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Early Christian Hymns

by David B. Capes

The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship.  A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns.  Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi)  and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitude to God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20).  These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions.  The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices.  Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian.  Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion. The Christ Hymn

Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context.  Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4.  These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired.  Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79).  The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion.  Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption.  For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.

Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11.  The hymn consists of two parts.  The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross.  The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose.  Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).

By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction.  Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.

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3 Comments

  1. You might want to check Josephus and Philo who both vigorously deny the legitimacy of singing in the Friday evening synagogue gatherings through the first Christian century. Both strongly indicate that the synagogue gathering was for prayer and study of the Torah, and not a worship service. The only place Jews could legitimately worship God was either in family gatherings or in the Jerusalem temple. It wasn’t until almost the beginning of the third Christian century until elements of worship began to be adopted in the Friday evening gatherings. What I have found is that about 90% of biblical scholarship doesn’t have a clue about worship practices among first century Jews or Christians. Some version of modern styles of worship have been eisogeted on to ty biblical text completely distorting it. Some recent Jewish and Christian scholarship in ancient patterns of music in worship are demonstrating the baselessness of most of what shows up in Bible dictionaries etc.

    • Thanks, Dr. Cranford. I’d be interested to know where in Philo and Josephus these details are discussed. I’m interested in 2nd temple worship practices. Very little is stated about it in many of the sources. Some come from much later. Thanks for reading so closely. I do think the temple is the most likely place where hymn or psalm singing went on. Whether we might locate some singing also in the synagogue would be good to know.

  2. David, I came across these primary source references just recently in some research and writing that I have been doing. I was quite surprised to read these statements since I had never before seen them, but especially in the Greek text of both Josephus and Philo they were quite clear. I can’t remember where I quoted them in the three or four writing projects I have going on currently. Just as soon as I am able to dig them out, I will pass on the references to you. The tip to this needed revision of current understanding came through a secondary source — that I will also pass on to you once I find it — which comes from a rather massive research project mostly taking place in Israel in regard to the evolution of music in both the worship and social life of ancient Israel. As best as I can remember, some recent archaeological discoveries have raise serious questions about the accuracy of most assessments of worship practices in second-temple Judaism over against emerging patterns in the post temple era of developing Judaism beginning in the second century AD. One or two Catholic scholars have been involved in this rather massive study. The early results of the study were published about two or three years ago in Israel, as best as I can recall. The analysis of newly discovered texts and some artifacts are forcing a completely new evaluation of the typical understanding. Part of the background orientation stems from the larger music history interests in the study of music and social functions both today and across time.

    For a long time I have been increasingly uncomfortable with most of the dictionary articles and commentary analysis of the Ephesian and Colossian statements. They have seemed to have too much of a modern perspective being read back into the ancient texts. I do remember uncovering substantially different attitudes toward music during the Roman Republic and especially during the Empire. One of the patterns that kept coming up in reading assessments of ancient music outside the religious circles of biblical studies is that most of these cultures seemed to feel very strongly that music used in temple worship had to be very different from all other music in order for it to be acceptable to the gods. With some probing of Talmudic sources I began to realize that this similar attitude prevailed rather strongly among the Jews even from OT times. Thus the development of highly specialized musical training for the Levitical choirs in temple worship. Then I came across these strong denials of synagogue gatherings for worship purposes through 70 AD. One of the last first century Jewish sources I checked indicated that singing at the Friday evening synagogue gathering could take place but was limited to no more than one or two of the psalms and could happen only under the leadership of a minimum of ten men who had received the Levitical training in Jerusalem for properly singing the psalms. Of course, also in the Greek speaking side, the enormously rthymatic patterns of normal speaking of first century Koine Greek greatly reduces the tonal distance between singing and speaking to such a point that only a specialized style chant of the words would distinguish them from everyday speech. Also, one other pattern that came through very clearly from multiple Jewish sources regarding the second century on adoption of music in the synagogues was that absolutely no musical instruments were permitted. I have come to realize that the modern Cambellites may have been closer to the truth than most of the rest of us regarding the role of musical instruments in Christian gatherings.

    Enough of my ramblings. This is an ongoing research project for me to explore the role of music in the ancient world both inside and beyond worship experiences. What I have uncovered thus far is forcing me to radically re-think my understanding of this in the biblical world.

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