Age of ReasonThe Jesus Puzzle

Did Jesus Exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth?
Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.


Further Supplementary Articles:

  • No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate
  • No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John
  • No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?
  • No. 4: The Odes of Solomon
  • No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria
  • No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel
  • No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity
  • No. 8: Christ as "Man": Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?
  • No. 9: A Sacrifice In Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • No. 10:Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question
  • No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John
Supplementary Articles - No. 4: The Odes of Solomon


The long-lost Odes of Solomon were discovered by J. Rendel Harris in 1909 among a pile of old Syriac manuscripts which had been brought to England from the Middle East and tossed onto shelves in a corner of his office. The manuscript's opening leaves were gone, and of the 42 Odes in the set, Nos. 1 and 2 were missing. No. 2 still is. But No. 1 was already known from a gnostic document in Coptic, in which it had been placed in the mouth of "Mary, mother of Jesus."

The Odes were almost certainly composed in Syriac, probably in the latter part of the first century, and very likely in northern Syria, i.e., Antioch, Edessa, or some nearby center. Their tone is predominantly Jewish, though with seeming Christian overtones which are tantalizing and frustratingly obscure. The Odes show mildly gnostic features as well, and a long debate has sounded over whether they belong in this line of development. There are many parallels in terms and ideas with the Gospel of John, but direct dependence on that work has been discounted; instead a "shared community" is suggested, though not necessarily in precisely the same location or at the same time. Even greater are the parallels with certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Thanksgiving Hymns, and the Odes as a whole are clearly modeled on the Davidic Psalms.

From the beginning, the controversy surrounding the Odes, and one of the focuses of their study, has been on the question of how they should be categorized. Are they Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Johannine? Scholars with an orthodox view of Christian origins and development have attempted to align them with their own outlook. The problem is, the Odes do not conform to mainstream Judaism (there is nothing about the Temple cult or the Mosaic Law in them), and they refuse to yield up any but the vaguest of Christian references, and then only under duress. I would suggest that if one brings a fresh, unprejudiced eye to these poems, one will uncover valuable insights into the nature and diversity of early Christianity, the types of belief that were developing in different sectarian communities, where the light of the Gospels had not yet arrived to cast its artificial and distorting glare over the new landscape.

The first thing that strikes one on reading the Odes of Solomon is, quite simply, their poetic beauty. They are unlike almost anything else one encounters in Jewish and Christian literature of the time. No other piece of writing comes close to their joyous, unclouded atmosphere. Absent is the dark, punitive fever of end-of-the-world prophecy. No blood of sacrifice, no oppressive moral injunction, no rancorous sectarian attitude mars the purity and grace of their expression. Their quiet ecstasy, their sacred eroticism, is the voice of the mystic, though it is impossible to say if the same person wrote them all. Poetically, the writer was inspired by the Davidic Psalms, but by none of their plaintive supplication and lamentation. His Odes bask in a warm and optimistic light.

The Great Debate

Here is Ode No. 1, one of the shortest; others extend to as much as 26 verses. In my quotations I am going to take the occasional liberty of leavening the recent (1985) translation of J. H. Charlesworth in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (edited by J. H. Charlesworth), volume 2, page 735f, with that of the team of Rendel Harris and Alphonse Mingana who published a thorough study of the Odes in 1920 (The Odes and Psalms of Solomon). Neither the usual division of a verse into two lines (sometimes three), nor the numbering of the verses appears in the manuscript.

   1   The Lord is upon my head like a crown,
       and I shall never be without him.

   2   Plaited for me is the crown of truth,
       and it caused your branches to blossom in me.

   3   For it is not like a withered crown that does not bud:

   4   But you live upon my head,
       and you have blossomed upon me.

   5   Your fruits are full and complete;
       they are full of your salvation.
As soon as they were published, the debate began. What were these Odes and who wrote them? The prominent German scholar Adolf Harnack pronounced them a Jewish hymnbook later interpolated by a Christian, and although he subsequently changed his mind under the influence of other studies, their pervasive Jewish tone and content still persuades some scholars in this direction. Suggestions that they represent some form of second century gnosticism are now out of favor. James H. Charlesworth, perhaps the leading specialist in the Odes of Solomon today, and a scholar whose theological views can best be described as "traditional," declares them unreservedly Christian. He calls for support on J. A. Emerton, who "considers the debate closed: 'The Odes are plainly Christian in their present form.' " (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, page 727. I will henceforth abbreviate this publication and volume to OTP.)

Charlesworth manages to find in the imagery of the Odes all sorts of allusions to Jesus of Nazareth. He sees in them a "rejoicing over and experiencing of a resurrected and living Messiah, Lord and Savior." (OTP, p.728) But can an unbiased eye discern the same thing?

First of all, this celebration of Jesus never speaks the name Jesus. The title "Messiah" appears seven times, all with a definite Jewish flavor. (We should avoid the term "Christ," since this document was not written in Greek, and the term would give us misleading connotations.) Not a single Gospel detail is evident anywhere in these Odes. A handful of allusions which have suggested this or that Gospel incident to some commentators are, as we shall see, a part of the imagery the Odist has drawn from scripture.

