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  THE ORIGINS OF THE ODES
by James H. Charlesworth PhD
World Renown Theologian and Linguist
Director of Dead Sea Scrolls Project, Princeton


The Odes of Solomon are hymns of praise and devotion that we inherit from an early
poet. The author, the Odist, was a Jew, conceivably an Essene because he intermittently
evidences that he knew the Thanksgiving Hymns (the so-called hymnbook of the Qumran
Community). The Odist eventually believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and
imagined: "The dove fluttered over the head of our Lord Messiah, /Because he was her
head" (Ode 24:1).

The collection is identified as the Odes of Solomon, not because they were written by
King Solomon in the tenth century B.C., but because they were rightly considered to be
in the tradition of Solomon, who was known in the Bible as "the Beloved." The Odist
uses this term for himself and all like him; it is a concept that helps define the Odes.
While Solomon lived in the tenth century B.C., the Odist lived sometime near A.D. 100.
He composed the Odes in a form of early Aramaic and Syriac which is a language spoken
in the early Christian centuries and was a form of the language spoken by Jesus.
The Odist may have lived in Syria and perhaps in the region of Antioch. As is well
known, the believers in Jesus as the Christ were first called "Christians" in Antioch.

Since 1909, when the Odes were found in a Syriac manuscript, scholars have edited the
extant Greek, Coptic, Latin, and Syriac texts, and translated them into many modern
languages, included English, German, and French. While the Odes are well known to
historians and scholars, they are virtually unknown to theologians, church leaders, and
the laity. The purpose of the Odes Project is to render a voice to the Odist's creations and
make the Odes familiar to all. A movement is now sweeping the world; it is a recognition
that the Odes invigorate worship and supply a joy and happiness to liturgy. Many
Christians are rightly moved by the poetic vision of Ode 13:

Behold, the Lord is our mirror.
Open (your) eyes and see them in Him.
And learn the manner of your face,
And so declare praises to His Spirit.
Then wipe the paint from your face,
And love His holiness and put it on.
Then you will be unblemished at all times with Him.
Hallelujah

This hymn, as all the Odes, was probably chanted in Christian services. The verbs are
plural imperatives; that is, the Odist means: "[All of you] open (your) eyes and see them
in Him." Moreover, the Ode ends in a collective exhortatory "Hallelujah." That insight
also allows that some Christians also used the Odes in private devotions.

The Sounds from a Contagious Movement
The early Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus immediately composed new hymns to
praise God; some of these are preserved in the pre-Pauline hymns preserved in Phillipians
2 and Colossians 1. The Odes are also similar to the joy found in Luke's infancy gospel
(Luke 1-2). These early believers in Jesus were joyous in the coming of Jesus, God's Son
and the Messiah. They knew that God proved to be faithful and that His promises were
being realized. About the time of the Odist, we have evidence that Christians would
gather before dawn and chant praises to Christ. In fact, this information is found in a
letter sent by the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (61-ca. 113) to the Emperor Trajan
(53-117).

The Odes of Solomon is the only collection of Christian hymns that has come down to us
from the earliest centuries of the Church. They are not praises of the Western church;
they represent the hymnology of the Eastern Church, a church still very close to the
Semitic roots of Christianity.

The Odes are Like the Psalms
The Psalter is traditionally attributed to David, and his son, Solomon, is accredited as the
author of some works in the Psalms of David. Solomon is also accredited with composing
hundreds of psalms and odes; the early Christians assumed the Odes of Solomon were
composed by him. And they found an engaging wonder and joyful praise in these
creations. Like the authors of the Psalms, the Odist presents poetry in parallel lines of
thought.

Sometimes the imagery is attractively strange to our modern Western ears. This
strangeness allows us to elevate above our western parochialism and receive and echo of
hymning and worship in the early church. The spirit of New Testament worship
permeates these hymns with an amazing freshness and vitality.

The Odes are as eloquent about Christian love as the Franciscans compositions, as
evocative about grace as Calvin's Institutes, as profoundly indicative of holiness as the
works of John and Charles Wesley; indeed, most Christians today admit feeling the
presence of the Holy Spirit when hearing the singing of the Odes:

As the wind (ruah) moves through the harp
And the strings speak,
So the Spirit (ruah) of the Lord speaks through my members,
And I speak through His love. [Ode 6:1-2].

Notice how the thought is carefully constructed, with paronomasia [the two meanings of
ruah] and the way the thought is harmonized and moved forward with the repetition of
"speak" and the unifying force of the preposition "through."

Written by Professor J. H. Charlesworth from a draft supplied by the Odes Project; for
further insight see Charlesworth's The Odes of Solomon and his Critical Reflections on
the Odes of Solomon
SPECIALS
The Odes Project


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