Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.[1. Colossians 3:15-17 NIV]
Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.[2. Ephesians 5:18-20 NIV]
Worship to God through music has been an integral aspect of the Christian experience from its inception. In the aforementioned passages, St. Paul exhorts believers to have their worship be not simply an act of interiority, but to allow it to overflow into a tangible and auditory expression.
As such, there is the interior origin of expression, (“in your hearts”) its basis in the believer’s relationship with/towards God (gratitude/giving thanks) and the outward demonstration. (singing/making music.) Thus, rather than a private or individual act, music in worship to God is grounded in being a corporate act, as believers are ‘members of one body;’ indeed, even the psalms, hymns and songs to be sung find their origin in God, as they are spoken of as ‘from the Spirit.’ (This would seem to indicate the content- as the Colossians passage speaks of the intent as being ‘teaching’ and ‘admonishing,’ that would seem to predicate some level of didactic content.)
As I have been thinking about these passages, I was curious to explore the way in which the early church from the apostolic period to about the 4th century fleshed out the musical aspect of worship. Given that my experience with music in worship falls primarily within a 20th/21st century context, and that being primarily of a certain kind, I thought it would be instructive to approach this aspect of worship from a different perspective.
It is certainly no secret that the New Testament is replete with early Christian hymns. Most modern translations helpfully bracket the poetic sections that have hymnic structures, thus signaling the reader to the presence of a hymn. One only need to read one chapter into the Gospel of Luke to find the Magnificat:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.[3. Luke 1:46-55 NIV]
As with most of the New Testament hymns, the Magnificat draws heavily upon Jewish hymnody. The early church began as primarily Jewish, but even with the influx of Gentile believers towards the end of the first century and into the second Christian worshiping communities maintained a strong sense of identity with their Jewish hymnic roots, especially as food within the Psalter.
It was only natural that the hymnody of the Old Testament should have exerted a marked influence upon Christian practice. The Old Testament tradition was very strong. Familiar phraseology was ready at hand for the composition of new canticles which were often mere centos from the Psalms or other portions of the Hebrew scriptures.[4. Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries, Ruth Ellis Messenger, p.6]
One can easily detect this within the parallelism employed in the Magnificat. The first line, for example:
My soul glorifies the Lord
is restated and expanded in the following line:
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
A comparison between the Magnificat and the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel yield remarkable parallels; suffice it to say that Mary’s song is drench with Old Testament imagery and modes of expression. The same follows for the Benedictus (Luke 1: 67-79) or the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32).
In St. Paul’s letters we find evidence of hymns that have had previous congregational or liturgical usage. The most well-known example comes from Philippians 2:5-11. In this passage, Paul uses Christ as an example of humility, and in doing so quotes an early Christian hymn:
[Jesus Christ] Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.[5. Philippians 2:5-11 NIV]
Given the date of authorship generally applied to Philippians (AD 62-64), this hymn is therefore the oldest Christian hymn of which we have evidence. It is interesting that Paul quotes it, almost in passing, as if the Philippians were obviously well aware of it. It is not known if this was a hymn known only to the Philippians, but given the fact that epistle to the Colossians contains a similar hymn (in regards to theme) in its opening chapter, (Colossians 1:15-20) it would certainly be indicative of the types of hymns that early Christians in the apostolic period were singing. There is even hostile evidence to support this thesis: Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor who lived in the early 2nd century, reports Christians as singing ‘hymns to Christ as if to a god.‘ It is not surprising that Pliny (or at least his informants) would come to such a conclusion if these were the types of hymns that Christians were singing.
In the Apocalypse we find hymns that are not only being quoted as fragments for didactic purposes, but rather have an express purpose of being used for liturgical worship. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it began in mostly Jewish communities. As such, Christian worship naturally became an outgrowth of the liturgical nature of synagogal worship. The Apocalypse itself is structured as a vision of the heavenly liturgy, and thus the earth-bound church reflects in spirit and in practice these acts of worship towards God. (The author of Hebrews makes a similar though inverted argument.)
The apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation, however, contains several magnificent hymns of praise which testify not alone to the form and content of the early hymn but also to the practice of worship in song. The praises of the heavenly host are mirrored in the praises of the congregation upon earth.[6. Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries, Ruth Ellis Messenger, p. 8]
An example is found in Revelation 5:9-10
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.[7. Revelation 5:9-10 NIV]
A rather early (if somewhat localized) collection of Christian hymns are the Odes of Solomon. While there is debate as to their date of authorship, there is reason to believe they date from the late first century to the mid-second century AD. It is not clear how they came to carry their designation, nor is it altogether certain where the originated, although some have speculated that there is a tenuous relationship between the odes and Johannine and Essene literature, suggesting that the author may have been a disciple of John or within a Johannine school of theology, so to speak.
It has been suggested that following the reading of the John 1:1-18, a reading of the Odes would fit in well with the theology and perspective of John. The parallels suggest either a direct disciple of John or one from the community that welcomed the writings of John. If the Odes were written at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, it is quite possible that the author of the Odes was a disciple of the John who wrote the Gospel and Johannine letters.[8. The Odes of Solomon: Their Origin and Use in Early Christianity, Lee Martin McDonald, p. 4]
Nevertheless, the Odes do not seem to have made much of a splash, so to speak, in the greater Christian community, and thus were probably a rather localized phenomenon. In fact, the only mention we hear of them in later Christian sources is from Lactantius quoting a portion of one of the Odes. Nevertheless, many of them have a unique beauty all their own.
He has filled me with words of truth, that I may proclaim Him.
And like the flowing of waters, truth flows from my mouth,
and my lips declare His fruits.
And He has caused His knowledge to abound in me,
because the mouth of the Lord is the true Word, and the entrance of His light.
And the Most High has given Him to His generations,
which are the interpreters of His beauty,
And the narrators of His glory,
And the confessors of His purpose,
And the preachers of His mind,
And the teachers of His works.
For the subtlety of the Word is inexpressible, and like His utterance
so also is His swiftness and His acuteness, for limitless is His progression.
He never falls but remains standing, and one cannot comprehend
His descent or His way.
For as His work is, so is His expectation, for He is the light and dawning of thought.
And by Him the generations spoke to one another,
and those that were silent acquired speech.
And from Him came love and equality,
and they spoke one to another that which was theirs.
And they were stimulated by the Word, and knew Him who made them,
because they were in harmony.
For the mouth of the Most High spoke to them,
and His exposition prospered through Him.
For the dwelling place of the Word is man, and His truth is love.
Blessed are they who by means of Him have perceived everything,
and have known the Lord in His truth.
Hallelujah.[9. Ode 12, http://users.misericordia.edu//davies/thomas/odes.htm]
(I found many resonances with the Ode’s description of the Word with Wisdom 7:21-28’s description of Wisdom, which is unsurprising as the understanding of the Logos as developed in John finds its foundations in Jewish sapiential literature.)
As we approach the end of the first century, Christian worship, while still maintaining a strong Jewish character, (especially in the use of the Psalms) is nevertheless beginning to carry in some Greek stylistic influences. For example, the Psalms are poetic because of their parallelism but do not, generally, have rhyme or meter. (Sometimes other devices like acrostics or chiasms are employed.) Greek poems and hymns, however, are more characteristically metrical. One of the earliest extra-biblical hymns is the Phos Hilaron, (St. Basil mentions that in his day it was considered to be a most ancient hymn) which exhibits a far more metrical style than its biblical counterparts.
O gracious Light,
Pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
And our eyes behold the vesper light,
We sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
And to be glorified through all the worlds.[10. Phos Hilaron, Anglican Use of the Roman Rite]
However, the parallelism of Christian hymnody’s Jewish origins is still a strong vein in the liturgical life of the church. Synagogal worship and liturgy carried over quite naturally into Christianity in its nascent period, and thus from the earliest times liturgical forms of music and singing were employed. The Gloria (believed to be from the mid-second century) is probably one of the best known examples, and is interesting as it illustrates Hellenistic features of poetic style, bespeaking the oriental influences which had entered into Greek literature.[11. Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries, Ruth Ellis Messenger, p. 13]
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
We bless you,
We adore you,
We glorify you,
We give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only-begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.[12. Gloria, International Commission on English in the Liturgy]
Clement of Alexandria provides us one of the earliest examples of what could be considered a Christian hymn in the Greek style. In his Pedagogus is a Hymn to Christ the Savior, which employs both meter and a rich variety of metaphors and word pictures to describe and adore Christ:
King of saints, almighty Word
Of the Father highest Lord;
Wisdom’s head and chief;
Assuagement of all grief;
Lord of all time and space,
Jesus, Saviour of our race;
Shepherd, who keeps us;
Husbandman, who tills,
Bit to restrain us, Rudder
To guide us as You will;
Of the all-holy flock celestial wing;
Fisher of men, whom You bring to life;
From evil sea of sin,
And from the billowy strife,
Gathering pure fishes in,
Caught with sweet bait of life:
Lead us, Shepherd of the sheep,
Reason-gifted, holy One;
King of youths, whom You keep,
So that they pollution shun:
Steps of Christ, celestial Way;
Word eternal, Age unending;
Life that never can decay;
Fount of mercy, virtue-sending;
Life august of those who raise
Unto God their hymn of praise,
Jesus Christ![13. St. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus]
Of course, orthodox Christianity was not the only game in town. Heretical groups such as the Valentinians fused Christian and Jewish mysticism with Greek philosophical speculation to create interesting and complicated amalgamations that drew the ire of writers such as Hippolytus, Irenaeus and other polemicists of the late second and early third centuries. Gnosticism had already plagued the church since the earliest times (see the rebuttals that form the context of 1 John and Colossians) and in the aforementioned time frame reached its apex (in all its myriad forms and systems) of development and influence. Valentinianism in particular was fairly notable and influential; both Irenaeus and Hippolytus spend considerable time refuting its precepts. Its founder, Valentinus, was evidently a charismatic leader, and even as hostile an opponent as Tertullian conceded that he was both brilliant and rhetorically captivating. The Gnostics wrote their own hymns, of course, (as well as their own gospels) and while the number of surviving hymns is meager, it was actually the church father Hippolytus who preserves a rather remarkable and beautifully penned Gnostic hymn. This one, which some have entitled ‘Summer Harvest,’ is purported to be from the pen of Valentinus himself:
All things whirled on by spirit I see,
Flesh from soul depending,
And soul from air forth flashing,
And air from aether hanging,
And fruits from Bythus streaming,
And from womb the infant growing.[14. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 5; Translation in Ante-Nicene Church Fathers V, Roberts and Donaldson, p. 91]
As the third century drew to a close we discover a fascinating hymn by Methodius, a bishop of Olympus. His Hymn of Thekla from The Banquet of the Ten Virgins is a call and response of sorts. The main speaker, Thekla, sings in twenty-four stanzas, each of which are followed by a refrain to be answered by a chorus. In each of the stanzas a virtue is extolled, an exhortation given, a parse rendered to God, and each of these themes developed is brought back into the refrain: I keep myself pure for You, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted torch I go to meet You. Purity of life and pursuit of virtues is thus seen (as evidenced in some of the other hymns noted) to be an essential component of Christian hymnody. A brief example from this moving song illustrates this:
Thekla: Fleeing from the sorrowful happiness of mortals, and having despised the luxuriant delights of life and its love, I desire to be protected under Your life-giving arms, and to behold Your beauty for ever, O blessed One.
Chorus: I keep myself pure for You, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted torch I go to meet You.