Charlesworth declares that the crucifixion is "significantly portrayed" (OTP, p.732). Here is one of the two main passages he draws on, Ode 27 in its wispy entirety:

   1   I extended my hands
       and hallowed my Lord;

   2   For the expansion of my hands
       is his sign.

   3   And my extension
       is the upright wood.
The word "wood" is often used in later Syriac literature for the cross (of Jesus), but it also means "tree," and the word has ties with the image of the wood-tree of Paradise, which symbolizes a source of life. In fact, there is evocative imagery in the Odes (11 and 38) of the Odist/believer planted and blooming like a tree in Paradise, rooted and "spread out" like the branches of a tree. Ode 27, then, with its spread hands (i.e., arms extended straight out sideways), could be a mystically significant prayer posture, and not an echo of the cross. There is, as one can see, nothing in this Ode to suggest the idea of crucifixion. That Jesus' cross lies behind this "sign" is something which Charlesworth and others have read into it.

Moreover, who is the "Lord" referred to in verse 1? Compare the first verse of Ode 37, where the poet says: "I extended my hands toward the Lord, and toward the Most High I raised my voice." The "Lord" is in parallel with the "Most High," which refers to God. (This kind of repetitive juxtaposition is common in Old Testament poetry: the two terms are not references to different figures. And the rest of the Ode makes this clear.)

Here, then, the poet is "extending his hands" (same Syriac words) in supplication to God, with no allusion to wood (or a cross). Consequently, it would seem that in Ode 27, "Lord" is also a reference to God and that the "sign" belongs to him—curious, if it is supposed to be Jesus' cross that is in mind. (As a general rule, all references to "Lord" in the Odes are to God, except when they are expressly linked with the "Messiah".) Thus, Charlesworth's claim that Ode 27 is a "portrayal" of the crucifixion is highly dubious.

The other passage which Charlesworth points to, in Ode 42, is almost identical. We'll examine it later and look again at the question of just what the gesture of the extended hands/arms might or might not signify. A couple of other passages which he enlists as references to Jesus' suffering and death have even less to recommend them. We'll note these later, too.

The pickings concerning the resurrection are even slimmer. A verse from Ode 42 says:

   6   Then I arose and am with them,
       and will speak by their mouths.
This vague idea is certainly niggardly, and that it is linked to a preceding death is far from clear (see later). Charlesworth thinks to see the resurrection implied in any use of the idea of raising, elevation or rescue (such as 8:5). In Ode 17, through a rather circuitous association, he translates a word usually meaning "prayer" or "request" as "resurrection," again in a context which has nothing to say about Good Friday or Easter.

In any case, such elusive events are unattached to any idea of blood sacrifice or atonement, for these concepts never appear in the Odes of Solomon. The poet may be celebrating his salvation, but it is not a salvation achieved through any process resembling orthodox Christian doctrine.

This, in some 500 verses, is the sum of the "emphasis" spent on the central Christian doctrines of the cross and the resurrection—if indeed such images can even be detected.

A Focus on God

As is evident in No. 1 above, the Odes are overwhelmingly theocentric. Their focus, their exaltation, is centered on God. He is the "Lord". This term is used in constant echo of the biblical Psalms, often in association with "Father" and "Most High". Consider Ode 5:

   1   I praise you, O Lord,
       because I love you.

   2   O Most High, abandon me not,
       for you are my hope.

   3   Freely did I receive your grace.
       May I live by it.
Or Ode 14:
   1   As the eyes of a son upon his father,
       so are my eyes, O Lord, at all times toward you...

   4   Stretch out to me, my Lord, at all times your right hand,
       and be to me a guide till the end according to your will...

   10  For you are sufficient for all our needs.
In passages like this the poet exults in what he has received from God, not from Jesus. His love, his needs, his hopes, his thanks, are channeled toward the Father. Could that last line possibly have been penned by anyone deserving the name Christian?

Salvation comes not from Jesus but from God, as in Ode 15:

   1   As the sun is the joy to them who seek its daybreak,
       so is my joy the Lord...

   6   I abandoned the way of error,
       and went toward him and received salvation from him 

   8   And I have put on immortality through his name,
       and stripped off corruption by his grace.
Even the term "Helper," a concept which would have provided a natural hook to attach Jesus to, is in its several appearances, such as Ode 25, also an appellation of God:
   1   I was rescued from my chains,
       and fled unto you, O my God.

   2   Because you are the right hand of salvation
       and my Helper.
Even in extended passages which present a more detailed comment on the wonder of salvation, the figure, the very sense of a redeeming Jesus is missing. Consider Ode 11:
   3   And his circumcising became my salvation,
       and I ran in the Way, in his peace,
       in the Way of Truth...

   5   And I was established on the rock of truth
       where he had set me.

   6   And speaking waters touched my lips
       from the fountain of the Lord generously.

   7   And so I drank and became intoxicated
       from the living water that does not die...

   12  And from above (the Lord) gave me immortal rest
       and I became like the land which blossoms and rejoices 
              in its fruits.
It is difficult to detect here any "joyous tone of thanksgiving for the advent of the Messiah," as Charlesworth has put it (OTP, p.726). It is God with whom the poet is intoxicated. It is he who dispenses the "living water." As in some of the New Testament epistles, God is regularly called "Savior"; to him go thanks for salvation.

This is not to say that the Odes do not contain in many places the idea of an intermediary figure or force. If they did not, they would be of no interest to us. But this cannot be interpreted properly if the highly poetic and symbolic imagery describing such a figure is blithely applied to the Gospel Jesus, or if we do not first set a stage which shows that the Odist's fundamental orientation is toward God.

We are not facing simply a lack of all the basic elements of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in these Odes. The void extends to any sense of Jesus as a recent figure or personality who is the object of the poet's faith and the reason for his allegiance to the sect he belongs to. The equation with Jesus of Nazareth is undeniably missing, but the dimension of the intermediary "Son" is there, and a proper analysis of the Odes of Solomon can provide us with a very revealing window onto the philosophical roots of the Christian movement.

