- Remembering a Larger Picture
As historians know, the Byzantine Empire was a diverse place: multicultural, multilingual, and religiously pluralistic. Such characterization is especially apt for Orthodoxy’s formative centuries. While Orthodox scholars often recall that history through Greek and Latin sources, the vibrancy of Byzantine society was due in no small part to its array of peoples—and to the languages in which they spoke, worshipped, and did their theological thinking. Syriac was at the center of that dynamic context, contributing profoundly and in deeply influential ways that continue to inflect the living liturgies of churches both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox to the present day. Increasingly, excellent Syriac scholarship with much to offer Orthodox historians and theologians is appearing in work accessible to the non- Syriacist. The two books under review here, both revisions of the authors’ doctoral dissertations, are fine examples. Both bring entry to the vibrant world of Orthodoxy’s foundations. Like opening windows in a long-closed room, they bring fresh energy worthy of our consideration.
I begin with Jeffrey Wickes’ recent book, Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia: Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019). Ephrem the Syrian (c. 307–373 AD) is one of the few truly universal saints of Christianity, canonized by churches East and West, Orthodox, Catholic, and beyond. While Byzantine tradition remembered Ephrem as a somber-minded anchorite, Ephrem in fact spent his life in active service to the church, working tirelessly as a deacon [End Page 215] under three different bishops first in the city of Nisibis and then, in the final ten years of his life, in Edessa. A mighty champion of Nicene Christianity, Ephrem produced a substantial corpus of hymns, instructional homilies, biblical commentaries, and prose discourses. He probably did not know Greek, although his writings shared in the philosophical discourse of the era. Moreover, his theological adversaries were the same as those facing his Greek contemporaries: diverse Christian communities of Arians, Manichaeans, Marcionites, Valentinians, in addition to Jews and pagans. His ability to craft sophisticated Trinitarian thought in a non-Greek idiom—and to do so with dazzling poetic artistry—remains a source of wonder for his readers, scholarly or otherwise.
Jeffrey Wickes sets out to explore Ephrem’s use of the Bible in sung poems known in Syriac as madrashe. Translated “hymns” or “teaching songs,” madrashe (s. madrasha) were poems arranged in stanzas with refrains; their structure required the participation of an audience. While the manuscripts marked them with melodies, the music of late antiquity does not survive to us. Wickes turns away from Ephrem’s better known liturgical madrashe, composed for use in vigil services, to focus on the Hymns on Faith, a collection of eighty-seven madrashe that deal largely with matters of Christian doctrine. Only a handful of these were available in modern translation until Wickes’ translation of the collection appeared in 2015.1 Wickes argues persuasively and with great insight that this collection was most likely composed not for liturgical use, but rather for the classroom. It is an arresting move, enabling Wickes to place these hymns in situ as works performed in a particular kind of study context. Ephrem was renowned for teaching in the service of the church; his students were those who would serve the church as liturgical agents: deacons, deaconesses, priests, readers, chanters, and consecrated ascetics known as Sons and Daughters of the Covenant. Together they comprised a community bound by shared literary, devotional, and liturgical practices: clearly ascetic, and also clearly book-oriented. Wickes seeks to make visible Ephrem the teacher, at work with his students, in a classroom context of shared theological purpose. From this vantage point, he highlights performance, poetic technique, and biblical exegesis, each with new insight.
Wickes argues that in the Madrashe (Hymns) on Faith, Ephrem used the madrasha form: (1) as a pedagogical form of poetry; (2) in a performative context of sung recitation and response, teacher with students; (3) to bring together the Bible (the source of Truth) and the “world” (a place beleaguered by doctrinal disputes); (4) to create an imagined world wherein truth and meaning could be found in dialogic exchange...