Jeffrey Wickes’s Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia is an insightful investigation into the religious and cultural poetics of Ephrem the Syrian. By poetics I mean, in accordance with the original ancient Greek word poíēsis, the process of bringing something into existence, a word that in post Homeric Greek came to denote also versification. Indeed, Wickes makes clear in the introduction that he is interested first and foremost in the generative potency of poetry, especially when it comes to bear on the Bible. In his words, the book “examines how the author of these poems, Ephrem the Syrian, used the Bible to build a literary world” (1). However, Wickes’s study of Ephrem’s hymns on faith is not only literary but also performative. Again, this is articulated very sharply in the introduction when he argues that “the meanings Ephrem drew from the Bible were irrevocably entangled with the poetic self he presented, the audience for whom he presented them, and the divine Christ about whom he sang” (1). Indeed, the “performative turn” is arguably the most notable trend in the study of late antique liturgical poetry in the last decade, as can be seen in recent works by scholars such as Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Derek Krueger, Georgia Frank, Michael Swartz, Laura Lieber, and Thomas Arentzen. The emphasis of performance enables these scholars, and others, to see the poetry in its own right and not as a mere reflection of theological, exegetical, or historical sources. Wickes articulates this very clearly: “Rather than examining these poems to reconstruct Ephrem’s Trinitarian theology or to trace the reception of Nicaea among Syriac-speaking Christians, I take the occasion of the Council of Nicaea and the particular controversies that followed in its wake as providing a context through which we can examine the inner workings of this particular set of late antique poems” (2). In other words, Wickes’s analysis does not reduce poetry to content, but rather uses its form and functionality as a gateway to the cultural space in which the Christian beliefs were taught and practiced.
This paradigm shift is in itself a major contribution of the book, but there is much more to it, of course. The book is divided into two parts, and the first serves as an introduction to Ephrem, his world, and his poetic setting within the Greco-Roman context. It is in this part where Wickes introduces one of the important contributions of the book, namely the expansion of the scope of the madrasha, the genre Ephrem used for this cycle. The madrasha is regarded by many scholars as a liturgical genre, but Wickes brings compelling evidence that the genre should be situated in a more complex space between liturgy and pedagogy: “Rather than imagining Ephrem’s madrasha as akin to a homily preached in a large urban basilica, we can think of it as a dynamic text, able to function as a communal, liturgical song in a Paschal feast, but also to engage literary-ascetic communities, immersed in technical theological debates, in a unique form of doxological pedagogy” (23). This observation sheds new light not only on the literary genre but also on the social context of early Syriac Christianity.
The second chapter in the first part is devoted to a thorough discussion of Ephrem’s theology against the backdrop of the mid-fourth-century theological debates and his understanding of the theological investigation, or more precisely the limitations of such an inquiry. Wickes demonstrates, with ample examples from Ephrem’s hymns, how he used the Bible to shape his “anti-investigative language” (31).
The second and main part of the book explores several key issues in Ephrem’s poetics. In chapter 3, Wickes discusses Ephrem’s understanding and creative usage of biblical language in his pursuit to defy the incorrect usage of the same language by his opponents. In chapter 4 Wickes discusses the poetic I, the fundament on which Ephrem builds his authorial voice. Here, too, Wickes brings many examples of the ways in which Ephrem adopts and reshapes biblical language and even more so biblical narratives when he seeks to mold his poetic self. Chapter 5 moves from the I to the you, from the poet to his audience. Although the exact sociohistorical context of the audience is not clear, Wickes “seeks to uncover how Ephrem shaped the biblical text in light of his audience, and how, in turn, he situated his audience before and within that biblical text” (85). Wickes emphasizes in the chapter the visual qualities of Ephrem’s hymns, a refreshing perspective in light of the linguistic and literary discussion in previous chapters. More importantly, Wickes’s discussion of Ephrem’s hymns in light of the Greco-Roman ekphrastic tradition is another thoughtful contribution of the book. Finally, in chapter 6 Wickes discusses the subtle ways in which Ephrem uses his unique poetic reading of the Bible to construct the image of Christ, the divine and humble caretaker of humanity.
On the face of it, the book is primarily intended for scholars of Syriac Christianity and more broadly scholars of early Christianity. But scholars of other late antique religions in the Near East will also find the discussions interesting and thought provoking. Connections between the works of Ephrem and contemporary Jewish sources in prose have been studied in the past. However, Wickes’s focus on (liturgical) poetry and on its intrinsic qualities and performative aspects reveals striking similarities also to contemporary Jewish and Samaritan liturgical poetry in Aramaic and Hebrew. A comparative study of Christian and Jewish poetry falls outside the scope of the book yet it provides intriguing case studies for future studies. Of special interest is the discussion of the role of the ekphrasis in Ephrem’s hymns on faith (85–86) and the construction of the poet’s I (63–83); in both cases there exist several intriguing similarities in contemporary poetry of the synagogue.
Bible and Poetry is the latest addition to the growing number of studies from the last two decades in which liturgical poetry is no longer a supporting actor but rather the leading one. After all, the poets—Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan alike—were active agents in their communities, and their literary products did not simply offer a verse rendition of patristic or rabbinic teaching. Wickes has done a great job in opening the gate to some of the cultural locations where the practices and beliefs of laypeople, and the elite, were molded in late antique Mesopotamia. In one place, Wickes argues that “Ephrem’s interest lies not with the interpretation of particular verses but with the imaginative horizons within which he and his audience interpreted any biblical text at all. It is the task of the madrashe to establish these horizons” (2). Similarly, we can say that it was the task of Bible and Poetry to broaden the horizons of its reader regarding Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith, his innovative use of the Bible, and his quest to educate and mold himself, his fellows, and his audience. This task, we can conclude, has been accomplished by Wickes in a most elegant and intelligent manner.