Salvation Through Word and Wisdom

The last quote above, from Ode 11, indicates the nature and means of God's salvation. The motif of "God's truth" is ever on the poet's lips. His verses are full of longstanding Jewish imagery representing the knowledge received from God. Ode 6 speaks of this knowledge as a "stream" which becomes a broad river, sweeping over the earth, quenching the thirst of all who drink. The spread of water as a metaphor for the flowing forth of God's spirit and knowledge is an occasional Old Testament idea. Here none of this knowledge is said to come through an historical Jesus, though the phrase "living water" was to be applied to such a figure by the community of John.

One line in Ode 34 sums up the poet's picture of redemption:

   6   Grace has been revealed for your salvation.
       Believe and live and be saved.
The pattern is simple: revelation of God's grace and truth, belief in that revelation, the consequent guarantee of eternal life. The silence on the Gospel Jesus and his work of redemption is resounding.

In Ode 25 the poet gains strength over his adversaries, he has been raised up and healed, not by the works of Jesus, but by God's truth. Truth is the object of the paean in Ode 12, truth coming from the mouth of God. And here we meet a mild personification of this truth in the use of the term "Word". We should not make this fully equivalent to the Greek Logos, for it still retains much of its traditional sense as the utterance of God, the revelation of himself to the world:

   3   And he (God) has caused his knowledge to abound in me,
       because the mouth of the Lord is the true word,
       and the door of his light...

   6   (The Word) never falls, but ever stands,
       his descent and his way are incomprehensible...

   8   And by him the generations spoke to one another,
       and those that were silent acquired speech...

   11  For the mouth of the Most High spoke to them,
       and the interpretation of himself was swift through him.

   12  For the dwelling-place of the Word is man,
       and his truth is love.

   13  Blessed are they who by means of him have recognized 
       and have known the Lord in his truth.
It is this kind of highly symbolic and poetic language which scholars like Charlesworth identify with Jesus of Nazareth. But there is no sense of an historical person here; the masculine pronoun reflects the gender of this particular term for "word" in Syriac. (In some places a different Syriac word is used which is feminine.) And how could a poet compose an "Ode to the Word" without a single allusion to Jesus' life and death?

Rather, these and such lines as "The Lord has directed my mouth by his Word" (Ode 10) and "the Lord overthrew my enemy by his Word" (Ode 29) represent God working through his own aspects, within entirely spiritual channels. Yet we can see how such things point in the direction of an ever increasing personification. God's Word, his knowledge and salvation, inhabit and enlighten the mind of religious humanity, and it is not too many steps from this idea to John 1:14: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

This personification of the Word is reminiscent of another common way Jews had of speaking about God's knowledge imparted to humanity; namely, through personified Wisdom (see Part Two of the Main Articles). And in fact, though the Odist avoids the term "Wisdom" itself, he often uses traditional wisdom language and metaphors. The above Ode 12, concerning the "Word," is Wisdom poetry under another name, very similar to the hymn to Wisdom in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 24. In Ode 30, we hear the voice of Lady Wisdom calling, the one who inhabits Proverbs:

   2   And come all you thirsty and take a drink,
       and rest beside the fountain of the Lord.
Indeed, the Odist presents her in person under another name in Ode 33:
   5   However, the perfect Virgin stood
       who was preaching and summoning and saying:
   6   O you sons of men, return,
       and ye their daughters, come.

   7   And abandon the ways of the Corrupter [Satan]
       and approach me...

   10  Hear me and be saved,
       for I am proclaiming unto you the grace of God.
Now it is certainly strange that this "Christian" poet who is supposedly exulting in the arrival of the Messiah would give us a scene of Wisdom preaching, but never a word of Jesus' own; that he could offer salvation through the hearing of Wisdom, but bend no ear to the voice or role of Jesus of Nazareth. It will not do to label this an elaborate metaphor referring to Jesus, for nothing in the Odes suggests this, and what we do have fits perfectly into more traditional Jewish modes of expression. Some commentators on the Odes (e.g., J. T. Sanders, The New Testament Christological Hymns, p. 114) have no trouble recognizing this passage as a portrayal of personified Wisdom.

A Divine Voice

Some of the Odes possess a feature which has led to much cogitation by commentators. Without any notice in the text, the vantage point within an Ode will shift from the voice of the Odist to a divine voice. Charlesworth and predecessors have labeled these passages "Christ speaks" (ex ore Christi). But it would be better not to be so committal. This is the voice of God speaking through his communicating aspect, sometimes with a strong Wisdom flavor, sometimes with other features. Since one of the strongest motifs of the Odes is the idea that the personified "Word" of God has descended and taken up residence within the Odist, it is natural for the poet to let that voice take over and speak directly.

It is significant that Ode 33, quoted just above, speaks in exactly the same terminology and flavor found in the sections of other Odes which have been labeled "Christ Speaks," yet here the poet clearly identifies the speaker as Wisdom herself. We are entitled to assume that the same generic voice is present everywhere, that no Jesus of Nazareth is in mind in any of the poet's verses.

