Essay: The Sign of the Cross: a Jewish invention

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I am a popularizer. God made me that way. Man would have thought otherwise. I was told to take Spanish in high school, rather than French or German. I would have use of Spanish as I would never go to college and there were many Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn - so said my high school counsellor. So, I see that my knowing a couple of dialects of Ancient Aramaic and Syriac, along with Hebrew, the language of Judaism and Jesus, as being quite a miracle of God. Now, I have a choice. I can remain in the bathroom mumbling to the man I see in the mirror, or I can go out and begin to "popularize" for others.

I see the New Testament as intensly Jewish. But outside of the New Testament, is there anything else that is intensely Jewish that speaks of Jesus? Yes there is, and I will tell you of it. Let's take for instance the Cross. Readers of the New Testament will remember that Paul, who called himself, and rightly, an Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharasee, said of the cross, " I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live", and, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." And Jesus Himself said, refering to the cross,,"If I am lifted up, I will draw all men to Me." Well, this is in the New Testament. Where is the community of Jews outside of the New Testament, yet in the New Testament days, who speak of Jesus, who speak of the cross?

The answer is found in the Odes of Solomon

"The Odes of Solomon are hymns of praise and devotion that we inherit from an early poet. The author, the Odist, was a Jew, conceivably an Essene because he intermittently evidences that he knew the Thanksgiving Hymns (the so-called hymnbook of the Qumran Community). The Odist eventually believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and imagined: 'The dove fluttered over the head of our Lord Messiah, /Because he was her head' (Ode 24:1).

"The collection is identified as the Odes of Solomon, not because they were written by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C., but because they were rightly considered to be in the tradition of Solomon, who was known in the Bible as 'the Beloved.' The Odist uses this term for himself and all like him; it is a concept that helps define the Odes. While Solomon lived in the tenth century B.C., the Odist lived sometime near A.D. 100. He composed the Odes in a form of early Aramaic and Syriac which is a language spoken in the early Christian centuries and was a form of the language spoken by Jesus" - James Charlesworth


Well, before there were the Dead Sea Scrolls to tell us what 1st century thought could be like, what first century Aramaic could be like, scholars, ever since the discovery in 1909 of this "Jewish" literature in Aramaic (Syriac), said something like, Yes, this is Jewish, but it's from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, written by Christians who were "Judaizing", that is, making it as if they, too, were "original" Jews or trying to bring back Judaism into the Church. But then, as years went on, other scholars, who could read the orginal and compare with the new discoveries, said, "No. this is no later than the first century - and is even earlier than some parts of the New Testament, and was written by Jews who believed in Jesus, who lived in a heavily Jewish area, just outside Palestine (Israel). Among these scholars are two important ones, J.H. Charlesworth, and Samuel Hugh Moffett of Princeton Seminary.


So, what do they say about the "Odes"- Hymns? That come from this Jewish "Christian" community.


Firstly, this community of Jewish believers was so early that writings show an even earlier stage than some of the New Testament writings. In the latter writings, yes, there were still a lot of Jews in the "church" but most members were gentiles, who, suprisingly, believers in Jesus the Jewish Messiah. The New Testament tells these gentile believers, please, respect your Jewish brothers and sisters in your midst. They were there before you in the faith of the Lord. You gentiles are only recent "grafts" into the seed of Abraham. But these Odes are so early that the opposite situation was existing. The community of Jesus was almost totally Jewish and gentiles were starting to come in as believers, and so the Jewish believers had to be told, please, do not dishonor these gentiles who are now coming into your midst. do not despise them. Who told them that? Well it was Jesus Himself. That is right in the middle of Ode 10, which lthe community chanted together, Jesus speaks to them, sort of like the Prophets of old, when the Lord suddenly speaks through the words of the prophet, and Jesus says:

"The Gentiles who were dispersed are now gathered together.

But I am not defiled in my loving them,

because they praised Me in high places" *.

And so, we understand, you ought also not despise them!


Thus, we understand, they went out as a community to the field to pray their Psalms (we have 42 of them) in Aramaic and pray to the Lord. J.H. Charlsworth calls these psalms the worlds first Christian hymnbook. And they did something that the ancient Jewish world and the world of the Tanakh often did. They didn't just think things, and say things, but they acted them out, or made physical gestures that made the point, or helped released their heart into what they were mouthing - just like today, Jews not only say the Shema, and think and say the psalms or other portions of the Tanakh, but also kiss the scrolls as they are passed or walked around, kiss and touch their fingertips and then the "Mezuzahs" on the doorposts of their houses, and many other wonderful things of doing, to demonstrate - like celebration of the Passover Seder.


And so they went out into the field, at the start of the day, and they began to pray, and as they did, they did something else. They stood and streched out their arms, and looked out to heaven and prayed out in wonderful Aramaic their psalm 42 and said what they were doing, as they made thus the sign of the cross:


"I have extended my hands, and approached my Lord,

For the expansion of my hands is His sign.

And my extension, is the common cross,

That was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One."

see (A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. l., Samuel Hugh Moffett, Orbis,{Odes Sol.42:1,2,}, 1998, pg.52)


So, if you are Jewish and feel like making the sign of the cross, go ahead. It is as Jewish as Matzah ball soup or Gefilte fish (though not particularly Ashkenazi!). And if you are not Jewish and you believe in Jesus, remember, He is the Jewish Messiah, as well as the Savior of the World.


Bert Schlossberg


  • Note: Even today, once the Syriac script is put into the Hebrew characters, Hebrew speakers can make out some or most of the Ancient Aramaic prayer from this Jewish Christian community

An example (Ode 19:1 in transliteration, common roots in bold letters)

English: "A cup of milk was offered to me, And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness. The Son is the cup."

Syriac: "kasa deHalba etqarev li, weshtiteh dbesimuteh deMarya (Mar=Adon=Lord). Bra kasa iitoy"

Hebrew: "'kos shel Halav niq'revah eilay weshatiti, be hasday ha Adon. HaBen hu haKos" (Hebrew speakers would know that the Aramaic BR is the Hebrew BN from "Bar Mitzvah" - "Son of the Commandment)"

    • Note: Where this Jewish Christian community of Jews lived was either Edessa (not Odessa), the capital of the ancient kingdom of Osrhoene, or nearby Arbela (modern day Irbil in Iraq), the capital of Adiabene. Adiabene was the very last province of the ancient and much feared Assyrian Empire (Jonah was sent by God to Assyrian capital of Nineveh) . In the first century, the queen of Adiabene became Jewish with many of her nobles. Adiabene was the only country to send in fighters to fight alongs the Jews (Judeans) in their revolt against the Romans in the first century. This queen of Adiabene was much honored by the Jews because of this and her charitable works during the same famine that Paul writes about in the New Testament, and she is called in Hebrew , Queen Peace of Zion - Shlomzion Ha Malka. Israeli archaeologist, Michael Avi Yonah, believed (and constructed in his model of the 1st century City of David now in Jerusalem's Hebrew Museum) a full one half of the first century City of David to be Queen Shlomzion's palace. When she died, she was buried in a grand tomb in Jerusalem of her day, now located on Salah id-Din street in East Jerusalem. This tomb was so grand that it was thought by 19th and 20th century archaeologists to be the tombs of the Kings of Israel. My bank in West Jerusalem was situated on Shlomzion Ha Malka street.

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