An inspiring collection of early Christian devotional poems, as vibrant as the day they were written. Lost for nineteen hundred years, but rediscovered by Cambridge biblical scholar, Rendel Harris, in 1908 they are heare interpreted for the general reader for the first time by John Davidson.
These intriguing, lyrical and often beautiful poems speak of the soul's experiences as it travels the universal mystic path of the creative word or logos. Written within a generation of Jesus lifetime, the Odes of Solomon provide precious indications of the true nature of the path he taught.
Born in 1944, John Davidson has had a lifelong interest in mysticism. Graduating in 1966 from Cambridge University with an honours degree in natural sciences, he worked for seventeen years at the University's Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.
In 1984 he left the University to pursue independent interests, and since then has written a number of books, including a series on science and mysticism. The present book is the fifth in a series on science and mysticism. The present book is the Fifth in a series on Christian origins, following on from his ground breaking work, The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of His Original Teachings.
Sorting one day through a pile of miscellaneous manuscripts lying in a corner of his office, the early twentieth-century biblical scholar, Rendel Harris, realized that he unknowingly had in his possession an almost complete text of the previously lost, Odes of Solomon. His first annotated edition of the original text, together with an English translation, was subsequently published the following year, in 1909. Since that date this collection of beautiful odes has been the subject of a considerable number of scholarly translations and discussions. Harris himself remained intrigued and enchanted with the Odes, publishing the last of a number of revised editions of his work in 1920, in collaboration with his friend and fellow scholar, Alphonse Mingana.
The Odes of Solomon is a collection of forty-two devotional and mystic poems composed very early in the Christian era, possibly around 100 AD or even earlier, probably in or around the city of Antioch. The original language of composition was almost certainly Greek or Syriac, though a case has also been made for Aramaic, a language akin to Syriac. It is also possible that - like many in those times - the original writer was bilingual, writing the Odes in both Greek and Syriac, or supervising their translation from one to the other at an early date.
The Odes of Solomon survive in only two main manuscripts, both in Syriac. The first - the one found by Rendel Harris-dates from the fifteenth century, and contains all the odes except 1, 2 and the beginning of 3. The second dates from the tenth century, and is lacking its earlier part, beginning in the middle of Ode 17. Ode 11 is also known from a third-century Greek papyrus. Five other odes (1, 5, 6, 22 and 25) are extant in Cop tic, embedded in a well-known gnostic text, the fourth- century Pistis Sophia. Pooling these resources, only Ode 2 and the beginning of Ode 3 are entirely missing.
Neither of the two Syriac manuscripts are of an early date, and there are differences between these texts, often minor, sometimes significant. One of these two also has occasional verses missing due to the inattention of the scribe. It is certain, therefore, that the extant texts are not entirely as originally penned, and the possibility of significant editing having taken place in some of the odes cannot be ruled out. However, generally speaking, the consistency of the odes suggests that they are largely as the original author intended.
The renderings offered here are new, based upon the work of earlier scholars, notably J.R. Harris (1909, 1911, 1916), J.H. Bernard (1912), J.R. Harris and A. Mingana (1920), J.H. Charlesworth (1973,1983) and j.A, Emerton (1985). Consideration has also been given to a number of French and German translations and studies. It is noteworthy that the translations subsequent to the original work of Rendel Harris have been considerably influenced by him, as has the present work.
There are a number of places where the translation or interpretation is uncertain. All the scholars involved have acknowledged this. Since the purpose of the present book is to place the Odes before the general reader in an enjoyable format, without scholarly notes and commentary, I have had to make a decision, on each occasion, which meaning to go for. While taking account of the technical aspects of the available texts, I have generally opted for the most plausible rendering, given the odist's flow of thought in that particular ode. The division of the Odes into stanzas has also been added in the present rendering.
