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The Odes of Solomon: Jewish Wisdom and Christian Worship
by Mark M. Mattison
Teach me the odes of your truth,
that I may produce fruits in you.
And open to me the lyre of your holy spirit,
so that with all its notes I may praise you, O Lord.
Ode 14: 7,8 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
With these and many other poetic praises, The Odes of Solomon, the earliest Christian hymnbook, enraptured countless followers of Jesus throughout Syria and beyond, and promises to do so again.
Virtually unknown until ancient manuscripts began to surface in 1785, this surprising and superlative collection of odes offers a rare glimpse into the unbridled spirituality of early Eastern followers of Jesus. Even more amazing is the evident identity of the Odist, as in the following verses:
The spirit of the Lord rested upon me,
and she raised me on high
and made me stand on my feet in the height of the Lord,
before his fullness and his glory.
While I was praising him by the composition of his odes,
she gave birth to me before the face of the Lord, even while being the bar nasha (i.e., son of Humanity).
I was named the enlightened son of God …
And he anointed me from his perfection
And I became one of those near to him.
Ode 36:1–3,6 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
Who is the Odist here? Son of Humanity, Son of God, anointed with the Spirit. If you’re thinking of Jesus, you’re spot on. This ancient hymnbook is actually filled with Aramaic songs from Jesus to God!
This immediately raises an obvious question. If the Odist in the text is Jesus, then why is it attributed to King Solomon? A strong possibility is that like Solomon, Jesus was known by his followers as ‘son of David.’ Solomon, the biological son of David, becomes an archetype of Jesus, the son of David.
The very structure of The Odes of Solomon suggests this Davidic connection. My colleague Samuel Zinner, an award-winning Holocaust scholar and noted expert in Semitic and Indoeuropean languages, has noted an intriguing connection between The Odes of Solomon and Matthew 1:1-17. As is well known, Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David” (1:1). In Hebrew, the numerical value of David’s name is 14 (d=4 + w=6 + d=4 = 14). Consequently, Matthew’s Gospel artificially divides the generations between Abraham and Jesus into three groups of fourteen:
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations (Matt. 1:17, NRSV).
Similarly, The Odes of Solomon can be divided into three groups of fourteen, for a total of 42. To reinforce the fact that these numbers are not accidental, it may be noted that Ode 42 itself is made up of 42 lines — hardly a coincidence.
Jesus in The Odes of Solomon
The fact that the Odes are attributed to Solomon can also explain a puzzling feature of this text — why it never once mentions the name “Jesus,” even though Jesus is clearly depicted as the Odist who sings praises to the Lord God. If we imagine that Solomon wrote the Odes (a thousand years before Jesus), we wouldn’t expect them to explicitly name Jesus.
The Odes allude to Jesus’s miraculous birth (Ode 19:6–9), baptism (Ode 24:1), anointing as Messiah (Ode 36:6), and other New Testament narratives about Jesus, including his persecution, descent into the realm of the dead (Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek), and subsequent raising and vindication by God (as in Acts 2:31). Ode 22 touches on all of these themes, including resurrection:
The one who brought me down from on high,
he also brought me up from the depths below. …
The one who scattered my enemies and my foes,
he who gave me authority over bonds,
that I might loose them,
he who overthrew the seven-headed dragon by my hands,
it is you, even you who set me over its roots
that I might destroy its offspring. …
Your right hand destroyed the evil one’s venom,
and your hand leveled the way for your faithful ones,
and selected them from the graves,
and separated them from the dead.
You took bones of the dead
And over them you stretched bodies.
And they were motionless,
And you gave them energy for life.
Ode 22:1,3–5,7–10 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
Although these are all recognizably Christian themes, however, not all of them are exclusively Christian themes. Messianic tropes are of course Jewish in origin. Even Ode 19:7,8, which describes Mary’s labor as painless, alludes to texts like Isaiah 66:7, which are about the national revival of Israel. Similarly, tropes of persecution, descent into Sheol, and rescue from death are amply attested in Jewish texts. Consider Psalm 30:1,3:
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
And did not let my foes rejoice over me. …
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
Restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit (NRSV).
Similarly, the Thanksgiving Hymns from the Dead Sea Scrolls recount the suffering and vindication of the Teacher of Righteousness:
I thank you, Lord,
because you saved my life from the pit,
and from Sheol and Abaddon you have lifted me up
to an everlasting height,
so that I can walk on a boundless plain.
