The First Known Christian Songbook
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (May 2011). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
In recent years a considerable amount of scholarly attention has been focused on the Odes of Solomon, an early collection of Jewish Christian hymns dating from the early second century CE. Following their modern discovery by J. Rendell Harris in 1909, many well-known scholars made significant contributions to our understanding of this early and intriguing collection of Christian songs. Although the Odes of Solomon were largely ignored for more than a generation between 1920 to approximately 1960, a new phase of research began in 1959-60 that has significantly advanced our understanding of this important collection. One can see many of the results of this recent inquiry in the works of James Charlesworth and Michael Lattke, but also in others as well (David Aune, Alan Culpepper). The Odes of Solomon is demonstrably the oldest and largest surviving collection of ancient sacred Christian hymns.
As such, a closer look will undoubtedly help songwriters of the today’s Church become better at writing music for the Church. The Odes are clearly Christian and reflect a particularly Jewish-Christian perspective that has several parallels with both the Gospel of John as well as Qumran psalms (Dead Sea Scrolls), including familiarity with Jewish sacred literature and also early Christian writings especially the Gospel of John. This likely reflects a shared Jewish and Jewish Christian tradition and a similar social context in which John and the Odes were produced.
The primary images and perspectives presented in the Odes are often taken from the Jewish Scriptures and also show an awareness of several teachings that are clearly presented in the New Testament, especially those in the Gospel of John, but elsewhere as well as we see in the focus on the virgin birth (Ode 19). There are no clear citations or quotations from either the Old or New Testament writings, though the parallels with the language and thought of the Old and New Testaments demonstrate the author’s familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures and popular early Christian teaching.
Similarly, the most significant features of the early Christian faith are included in the Odes, namely the Incarnation (as in Jn 1:1-18), the humility of Christ (compare Odes 41:11-16; 27:1-3; 42:1-2 with Phil 2:6-11), and his resurrection (cf. Odes 41:12; 42:11-13), as well as several other affirmations. In a few instances, the language is close enough to suggest dependence on biblical literature, but awareness of these teachings was widespread in the oral traditions of the churches in antiquity.
According to Louis Bouyer, the Odes, in terms of their content, appear at times to be a collection of commentaries on Johannine themes such as light, love, and life, a feature that suggests to some scholars that the writer was either a disciple of John, or at least a strong admirer of him, but also possibly one who lived in or near the same community of Christians where the author of the Fourth Gospel lived. There are many aspects of the teaching in the Odes that fits well with the theological perspective of John. If the Odes of Solomon was written at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, given the parallels, it is quite possible that the author of the Odes was a disciple of the author the Fourth Gospel and 1 John.
There are also significant soteriological terms employed throughout the Odes, namely: faith, fruit, grace, holiness, imperishability, joy, life, light, love, redemption, rest, salvation, strength, truth, understanding (gnosis), and Word. These are accompanied by the usual christological terms that we find in early Christianity, namely Father, God, Lord, Messiah, Most High, Redeemer, Savior, Son, and Spirit. The Odes reflect the theology of early Christianity not only in their several parallels with Johannine literature (especially John and 1 John), but, as Lattke observes, there are also parallels with Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, all seven acknowledged authentic letters of Paul, the Synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew), and possibly Revelation, but possibly other Christian texts as well. Again, this does not mean that specific texts are cited, but rather that there are parallel thoughts in them that may be due to a shared oral tradition in several cases, but in others the parallels may reflect knowledge of some of the early New Testament literature.
Spiritual Songs and Hymns in Early Christianity
According to the well-known text in Ephesians, evidence of the fullness of the Spirit among the followers of the risen Christ is seen demonstrably by: “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [read: odes] singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God even the father, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:19-21).
It is clear from the New Testament and other early Christian writings that Christians, like their Jewish siblings, wrote many songs that reflected the essence of their faith and their adoration of God and they sang these compositions in their worship. Without question, the early Christians inherited from their Jewish siblings many hymns and prayers that circulated in the synagogues and temple worship.
It is possible that some of the Odes originated as Jewish songs and were simply modified or overlaid with Christian perspectives, but Christians, like their Jewish siblings, produced many of their own spiritual songs that were sung in their worship.
The practice of singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving have deep roots in Judaism and are well represented in the early church as well.
Bible of Songs
Christians today do not include a separate collection of Christian hymns in their Bibles—though that was not the case for some churches initially and for centuries. The New Testament does contain a number of hymns scattered throughout the New Testament writings and Christians regularly sang songs and hymns featured in the Old Testament especially the Psalms. Much of the theology of the early churches was put to music (hymns, odes, and psalms), and this had great value for the liturgy of the early churches. This practice continues in churches to this day and hymns regularly convey important Christian theology, e.g., Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is our God. In these ancient spiritual songs we see that the early Christians did not believe that the Spirit of God had departed from their churches shortly after the death of the last writer of the New Testament—an inferred assumption of some Protestant Christians today! The ancient Christians believed that God continued to speak and minister to the people of God long after the close of the New Testament era and the ancient hymns, especially the Odes, often display this conviction.
Hymns as Scripture
In many Protestant churches, Christians are reminded that their faith and sacred doctrines are not rooted in, nor do they come from, a hymnbook, but rather from the Bible. In antiquity, that distinction was never as sharp as it is today. Again, the Ephesian letter reflects early Christian activity in producing sacred songs. The writer admonished the readers to be filled with the Spirit and to speak to one another “in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs [Greek = ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς], singing [ᾄδοντες] and making melody [ψάλλοντες] in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks [εὐχαριστοῦντες] to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, being subject [ὑποτασσόμενοι] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:19-21).
It is a welcome development today that we see considerable focus on ancient literature that was left behind at various junctures and for various reasons by the ancient churches. This literature often fills many of the gaps in our understanding of early Christianity, whether in the notions of life after death, burial practices, or the meaning of biblical terms such as Son of Man. This literature often presents reflections of early Jewish Christian worship in the formative stages of both Judaism and early Christianity. In recent years, biblical scholarship has advanced considerably by being informed by the literature that is closest in time and theological substance to the biblical writings. This includes the songwriting of our earliest Christian brothers and sisters.
Lee Martin McDonald President Emeritus, Acadia Divinity College Acadia University, Nova Scotia November, 2009