Book Review: The Odes of Solomon – Mystical Songs from the Time of Jesus
by James Bean
Copyright September 2005
The Odes of Solomon
By John Davidson
Genres: Psalms, Poetry, Bhakti (devotion), Gnosticism, Gnostic Christianity, Meditation, Sacred Texts, Lost Books of the Bible, Mysticism, Metaphysics, Philosophy
This mysterious collection of ancient psalms known as “the Odes of Solomon,” written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language, has been described as “some of the most beautiful songs of peace and joy that the world possesses.” These mystical poems and prayers remind me of Rumi and other Sufi poets. Sometimes I refer to the Odes as ‘the would-be book of New Testament psalms’, and I find the Odes to be a very spiritual book, one of the very best examples of an apocryphal writing that got misplaced somewhere along the way. It’s one of those “lost books” of the Bible. Now that the Book of the Odes has been rediscovered, it is my hope that the contemplation of these outpourings of the heart will be the catalyst for much-needed new spiritual movements desiring to express a heart-centered spirituality of art, wisdom, eloquence, poetry, music and chant – the path of the lover and the Beloved. The original music or sound of the Odes remains unknown – we only have the words preserved, but it is my opinion that the form of chant used by the Syriac Christians of the Middle east most resembles how the Odes would have sounded if we could go back in time and hear them being chanted in places such as Antioch or Edessa, Syria sometime during the First and Second Centuries. (The French record label Auvidis has several compact discs of Syriac chant.) The Odes were also popular amongst the Gnostic religions existing in Egypt during the early centuries A.D., as several of them are included in one of the largest collections of Gnostic gospels to be discovered so far, called Pistis Sophia.
This new translation of the Odes of Solomon by John Davidson also features insightful commentary and parallel selections from many other sacred texts from antiquity. Davidson has authored several books making use of the forgotten scriptures, and is one of the few authors thus far to explore the spirituality contained in some of these scrolls and parchments once used by Essenes, the Yeshua Movement, various Gnostic religions, and the Manichaeans (followers of the Persian Prophet Mani).
From the Introduction…About the Discovery of the Book of the Odes
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 Coptic, 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. (from the Introduction)
A neatly constructed ode in which the Saviour first presents his credentials – his authority is that of God, through the Creative Word. With this Power, he could bring salvation to the whole world, should he so wish. But he has only come for the motley collection of souls, spread throughout the world, who sincerely seek him.
The Lord has directed my mouth by His Word: he has opened my heart by His Light. He has caused His immortal Life to dwell in me, and permitted me to speak of the fruit of His peace – to restore the souls of those who desire to come to Him, and to lead a good band of captives into freedom.
I was strengthened and made powerful, and the whole world was under my command. And it became mine for the glory of the Most High, and of God the Father. And the people (lit. ‘nations’) who were scattered abroad were gathered together. And I was not made impure by my love for them, because they worshipped me in high places. And footprints of Light were impressed upon their hearts, and they walked in the Way of my Life and were saved, and they became my people for ever and ever. Hallelujah.
Publisher: Publisher: Clear Books
Website: Clear Books