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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

The Odes of Solomon - Introduction

For the text of the Odes we are dependent on two Syriac MSS (both defective), supplemented by a Greek text of one of the Odes and also by a Coptic version of five of them preserved in the well-known Gnostic work Pistis Sophia.

The two Syriac MSS are: (1) Rylands Cod. Syr. 9 (16th cent.: = H) in the John Rylands Library at Manchester, which contains all the Odes except i, ii, and the beginning of iii; and (2) B.L. Addit. 14538 (9th or 10th cent.: = B), which has a much greater deficiency at the beginning, but is complete from the middle of xvii. 7 to the end. The text of the single ode which has survived in Greek (Ode xi) is one of a number of items in a 3rd century papyrus codex in the Bodmer collection at Geneva (Pap. Bod. XI). 1 The remaining items in the codex are a miscellaneous collection – two psalms from the Old Testament, Jude and the two Epistles of Peter from the New Testament, the apocryphal correspondence of St. Paul with the Corinthians, the Nativity of Mary (The Apocalypse of James), the Apology of Phileas, and Melito's Homily on the Pasch. The five odes preserved in Coptic in the Pistis Sophia are i, v, vi, xxii, and xxv. Ode ii is thus unattested by any authority, as is also the beginning of Ode iii.

Ode i is extant only in Coptic and our translation of it has been made by Dr. K. H. Kuhn from Schmidt's text of the Pistis Sophia. Otherwise the translation is from the Syriac. It follows mainly the text of H, although from xvii. 7 onwards B has been preferred occasionally: all differences between H and B, however, have been recorded in the footnotes, as well as the Coptic and Greek variants where they occur.

If we take the Odes as they stand, there can be no doubt at all that they are Christian. Christ is mentioned by name: there are references to events in the Gospels (e.g., to the Baptism in xxiv); and the prevailing atmosphere is Christian throughout (e.g., the opening of xix could not have been written by anyone who was not a convinced Trinitarian). Nevertheless, several theories of redaction and interpolation have been put forward, the most influential being that of Harnack, who maintained that Odes iv and vi were Jewish in origin (on the basis of the references to the Temple, which Jesus had said was to be destroyed), that xix and xxvii were purely Christian, and that the rest were originally Jewsish odes later interpolated by a Christian. But none of these theories has met with any general acceptance.

From a rather different point of view it has been argued that the Odes betray Gnostic influence. In particular, H. Schlier has suggested that they stem from a syncretistic Baptist sect, which in some respects had similar beliefs and practices to the Mandaeans. Yet there is no evidence in the Odes either of the characteristic Gnostic doctrine of emanations from a distant God, or of a radical dualism between matter and spirit: on the contrary, Ode xvi witnesses to a doctrine of Creation which would have been impossible for any thoroughgoing Gnostic. Ultimately, of course, the evaluation of such Gnostic affinities as there are in the Odes depends on the general theory held of the nature of Gnosticism and the date of its rise. But this much is certain, that, while the Odes may very well have been composed in an area where Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) speculations were current, and their theology affected accordingly, they show no trace of any developed, or logically formulated, Gnostic system.

If, then, we are thinking in terms of a single author (and there is no sound reason for suggesting a plurality of authors) the most that the evidence will permit us to say is that he was a Christian. In all probability he was a Jewish Christian. And, if we are prepared to stress certain parallels between the Odes and the Qumran literature, and at the same time accept the view that the members of the Qumran community were Essenes, we can go on to suppose (with J. H. Charlesworth) that the author either had been himself an Essene before his conversion, or at least subjected to very strong Essene influences.

But whatever the truth, from very early days the Odes were ascribed to Solomon. No claim to Solomonic authorship is made in the text and there is little to suggest it. It may be that the belief that Solomon was the author arose because of the association of the Odes with the Psalms. This association obtains not only in the Syriac tradition, but also in the Coptic and the Greek. In the two available Syriac MSS both Odes and Psalms are arranged as a single collection with the Odes first: the individual pieces are numbered consecutively i–lx (i.e. 42 Odes + 18 Psalms); and all of them seem to have been known as ‘Psalms’. Where our Ode i is quoted in the Coptic Pistis Sophia it is described as ‘the nineteenth Ode’, which is clear enough evidence that in the tradition known to the author of Pistis Sophia the Psalms and the Odes were also combined (but in the reverse order to that found in the Syriac), and also that the whole collection was known to the Copts as ‘Odes’. The two Greek lists of Biblical books, the pseudo-Athanasian Synopsis and the Stichometry of Nicephorus, both refer to the ‘Psalms and Ode(s) of Solomon’. This last phrase is most naturally understood as a reference to two distinct collections, with two separate titles, although it can be interpreted as the title of a single collection – especially as the Stichometry very obviously treats the two together and assigns them in all 2100 stichoi. However, in either case, Psalms and Odes are very closely related.

