Professor James Charlesworth: The Odes of Solomon – The First Christian Hymnal

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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.

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].

Were the Odes ever considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon? Why or why not?

We have no record of a synod who voted on the works to be included in the canon. Probably, the Odes were not important for the western church, and their celebration of private piety directly to the Creator may have caused them to be unattractive for those who were defining the institutional church.

In what language were the Odes originally written?

Some scholars think that the Odes were originally composed in Greek (Quasten). Other scholars conclude that they were composed in Syriac (Emerton) or a form of Aramaic-Syriac (Charlesworth). The Greek copy is full of Semitisms, is inferior linguistically to the Syriac, and the latter preserves many features usually typical of an original language (e.g., paronomasia, alliteration, assonance, metrical scheme, parallelism, rhythm). Variants in the extant manuscripts are sometimes explained by a Syriac original text (e.g. brk and krk in 22:6).

You and others think it is possible that the author of the Odes belonged to a sect similar to the Essene/Qumran groups. Would the music of communities or sects such as the Essenes have differed significantly from the music of the Jewish Temple before its destruction, or the music of the post-Temple synagogues?

Only in the Temple before 70 CE would you find the following music: hundreds of Levites chanting, harps, trumpets, drums, flutes, tambourines, and dancing young virgins. In Essene, and other groups, you would find sectarian liturgies and chanting, perhaps without a flute or harp, since in many texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Odes) an author confesses that his heart or tongue is “his” instrument, harp, or flute.

What can modern Christians learn about spirituality and worship from the Odes of Solomon? And what contributions do you think the Odes of Solomon can offer to the development of contemporary songs and hymns?

Many Christians have come to me as a Methodist minister stating that all their lives they were told to say “mea culpa.” In my opinion, Jesus did not call into being a group of people that defined themselves as sinners who had to spend their lives seeking forgiveness from an angry God. In fact, Jesus gave his life to break such “yokes” of slavery. He showed the way to be free for God and to praise God for the joy of living. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus wished that his “joy” would be completed in his followers. If Christianity is a call to freedom and a joyous relation with a loving Creator, then the Odes would be the perfect “Hymnbook.”

The Odes and similar writings have been more or less the domain of scholars, historians and artifacts experts. What are your thoughts about The Odes Project and its role in popularizing the Odes and making the available to contemporary worshipers?

In my first decade of teaching at Duke University (1969-1979), I was thrilled to perceive the popularity of the Odes and the celebration of my earliest publications. Some musicians rendered the Odes into music for churches and Billy Graham’s magazine featured them as ideal for young Christians. Now The Odes Project is dedicated to reviving this recognition and appreciation. Finally, the edict of the Protestant Reformers (ad fontes) leads us back to the time we were all “Catholics” (global) and when the Odist captured the excitement of God’s joyous reunion with his creatures.

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.

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