The Odes of Solomon are the oldest surviving hymnal from the early Christian world. They were probably written in ancient Syria, in the Syriac language, between 100 and 200 AD. The earlier they are, the more likelier they are to have been written in or near ancient Edessa, because that was the earliest centre of the Syriac language. However, nothing much is certain about these enigmatic documents, long lost, but rediscovered around 100 years ago. Their importance for our understanding of Christianity is also being rediscovered. The basis of these statements shall appear as I post more articles dealing with them. Suffice to say, they are fundamental for the Maronite tradition because they are fundamental for the Syriac tradition (even if they were first written in Greek, which I doubt).
1. Ode 1
For now, however, I will set out the remaining verses from the first Ode.
The Lord is upon my head like a crown and I shall not be without him.
They plaited for me the true crown, and it caused thy branches to sprout in me
For it is not like a withered crown which does not sprout; but thou livest upon my head and thou dost sprout upon me.
Thy fruits are full and ripe, filled with thy salvation.
This translation is taken from Pistis Sophia, text edited by Carl Schmidt, translation and notes by Violet MacDermot, Nag Hammadi Studies IX, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1978, p. 117.
Let us first clarify the meaning. The speaker (whom I believe is a priest speaking in a church) says that the Lord and he are closely related in that the speaker wears the Lord as if the Lord were on his (the speaker’s) head like a crown.
Then we learn of this crown or, perhaps better, experience of oneness with the Lord, that it is productive. The “crown” can be compared to the trunk of a tree which gives off living branches. So too, the speaker “has” the Lord, if we can speak like that, and so the life of the Lord ramifies in him.
This idea that the crown (which is the truth of the Lord, and hence the Lord himself) bears fruit within the speaker is continued in the next line. The crown is not like a wreath made out of olive leaves or other plants, such as were given to winners and heroes in the ancient world. That is, it is not dead, rather it is dynamic and ever-lastingly works within him.
The final surviving line tells us that this living crown bears a fruit, and that fruit is salvation. Hence, the extract fits in with a teaching of salvation, although this short passage tells us only that salvation is related to “the Lord”.
Putting it all together, this tells us that salvation in the Lord is or at least involves a new state of being. That state of being necessarily includes a relationship with God. God is not distant and remote: He is always with us.
2. The ideas of the “crown” and its “ramification”
Before leaving this, I will say a little more about this idea that the “crown” has caused “your (i.e. the Lord’s) branches to sprout within me”. I have described this as “ramification”.
First of all, the Coptic word can mean either “crown” or “wreath”. In English, there is overlap, but they are not identical. A “crown” is a “wreath for the head”, while a “wreath” is any ring made of flowers and leaves woven together. The idea of a crown does not necessarily imply that it is made of leaves and flowers, whereas the idea of a wreath does imply them, or at least an imitation of them.
What is the wreath or crown here? Some consider it to be a wreath of marriage, and others of baptism. I shall not go into that now, but while I do not see that it has to be one or the other, I suspect that the baptismal wreath is more fundamental, and hence probably intended by the poet, who could nonetheless have contemplated that someone saw it as also being a marriage wreath. The point, really, is that it is the Lord.
“Ramify” comes from the Latin rāmus “a branch” and facere “to make”, so it is a “making of branches”. Etymologically, Skeat derives ramus from *rad-mus, and relates it to the Latin radix which means a “root”. It makes sense: a branch is a root, or rather a source for new life in the form of leaves, buds, flowers and fruits.
“To ramify” therefore implies the expansion of the root source into new avenues of life. This is a beautiful symbol for the life of God in us. It is not a static gift, but a dynamic power which infuses us, and continues to astound and evoke wonder.
3. Pistis Sophia
That Ode survives only in an extract from a strange and rambling book, named Pistis Sophia, a Gnostic work which survives only in the Coptic language.
In Book I, chapter 59, the risen “Jesus” tells his disciples how he had sent his “light-power” to save Pistis Sophia (“Faith Wisdom”), and “caused it to become a crown of light on her head”, so that from this hour the emanations of the Authades (an evil demonic being) would have no power over her. Pistis Sophia, who is pictured as a person, sang some praises, and Mary the mother of Jesus asked him to command her to interpret Pistis Sophia’s words. Jesus gave her the command, and she said:
“My Lord, thy light-power once prophesied about these words through Solomon in the 19th Ode and said …”. Then follows the first Ode. It is probably called the nineteenth because the eighteen Psalms of Solomon preceded it, and it was counted as continuing them
What is significant here is not that Pistis Sophia understands this Ode as referring to “light-power” of Christ, and so interprets it very literally. No, I think the significance is that this convoluted sort of explanation passed out of Christianity quite soon.
People tend to idealise the Gnostics (or their idea of the Gnostics, as it is almost impossible to define them, although the Greek-language philosopher Plotinus considered them as an identifiable, and rather ridiculous group). Today it is fashionable to think of the Gnostics as some sort of bold heroes who defied the rigid and tyrannical despotism of the orthodox Church in the name of a more spiritual understanding.
This is silliness. Moreover, it is wrong.
I defy anyone to read Pistis Sophia from end to end of its 300 plus pages, and find something moving and spiritual in it. A close acquaintance with Gnosticism will throw up a jungle of absurdities. Further, all the evidence is that the Gnostics were even more dogmatic than the orthodox Church. Anyone who thinks they stood for freedom of thought has not understood the material.
The Odes of Solomon are no more Gnostic the Gospels are. Both were appropriated, or rather misappropriated by the Gnostics. Nothing we have seen in Ode 1 is inconsistent with Christianity as we understand it. It is only a shame that it has not survived in Syriac. The little we have seen of the Odes tells us that to be a Christian means to accompany and be accompanied by God, so that one experiences at least glimpses of a new state of being which includes the awareness that He is always with us.
For Charlesworth’s translations of the surviving Odes, visit http://www.theodesproject.com/
Joseph Azize, 15 November 2016