Reflections on “Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia” by Jeffrey Wickes

As often happens at the SBL/AAR annual meetings, book distributors occasionally give away a handful of books on the conference’s last day. In 2022, I snagged a copy of Jeffrey Wickes’ Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia: Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith. Although the subject area was a bit out of my wheelhouse, I nonetheless read the book in its entirety. As a life principle, I work to read every book that I own: no page is left unturned. This post, then, offers a few of my reflections on Wickes’ monograph in relation to my interests.

As a whole, Wickes’ articulates how Ephrem navigates theological debates of his time and how to read the Christian Bible. That is, Ephrem’s poetry is less exegetical and more of a creative, literary world that brings together the horizons of his theological concerns and community with allusions to Christian biblical texts. Rather than summarizing Wickes’ entire argument, I will instead focus on two aspects that are pertinent to my interests.

First, Wickes highlights that Ephrem’s poetry often pushes against any investigation, inasmuch as God is transcendent and thus cannot be investigated and debated. Rather, Ephrem advocated for a stance that theological language and discussion external to the Christian Bible was problematic. To push against the so-called investigation, Ephrem often used narratives wherein individual biblical characters or groups are investigating the divine, for as Wickes’ writes, “Ephrem’s argument is negative, forbidding investigation into the divine: as the simple cannot understand the wise, neither can the wise understand the Creator” (35). The fact that Ephrem reframes and narrates these stories of biblical characters investigating is precisely what I find interesting. In previous posts, I have identified that universal categories like sin are highly problematic and that socially transgressive actions can fall under categories other than sin. Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith and polemic against theological discussion and investigation is an excellent example: his narratives and the characters investigating are not necessarily said to have sinned, only to have committed some sort of improper social relation. We can therefore see that socially transgressive behavior in Ephrem’s Bible went beyond sin. This observation is key because we ought to consider that even texts within the Hebrew Bible might be doing the same thing at moments and that not every transgression is a sin.

Second, Wickes identifies an economic “I,” in that “Ephrem depicts his poetry as resulting from a divine-human transaction” (65). Though I will not go into the details, one consideration was strikingly absent: sin. For all the economic terminology that Ephrem uses, I would have liked to see Wickes engage with Gary Anderson’s discussion about sin as debt. For even if Ephrem’s poetry does not clearly reflect debt as sin, exploring that dimension of Ephrem’s poetry might enrich our understanding of the Hymns on Faith.  

Overall, I recommend this work for individuals interested in late-antique pedagogy and liturgy, reception history, reflecting on the nature of biblical allusions, the history of theological debates, and, of course, Ephrem’s poetry. Although this reflection was brief and only noted one area of interest and one criticism, I do not want those comments to take away from the broader value of Wickes’ scholarship. Overall, I enjoyed reading his work and have no regrets. (Trust me, I have regretted investing time and energy into books.)


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