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Wine-Related Nicknames:
Vine-Symbolism in Early Syriac Christianity

by Meghan Sullivan

Jesus has many nicknames in Christianity. Some of these nicknames, whose origins lie in the Bible, are wine-related. In early Syriac Christianity, writers often used three wine-related nicknames, or titles, for Jesus: Christ the Vineyard, Christ the Vine, and Christ the Grape.

Early Syriac literature is fascinating because of its rich use of symbolism and imagery. One favorite topic of early Syriac writers is vine-symbolism. Aphrahat and Ephrem, two fathers of the Church who lived in the fourth century, frequently drew upon Psalm 80, Deuteronomy 32, Isaiah 5, and John 15 in their use of vine-symbolism. Due in part to the ambiguity of the Syriac word karma, which translates as “vineyard” but sometimes appears to mean “vine,” Syriac writers merged the Old Testament image of the vineyard with the New Testament image of Christ the Vine (John 15).

Aphrahat offers an example of vineyard imagery in a homily entitled Demonstrations V. He writes, “The Lord...planted in the vineyard itself good vines, bearing fruit and giving joy to the Vinedresser. For the Vine(yard) is Christ and his Father the Vinedresser; and the vines are those who drink of his cup.”1 In this passage, Christ is the Vineyard; those who drink of Christ’s cup are people who share in the Lord’s passion. Aphrahat uses similar imagery in Demonstrations VI. Addressing fellow ascetic Christians, he writes, “Let us not be idle workmen, for see, our Lord has hired us for his vineyard. Let us be planted as vines in his vineyard, who is the true Vine(yard).”2 Here, Christians are vines that live and grow in Christ, the true Vineyard. This passage reflects John 15, which reads, “Live on in me, as I do in you. No more than a branch can bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, can you bear fruit apart from me”(John 15:4, NAB). Christians are called to live as vines in a vineyard or, in other words, to live in Christ and produce fruit through Him.

Ephrem provides us with an example of vine imagery in De Ecclesia: “He is crucified on the wood the same whose fruits he ate. Come, let us hang on the wood, which gave us the Bread of Life!” Here, the “wood” represents the wood of the vine. Christians are both fruits hanging from Christ, the Vine, and laborers working in Christ, the Vineyard. In Hymns on the Nativity, Ephrem once again refers to Christ the Vine. “Blessed be the Vineshoot,” the Syriac poet writes, “which became the Chalice for our salvation!”3 Ephrem goes on to introduce a new vine-related title for Christ: the Grape. “Blessed also be the Grape, the source of the Medicine of Life!” In early Syriac literature, the “Medicine of Life” functions as a symbol for the Eucharist. Christ the Grape and the Medicine of Life appear again in Ephrem’s Hymns on Virginity: “O Grape of mercy which was found in the vineyard which resisted cultivation and withheld its fruit! To it which gave him bitterness he imparted his sweetness. [The Grape] was pressed and gave the Medicine of Life to the Nations.” 4

Perhaps the next time we enter a church to pray or sit down to read the Bible, we will remember the Syriac Christians’ nicknames for Jesus and will address Christ as Vine, Vineyard, and Grape.

1. Robert Murray, Symbols of the Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 99.
2. Ibid., 105.
3. Ibid., 120.
4. Ibid

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