But whether the Odes were composed in the first instance as an entirely independent work or were designed as a Christian supplement to the Psalms, there can be no doubt about the antiquity of the title ‘Odes’. Not only is ‘Odes’ the title of the combined work in the tradition represented by the author of the Pistis Sophia (3rd century?): the Greek text of Ode xi, preserved in Bodmer Papyrus XI (also 3rd century), is prefaced by the heading ‘Ode of Solomon’; and the Latin apologist Lactantius (c. 240–c.320) quotes from Ode xix in such a way as to make it quite clear that he was familiar with a collection of ‘Odes’ which were numbered as ours are (‘Solomon in ode undevicesima ita dicit: Infirmatus est uterus Virginis…’). 2 Lactantius, Div. Inst. IV. xii. 3 (One MS reads ‘psalmo’ in place of ‘ode’). Whether Lactantius was quoting from an independent collection of Odes or from a combined collection of Odes and Psalms cannot, of course, be determined; but if the latter, the Odes will have preceded the Psalms, as in our two Syriac MSS. Nor can we know whether Lactantius was quoting from a Latin version or making his own translation (presumably from the Greek). The title ‘Odes’ would thus appear to be very ancient indeed, if not original; and it was in all probability inspired by the summary of Solomon's achievements in 1 Kings iv. 32 (‘And he uttered three thousand proverbs: and his songs [Sept. ‘odes’] numbered a thousand and five’).

The quotation of the Odes by Lactantius as if they were Scripture, and also by the author of the Pistis Sophia, together with the evidence of the Bodmer papyrus, suggests that they were known and respected over a wide geographical area by the end of the third century at the latest. Comparison with other early writers, however, yields little of any real value. There are possible literary connections between the Odes on the one hand, and Cyril of Jerusalem, the Acts of Thomas, and Ephraem Syrus, on the other. Yet the evidence is far from conclusive. More compelling than any are a number of rather striking similarities between the Odes and Ignatius of Antioch: some of these may be accidental, but there are too many to be entirely so; and, although insufficient to prove literary dependence one way or the other, they leave no doubt that both the author of the Odes and Ignatius were products of the same environment. On the whole, therefore, a date for the Odes c. AD 100–200 is the most probable and Syria and its neighbourhood the most likely place of origin. But when, where, and in what circumstances they were first combined with the Psalms it is impossible to say.

There remains the question of the original language. The fact that the text of the Odes has come down to us in Syriac, Coptic, Greek, and Latin (albeit in a solitary quotation), suggests Greek as the common denominator; and there is no lack of scholars who have argued forcefully for a Greek original. Yet the mere existence of a Greek text, from which Syriac, Coptic, and Latin versions may have been derived, is no guarantee of its originality. From an entirely different angle attention has been drawn to certain Semitic features in the Odes – notably to the regular use of parallelism, and to the occurrence from time to time of indubitably Semitic constructions (e.g. ‘He richly blessed me’ at xxviii. 4); and arguments have been advanced accordingly in favour of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Syriac originals. Since the author was a Christian, however, he is unlikely to have written in either Hebrew or Aramaic at the date suggested above, so that, if we are to suppose a Semitic original, Syriac is the most probable. On the other hand, it is claimed that the Semitic features can quite adequately be accounted for by supposing that the author was writing in Greek, but in a consciously ‘Biblical’ style, and taking as his model the poetical books of the Septuagint. The discovery of the Greek text of Ode xi and its publication in 1959 gave a fresh impetus to the discussion in that it was now at last possible to set the Greek side by side with the Syriac and compare them, even if over a very limited area. But the comparison has resulted in no firmer conclusions than formerly. M. Testuz, who edited the Greek text of Ode xi, declared himself definitely in favour of a Greek original, while freely admitting Semitic influences. However, J. A. Emerton, in 1967 , at the end of a very full discussion of all the arguments brought forward to date, could sum up, ‘The most probable conclusion to be drawn is that the Odes of Solomon were composed in Syriac’; and J. H. Charlesworth, to judge from the notes in his edition of 1973 , would seem inclined to agree. 3 A technical point is perhaps worth noting in this connection. In the Odes, the third person preformative of the imperfect begins with n-(rather than y-). From the evidence of the Syriac inscriptions it seems that the change took place round about AD 200 (see E. Jenni, ‘Die altsyrischen Inschriften, 1.–3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.’ in TZ xxi (1965), pp. 371–385). We cannot, of course, be precise in such matters, and there may well have been a time lag between the change in popular speech in some places and its appearance in inscriptions. Nevertheless, this suggests that we can scarcely date the present Syriac text of the Odes much before AD 200 – though inevitably, in itself, it gives us no help in deciding whether that text is the author's original, or an edited version of the original, or a translation from Greek!

Notes:

1 The remaining items in the codex are a miscellaneous collection – two psalms from the Old Testament, Jude and the two Epistles of Peter from the New Testament, the apocryphal correspondence of St. Paul with the Corinthians, the Nativity of Mary (The Apocalypse of James), the Apology of Phileas, and Melito's Homily on the Pasch.

2 Lactantius, Div. Inst. IV. xii. 3 (One MS reads ‘psalmo’ in place of ‘ode’). Whether Lactantius was quoting from an independent collection of Odes or from a combined collection of Odes and Psalms cannot, of course, be determined; but if the latter, the Odes will have preceded the Psalms, as in our two Syriac MSS. Nor can we know whether Lactantius was quoting from a Latin version or making his own translation (presumably from the Greek).

3 A technical point is perhaps worth noting in this connection. In the Odes, the third person preformative of the imperfect begins with n-(rather than y-). From the evidence of the Syriac inscriptions it seems that the change took place round about AD 200 (see E. Jenni, ‘Die altsyrischen Inschriften, 1.–3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.’ in TZ xxi (1965), pp. 371–385). We cannot, of course, be precise in such matters, and there may well have been a time lag between the change in popular speech in some places and its appearance in inscriptions. Nevertheless, this suggests that we can scarcely date the present Syriac text of the Odes much before AD 200 – though inevitably, in itself, it gives us no help in deciding whether that text is the author's original, or an edited version of the original, or a translation from Greek!

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