The Church owes many debts of gratitude to her children in the Near East. From that cradle have come a wide variety of treasured possessions not least of which is the very earliest Christian hymnal. For it was around the year 100 that an unknown Christian poet composed forty-two beautiful hymns of prayer and praise which would later come to be known as the Odes of Solomon.
The Odes have been called by many names. They have been labeled hymns, poems, songs, canticles and psalms. An ode is a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style. The psalms and songs have been known as Odes from the second century. They bring to mind Pauls description of early Christian community and worship. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, odes, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
Originally written in Greek, the Odes represent first century Christianity as it developed in an eastern, Judeo-Christian environment. While Ephesus and even Alexandria have been suggested as the site of their composition, the present consensus is that they were written in either Edessa or Antioch for liturgical usage in the Eastern churches. It is indeed a tragedy that these hymns were lost to the church for most of her history. They were discovered in 1908 by J. Rendel Harris who translated them from Syriac.
The early church drew freely on the rich heritage of Judaism. From the beginning, the canonical Psalms provided a wealth of worship resources for the Church. However, even the depth of the Psalms were unable to express the new joy of the early believers. The psalms had their limitations from the Christian point of view reads one history of hymnody, since the language of the Old Testament was inadequate to describe the glories of a completed redemption. And so, new hymns arose within the Christian community. The Odes of Solomon represent what is probably the earliest collection of Christian hymns.
The similarities to the Biblical psalms, the reference to Christ in the form of prophecy instead of historically and a strong accent on the belief in one God are evidence of the strong Jewish influence in the Odes. Because the Odes are clearly Judeo-Christian in nature, this led some to propose that they were originally Jewish and only reworked by Christian hands. However, with the unity of their authorship generally accepted, most scholars now attribute these Jewish characteristics to the strong Hebrew influence in Syrian Christianity.
The Christian qualities are both numerous and obvious. The Odes contain references to the incarnation, virgin birth, crucifixion, descent into hell, and the resurrection. The poet never quotes any single word of Jesus from the gospel. The proper name Jesus is never used but rather he is referred to as Messiah, Anointed One or Christ.
The Odes of Solomon take their name from the earlier Jewish composition of 18 hymns known as the Psalms of Solomon.
A joyous, contemplative spirit permeates the Odes. Virtually every line breathes an awareness of the intimate relationship between the risen Christ and his disciples. The poet concentrates on the illumination that proceeds from the resurrected Christ rather than the humiliating details of Jesus earthly life. The following Odes are deeply reverent, yet wonderfully enthusiastic. They reveal an unbridled love for God and a profound sense of the believers union with Him in Christ.
As you read these Odes experience the great joy and fervency that filled the heart and soul of the author.
My art and my service are in His hymns,
For my love is the Lord;
Rev. Robert Stroud is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, California.