The attribution of the Odes to Solomon reflects a common literary device of ancient times. Writings were ascribed to an individual from history or mythology who - it was considered - represented the ideals and doctrines of that particular text. Traditionally, Solomon represented spiritual and human wisdom, as well as the divine Wisdom or creative Power of God as portrayed in Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach and other literature of the period. Further, the name 'Solomon' (Shelomo in Hebrew) has been derived from the Hebrew 'Shalom: meaning 'peace' or 'rest'. In a spiritual context, 'rest' is a term used throughout Jewish, Christian and other literature for the peace and bliss of eternity. Ode 26 even speaks of the "Odes of His Rest", probably as a play on the name Solomon, and some scholars have consequently considered the possibility that the Odes were originally named the "Odes of His Rest". The ascription of the Odes to Solomon indicates, there- fore, that their subject matter is spiritual and mystical.
A study of the Odes soon reveals that their underlying theme, their choice of metaphors and their linguistic style have much in common with John's gospel. Both writers take the Creative Word or Logos to be the fundamental reality of their mystical under- standing. In keeping with the times, both exhibit a blend of Jewish and Hellenistic influences. Both are fond of wordplay and double entendre, and there are many passages that contain both an outer meaning as well as an inner, mystic meaning. Both also like to echo passages from the Jewish Wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon and so on). In fact, many of the Odes contain allusions and references either to John's gospel, or to the Wisdom literature, or to other biblical texts, many of which have been identified by the various scholarly commentators. There are a number of places where the odist clearly has one of the biblical Psalms or some passage from the Wisdom literature in mind, forming his literary inspiration for that passage, or sometimes for an entire ode.
The Odes also have affinities with texts such as the hymns found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and the pre-Christian Psalms of Solomon, both of which employ a variety of terms when speaking of the Creative Word of God. From the wealth of mystic literature of this kind, stemming from the centuries immediately before and after Jesus, it must be presumed that mystics who taught the path of the Word or Logos were active at that time in Palestine and Asia Minor.
There appear to be two main kinds of odes in the collection. There are the simple ones, full of gratitude, love and praise of God; and there are those where the symbolism and imagery is more complex. At times, it is tempting to think that contributions from two authors are present. It would not be without precedent for the Odes to contain the work of more than one writer. This is true of the biblical Psalms and the book of Proverbs, for instance. All the same, there is a unity in the imagery and style that prevails throughout. It is likely that some odes have received the editorial attention of later Christians, explaining why a few are more specifically Christian than others. But in these and other odes it is also evident that the author - as in John's gospel - is trying to indicate the symbolic mystical meaning hidden within the beliefs and myths of early Christian dogma. All in all, then, the general conclusion is that the Odes are primarily the work of one writer.
Like John's gospel, the essential theme of the Odes is that of salvation and the attainment of immortal life through the primary, creative Power of God, which the odist calls the Word, the Word of Truth, the Word of Knowledge, Wisdom, the Truth, His Thought, Living Water, the Spring or Fountain, His Right Hand, His Name, and by other similar terms and epithets. All of these names are used in earlier biblical and apocryphal literature, as well as later in early Christian and other allied texts. The poet also speaks of a "Helper", whom he equates with the Word, but also identifies as a living human being. This is clearly his Saviour or Master, whom he believes to be an incarnation or manifestation of the Word.
In common with many other mystic writers of the time, direct experience of God is called Knowledge or Gnosis of God. The writer also speaks of love, faith, refuge, rest and many other aspects of the devotional, mystic path associated with the Word. All the Odes end with the word 'Hallelujah', which means 'praise the Lord', a common expression of the times that has survived the centuries.
The majority of the metaphors and images used in the Odes also occur in other literature of the period. Like many poets before and since, one of the odist's most frequent devices is to open a poem with an image, and then to expand upon this image in the remainder of the poem.
At times, it is the devotee who speaks, and at others, the odist assumes the voice of the Messiah or Saviour. In some poems, the two alternate, but the poet has left it up to the reader to figure out who is speaking at any particular point or in any particular ode. Sometimes, it could be either. As in John's gospel, Isaiah and many other biblical books, writing in the name of the Saviour, the Word or the Lord himself was a common literary practice of the period.