In Ode 8, this voice expresses itself in traditional Wisdom language:

   11  Understand my knowledge, you who know me in truth;
       love me with affection, you who love...

   13  And before they had existed,
       I recognized them;
       and imprinted a seal on their faces.

   14  I fashioned their members,
       and my own breasts I prepared for them
       that they might drink my holy milk and live by it.
That last line refers to the Divine Knowledge which Wisdom imparts, again embodied in a drink metaphor. The voice of Wisdom also speaks in the "ex ore Christi" section of Ode 10, telling how it had "captured the world" and gathered together the scattered gentiles. How had it accomplished this?
   6   And the traces of the light were set upon their hearts;
       and they walked in my life and were saved,
       and they became my people for ever and ever.
Here there is no reference to Jesus' sacrifice or even his teaching. It is the saving light of the knowledge of the Lord, conferred through Wisdom. The gentiles are saved according to the traditional biblical view: that those who accept the "light" of knowledge of the Hebrew God will be welcomed as part of God's people. Probably there were gentile "Godfearers" attached to the Odist's community and his few lines like this were a nod in their direction. Or he may have been voicing the traditional expectation about the salvation of the nations.

The Son

But although this is the language of Wisdom (under the name "Word"), there is a reason why the poet does not make her the sole voice of God's revelation. For in his philosophical circle, Wisdom now shares the limelight with "the Son". In fact, Wisdom has been enlisted in the role of divine mother to this Son. We saw in Ode 33 how the term "Virgin" was used as a reference to Wisdom. Thus when Ode 19 speaks of the Son born of the Virgin, this is not an allusion to Mary or the Nativity, as Charlesworth and others would have it. Here the poet is presenting a symbolic picture of the relationship between various aspects of the Godhead. Again he uses the metaphor of divine milk, with four divine personages involved in dispensing it to humanity.

   1   A cup of milk was offered to me,
       and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness.

   2   The Son is the cup,
       and the Father is he who was milked;
       and the Holy Spirit is she who milked him...

   4   The Holy Spirit opened her bosom,
       and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

   5   Then she gave the mixture to the world without their 
       and those who received it are in the perfection of the 
              right hand.

   6   The womb of the Virgin took it
       and she received conception and gave birth...

   8   And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
       because it did not occur without purpose.
It is curious that Harris and Mingana can acknowledge Ode 33 with its "perfect Virgin" to be the voice of Wisdom speaking, yet here in Ode 19 they regard Wisdom as contained in the figure of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is because they are drawn to see the "Virgin" of verse 6 as a reference to Mary. But this is poetic allegory. Wisdom in some ancient Jewish traditions is a kind of consort to the Father; Philo sometimes makes her a mother to the Logos. None of these things have anything to do with human history (nor are features of any Nativity story present). They are allegorical ways of representing the workings of Deity. The first century was an era of philosophical reflection on the Son, and it is no surprise that the Odist works him into his poetry and philosophy. (It was the presence of such mystical thinking in the air of the time which helped pave the way to the creation of "historical" tales of actual birth of a human son to a human mother.)

In any case, whatever way God communicates and redeems, the end result is the transmission of his knowledge, which itself bestows perfection and salvation (as verse 5 conveys). The Gospel Son puts in no appearance here, nor does any idea of a salvation effected by his death and resurrection.

Motifs of Persecution

Ode 28, in fact, in its "divine voice" section, is incompatible with such a death. If this is Christ speaking, what is meant by this line?

   18  And they sought my death but were unsuccessful,
       because I was older than their memory...
This is one of the Odes which alludes to persecution. Like the ancient Psalmist, this writer has known the hostility of the world. Here he transfers the role of the persecuted onto the divine voice of Wisdom or the Son (neither is specified), for God in his communication with the world has ever—in the view of the religious mind—been attacked and rejected. (The rejection of God's Wisdom is a motif found throughout Jewish writings.) The believer always regards the rejection of himself as the rejection of the God he is representing. And since in the Odes the Word of God is seen as dwelling within the speaker, the two suffer a mutual persecution.

Although Charlesworth includes this passage as an example of those which address Jesus' suffering and death, there is in this picture of rejection no reference to any crucifixion. A few lines are clearly drawn from scripture:

   14  And they surrounded me like mad dogs,
       who ignorantly attack their masters.
This is a borrowing from Psalm 22, verse 16. The Psalm's verse 18 appears in this line:
   18c and in vain did they cast lots against me.
It is significant that such an image is in no way similar to its use in the Gospels, where it is part of the scene at the foot of the cross.

The same kind of biblical imagery is found in another "persecution" Ode, No. 31. The opening of the "divine voice" section (verses 6 to 13) is strongly Wisdom flavored, appealing to those who have been afflicted. Here the Odist portrays the divine figure as having undergone a similar affliction and rejection—but no death. Even so, to some this conjures up an echo of the Gospel trial and crucifixion scene.

Yet verse 3 makes it clear that the Odist is simply reworking the sentiments of Psalm 22, allusions to which abound in this Ode. Ideas of "condemnation," "dividing my spoil," "holding my peace," "bearing their bitterness" are all drawn from the Psalms. The trap commentators fall into is to see such things as representing in poetic allusion the incidents portrayed in the Gospels. But the Gospel motifs are themselves drawn from the same source that served the Odist: the holy scriptures, which presented Jewish interpreters, preachers and mystics with a universe of meaning and detail, a window onto the spiritual realm of God. The stage represented by the Odes has not yet coalesced all this scriptural imagery about divine intermediary figures and forces, such as Wisdom and the Son, into the experiences of a human incarnation who had recently lived on earth.

