St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373) was born in the region of Nisibis. He eventually found himself later on in life in the region of Edessa. There he founded the “school of the Persians,” a school for refugees, which later became a very important theological center for the entire Syriac-speaking Christian world. While the main subject of study in this school was the Holy Scriptures, a significant emphasis was also attached to church singing and recitation. With this in mind Ephrem composed his exegetical treatises as well as a host of poems for the school on theological, ethical, historical, and ecclesiastical themes.
The most detailed account of the descent can be found in the “Nisibene Hymns” (Carmina Nisibena), written in the form of a madrasha. As such, the “Nisibene Hymns” are characterized by a regular syllabic rhythmical pattern, which makes them suitable for congregational singing. In each hymn, stanzas in a fixed meter end in a common refrain (‘onitha). Hymns 35-42 are of particular interest to us as they are collected under the general title, “On Our Lord, Death, and Satan.”These are treated as a thematically unified whole along with hymns 52-68, which follow under the common title, “On Satan and Death” and are also connected with our subject.
In these works many strophes, and therefore much importance, are given to monologues by the chief actors—Sheol, Satan, and Death—and to dialogues between them. (Similar dialogues are found in the “Gospel of Nicodemus” and in the “Questions of Bartholomew” et al.) Hymn 36 contains a monologue by Death, who boasts that no one has escaped his power, be they prophets or priests, kings or warriors, rich or poor, wise or foolish, old or young. There were only two escapees: Enoch and Elijah. In searching for them Death goes “to the place where Jonah came down,” but even there they cannot be found. Death’s monologue is suddenly shattered by a vast panorama of the resurrection: