The Signing of the Cross in Early Christianity

In this post I am going to cite an early source attesting to the Christian practice of doing the sign of the cross with the hand. I will be quoting from a document called the Odes of Solomon.

Scholars date this work as early to the beginning of the second century, and no later than the third century:

James H. Charlesworth writes (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 6, p. 114):

The date of the Odes has caused considerable interest. H. J. Drijvers contends that they are as late as the 3d century. L. Abramowski places them in the latter half of the 2d century. B. McNeil argued that they are contemporaneous with 4 Ezra, the Shepherd of Hermas, Polycarp, and Valentinus (ca. 100 C.E.). Most scholars date them sometime around the middle of the 2d century, but if they are heavily influenced by Jewish apocalyptic thought and especially the ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a date long after 100 is unlikely. H. Chadwick, Emerton, Charlesworth, and many other scholars, are convinced that they must not be labeled “gnostic,” and therefore should not be dated to the late 2d or 3d century.

Charlesworth comments on the attestation to the Odes Of Solomon (op. cit., v. 6, p. 114):

The 11th ode was found among the Bodmer Papyri in a 3d-century Gk manuscript (no. 11). Five were translated into Coptic in the 4th century and used to illustrate the Pistis Sophia (Odes Sol. 1, 5, 6, 22, and 25). Also in the 4th century Ode 19 was quoted by Lactantius (Div. Inst. 4.12.3). In the 10th century a scribe copied the Odes in Syriac, but only Odes Sol. 17:7-42:20 are preserved (British Museum ms. Add. 14538). In the 15th century another scribe copied them into Syriac, but again the beginning is lost (John Rylands Library Cod. Syr. 9 contains only Odes Sol. 3.1b-42:20). (Early Christian Writings, Odes of Solomon http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/odes.html; bold emphasis mine)

Here is what this collection states in respect to the Christian employment of the sign of the cross.

Ode 27

1. I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,

2. For the expansion of my hands is His sign.

3. And my extension is the upright cross.
Hallelujah…

Ode 42

1. I extended my hands and approached my Lord, for the expansion of my hands is His sign.

2. And my extension is the upright cross, that was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One. (James Charlesworth translation http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/odes.html)

The following scholar notes the significance of these references:

Throughout the Odes there is frequent reference to the Lord’s sign, and in most cases the “sign” is explicitly connected to the cross. For instance, Ode 27 reads:

1. I extended my hands

And hallowed my Lord

2. For the expansion of my hands

Its His sign.

3. And my extension

Is the upright cross.

Hallelujah.

In this Ode, there is no doubt that the sign in verse 2 is the upright cross of verse 5, with the sign of the cross being graphically portrayed as the extension of the hands. Ode 42 likewise: “I will extend 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” (vv. 1-2). The vocabulary is strikingly similar. The sign is the expansion of the hands in the outstretched position of the cross. Having just expressed his belief in the Messiah, it seems natural to take the “sign” of Ode 29.7a as the cross of Christ, which is the instrument by which salvation came. (Brian J. Arnold, Justification in the Second Century [CPI books, GmbH, Leck, Germany 2017], pp. 149-150; bold emphasis mine)

I have more evidence from the early church fathers in the next installment (https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/26/the-signing-of-the-cross-in-early-christianity-pt-2/).

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