1QHa, Col. 11, lines 19,20. (1)
Even the resurrection from the dead in Ode 22 is inspired by the Jewish Bible, specifically, Ezekiel 37, where the image of resurrection describes the end of Israel’s exile.
The fact that many of these motifs are as Jewish as they are Christian opens up questions of commonality and overlap. If we were to draw a Venn diagram with one circle representing Judaism and another representing Christianity, how much overlap would we find in The Odes of Solomon? What type of community sang these hymns? Who wrote them, and in what context?
Judaism in The Odes of Solomon
Although Jesus (patterned after Solomon) is depicted as the Odist who sings in The Odes of Solomon, it’s clear that this hymnbook wasn’t actually written until after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, decades after the time of Jesus. The pervasive Jewish themes provide an important clue to the author’s identity. As noted above, though the Odes undoubtedly allude to Christian texts like the New Testament Gospels, they also have much in common with Jewish literature like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which many scholars believe were written by Essenes before the destruction of the Temple.
James H. Charlesworth, one of the most influential translators of the Odes, has written:
In all likelihood, the Odist was a Jew and may have been an Essene as Paul had been a Pharisee. That is, the Odist had some relationship with the Jewish sect or group that collected and wrote “the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Why? It is because he seems to know the Rule of the Community (the magna carta of the Essenes) and the Thanksgiving Hymns (the hymns or odes of the Essenes). Eventually, he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (see Ode 24). … Although the collection is “Christian,” some Odes appear to be Jewish; that is, nothing uniquely Christian is found in some Odes; the thought in them is profoundly Jewish, and celebration is directed to God or the Most High. The Odist composed his poetic masterpieces when many of those who believed in Jesus were Jews and when there had been no parting of the ways between “Christians” and “Jews.” (2)
The point of this last statement is that Christianity had not yet evolved as a discrete religion when the Odes were composed. Though local ‘churches’ or communities of Jesus-followers proliferated early in the second century CE, arguably they did not yet constitute a clearly-defined institutional ‘Church.’ The Odes therefore provide a rare glimpse into a type of nascent Christianity that’s difficult for us to imagine today, after two millennia of tradition and conflict – including unimaginable atrocities and pogroms against Jews. This ignominious history underscores the importance of the Jewish context of this earliest Christian hymnbook.
Like the Qumran authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the author of the Odes valued ‘knowledge’ as intimate study (personal encounter with God), and not just intellectual knowledge of facts:
For it is enough to know and to rest,
for in rest the psalmists remain in existence,
like a river that has a richly abundant spring,
and that keeps flowing for the help of those who study it.
Ode 26:12,13 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
If we were describing this ‘knowledge’ in Greek terms, we’d call it gnosis, the type of knowledge that runs deeper than rational knowledge. This is the language of ‘mysticism,’ the experience of a direct encounter with God and with esoteric secrets.
Mystical experience isn’t limited by religion; Christian mysticism shares much in common with other forms of mysticism, including Jewish mysticism. The Odist in The Odes of Solomon specifically drinks from the well of “Merkabah” or Chariot mysticism, inspired in turn by the Book of Ezekiel. For example, the Odist sings that “I went up into the light of Truth as into a chariot” (Ode 31:1). The Odist delights in the direct experience of God, and invites others to do the same:
You gave us your partnership in intimate union;
it is not that you need us,
but that we need you.
Sprinkle upon us your dew,
and open your abundant fountains
that pour forth milk and honey to us.
Ode 4:9,10 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Odes describe this intimate experience of God using the Persian loanword raz, meaning an esoteric secret:
Observe my secret, you who are kept by it!
Observe my faithfulness, you who are kept by it!
And know my knowledge, you who know me in truth!
Love me with fervent love, you who love!
Ode 8:10–13 | The Nuhra Version (2020)
In addition to Jewish mysticism, the author of the Odes also valued feminine representation of the divine, (3) as for example in the description of God’s Spirit in feminine terms (see Ode 36:1, quoted above). In the early eastern Syriac church, followers of Jesus regularly depicted the Spirit as feminine. The Odes always describe the Spirit as feminine, as in Ode 28:7:
And from that life is the spirit within me,
and she cannot die,
because she is life.
The Nuhra Version (2020)
This divine feminine imagery was heavily colored by the Jewish Bible’s depiction of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. The figure of Lady Wisdom has actually influenced many of the Odes, as for example in Ode 33. Compare Proverbs 8 and 9 with Ode 33:
Proverbs 8:1,4; 9:6
Does not Wisdom call out,
and does not Understanding raise her voice?
“To you, O humans, I call,
and my cry is to the children of humanity.
