There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).
Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.
Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:
1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
2 The Son is the cup,
3 Because His breasts were full;
4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;
8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
9 And she had not required a midwife,
10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
2 The Son is the cup,
3 Because His breasts were full,
4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
9 And she did not require a midwife,
10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
11 And she loved with redemption,
1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
3a Because his breasts were full
6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:
- Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
- Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth
The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).
It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:
5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]
One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:
- God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
- The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)
This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father). We can, I think, qualify the parallel:
- In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
- The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God
There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.
Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.
For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff