Discovery of the Odes
This great work of mystical depth, divine insight, and spiritual illumination is, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the truly great spiritual and literary discoveries of the Twentieth Century. But unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls which were dramatically discovered by shepherds in a desert cave, the Odes were prosaically found in neglected manuscripts gathering dust on the shelves of London libraries. Before 1785 the Odes were only known by references in lists of apocryphal books, and from a Latin quotation by Lactantius. Then in 1785 a manuscript containing selections from five of the Odes was bought by the British Museum from the heirs of a London physician, Dr. Anthony Askew. This was the Codex Askewianus which contains the only known version of the Pistis Sophia, itself a great work of spiritual wisdom. The Pistis Sophia contains selections from five of the Odes of Solomon: Ode 1 (in chapter 59), Ode 5: 1-11 (in chapter 58), Ode 6: 8-18 (in chapter 65), Ode 25 (complete, in chapter 69), and 22 (complete, in chapter 71). The Pistis Sophia designates these specifically as “Odes of Solomon.”
Then, on January 4, 1909, J. Rendel Harris was sorting through some Syriac leaves which had been lying for nearly two years on some bookshelves in his office. Soon his attention was riveted by Syriac passages which were identical with those quoted in the Pistis Sophia and the passage quoted by Lactantius. This was indeed the lost book of the Odes of Solomon. It was published that same year as The Odes and Psalms of Solomon: Now First Published from the Syriac Version (Cambridge: University Press, 1909).
Nothing at all was known of the previous history of the manuscript, except that it had been on Harris’ shelves for as long as two years, and had come from “the neighborhood of the Tigris.” Unfortunately, the opening leaves which contained all of the first and second Odes and the beginning of the third, are missing. As already mentioned, the first Ode is found in the Coptic of the Pistis Sophia, but the second and beginning of the third are regrettably still lost to us.
Professor Harris did not know when he discovered the manuscript containing the Odes, that there was a much older manuscript of the Odes which had been in the British Museum for seventy years. It had belonged to the monastic library of the El Surian Monastery which is located in the Nitrian Desert about sixty miles west of Cairo, and had been brought to England by Dr. H. Tattam in 1843. F.C. Burkitt found it in the British Museum Library and published his discovery for the first time in 1912. (F. C. Burkitt, “A New MS of the Odes of Solomon,” Journal of Theological Studies, XII. 1912. 372-85.) This manuscript is known as the Codex Nitriensis and contains only Odes 17:7b through 42:20 (the end).
In addition to the Coptic and Syriac manuscripts already mentioned, there is a Greek Manuscript–the Bodmer Papyrus XI which is housed in the Bodmer library in Geneva. It contains the eleventh Ode in a version similar to the Syriac, except for a passage of seven lines which follows verse 16 and are not found in the Syriac codex.
The manuscript found by Harris has been dated to the fifteenth century, that discovered by Burkitt to the tenth, the Greek papyrus to the third, and the Coptic Pistis Sophia to the fourth.
Original Language and Date of Composition
There are many different opinions concerning the original language in which the Odes were written. One scholar, W. Frankenburg, was so sure that Greek was the original language that he translated them into Greek. (W. Frankenburg, “Das Verständnis der Oden Salomos” (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttenstamentliche Wissenschaft 21; Giessen, 1911). Another scholar, H. Grimme, on the other hand, was so convinced that Hebrew was the original language that he translated them into Hebrew!(H. Grimme, Die Oden Salomos: Syrisch-hebräisch-Deutsch. Heidelberg, 1911).) The most reliable scholars, translators, and editors of the Odes, however–J. R. Harris, A. Mingana, A. Vööbus, J. A. Emerton, and James H. Charlesworth (James H. Charlesworth, “Odes of Solomon: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2. Garden City, New York, 1983. p. 726.)–are convinced that the Odes were composed in Syriac (or Aramaic). The evidence for this is very strong and is based on what has been called “the attractive quality of the extant Syriac.” (See R.M. Grant: “The Odes of Solomon and the Church of Antioch,” Journal of Biblical Literature 63. 1944. 363-97; and V. Corwin, “St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch,” Yale Publications in Religion 1; New Haven, 1960. pp. 71-80.) Most scholars also agree that the Odes were probably composed sometime around A.D. 100. One of the strong arguments for such an early date is the discovery of references and perhaps even quotations from the Odes in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. (J. R. Harris and A. Mingana, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, Vol. 2, London, 1920, p. 385.)
We do not know who wrote the Odes of Solomon. The title Odes or Ode of Solomon which is given in the Pistis Sophia and as a heading to the single Ode in the Bodmer Papyrus has led scholars to classify this work among the Pseudepigrapha–that is, among works falsely attributed to biblical characters or times. But as the word Shalom or Sh’lom in Hebrew or Syriac means “peace” or “rest,” the title could be translated “The Odes of His Peace (or Rest).” This is especially fitting since the theme of rest is so prevalent in the Odes. As Harris and Mingana point out:
“…The name of Solomon attached to the Odes is something more than an outside, bookmaker’s or bookseller’s, label; it must be used in the internal interpretation of the Odes as Odes of Rest, for that is one of the root-meanings of Solomon’s name, and he is supposed to have this name as being historically the man of peace.” (Charlesworth, Op. Cit., p. 727.)
Although the identity of the author of the Odes remains a mystery, the closeness of the tone and content of the Odes to the tone and content of the writings of St. John the Evangelist, together with St. Ignatius’ familiarity with and use of the Odes (St. Ignatius was a disciple of St. John) suggest that the Odes could have grown up in the spiritual soil prepared by St. John and his disciples, in or around Antioch. J. H. Charlesworth states that specialists have defended the theory that “…the Odes are from the same community or region in which the Gospel of John was composed, and were familiar to [St.] Ignatius or contained the same Christian tone and ideas as those found in his letters.…” (James H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts, Missoula, MT, 1977, p.vii.)
Problems of Interpretation
A critical edition of the Odes of Solomon opens with the following statement: “The Odes of Solomon is… the earliest Christian hymn-book, and therefore one of the most important early Christian documents. Yet theories about the origin and nature of this document have risen and fallen in such rapid succession as to reduce it to an enigma.”
Why do the scholars and translators have so much difficulty in understanding the Odes? One difficulty arises from the fact that their interpretations are often based on what they consider to be the external, religious, historical, social, and cultural backgrounds of the Odes. Thus when the Odes (in 10 or 29) speak of “Gentiles,” they say that this expresses the author’s early Jewish-Christian attitudes towards non-Jews. When Ode Six speaks of the spread of waters over the earth, it is said to “signify the expansion of Christianity.” References to the “scum of the sea” (in Ode 18:11) are said to indicate the location in which the Odes were composed, as someone who lived near the sea would have used this metaphor.
Another thing that puzzles scholars about the Odes is their point of view. Who is speaking in the Odes? An Ode that begins from a human point of view suddenly changes to the point of view of Christ. The translators at that point supply a heading–“(Christ Speaks)”–to let the reader know that the point of view has changed. But has it really changed, or has the Odist entered into the very mind of Christ or himself become “Christ” through mystical union with him? This has especially caused problems in the translation and interpretation of Ode 36 in which the writer explicitly describes his own experience of elevation and transformation into Christ.
Thus many of the scholars’ difficulties arise from the fact that they do not grasp the levels of mystical experience the Odist is expressing. Their erudition belongs to the external and exoteric spheres, and the author of the Odes is writing out of the depth of a mystical experience which belongs to an entirely different realm.
The Mystical Theology of the Odes
Since the Odes are mystical and esoteric, they teach, or more correctly, express the classical and universal mystical truths of Christianity. In the following paragraphs I will enumerate some of the truths they express. For some, verses are simply quoted from the Odes in which these ideas are found. Others will be discussed a bit more fully.
1. Nothing exists outside of God or in opposition to him.
“For thus it was from the beginning, and will be to the end. That nothing should be contrary, and nothing should rise up against him.” (6:3,4)
“And there is nothing that is outside of the Lord, for he was before anything came into being.” (16:18)
Thus we see that the idea of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) was not a part of the earliest Christian theology–as it is not a part of any truly mystical theology in any of the world’s religions.
2. Physical creation veils the true reality of which it partakes, but this veil must be pierced and transcended for true gnosis or knowledge to be attained.
“The likeness of that which is below is that which is above. For everything is above, and below there is nothing, but it is believed to be by those in whom there is no knowledge.” (34:4,5)
3. Christ incarnates as man, so that man can become Christ.
“He became like me in order that I might receive him; in form he was considered like me so that I might put him on.” (7:4)
This concept of clothing oneself with God–with God’s Love, his Name, his Light, his Grace–is a prominent image used again and again in the Odes as a metaphor for the means and process of theosis or divinization of the individual. Note the following verses:
“I am putting on [the love of the Lord]. I have been united to him for the Lover has found the Beloved, And because I love him that is the Son I shall become a son. For he who is joined to him Who is immortal, will also himself become immortal.” (3:1,7,8)
“And I put off darkness, and clothed myself with light. And I was lifted up in the light, and I passed before him.” (21:3, 6)
Getting back to the idea of man becoming Christ, we find the explicit use of the term anointing (or “Christing”) in 36:6: “And he anointed me from his own perfection, and I became one of his near ones.”
4. Theosis is attained by unceasing meditation on God through clinging to the repetition of the Holy Name which has been revealed to us for our salvation.
“And my righteousness goes before them, and they shall not be detached from my Name, for it is with them.… And ye shall be found incorrupt in all ages, on account of the Name of your Father.” (8:19, 22)
“And all those who are against me were afraid of me; and I became the Lord’s by the Name of the Lord.” (25:11)
“For the sign in them is the Lord, and the sign is the way of those who cross in the Name of the Lord. Put on therefore the Name of the Most High and know him, and you shall cross without danger, because the rivers shall be subject to you.” (39:7-8)
“Let us therefore all of us unite together in the Name of the Lord, and let us honor him with its goodness. And our faces will shine in his light, and our hearts will meditate in his love, by night and by day.” (41:5-6)
5. The Saints dwell in God and God in the Saints and through them God is revealed in the world and helps the world.
“…The Most High shall be known in his Saints.…The Seers shall go before him, and they shall be seen before him.” (7:16, 18)
“For the dwelling-place of the Word is man, and his truth is love.” (12:12)
“And the foundation for everything is Thy rock.” (22:12)
The Name of God in the Odes of Solomon
And the Praise of his Name he gave us, our spirits praise his Holy Spirit. (6:6)
And my righteousness goes before them, and they shall not be detached from my Name, for it is with them. (8:19)
And ye shall be found incorrupt in all ages, on account of the Name of your Father. Alleluia. (8:22)
Let me be well-pleasing before Thee because of Thy glory, and because of Thy Name let me be saved from the Evil One. (14:5)
I have put on incorruption by means of his Name, and I have put off corruption by his grace. (15:8)
Glory and Honor to his Name. Alleluia. (16:20)
Praise and great beauty to his Name. Alleluia. (18:16)
Praise and honor to his Name. Alleluia. (20:10)
Thou wert there and helped me, and in every place Thy Name was round about me. (22:6)
And the letter became a large volume, which was entirely written by the finger of God; and the Name of the Father was upon it; and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, to rule unto the ages of ages. Alleluia. (23:21,22)
And all those who are against me were afraid of me; and I became the Lord’s by the Name of the Lord. (25:11)
Fill ye water for yourselves from the living fountain of the Lord, for it has been opened to you. And come all ye thirsty and take a drink, and rest by the fountain of the Lord. For pleasing it is and sparkling, and it gives rest to the soul. For much sweeter is its water than honey, and the honeycomb of bees is not to be compared with it. Because it flowed from the lips of the Lord, and it gave a Name from the heart of the Lord. (30:1-5)
He opened his mouth and spoke grace and joy, and he spoke a new song of praise to his Name. (31:3)
My chosen ones have walked in me, and my ways I will make known to them that seek me, and I will promise them my Name. Alleluia. (33:13)
For the sign in them is the Lord, and the sign is the way of those who cross in the Name of the Lord. Put on therefore the Name of the Most High and know him, and you shall cross without danger, because the rivers shall be subject to you. (39:7,8)
And a way has been appointed for those who cross after him, and for those who adhere to the course of his faith, and worship his Name. Alleluia. (39:13)
Let us therefore all of us unite together in the Name of the Lord, and let us honor him with its goodness. And our faces will shine in his light, and our hearts will meditate in his love, by night and by day. (41:5,6)
The Messiah in truth is one; and he was known before the foundations of the world, that he might enliven souls for ever by the truth of his Name: (41:15)
And I set my Name upon their heads, for they are free men and they are Mine. Alleluia. (42:20)
Read Ode One and its commentary by Abbot George Burke.