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The Odes of Solomon: The First Christian Hymnal

The Odes of Solomon: The First Christian Hymnal

  • If the Church is conceived to be a collection of sinners who fretfully fear the condemnation of God, the Odes are not an appropriate hymnbook. If the Church is defined as a group of holy people in a closed institution, the Odes do not fit. If the Church is perceived to be a growing number of the faithful who not only yearn for acceptance from a loving Deity who is loved fully but who also feel empowered to live joyfully by God’s grace, the Odes are singularly appropriate.

Originally Published in Worship Leader Magazine Volume 27 | Number 4

Conversation with Professor James Charlesworth 

The Odes of Solomon are hymns of praise and devotion that we have inherited from an early poet and fellow believer. The author—the odist—was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. 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 in reference to himself and all who believe,like him that Jesus is the promised Messiah; it is a scholarly distinction that helps define The Odes.The odist lived within 100 years of the advent of Christ. For years The Odes were known by New Testament scholars to have existed, referred to and quoted in several ancient documents but lost in antiquity until they were rediscovered 1909 in a Syriac manuscript. They survive in lyric form only, without music. Though scholars have translated the lyrics into many languages, including English, they remain virtually unknown to most theologians, church leaders and, in particular, to the laity. The Odes Project is dedicated to honoring the heart and spirit of these first Christian hymns and to make the experience of the Odes familiar throughout the Church through new music.

You mentioned to me in an email that the Odes of Solomon have helped shape your career since 1966. In what way have they played a particularly significant role in your broader work with ancient document fragments, etc.?

Since 1985, I have been editor and director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project. When I began exploring the sacred texts allegedly on the fringes of “the canon,” I never imagined I would hold such an elevated position. Certainly, that way was opened as I focused my Ph.D. dissertation and E.T. [Ecole Biblique] on the Odes of Solomon. My first book was published at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and is the critical text and translation of these ancient hymns.

When were the Odes composed?

The date of the Odes has been a focus of debate since 1909 when J. Rendel Harris identified the Odes in a Syriac manuscript on his shelf. Most scholars now conclude that the Odes received their present form about 125 CE (Charlesworth, Lattke). Since a collection of “hymns” or poems would probably not have been written in one year, we should imagine some decades for the composition of these 42 Odes.

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In your writings about the Odes, you differentiate between them and “apocryphal” writings. Could you explain the difference?

The Odes are “apocryphal” in that they were “hidden” from modern scholars and others until they were recovered in 1909. They were not hidden in antiquity, but were probably originally used in Christian worship [N.B. the “Hallelujah” at the end of an Ode]. 

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