The meaning of many of the metaphors will usually be clear to the reader, but some will be more obscure than others. The ones that may be the most difficult to appreciate in modern times are those associated with the human body. This imagery is in keeping with the odist's era. The creative Power, for instance, is God's 'Right Hand'; his soul has limbs or 'members' - meaning all parts of his being; souls are also described as God's 'members', being parts of him. The poet's inner attitude of devotion and supplication is described metaphorically as turning his 'face' to God and 'stretching out his arms in prayer'. The soul's fallen condition in this world is described as one of 'sickness'; the soul is 'blind', 'deaf', 'crippled' and 'paralysed', in need of 'healing' and being made to 'stand upright'. The spiritual sustenance that flows from God to the soul is described as milk and honey, the former even being depicted as coming from the 'breasts' of the Lord.
Water, too, is a favourite source of metaphors for the odist. In a hot and arid region of the world, the significance of water to life is readily appreciated. This is the origin of the metaphor, 'Living Water', meaning the creative Power, an expression that can even be traced to Sumerian times of the third millennium BC. To the poet, the Living Water arises from the 'Lord's Spring'. It flows in 'rivers' or falls as 'dew', watering the plant or flowers of his soul. As a result, he 'blossoms' and 'bears fruit'.
Who the author was is unknown. Whether or not he was a direct disciple of Jesus is difficult to say. Perhaps he was, though it is more likely that he was not. For many of the mystical writers of that period, however, Jesus became a kind of new Solomon, so to speak. Set as the focus or lead character of a story, Jesus rapidly became a traditional vehicle for conveying mystic teachings, as in the many apocryphal Acts, gospels and revelations that appeared in the first few centuries of the Christian era.
It is possible, for example, that even John's gospel was written by the disciple of a mystic other than Jesus, and that the writer only used the gospel story - in his own allegorized way - to convey the mystic teachings of the Creative Word or Logos. He also wished to correct some of the misunderstandings that he saw creeping into the nascent Christian religion, and present in the already extant gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. As a number of scholars have pointed out, John's gospel is really an extended discourse on its opening verses concerning the Word or Logos. Hence, the T who speaks as Jesus is speaking - in the words of the author - as an incarnation of the Logos. The majority of the discourses, dialogues and stories were thus not intended to be a historical record of Jesus' actual words and deeds. Some early Christians even believed that John's gospel had been written by the gnostic Cerinthus (fl.c.IOO AD), while others thought that it had been written to refute Cerinthus. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems certain that the writers of both the Odes and John's gospel were of the same school of thought. They certainly share a similarity of expression, and both imply in their writings that Jesus had been an incarnation of the Logos. But whether Jesus was actually their Master, or they were just using the dawning Christian tradition as a literary vehicle remains open to debate.
Some help is required to appreciate the depths hidden in the ancient imagery of the Odes. Yet this needs to be done without intrusion into their intrinsic atmosphere or mood, since the nature of the divine and mystic love expressed in these odes is often of a sublime character. I have experimented with a number of ways of providing this assistance. In the end, I have opted for an introductory summary of the ode's main features, together with a mirror, a parallel or a paraphrase of the ode in modern English. The parallel also contains extracts from allied biblical and other literature of the period. The intention is to illuminate the meaning without the heaviness of definitive explanation.
These parallels should be taken as personal interpretations only, as a help to the reader, not as definitions of the whole meaning. Good poetry such as the Odes simultaneously conveys a colourful spectrum of hidden, subtle meanings that vanish as soon as the attempt is made to capture them. Sunshine cannot be caught in a bottle. The Odes will also strike each person differently, the impact varying according to their mood and bent of mind. This is the power of poetic imagery, and is another reason why I have avoided direct explanation.
To my mind, therefore, a good way to enjoy the Odes might be to read the original, to seek assistance from the summary and parallel to understand any obscurities, and then to reflect upon the meanings and the images as they come into one's mind. I would also suggest proceeding at a slow pace, maybe taking just one or two odes at a time. The Odes are too rich to be hurried through.
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