The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

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:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.

Hallelujah.

Charlesworth (1977)

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;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

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 generation without their knowing,
And those who have 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.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.

Hallelujah.

Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.

Hallelujah.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.