Thekla: Corruption has fled, and the tearful pains of diseases; death has been taken away, all folly has perished, consuming mental grief is no more; for again the grace of the God-Christ has suddenly shone upon mortals.
Chorus: I keep myself pure for You, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted torch I go to meet You.
Thekla: Paradise is no longer bereft of mortals, for by divine decree he no longer dwells there as formerly, thrust out from thence when he was free from corruption, and from fear by the various wiles of the serpents, O blessed One.
Chorus: I keep myself pure for You, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted torch I go to meet You.
Thekla: O blessed One, who inhabited the undefiled seats of heaven without beginning, who governed all things by everlasting power, O Father, with Your Son, we are here, receive us also within the gates of life.
Chorus: I keep myself pure for You, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted torch I go to meet You.[15. Methodius, Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 11]
Of course, having lyrics to hymns is one thing; having the music is another. Ancient music sometimes had notation, but more often than not it didn’t. However, there is one fragment from Christian antiquity that gives us a rough idea of the way an ancient Christian hymn might sound. Referred to as the Oxyrhynchus Hymn, this musical piece is the earliest Christian hymn with both lyrics and musical notation that is extant.
.. Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds (?) and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things, Amen Amen [16. West, M. L. 1992. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford University Press.]
As we move into the 4th century, we stand on the cusp of an explosion of Christian hymnody, or at the very least, an explosion of the preservation of Christian hymns, especially in the East. Writers such as Ephraim Syrus (also known as the ‘harp of orthodoxy) were prolific in the compositions of hymns, and as such hymnody within Christianity flourished from that point forward. In the West, the 4th century saw the beginnings of hymnody; while churches in the West might have used some form or another of hymns, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 4th century that hymnody in the West really came into its own. St. Hilary of Poitiers, while perhaps better known for his Trinitarian theology, seems to have been the conduit of Eastern hymnody into the West. He seems to have introduced the ‘Gloria’ into the Western Church’s repertoire. For St. Hilary, singing together as the body of Christ was not merely meant to be an aesthetic exercise, rather, it was part and parcel of the life of the Christian and the promise of victory over the evil one.
Whoever he be that takes his post outside the Church, let him hear the voice of the people at their prayers, let him mark the multitudinous sound of our hymns, and in the performance of the divine Sacraments let him recognise the responses which our loyal confession makes. Every adversary must needs be affrighted, the devil routed, death conquered in the faith of the Resurrection, by such jubilant utterance of our exultant voice. The enemy will know that this gives pleasure to God and assurance to our hope, even this public and triumphant raising of our voice in song.[17. St. Hilary of Poitiers, Homily on Psalm 64]
While his personal composition of any hymns is disputed, there are five extant hymns that have been attributed to St. Hilary. One of the more well-known ones is entitled Lucis Largitor Splendide and is generally considered one of the oldest Western hymns.
O Wondrous Giver of the Light!
By whose eternal ray serene,
After the lingering hours of night
The glory of the morn is seen-
Bringer of light indeed art thou;
Not like the common sun of day
That o’er the world is rising now
and shining with a narrow ray;
Nay, brighter than the solar beam,
Thyself the sun and perfect light,
And in the breast thy tender gleam
Illumes with glory pure and bright.
Creator of the world, be near
Thou radiance of the Father’s face!
Oh, shield us from all shapes of fear
And guide us by thy saving grace.
Inspire us with thy living breath,
Dwell in our hearts both night and day,
Lest by the tempter lured to death,
Our erring souls be made his prey.
Be all our actions free from stain
Let purity our souls refine,
That shunning evil thoughts and vain,
We live within thy laws divine.
Let not our minds be overcome
By false desire or deed of shame,
And be our hearts a shrine and home
Wherein shall burn thy holy flame.
