Arthur Voobus, The Synodicon in the West Syrian Tradition, vol. 1 (Louvain: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1974), 235.