Approaching Incarnation

But there are metaphorical intimations of incarnation in the Odes, and to understand these is to understand the philosophical route Christianity took in arriving at the human Jesus of Nazareth. We will focus on two Odes, Nos. 7 and 23. Let's start with the later one:

   4   Walk in the knowledge of the Most High
       and you shall know the grace of the Lord generously...

   5   And his thought was like a letter,
       and his will descended from on high...

   7   And many hands rushed to the letter,
       to seize it and to take it and read it.
Again, it is God's knowledge which saves. How has it reached humanity? Something from God descends to earth: his thought, his will. Personified Wisdom, with her journeys to the world and her appeals to the sons and daughters of men to hear her (in Proverbs and other writings) are an expression of this fundamental idea. Here the Odist uses the metaphor of a letter containing the thought of God. This letter suffers opposition; an inimical wheel runs over it. But the letter triumphs and is broadcast to the world. Then the Odist introduces a personification. The "head" of the letter is revealed as
   18b even the Son of Truth from the Most High Father.
Instead of restricting himself to the more traditional imagery for the channel of Divine Knowledge, the figure of Wisdom, the poet here labels it "the Son," the Son that is Truth, or rather, God's Truth that is the Son. The "first-born" of God, his primary emanation, sometimes his "only-begotten", is a figure in contemporary religious philosophy, Jewish and Greek, which represents the knowledge about himself that the ultimate God gives off, the intermediary force which allows humanity to know a transcendent God (see Part Two). The Son is the "head" of God's emanations. He is the channel through which God's grace and salvation flow.

Though the Odist has no qualms about directing his expressions of love to the Lord himself, on some occasions he speaks of his love for the Son. Both are present in Ode 3:

   3   For I should not have known how to love the Lord 
              (i.e., God)
       if he had not loved me...

   5   I love the Beloved and my soul loves him,
       and where his rest is, there also am I...

   7   I have been united (to God) because the lover has 
              found the Beloved,
       because I love him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
The Beloved is a traditional term (mostly found in Diaspora Judaism) applied to someone beloved by God, such as the Messiah or Israel as a whole. Here it is used of the Son, symbolizing the loving aspect of God. Later it was applied to the figure of Jesus.

These verses convey the strong impression that God and the Son are so closely associated that the latter is simply an aspect of the former and not a distinct personage. In fact, verse 10 clearly identifies this Son and his role, one virtually identical to personified Wisdom:

   10  This is the Spirit of the Lord, which is not false,
       which teaches the sons of men to know his ways.
Surely here, if the Odist had any Jesus of Nazareth in mind, he would have defined the Son in some way which would include a reference to his earthly identity or features.

Instead, the Odes reflect a stage of thought in which the Spirit of God, the divine will and word that descends from on high and gives humanity revelation of himself, is styled "the Son". He has absorbed and supplanted the more traditional Wisdom figure, though still retaining her language. In Ode 7, sometimes referred to as an "incarnational Ode," the face of this Son is figuratively present, for the poet introduces the idea that God, in sending his knowledge to the world, assumes a likeness to humanity.

   3   He (God) has generously shown himself to me in his 
       because his kindness has diminished his grandeur.

   4   He became like me that I might receive him.
       In form (or essence, image) that I might put him on.

   5   And I trembled not when I saw him
       because he was gracious to me.

   6   Like my nature he became, that I might understand him.
       And like my form (essence, image) that I might not turn 
              away from him.
Lest it be thought that such sentiments suggest a poetic allusion to Jesus of Nazareth, we must not lose sight of certain things. The Odist is not introducing here any historical figure who represents the form God has taken on. Rather, it is God himself who undergoes the transformation; it is God to whom the poet is relating, not Jesus. This fits better the idea behind the poetic metaphor: God, in approaching humanity with his knowledge, allows humanity to understand him by assuming human conceptions. All philosophers believed that the true nature of God was utterly alien to anything the human mind could comprehend, and so he had to "translate himself" into concepts the material world was familiar with.

This in itself was "a diminishing of his greatness" (verse 3), and it would explain the meaning behind the word "sacrifice" which appears in verse 10: ". . .allowed me to benefit from his sacrifice." This sacrifice is not a blood one, but the surrender of God's perfection to approach humanity. Charlesworth admits that this word is present only here in the Odes, and that no allusion can be found anywhere to the ideas of sin, repentance or forgiveness. Besides, Harris and Mingana point out that the word also means "favor" or "gift".

Thus, the standard Christian concept of why God took on the form of Jesus (or sent his Son to assume human form) is completely missing here: namely, to suffer and die and provide an atoning salvation. Instead, God becomes like the Odist so that "I might understand him," that "I might put him on." ("Like a garment," says Ode 11:11.) Hardly a reference to an historical figure; and any human teacher idea is notably missing. Verse 12 of Ode 7 tells us why God sent his Son:

   12  He has allowed him to appear to them that are his own;
       in order that they may recognize him that made them.
Note that this Son appears only to the believing elect. The Son is God disclosing himself by revelation. Only by God approaching the human being in ways that can be understood is the poet able to receive God into himself. This taking on of God, even an ingesting of God, is one of the primary mystical images of the Odes, often expressed in metaphors of food and drink. Instead of the more common imagery of an out-of-body ascent to heaven, this mystic sees God descending to him (sometimes expressed in the figure of the Son or Beloved) and entering him as figurative nourishment. The divine voice even declares that believers are "my members and I was their head" (Ode 17:16), terms very much like Paul's mystical view of the spiritual Christ.

This "incarnational" Ode (7) is full of Wisdom imagery reminiscent of Proverbs, which strengthens the interpretation that the "form" God has taken on is not Jesus of Nazareth but rather a personification like Wisdom, under the name of "Son" or "Word". A key verse in the Ode,

   15  For by him he was served
       and he was pleased by the Son,
is almost certainly derived from Proverbs 8:30, in which Wisdom speaks of her time when she served as God's assistant in creation: "Then I was at his side each day, his darling and delight."

