H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 19)

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The Odes of Solomon
Part 2

The preceding post noted that the Odes of Solomon date to the first quarter of the second century CE. That was the critical ‘transition’ period—the final generation before ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ appeared on the world stage. As a transition work, the Odes seem to have one foot in the coming catholic world and one foot in the gnostic past.

Buddhism, and the Odist’s gnostic credentials

The Odist is clearly at home with the gnostic worldview. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of gnosis/knowledge/understanding, equating it with the Word (12:3, 13) and even with the Savior (41:11). The Odist knows encratism and esoteric bridal symbolism (33:5 f; 38:9 f). At one place he mentions going up “into the light of truth as into a chariot” (38:1), which recalls the Jewish hechalot tradition. The Odist also uses the symbolism of water = gnosis discussed in these posts (11:6-8; 28:15/16; Ode 30). In all, the Odist can be described as a gnostic Jewish-Christian for whom the ‘savior’ is the gnosis.

When one recognizes that Buddhism also qualifies as a ‘gnostic’ religion—an important recognition made today by virtually no New Testament scholars—then the Odes at several points resonate with Buddhism. Of course, to perceive such resonances one must already be familiar with Buddhism and also somewhat sympathetic to parallels between Buddhism and Christianity—again, these are attributes that today are hardly to be found in New Testament scholarship. Hopefully this limiting state of affairs will change in the coming generation. In any case, one thing can be said with confidence: the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, taken seriously, are the next major step forward in understanding Christian origins. Dr. Detering’s article that has stimulated this extensive series of posts is one of the first significant steps along this new path.

An example of a parallel with Buddhism is the following from the Odist: “There is no hard way where there is a simple heart, Nor barrier for upright thoughts” (34:1). Compare the following Buddhist teaching:

To the Pure One is eternal spring,
Eternal holiday is his.
The Pure One whose deeds are always clean
Is granted his every wish. (MN 7.20)

[K. Neumann’s German rendering: Dem Reinen lächelt steter Mai/Dem Reinen steter Feiertag/Dem Reinen der nur Reines wirkt/Ist allezeit der Wunsch gewährt.]

The sentiment is the same, the words are different. In another place the Odist writes: “Ignorance appeared like spray and like the foam of the sea. Vain people thought that it was great; they came to resemble it and were rendered futile” (18:11-12). This flagrant misapprehension of what is worthy is also found in Buddhism, as we have already remarked.

It has been claimed that astonishing confirmation of Buddhist (or at least Indic) influence on the Odes of Solomon occurs in regards to an enigmatic ‘wheel’ in Ode 23. In allegorical language, the Odist describes a letter (representing the thought of the Lord) which is ‘sent’ to mankind. We read: “But a wheel received it [the letter]… And everything that disturbed the wheel it [the wheel] mowed down and cut to pieces” (23:11 f). Some have postulated a link between this “wheel” and the Indic wheel of samsâra (the cosmic wheel of endless becoming and re-becoming). While an Indic connection is possible, in this case I tend to agree with Lattke (op. cit. 332) who associates the wheel with the OT chariot/mekabah. For its part, the letter recalls Sethianism, a Jewish gnostic tradition wherein Adam’s truth was transmitted only to Seth and then to future generations in written form (letter, stele, etc). Furthermore, the descent of the letter upon the wheel parallels the descent of the dove (= gnosis) upon the head of the Messiah at baptism (see here).

Nevertheless, many other indications in the Odes show that the author has indeed received Buddhist/Indic influences. Yet those influences are now quite distant and have passed through some strong western filters. Though demonstrably Buddhist in sentiment at many points, the Odist’s writing would certainly not be recognized as such (or even understood) in India.

On the border between gnosticism and catholicism

While it is true that the Odes of Solomon proceed from a gnostic worldview, the Odist is acquainted with certain catholic tendencies. For example, 42:10-20 begins with a gnostic/docetic understanding of the Messiah’s passion: “I was not rejected, although I seemed to be, and I did not perish, although they thought it of me” (v. 10). We may ask: who are “they”? This can only refer to incipient catholics. Further, we may ask: who is “I”? The Odist tells us that this entity does “not perish.” Hence it cannot refer a person of history whom the Odist calls the Messiah/‘Anointed One.’ According to the Odist, that which does not perish is ‘the Lord’ and ‘the Word.’ Hence his theology becomes clear: the Word indwelled a prophet of history known as the ‘Messiah.’ The salvific aspect in history was the Word within the Messiah. That Word can also indwell any of us—as it does for the Odist himself. Thus we may all become ‘Anointed Ones.’ I have termed this Stage II Christology. This theology was well-nigh universal before the rise of Christianity and overlaps with the so-called Mystery Religions. In the next post we will see that this theology is powerfully reflected in both the Pauline epistles and in the Gospel of John—as well as in numerous non-canonical texts.

