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Out of Books, a World: The Scriptural Poetics of Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith

Jeffrey Wickes, University of Notre Dame, Junior Fellow 2011–2012

Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373) lived and wrote in the eastern most parts of the Roman Empire. While composing in a variety of genres,  the majority of his surviving literary corpus takes the form of didactic, metrical hymns (madrāšê). Toward the end of Ephrem’s life and after his death, smaller hymn collections were grouped into larger compilations, and it is these larger compilations that have come down to us. The largest such compilation is the Hymns on Faith, composed of eighty-seven hymns, which represent Ephrem’s response to various aspects of the controversies that followed in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, but also provide an example of Ephrem’s poetic idiom at its most developed.

My research has focused on the role scripture plays in the shaping of this poetic idiom. During my year at Dumbarton Oaks, this research has proceeded in a twofold manner. First, during the early months of my fellowship, I finished a complete English translation and annotation of the Hymns on Faith. This translation and annotation provided the groundwork for my dissertation, which I have spent the remainder of my time at Dumbarton Oaks writing. The library at Dumbarton Oaks has given me easy access to out-of-print editions of texts and secondary studies on Ephrem and fourth-century northern Mesopotamian Christianity. Access to these works (such as the rare edition of the Armenian translation of the fourth-century Syriac letter of Aithaallaha of Edessa, Epistola ad Christianos in Persarum regione de fide) has been indispensable in furthering my research. Just as importantly, the community of Byzantinists at Dumbarton Oaks has led me to think deeply about and in some cases reconsider my own ideas about Ephrem’s relationship to the literary culture of the early Byzantine Empire, and the role of “Greek” ideas in the shaping of his poetic idiom.