That no Jesus of Nazareth is in mind seems clear when the poet goes on to detail the consequences of God's assumption of his "form" or "nature":

   16  And because of his salvation he (God) will possess 
       and the Most High will be known by his holy ones...

   20  And hatred will be removed from the earth,
       and (along) with jealousy it will be drowned.

   21  For ignorance was destroyed upon it (the earth)
       because the knowledge of the Lord came upon it.
Once again the poet shows us that his focus is on God and the salvation that comes upon the earth through the knowledge of him which descends from on high. He has gone so far as to style this knowledge something personified in a "Son" and similar to the likeness of humanity, but any resemblance to the role of the Gospel Jesus ends there.

Another "incarnational" Ode carries the idea of "likeness to humanity" a little further. Ode 41:11-15 is an elaborate metaphor for the knowledge of God descending to men and women in a personified form:

   11  And his Word is with us in all our way,
       the Savior who gives life and does not reject ourselves:

   12  The Man who humbled himself,
       and was exalted by his own righteousness.

   13  The Son of the Most High appeared
       in the perfection of his Father.

   14  And light dawned from the Word
       that was before time in him.

   15  The Messiah in truth is one.
       And he was known before the foundation of the world,
       that he might give life to persons forever by the truth 
               of his name.
First, attention must be called once again to the constant motif of the Odes: that salvation, the giving of life, is conferred through knowledge of God. "Light dawned from the Word." Life is given "by the truth of his name." This "name" is the same as that attached to the Father, as in Ode 39:
   8   Put on the name of the Most High and know him...
where it obviously signifies an aspect of the same deity, the Father himself.

Not even in this passage, which commentators see as the most graphic allusion to Jesus of Nazareth in the Odes, does the poet make a reference to a death and resurrection, nor does he mention a ministry in which Jesus preached such a "truth" and knowledge of God. Instead, we have one more expression of the Odist's ever-present idea that God works through spiritual dimensions of himself to bring light and truth to the world.

As for verse 12, it is not as problematic as it might appear. Using the term "Man" is only a little more dramatic than Ode 7's line (see above) that God "became like me that I might receive him." In poetry many things are possible, and the philosophical literature of the time occasionally contains Platonic-type ideas which call God or some subordinate divine figure "Man" (anthropos) in the sense of an Ideal or prototypic man, a "heavenly Man". Such a "man" was envisioned as entirely spiritual (as, for example, by Philo in Allegorical Interpretation of the Law 1,31). He was a part of the Godhead or heavenly scene. That this "Man" humbled himself rephrases another idea in the above passage from Ode 7, that God in revealing himself in a form which could be understood was "diminishing his greatness." We can see a related expression of this in a further developed form (with the idea of death added) in the christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Verse 12b parallels the motif of exaltation in the latter part of that hymn. But to suggest that it refers to Jesus' resurrection is unjustified, not the least because no idea preceding it can be pressed into signifying death.

The Messiah

This Ode is also one of the few occasions when the poet uses the term "Messiah" (Anointed One). Here it is a synonym for "Word" or "Son," and is yet another item in the Odist's repertoire to refer to the communicating and saving aspects of God. Like Wisdom, the Messiah is pre-existent, "before time" with the Father, and "known before the foundation of the world," attributes given to the spiritual Christ in some Pauline letters.

The nature of this "Messiah" is evident in other Odes. Ode 9 contains these lines:

   3   The word of the Lord and his desires,
       the holy thought which he has thought concerning his 

   4   For in the will of the Lord is your life,
       and his purpose is eternal life,
       and your end is incorruptible.
Here the Messiah is clearly associated with the concepts of "the word of the Lord" and his "will"; the Messiah is "the thought he has thought." Such things hardly represent the independent figure of an historical Jesus of Nazareth. And how any Christian could have said that eternal life rests in God's "will," with no clearer reference to Jesus, would be difficult to fathom.

That the Messiah is to be equated with some mediatorial aspect of God is seen in Ode 41:

   3   We live in the Lord by his grace,
       and life we receive by his Messiah.

   4   For a great day has shined upon us,
       and wonderful is he who has given us of his glory.
The "glory" of God is that stream he gives off, the source of life, extolled by mystic philosophers from Platonists to Philonists. (See E. R. Goodenough: By Light, Light.) This knowable stream of glory is here styled "Messiah". As an aspect of God, the Messiah also attracts the title "Lord".

In Ode 39, in speaking of raging rivers that are dangerous and difficult to cross, the Odist tells his readers (verse 9) that the Lord (referring to the Most High in the preceding verse) has already "bridged them by his word." He has "walked and crossed them on foot." Rather than an allusion to the Gospel miracle of Jesus walking on water, this is a poetic metaphor for the safe path over the difficult waters provided by God's knowledge, a path forged by the Word/Messiah, God's spiritual, symbolic intermediary. These "footsteps of our Lord Messiah stand firm," and provide a passage for those who would cross.

Harris and Mingana admit: "The description of the Lord's walking on the waves reminds one of Galilee, but there are parallel expressions in the Old Testament." A good point, because the Galilee context is nowhere in evidence here. And when the poet speaks in the final line of those who cross over after the Lord Messiah and "adore his name," comparison with verse 8 (quoted above) shows that this name is inseparable from "the name of the Most High." All saving figures in these Odes are inseparable from God.

