The Odes of Solomon is the earliest collection of Christian hymns.
The forty-two odes in the collection were most likely composed in the late first or early second century by a Jewish Christian(s) in the region of Syria.
The plural pronouns and congregational references in the odes suggest that they were composed for use in Christian worship.
Hughes Oliphant Old says,
The Odes of Solomon is the only sizable collection of Christian hymns which has come down to us from the earliest centuries of the church. They seem to have been composed at the close of the first Christian century. Originally they were composed in Syriac. They are the praises, not of the Western church, but the Eastern church, a church still very close to the Semitic roots of Christianity.
The Odes of Solomon are Christian psalms in a way very similar to the canticles in the Gospel of Luke. That, of course, is implied by the title of the work. Just as Solomon, the son of David, continued the doxological service of his father by writing the Song of Solomon, so Christians continue the doxological service of the Son of David, anointed by the Spirit, by singing Christian psalms. The title is a sort of apologetic for Christian hymnody.
There are more than forty of these odes, each a Christian elaboration of one of the canonical psalms. Although sometimes the imagery is a bit strange to our modern Western ears, these ancient hymns are great Christian poetry. It probably gives us about as clear a picture of the worship of the early church as any document that has come down to us.
The spirit of New Testament worship is found in these hymns with an amazing freshness and vitality. And even if their language comes from the ancient Orient, they seem to have a classic evangelical quality about them. They are as eloquent about Christian love as ever the Franciscans, about grace as the Calvinists, about holiness as the Wesleyans, and they are as filled with the Spirit as ever any charismatic could wish.
I visited Hughes Oliphant Old the day after the following interview was recorded. He told me, “Someone dropped by yesterday to ask me about the Odes of Solomon.”
Here’s a clip from the interview in which he describes the Odes of Solomon and explains their original purpose. Speaking purely off the cuff…
The Odes cast a spell. Something beautiful is happening here.
It has a literary integrity I think that’s very important.
The Odes are very unusual in the different imagery that they come up with. But that imagery is used again and again.
One place where the Odes seem to have mined this imagery is the Book of Psalms.
And Rendel Harris, the great scholar who really brought the Odes to the attention of the modern world, refers to these Odes as Psalm pendants.
It’s as though the congregation might have sung a particular Psalm, and then, the Odes would’ve been sung as a response to it.
And so many of the Odes when one reads through them one realizes that the imagery of Psalm 45 is being used or Psalm 63 is being used.
And that’s one of the beautiful things about these Odes is that they’re so close to scripture.
For more on the Odes of Solomon, see Michael Lattke’s commentary in the Hermeneia series.