The Odes of Solomon and the Harrowing of Hell

In the early part of the 2nd Century AD, a collection of odes were written and attributed to Solomon. Some scholars have dated them as late as the 3rd Century, but this is usually due to the presupposition that they are Gnostic in character, an idea that has since been widely discredited due to the lack of any explicitly Gnostic doctrine in the odes (such as opposition to the goodness of creation or the emanation of divine beings from a remote Creator uninvolved with this world). The majority of scholars see them as having been written originally in either Greek or Syriac, and Syria as their place of origin.

They are also generally considered to have emerged from a Christian community (they refer often to Jesus Christ, as well as His virgin birth and the Holy Trinity), and although they don’t seem to have been used for public reading or in the liturgy, the way they are written suggests that they may have been intended for hymnody, and formed part of public worship by being sung in churches. Whatever the intention of the author(s) though, there is very little heterodox material in the odes, and they actually contain some highly evocative imagery that could safely be used as devotional material. The passage below, which speaks of Christ’s harrowing of hell, is one such piece:

[Christ speaks:]

I became useless to those who knew me not,

because I shall hide myself from those who possessed me not.

And I will be with those who love me.

All my persecutors have died,

and they who trusted in me sought me, because I am living!

I arose and am with them. and will speak by their mouths.

For they have rejected those who persecute them;

and I threw over them the yoke of my love.

Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride (cf Sg 2,6),

so is my yoke over those who know me.

And as the bridal feast is spread out by the bridal pair’s home,

So is my love by those who believe in me.

 

I was not rejected

although I was considered to be so,

and I did not perish

although they thought it of me.

Sheol saw me and was shattered,

and Death ejected me and many with me.

I have been vinegar and bitterness to it,

and I went down with it as far as its depth.

Death was released,

because it was not able to endure my face.

 

And I made a congregation of living among his dead (1P 3,19; 4,6);

and I spoke with them by living lips;

in order that my word may not fail.

And those who had died ran toward me;

and they cried out and said, “Son of God, have pity on us.

And deal with us according to your kindness,

and bring us out from the chains of darkness.

And open for us the door

by which we may go forth to you,

for we perceive that our death does not approach you.

May we also be saved with you,

because you are our Savior.”

 

Then I heard their voice,

and placed their faith in my heart.

And I placed my name upon their forehead (Rv 14,1),

because they are free and they are mine.

Odes of Solomon, No. 42 (trans. ©J.H. Charlesworth). Courtesy of Daily Gospel

            This passage speaks powerfully of Christ’s descent into the land of the dead, which is something hinted at in 1 Peter 3:19-20 (as well as 4:6) and mentioned explicitly in the Apostle’s Creed. The Catechism gives us a clearer understanding of how this was understood in the early Church here:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there…

…Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 632-633.

            The odes use imagery drawn from this descent of Our Lord into the realm of the dead to speak powerfully of the extent of Christ’s victory in overcoming the bonds of death; that His word of salvation knows no boundaries and extends even to those who did not know His name. This is a compelling reminder to us of just how far God’s grace can reach. When Our Lord reaches the spirits of the underworld, and sees their desire for Him, He ‘placed their faith in my heart’ and‘placed my name upon their forehead’ – this creative imagining of what the harrowing of hell may have been like thus speaks to us today also, showing us that wherever there is faith in Christ, wherever there is a desire for Him – His truth and love – there is yet hope.

The most dominant note in the ode above though, is the awesome power of Christ’s victory over the powers of death – a victory worked in and through the very process of death itself. We hear Jesus say that ‘Death ejected me and many with me’ and that ‘it was not able to endure my face’. What a wonderful thing to be reminded of during Lent! Easter is not far off now, and it is always good to recall what this period is in preparation for – the commemoration of Our Lord’s great victory over sin, disunity, hate, the will to power, and even death itself. By trusting in Him who wrought this victory, and uniting ourselves to Him, we can partake in it, become co-workers in the application of its fruits, and join ourselves to the very life of Love that is the source of all being.

Easter may not have arrived yet, but this ancient text can help to orient our minds towards the great triumph of light, life, love and truth that gives this period of Lent its shape and purpose. We deny ourselves and give things up now because we hope to redirect our wills towards something even greater than the goods of creation, and we try to attune our lives more closely to the will of God so that we may live in greater harmony with the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is Love – a love that is stronger than death.

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