Scholars like to see the opening of Ode 24 as pointing to another Gospel incident. Charlesworth (OTP, p.757) confidently declares these verses as "an allusion to Jesus' baptism."

   1   The Dove flew over the head of our Lord Messiah,
       because he was her head.

   2   And she sang over him,
       and her voice was heard.
But there is nothing of a baptism in this Ode, and what the following lines have to do with any scene by the Jordan is murky to say the least:
   3   Then the inhabitants were afraid,
       and the foreigners were disturbed.

   4   The birds took to flight,
       and all creeping things died in their holes.
The Final Ode

Finally, we will look at some details of the last Ode, No. 42. The variety of emphasis and differing imagery between one Ode and another leads one to wonder whether they might be a collection composed over time, perhaps by more than one person in the community, perhaps even reflecting a degree of evolution in its ideas. Scholars have dated the Odes anywhere from the mid first century to the late second century, but the consensus seems to have settled on the period around the year 100. I would hazard a somewhat earlier date, but anywhere in the latter first century would fit with the picture of the Odes' relationship to the writings of the Johannine community, and to the Dead Sea Scrolls which were placed in the Qumran caves during the first Jewish War.

Ode 42 opens with lines very similar to the little Ode 27 we looked at earlier when searching for references to the crucifixion:

   1   I stretched out my hands and approached my Lord;
       for the stretching out of my hands is his sign.

   2a  And my extension is the common (or outspread) wood...
              (or tree: Charlesworth translates this as "cross")
Both Charlesworth and Harris/Mingana point to sources from the second century and later which indicate that extending the hands (we would say the arms) outward so that the body forms the shape of a tree or cross, was a Christian attitude of prayer in some circles, including Syria, and signified the cross of Christ. But is this what is being implied in these first century Odes? Such a conclusion is anything but clear.

The poet in Odes 35 and 37 describes this same gesture (only the latter is in the context of prayer), but both are clearly directed toward God the Father, and neither speaks of the symbolism of a tree or cross. In Odes 27 and 42, a similar wording requires us to assume that the "Lord" in these two Odes is also a reference to God the Father, as is every use of the term Lord except when linked with the "Messiah".

Now, the poet tells us that this gesture of extending the hands is "his sign," referring to the Lord, meaning God. This in itself virtually precludes any idea that the sign is thought of as the cross of Christ, for the poet would surely identify such a sign with him, not with God. Although we do not know the significance of this gesture, spreading out the arms in the shape of a tree must therefore have been a practice among some groups when praying to God. I noted earlier that there are connections between this word and the wood-tree of Paradise, which symbolizes a source of life, and that the Odes contain images of the believer being planted and blooming like a tree. Images of the tree of Knowledge would certainly relate to the fundamental idea the Odist expresses throughout these poems, that salvation comes through knowledge of God.

Furthermore, in none of the Odes where this gesture is referred to (note especially Ode 37) does the poet associate it with sentiments suggesting suffering or atonement, nor is it ever put into the mouth of the divine speaker. It is also difficult to imagine that a prayer gesture signifying crucifixion would be a prominent expression within a sect which quite obviously allots no significance whatever to such a crucifixion. If the poet is extending his arms to form a cross, why does that cross never figure in his theology and soteriology?

Indeed, the gesture seems to have associations of mystic ascent, for Ode 35 says:

   7   And I extended my hands in the lifting up of my soul,
       and I directed myself towards the Most High,
       and I was redeemed toward him.
But there is other evidence that this gesture has, for the Odist, nothing to do with crucifixion. Psalm 88 forms the poet's starting point for the descriptive heart of Ode 42, and it contains this line (verse 9): "I have called upon thee, O Lord, every day, and spread out my hands in prayer to thee." Such spreading out of the hands hardly refers to anyone's crucifixion in Psalm 88, but is rather an attitude of supplication to God. Whether or not at the time of the Psalm this gesture was identical to the Odist's, there is little doubt that he would have taken it to be so. Harris and Mingana (p. 407) have compared the Syriac wording of the relevant phrase of the Psalm in the Peshitta (the Syriac version of the Old Testament) with that of Ode 42 and found it identical. Once again, any reference to a truly Christian motif in the Odes of Solomon has proven frustratingly elusive.

Finally, the attitude of prayer or supplication with the hands outstretched was not peculiar to Christianity. D. Plooij in the Expository Times of 1912 points out that pagans too had the same attitude of prayer, and it did not signify a cross. If such a prayer gesture existed in both Jewish and pagan circles, it would be no surprise to find Christians reinterpreting it as a symbol for the cross of Christ, and fairly quickly. The oldest instance of the gesture taking on this significance (though not as prayer) can be found in the Gospel of John. As the second century progressed, the gesture and its new meaning became widespread.

But we still have to account for the line which the poet has added to those opening verses of Ode 42:

   2b  which (i.e., the tree) was lifted up (or erected)
                on the way of the Righteous One.
Charlesworth draws attention to the fact that this form of the Syriac verb "lift up" took on a special denotation: "to be hung on the cross." But making this point is surely invalid here, for in this verse it could not possibly have such a meaning. The tree can hardly be spoken of as being hung on itself. Yet it is this sometime connotation to the verb which Charlesworth appeals to in interpreting "tree" as referring to the cross. That, and "because the Odes are Christian." All of this sounds more than faintly circular.