The Odist’s view leads to multiple messiahs which, in turn, leads to the centrifugal shattering of a religious community. It is communal suicide. The emerging Church did away with multiple messiahs and went in the opposite direction: centralization. It combined both the Word and the Messiah into ‘Jesus Christ,’ an inimitable god-man who unites into a single awesome figure every element of power known to the ancient world. In my opinion, this was a practical strategy. The invention of Jesus Christ/the Nazarene/of Nazareth, who is GOD, SON OF GOD, as well as MAN, is not based on any doctrinal consideration—much less on history. Rather, the Jesus myth is the central and unifying tent pole holding up and keeping together the entire structure of the Church. He is the necessary and central figure around whom all can rally. The formulation of the Pauline kerygma (and its labored refinement in many Church councils) followed the invention of Jesus Christ. That kerygma really has nothing to do with any actual doctrines. It is my view that the pragmatic Church would have adopted whatever doctrines served to increase its centralizing authority. The first five or six centuries of Christianity were primarily a clarification of what, pragmatically speaking, works best among the masses. Ultimately, then, Christianity is an opportunistic religion. Faith-smitten idealists may indeed populate the lower ranks of priests and nuns, but they will not rise high in the religion. The Church’s movers (and here I speak of the Catholic Church)—the bishops and college of cardinals—are hard-headed realists.

The Church lampooned the gnostics, with their spiritual Word and many Christs, as those who believed that Jesus was a phantom with no body (‘docetists’). The Odist is already fighting back against that unfair strawman (as we see in verse 42:10, cited above). This is one indication that catholicism was on the upswing even during the Odist’s time.

I have argued elsewhere on this website that originally there was no Jesus—whether personal or corporate. The first religion at the origins of Christianity was salvation by gnosis (what I have called ‘Stage 1 Christology’ and ‘Primary Gnosticism’). That religion is also the core of Buddhism. It needs no intermediary or Savior other than gnosis itself. Walther Schmithals, noted scholar (and H. Detering’s Doktorvater), asserted this long ago: “At the beginning of Gnosticism stands no redeemer myth, but rather the redeeming Gnosis as such” (The Office of Apostle, 1969:126).

And, indeed, the first ‘Jesus’ was gnosis in the form of ‘the Word.’ This is the religion of the Odes of Solomon. Yet I must qualify: the Odes are already at some remove from this theology. For example, man no longer finds, discovers, or seeks out the Word—it is given by the Most High and by grace (12:4). In the Jewish Christian Odes of Solomon, then, agency/power is entirely with God. This uncannily recalls the tone of many Qumran texts.

In fact, a genetic relationship almost certainly exists between the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (also known as the ‘Angelic Liturgy,’ 4Q400-407) and the Odes of Solomon—particularly the ‘ascent’ odes (nos. 11, 21, 36, and 38). Both the Qumran collection and the Odes emphasize understanding and the ascent to truth. Both also share surprising commonalities in vocabulary. The DSS work is corporate in tone, while the Odes are emphatically personal. Nevertheless, both the Songs and the Odes seem to lie on the same gnostic trajectory.

In pure gnosticism (and Buddhism) the Word/gnosis is strictly personal. In normative Christianity, however, the Word/Jesus eventually ballooned into a very public and even cosmic entity, one that acted at a decisive point in history and that affects us all in both the material and spiritual realms. In places, the Odist appears to be grappling with this new catholic view. Occasionally he actually crosses the line into catholicism himself, apparently contradicting some of his gnostic views in other passages. One critical example is the Odist’s view of the Word. In numerous passages, the Word is closely linked to gnosis-understanding-knowledge-truth and the symbol ‘water’ (12:1,3,13, etc). Yet, in the following lines from Ode 41 the Odist betrays a surprising understanding of the Word:

11a   And his Word is with us in all our way:
11b   The Savior who gives life and does not reject our souls,
12        the man who was humbled and exalted by his own righteousness.
13    The Son of the Most High has appeared in the pleroma of his Father,
14        and the light dawned from that Word that was in him from the beginning.
15a   The Messiah [Christ] in truth is one,
15b      and he was known from the foundation of the world,
16a      that he might give life to souls forever by the truth of his name.

