Odes and John: Perspectives on Relationship

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the relationship between the Odes of Solomon and Gospel of John.

Much has been written concerning the connections between these two pieces of early Christian literature, beginning with Harris in the first publication on the Odes.[1] Since then, scholars have consistently noted that, “The Odes and John share numerous, striking, and often unique expressions.”[2] To outline some of the most common themes, references to Love, the rest of God, Life (including God as the source of life, eternal life, and Life in Christ), and the Holy Spirit run throughout both John’s Gospel and the Odes.[3] Most pervasive are discussions of the Word (λóγος, ܡܠܬܐ)—including an assumption of Word Christology—and the need for living water in order to receive eternal life.[4] Such parallels, thematic resonances, and shared elements are simply too ubiquitous to ignore. However, some of these themes are not limited to the Odes and Johannine literature—for example, the imagery of living water is paralleled in numerous other sources.[5] In no small part due to the complexity of properly attributing the source of such non-specific thematic parallels, scholars remain divided on the possibility of literary dependence between the Odes and the Fourth Gospel.[6]

Additionally, numerous textual affinities exist between the two writings. Charlesworth notes twenty-six strong potential parallels between the Odes and John, with another ninety-two less clear but still possible references.[7] Yet none of these uses appears to be a direct quotation in either direction.[8] That is, in no place do the Odes of Solomon present material from the Gospel of John using a formulaic introduction—“it is written”, the Syriac partical ܠܐܡ (lâm), or otherwise—nor is any passage a verbatim reference to the Gospel. The same is true in the opposite direction. This lack of direct quotation, or at least the implications of this fact, often leads scholars to conclude that there is “no demonstrable literary relationship” between the Odes and Fourth Gospel.[9] In the words of Brian McNeil, “None of these verbal parallels [between the Odes and Johannine literature] has by itself a probative character….”[10]

Because of these connections and concerns, scholars have taken five basic positions concerning the relationship between the Odes and Fourth Gospel[11]: John is reliant upon the Odes; the Odes display thematic dependence on John; the Odes exhibit literary dependence on John; both rely on a third source; and that both are independent but share a “common milieu.” Early specialists often suggested that the Odes preceded John and influenced the writing of the Gospel.[12] This was the view of Harnack, Grimme, and Bultmann, but is not widely held today because it places the composition of the Odes appreciably earlier than the Fourth Gospel, which cannot have been written much later than 100 CE.[13]

More popular recently are the perspectives on the Odes’ thematic or literary dependence on Gospel of John.[14] Those in favor of thematic dependence argue that the Odist knew John’s writings but did not directly use or quote them, instead recalling some of the Gospel’s characteristic themes in the creation of the Odes.[15] Those in favor of literary dependence posit that the Odist knew, used, and adapted the Fourth Gospel while crafting the Odes, [16] though he may not have had the final edition of the Gospel before him while writing. Some form of these perspectives is affirmed by J. A. Robinson and Brian McNeil,[17] despite Charlesworth’s adamant argument in 1998 that, “no critical evaluation” has confirmed this perspective.[18] As literary dependence is the perspective of this paper, I will present arguments for such a relationship in more detail below.

The fourth perspective on the relationship between the Odes and Gospel of John posits that both writings were influenced by a third source, most commonly thought to be an Essene source like the Dead Sea Scrolls.[19] Jack T. Sanders suggests that the Odes, Trimorphic Protennoia, and Fourth Gospel all come from the same context of non-rabbinic speculative Judaism of the Roman Diaspora period.[20] Martin Hengel, however, problematizes this view by noting that no specific evidence appears early enough to fit this hypothesis. Consequently, few scholars affirm this perspective.[21]

Much more prevalent are suggestions regarding the independence but shared milieu of the Odes of Solomon and Fourth Gospel. Adherents to this perspective argue that the Odes and John were composed entirely independently of each other, except for their common experience of the religious environment of Antiochene theology and popular culture.[22] As Charlesworth notes, for this perspective, “It is clear that the Odes and John contain numerous and impressive parallels, and that these neither suggest that the Odes depend on John nor the reverse. Both reflect the same milieu… and both were probably composed in the same community.”[23] This perspective has been affirmed by many of the more recent studies on the Odes of Solomon, including those of Grant, Massaux, Dodd, and Charlesworth.[24]

[1] Harris. See also Brownson, “Odes,” 49.

[2] Charlesworth and Culpepper, “Odes,” 300.

[3] Ibid., 300-3.

[4] Charlesworth, Reflections, 25. Harvey, “Syria,” 355. Charlesworth and Culpepper, “Odes,” 310-4. Robert C. Stroud, “The Odes of Solomon: The Earliest Collection of Christian Hymns,” The Hymn 31 (1980): 271.

[5] Kugel notes that Wisdom/Truth is portrayed as streams of water not only in John and Odes 6, 11, 12, and 30, but also in Sirach 25:25-7 and traditions concerning the Water at Mamra (Kugel, Traditions, 627-8). Thus, the possibility exists that these two works draw on another, third source.

[6] Charlesworth, Reflections, 25 Brownson, “Odes,” 49.

[7] Charlesworth, Reflections, 258-9.

[8] McNeil, “Odes,” 110. Robinson, Odes, 31; Brownson, “Odes,” 49.

[9] Brownson, “Odes,” 49.

[10] McNeil, “Odes,” 109.

[11] Charlesworth, Grant, and McNeil all outline only three positions, combining all perspectives on the Odes dependence on John and neglecting to account for the argument for a common shared source.

[12] Charlesworth, Reflections, 25. Grant, “Antioch,” 368.

[13] Charlesworth, Reflections, 252-7. The rejection of Harnack’s interpolation hypothesis, Grimme’s Hebrew hypothesis, and Bultman’s concept of Gnosticism have played a significant role in the downfall of this view. On the dating of John, see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; ed. D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 82-7 and Harold Attridge, “Johannine Christianity,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 1: Origins to Constantine (ed. Margaret M. Mitchell and Frances M. Young; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 126.

[14] Charlesworth and Culpepper, “Odes,” 318. Grant, “Antioch,” 368. McNeil, “Odes,” 110.

[15] Robinson, Odes, 31. McNeil, “Odes,” 121-2.

[16] Brownson, “Odes,” 50.

[17] Robinson, Odes, 31. McNeil, “Odes,” 121-2.

[18] Charlesworth, Reflections, 251-2.

[19] Ibid., 192.

[20] Sanders, “Nag Hammadi,” 59.

[21] Martin Hengel, “Qumran and Early Christianity,” in Earliest Christian History: History, Literature, and Theology: Essay from the Tyndale Fellowship in Honor of Martin Hengel (ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston; trans. Lars Kierspel; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 523-531.

[22] Grant, “Antioch,” 368. Brownson, “Odes,” 49-50. Charlesworth, Reflections, 255-6.

[23] Charlesworth, Reflections, 257.

[24] Ibid., 255-6.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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