by Mark M. Mattison
Seven years ago, I published the first public domain translation of the Gospel of Mary. This extracanonical gospel easily captured my imagination, speaking to both the experience of mysticism and the contemporary concerns of feminist theology. It was the beginning of my journey to translate other extracanonical gospels from their ancient Greek and Egyptian (Coptic) languages.
But many ancient scriptures are just as compelling as these gospels. Of these, none is more remarkable than the late first- and early second-century Odes of Solomon, a collection of 42 odes widely (and rightly) known as the earliest Christian hymnbook. This text lacks the anti-Semitism and exclusivism of many early Christian texts. In fact, the Odes of Solomon contain many Jewish elements that several scholars have compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls. As such, the Odes hold immense promise for interfaith dialogue.
Earlier this year, Samuel Zinner, a scholar long interested in the Jewish background of Christian origins, approached me with an invitation I couldn’t resist. If I agreed to translate the Greek and Coptic Odes, he’d be willing to translate the Syriac, and together we could craft a new public domain translation. Only one of the Odes exists in a Greek manuscript, and some exist in a Coptic translation, but 40 of them have been preserved in two Syriac manuscripts. So, together, we launched “the Nuhra Project.” The Syriac word nuhrā means “light,” a term used 21 times in the Odes of Solomon. The centerpiece of our website is the Nuhra translation, an up-to-date annotated version that will be freely available in the public domain.
These songs provide a unique window into an ancient Eastern spirituality that otherwise remains largely obscure. Unlike the Western Church, which developed a propositional theology using the language of philosophy, Eastern followers of Jesus expressed their theology in the language of poetry — a fundamentally different, holistic approach. Among other things, these Eastern communities of faith celebrated the divine feminine in an intentional way, as we’ll see. Unless otherwise noted, the quotations from the Odes below are from Zinner’s translation from the Syriac.
Feminine Images of God in the Odes of Solomon
Like other ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures, the Odes of Solomon are replete with familiar images of the divine feminine: God birthing, nurturing, breastfeeding, inspiring, breaking down barriers, and bringing life. Drawing on a number of scriptural texts, from Genesis and Deuteronomy to Luke, Ode 28:1, 2 expresses the joy of the odist immersed in the love of God:
As the wings of doves over their nestlings,
and as the beaks of their nestlings toward their beaks,
so also are the wings of the spirit over my heart.
My heart is delighted and leaps for joy,
like the babe who leaps in its mother’s womb.
The word “Spirit” is neuter in Greek but feminine in Hebrew. Syriac, like Hebrew and Coptic, doesn’t actually have a neuter gender; all words are either feminine or masculine, and the Syriac word for “Spirit,” rūḥā, is feminine. It’s no accident, then, that for the first four hundred years of its history, the Syriac Church consistently depicted Spirit in feminine ways, as in Ode 36:1-3a:
The spirit of the Lord rested upon me,
and she raised me on high
and made me stand on my feet in the height of the Lord
before his perfection and his glory.
While I was praising him by the composition of his odes,
she brought me forth before the face of the Lord.
The Odes express the divine feminine in many other ways, too.
Divine Wisdom in the Odes of Solomon
Ode 6 is notable for its depiction of the Holy Spirit. It opens with a wonderful musical metaphor of the work of the Spirit:
As the wind (rūḥā) moves through the cithara,
making the strings speak,
so the spirit (rūḥā) of the Lord speaks throughout my body’s limbs,
making me speak by his love.
Note that the word for “wind” in verse 1 and the word for “spirit” in verse 2 is the same word, illustrating the type of clever wordplay found repeatedly throughout the Odes. In the remainder of Ode 6, the Spirit is described in terms reminiscent of Lady Wisdom (Greek, Sophia) in texts like Sirach 24. Like Lady Wisdom in Sirach 24, the Spirit like “a stream went out, and became a river, great and broad” (Ode 6:8a; cf. Sirach 24:30).
Sirach 24, in turn, is heavily indebted to Proverbs 8, which also describes Lady Wisdom at length:
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice? . . .
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live . . .
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips. . . .
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me. . . .
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 8:1 ,4, 7, 17, 35, NRSV).
Ode 33 also draws heavily on Proverbs 8:
But a perfected young woman stood,
proclaiming and calling and saying,
O you people, return, and you their daughters, come,
and forsake the ways of this corruption,
and come near to me,
and I will enter into you,
and bring you forth from destruction
and make you wise in the ways of truth.
Do not be corrupted and do not perish!
Listen to me and be redeemed!
For among you I proclaim the grace of God,
My chosen ones, walk in me.
And my ways I will make known to those who seek me,
and I will cause them to trust in my name (Ode 33:5–10, 13).
Whereas the New Testament also describes the divine in feminine terms drawn from the literary tradition of Lady Wisdom, this Wisdom tradition is subsumed in the developing tradition of the Word, which in Greek is logos, a masculine term. But in the Syriac language, there’s more than one term for “word.”
The Word in the Odes of Solomon
The Odes of Solomon actually use two terms interchangeably for the Word. One of them, peṯḡāmā, is masculine in gender. The other, mellṯā, is feminine in gender, as in Ode 41, which may be translated this way:
And his Word (mellṯā) is with us in all our way,
the Savior who makes alive and does not reject our souls . . .
and light dawned from that Word (mellṯā) who was in [the Father] in the beginning (Ode 41:11, 14, modified from Zinner).
Significantly, the Odes of Solomon use both of these Syriac terms—the feminine mellṯā and the masculine peṯḡāmā—equally roughly: they use mellṯā 12 times and peṯḡāmā 13 times.
Zinner argues that the systematic arrangement of the feminine and masculine forms is symmetrical enough to suggest an intentional arrangement. His figure below illustrates this distribution, where we see the feminine mellṯā placed at the very center.
In the diagram, each letter (“F” or “M”) represents one verse that contains either the word mellṯā (F) or peṯḡāmā (M). The letter “F” in the very center represents Ode 16:8, which uses the feminine word mellṯā for “Word.” On the far left side of the diagram, the letter “M” represents Ode 7:7, which is the text’s first use of the masculine word peṯḡāmā for “Word.” On the far right side of the diagram, the letter “M” represents Ode 42:14, which is the text’s final use of the masculine word peṯḡāmā for “Word.” The remaining letters represent verses in sequential order between 7:7 and 42:14, where one or the other term is used.
In an unpublished draft, Zinner concludes that this pattern “raises the question as to whether the Odes of Solomon’s author has grounded this gender-based structure in some theological notion. The first possibility that comes to mind is that the intertwining of the masculine-feminine grammatical gender of the personified divine speech may hint at the idea of the androgynous divine nature implied in Genesis 1:26–27, where we read that God created humans both male and female, and that this accords with God’s own image and likeness.”
Gender Identity in the Odes of Solomon
But the Odes don’t stop there; they go on to challenge gender stereotypes in even more radical ways, as in Ode 19. This passage famously portrays not only the Spirit, but also the Father and the Son, in divine feminine terms:
A cup of milk was offered to me,
and I drank it in the sweet taste of the Lord’s sweetness.
The son is the cup,
and he who was milked is the father,
and she who milked him is the holy spirit,
because his breasts were full.
And because it was undesirable that his milk should be released futilely,
the holy spirit opened her bosom and mixed the milk of the father’s two breasts.
And she gave the mixture to the age,
without their knowing,
and those who receive it in its fullness are of the right hand (of God).
The young woman’s womb caught it,
and she conceived and gave birth.
And the young woman became a mother through (God’s) abundant mercies,
and she was in labor and bore a son.
And she felt no pain,
because what happened was not futile.
And she did not need a midwife
because he made her bring to life one like a strong man.
<And> she brought (him) forth because of the will (of God),
and she brought (him) forth because of (God’s) declaration,
and she acquired (him) because of (God’s) abundant majesty,
and loved (him) because of (God’s) redemption,
and guarded (him) because of (God’s) kindness,
and declared (him) because of (God’s) grandeur.
Authentic, mysterious, surprising: the Odes of Solomon are all of those things, and more. This brief survey of the Odes’ divine feminine metaphors doesn’t begin to exhaust the deep spiritual meaning to be found in this ancient treasure. If this article has whetted your appetite to spend more time with the Odes, feel free to visit our website which features extensive resources, multiple translations, and audiovisual interpretations. We’d love to hear your reflections too!
© 2020 by Christian Feminism Today.
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