Forsake foolishness, and live,
and walk in the way of understanding!”
Ode 33:5-7a,9,10a | The Nuhra Version (2020)
But a mature young woman stood up,
proclaiming and calling and saying in command,
“O you sons of humanity, repent,
and you their daughters, convert,
and forsake the ways of this Destruction.
Do not perish and do not be destroyed!
Listen to me and be redeemed!”
In sum, given the many Jewish sources that inform the thought-world of the Odes, it’s highly likely that their author was a second-century Syrian follower of Jesus who was nevertheless deeply rooted in the rich spiritual tradition of Judaism.
The History of The Odes of Solomon
Up until about two centuries ago, The Odes of Solomon was known only by brief references and one quotation of Ode 19:6,7a in Latin (Lactantius Div. inst. 4:12). Then, in 1785, a fourth- or fifth-century Egyptian (Coptic) manuscript containing a work called Pistis Sophia was found to have included five of the Odes. Scholars agree that these Coptic Odes were copied from an earlier (perhaps Greek) manuscript. (4)
Later, in 1909, those five Coptic Odes enabled an English biblical scholar named J. Rendel Harris to identify a nearly complete copy of The Odes of Solomon in an Aramaic (Syriac) manuscript which was copied sometime between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries CE (known as manuscript H). This manuscript is missing only the first three leaves, which contained the first two Odes and part of the third. Shortly thereafter, a second Syriac manuscript (manuscript N), dating to the ninth or tenth century CE, was also found to preserve a (partial) copy of the Odes. This manuscript contains Odes 17:7b to the end.
Finally, a third- or fourth-century CE Greek manuscript was discovered in Egypt in 1952. This manuscript contains a copy of Ode 11, simply titled “An Ode of Solomon.” Currently conserved in the Bodmer Library in Cologny, Switzerland, it’s noteworthy as the only extant Greek manuscript containing any of the Odes of Solomon. Particularly noteworthy is the presence of several lines (vv. 16c-h and 22b) which are not found in the Syriac.
Between these four different manuscripts, we can now study ancient manuscripts of the Odes in three different languages: Coptic, Syriac, and Greek. All of them are copies of earlier manuscripts going all the way back to the early second century in Syria.
The Odes of Solomon: The Nuhra Version (2020)
The term ‘light’ appears extensively throughout the Odes. The Syriac word for ‘light’ is nuhra, which we’ve chosen to describe our new public domain translation: The Odes of Solomon: The Nuhra Version (2020). Zinner translated the Syriac Odes, and I translated the Coptic and Greek. Zinner bore the lion’s share of the work, including almost all of the annotations, although we polished and finalized the full translation in collaboration.
The result of this multidisciplinary, interfaith, holistic work is an up-to-date translation intended to advance the academic study of The Odes of Solomon while making them more widely accessible, as well as celebrating their spiritual depth and beauty which is unparalleled in other early Christian literature.
Our hope is that the Nuhra version will shed even more light on the Jewish context of the Odes, as well as their more obscure eastern Christian character.
Many more resources are available on the Nuhra website. These include not only The Nuhra Version, but other translations in English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Latin, Norwegian, and Spanish. In addition, our website features articles, books, and theses about the Odes from a variety of faith perspectives (including Jewish, Christian, and Islamic), as well as photographs of the ancient manuscripts and interlinears. Finally, our site also features videos of readings and music inspired by The Odes of Solomon from many sources, making for a well-rounded multi-media resource that embraces both academic research and artistic expression. Our aspiration is to celebrate the Odes in ways that are just as cosmopolitan as the Odes themselves.
- Florentino García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 332. (back to text)
- James H. Charlesworth, The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), p. xvii. (back to text)
- See Mark M. Mattison, “Gender-Bending Rhetorical Strategies in the Odes of Solomon,” Christian Feminism Today (eewc.com). (back to text)
- For this, and the two paragraphs that follow, cf. James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 1-12; Michael Lattke, Odes of Solomon: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), pp. 3,4. (back to text)
Many thanks for this exposition of the Odes, Mark. They are new to me so I learned quite a bit. I have also “translated” some of your phrases to help myself remember that God does not remain mysterious or hidden; that God wants nothing more than to be known by every son and daughter of the most High. For example, “This is the language of ‘mysticism,’ the experience of a direct encounter with God and with esoteric secrets.” I ended up with this, “This is the language that attempts to represent the experience of a direct wordless encounter with God, with pure spiritual Truth.” May we all set aside moments for such experience.