If it is not crucifixion, what is signified by the tree that was "set up (or perhaps stood) on the way of the Righteous One"? (The Righteous One may refer to the divine voice who begins to speak immediately afterward, but this is by no means secure.) Well, I will not venture a guess. Commentators themselves do no more than assume some allusion to the crucifixion in this very cryptic line. But since this idea is nowhere developed, either here or anywhere else in the Odes, and since the usual reasoning used to derive the meaning of the cross from these verses has been shown to be faulty, such claims must be set aside as preconception. The true significance of these words, as of so many passages in the Odes, is probably lost to us. It is also unclear just who is being referred to by the term "Righteous One". It may even be God; at the very least, it is one of his personifications.

The remaining 18 verses of this final Ode develop an idea that has only been alluded to at a couple of points previously and is familiar as a traditional theme in Jewish expectation: the bringing up of the spirits of the righteous dead from Sheol. Earlier, in Ode 29, the poet has praised God (not Jesus), because:

   4   He caused me to ascend from the depths of Sheol
       and from the mouth of Death he drew me.
To judge by the context, the poet seems to be speaking figuratively about a rescue from persecution, although he may be modeling the sentiment on the anticipation of a similar rescue after death. But in Ode 42 this rescue of the righteous from Sheol is a role he assigns to the Son as Savior. Such a task was eventually given to Jesus to fill the interim between his death and resurrection (and even to the spiritual Christ, as in 1 Peter 3:19). But here any suggestion of such events is to be found only by those already convinced that they lie in the background. In fact, Ode 22, which first alludes to the Savior's task in Sheol, lacks any such features as death and resurrection, let alone an atonement:
   1   He who caused me to descend from on high
       and to ascend from the regions below...
As in the vision of the descent of the Son in the Ascension of Isaiah 9 and 10, where the Son is commissioned to proceed through the layers of heaven as far as Sheol and then return, there seems to be no suggestion of a life intervening between this descent and ascent.

Thus in Ode 42 the following lines must be given a Wisdom character over any Gospel connotation:

   10  I was not rejected although I was considered to be so,
       and I did not perish although they thought it of me.
This is the Son who is an emanation of God working in the spiritual realm, struggling with the world's hostility as Wisdom did, saving the believer through the divine knowledge he transmits. Thus there can be no concept of death for this divine figure here, making the phrase in verse 6, "Then I arose..." highly unlikely as a reference to a resurrection, as Charlesworth claims (see near the beginning of this article). In the remaining verses of the Ode this figure is engaged on a special mission to the underworld:
   11  Sheol saw me and was shattered,
       and Death ejected me and many with me...

   14  And I made a congregation of living among his dead;
       and I spoke with them by living lips;
       in order that my word may not fail.

   15  And those who had died ran toward me;
       and they cried and said, "Son of God, have pity on us.

   16  And deal with us according to your kindness,
       and bring us out from the chains of darkness..."

   19  Then I heard their voice,
       and placed their faith in my heart.

   20  And I placed my name upon their heads,
       because they are free and they are mine.
Thus the last word goes not to any Jesus of Nazareth and his act of sacrifice, of which there is not a murmur in the Odes, but to the name which confers knowledge and salvation, won by faith and acceptance of that name. Ultimately, that name is the name of God.

The Ode ends, as they all do, with a "Hallelujah."


No modern interpreter will ever get inside the intimate meaning and rich connotation of these Odes. Their mindset cannot be recaptured in anything but the most general way from the vantage point of today's reader. But to spray paint them in the colors of the Gospels is a travesty of restoration which effectively buries what glimmer of meaning we might derive from these golden, subtle poems.

As certain strands of Jewish thinking increasingly saw God as a spectrum, pulsating in an outward stream of activity, pulses of divine knowledge, the Law, of saving graces and redeeming figure-forces, they created for themselves an immensely rich spiritual dimension and a mystical universe whose subtleties have been largely lost to us and whose outlook has long since ceased to speak to times which came after. Indeed, it was a phase which degenerated quite quickly into something less rich, less mystical, but something more accessible, as elitist sects broadened into popular religious movements. Once this overarching spiritual canopy, illumined by the sacred writings, descended to the material world and was translated into mundane history, it lost much of its wonder, and scripture went slumming as the repository of mere prophecies of earthbound events. One of the things which suffered was Christian literature, for it was forced henceforth to tread upon the earth. I would maintain that no poet to equal the Odist was ever again produced.

The Odes of Solomon are a priceless jewelled window onto the early development of Christ belief, part of a "proto-Christian" stream. Their composer inhabits a community which has cultified the communicating aspect of God, a layer superimposed upon the traditional Jewish worship of God, but still oriented toward him. There is as yet no firm development of an incarnation—certainly not in "flesh"—and the Word or Son is probably not yet perceived as a separate entity, only a highlighted aspect of God, an emanation from him that serves a revelatory, mediatorial function, channel of the knowledge which brings salvation to the elect.

But a complex of spiritual attributes, titles and feelings are coalescing around this emanation, drawing the believer's and the Odist's attentions, not away from God himself, but toward a different way of viewing him, although the Odist often bypasses this aspect entirely, keeping the traditional focus directly on the Father and Lord. These parts of God are beginning to assume their own personality, attracting love and worship of their own. They are developing their own spiritual mythology, drawn from older Wisdom speculation and outside influences. The Word as God's voice, Wisdom as his helper and channel of knowledge, the Son as his only-begotten, his representative in the world, are merging into an hypostasis, a stripped-off aspect of God with an identity of its own. Inevitably this process did not stand still, but led to the increasing sense of a separate divine personage. Mystical imagery became historical biography, and the immediate source of salvation passed from God to his Son.

When the evangelists brought Jesus of Nazareth into the light, they gave the Son a face.