In the first two lines the Word is equated with the Savior. Yet line 12 equates this Savior with “the man who was humbled and exalted.” This cannot recall Jesus of Nazareth, who had not yet been invented. In my opinion, it recalls another quite unknown figure, Yeshu ha-Notsri. To return to the passage above: in line 13 the humbled Savior is now the “Son of the Most High.” This all sounds quite catholic, yet the operative element in line 14 is not the divinity of that Son (as would become normative) but is still the Word “that was in him from the beginning.” Finally, however, the last three lines decide the matter in favor of catholicism. When fully appreciated, line 15a is especially meaningful: “The Messiah in truth is one.” This is the crucial catholic position post-Arius, that Jesus was “of one substance with the Father,” that the Word became flesh, that it (now the god-man) was divine from the foundation of the world, and that it gives life “to souls forever.” These few lines from the Odist seem to chronicle his transformation from a gnostic to a catholic—in early II CE. The essence of that transformation is the fusion of god and man. It is critical to understanding the emergence of Christianity as we know it, for that transformation evidently occurred in the early part of the second century and led directly to the canonical gospels and to the figure of Jesus Christ that we know so well.

Ode 42 closes with a Descensus ad Inferos. The Word is now Savior (v. 18), and the Savior goes down to Sheol to free those souls that are to be resurrected with ‘it.’ The Word/Savior is still a spiritual entity—it is not at all the resurrected body of Jesus the Nazarene, nor is it even Jesus at all. Yet in the Descensus we have a significant step towards catholicism, for the Word is no longer private in its activity (affecting only the one who finds it, i.e., “in him” as in line 14 above) but now has universal meaning—even for the dead (cf. line 16a above). Only one further step was necessary for full catholicism: “the Word became flesh.” As we can now surmise, that step was taking place in the generation that the Odist was himself writing.

Other catholic tendencies detectable in the Odes are the importance of ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ (42:9,19)—which will become central to catholicism—and also that the Odist’s message is directed not merely to Jews (31:12) but also to Gentiles (10:5-6).

For all the above, it is all too easy to read later Catholic elements into the Odes of Solomon. If we succumb to that temptation, the Odist will pull us up short and remind us that he has different ideas, as in the following quite astonishing passage:

While I gave praise by the composition of his odes,
[the Holy Spirit] brought me forth before the face of the Lord,
And although I was a son of man,
I was called the Shining One, the Son of God,
while I was glorious among the glorious and was great among the great. (36:2c-4b)

This exaltation does not refer to Jesus the Nazarene the Son of God—but to the Odist himself! He becomes the Son of God, glorious, shining, and “great” among men. Furthermore, what makes the Odist all these things is not God but the Holy Spirit, a mobile entity (elsewhere identified as gnosis/the Word) that can indwell any person and that has entered the Odist himself. Once again, the Odist uncannily recalls some Qumran writings (in this case, the ‘Self-Glorification Hymn’ and other poems of the Hodayoth). Most importantly, the Odist belongs to what I have called Stage II Christology, where the Savior is a spiritual, mobile entity that indwells the saint and makes him/her into an ‘Anointed One’—a Messiah. This was ‘Christian’ theology before Jesus of Nazareth.

A hunch

As a musician reading through the Odes, I am impressed with how well they would adapt to a sort of antiphonal recitation—or even to group singing. Antiphony is where one voice or group alternates with other voice(s). This works well with the Odes because they so often shift suddenly in point of view. For example, the first half of Ode 41 uses the pronouns “us, we, our” (vss. 1-7). Suddenly in v. 8, however, the Odist begins with “I.” Then, the final verses of the Ode are in the third person (“he” = the Savior). If this were a theatrical work, one might expect indications such as: “The community speaks” — “The Odist speaks” — “Concerning the Savior,” etc. In a dramatic or musical setting, Ode 41 divides into three sections:

(1) I (a single voice)
(2) We (a larger group)
(3) The Savior/He (the entire congregation, for the “Savior/Word” is present in all of those who are singing)

It is only a hunch. I would not make it except that indications exist in the ancient records of something very similar. For example, we read in Eph 5:18-19–“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual odes.” This is precisely the scenario described above. Then, too, Philo describes antiphonal singing in his discussion of the Therapeutae of Alexandria:

     Then, when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted separately by itself, like persons in the bacchanalian revels, drinking the pure wine of the love of God, they join together, and the two become one chorus, an imitation of that one which, in old time, was established by the Red Sea…
     Now the chorus of male and female worshippers being formed, as far as possible on this model, makes a most humorous concert, and a truly musical symphony, the shrill voices of the women mingling with the deep-toned voices of the men. The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorus-singers, was piety; therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication… when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. (Vita 85, 88-89.)

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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