Our hope, o Savior, is in thee,
In thee we trust, we seek thy light;
Lord, let thy love a beacon be
To guide us through the gloom of night.[18. St. Hilary of Poitiers, Lucis Largitor Splendide; found in Early Christian Hymns, Daniel Joseph Donahue p. 9]
It might be of interest that I have not merely randomly selected a few extant hymns to focus on; rather, all the ancient Christian hymns from the post-apostolic period to the beginning of the 4th century that I have looked at constitute the corpus of extant Christian hymens from that period. Given that music in worship was an important aspect of the Christian community, one might inquire as to why, if this was the case, so few hymns actually survive. I would like to sketch a few possible responses as I conclude.
1. For most of the period under consideration, Christianity was not a legal religion. While persecution was sporadic and varied considerably in severity and duration from time to time and place to place, it nevertheless had an impact on what would be preserved and what wouldn’t. Given that the Scriptures occupied a central place in Christian belief and praxis, it is unsurprising that preservation of manuscripts would prioritize the Scriptures.
2. Much ancient music simply wasn’t notated. Music in the ancient world operated under the same premises that constituted the transmission of any communication within an oral culture.
3. (This is probably one of the most significant factors) For the early church, the Psalms were, for all intents and purposes, the songbook for the church. As Christianity grew out of Judaism, it was only natural that it would incorporate not only its hymns but also its musical settings. While it could certainly comprise an entirely separate study, suffice it to say that early Christian music probably sounded a lot like ancient Jewish music, and only gradually diverged as the Church integrated Gentiles into its fold. In relation to the Psalms, the congregational singing may have sounded something like the example given in the Oxyrhynchus Hymn- you might have a leader quickly and mono-tonally recite the bulk of the reading with some transition notes (something like a reciting tone) followed by a congregational refrain.
For Christians, the Psalms were not simply a collection of songs- they were considered to be inspired by God. Thus, it is not surprising that the Psalms would form an important part of Christian hymnody. As Christ came to be understood as the theological locus for understanding the Psalms, to the point where early Christians understood the Psalms as being primarily about Christ, the Psalms therefore afforded a rich repository of ready-made hymns in praise to Christ.
4. A final related point- early Christian worship, while not as liturgically complex as it would come to be by the fourth century, nevertheless carried over the liturgical structure of the synagogues. In such a setting, hymns and songs of praise do not function as things to be tried to see if they fit the congregation, nor were they as subject to be discarded because of use. Within the liturgical structure, hymns become a part of the liturgy itself. The early church grew primarily by expanding itself in form and structure into different communities; thus, new churches essentially started from scratch, but did not start within a vacuum- the founding church extended its liturgy into the new church. Additionally, these structures were operating within cultures that, while literate, still operated on a primarily oral level. As such, it is easy to see how a hymn like Phos Hilaron or the Gloria could come to be ubiquitous in use centuries prior to our earliest documentary evidence of their existence.
As I conclude, I wanted briefly state some features of ancient Christian hymns that struck me the most.
1. There is an over-arching directed-ness towards God. For example, in the Gloria there is the repetition and restating of praise to God, combined with the stacking of pronouns. There is no doubt in this song to whom it is addressed. Even in the Hymn of Thekla all the desires of the heart are subsumed under the refrain of desiring to go and meet the Bridegroom.
2. There is a saturation in the Scriptures that is apparent even when it is not explicit. Phos Hilaron draws on the imagery of Christ as ‘light’ and juxtaposes him with the ‘setting of the sun’ to create an apt metaphor for Christ’s eternal nature as God, presupposing the Nicene Creed’s declaration of the Son as ‘Light from Light.’ Clement’s hymn draws on biblical imagery like Christ as the Shepherd, Christ as the Husbandsman, Christ as the fisherman and weaves them into a prayer that is firmly grounded in the scriptural imagery while avoiding the banality of slavish recitation.
3. There is a certain level of reverence that is evident in all of these hymns. God is not treated as familiar, yet neither is there a stand-offishness that comes across. Rather, these hymns seem to be the prayer of someone recognizing God as who God is, yet, full of hope and confidence in praising him.
4. There is a narrative thread that runs through each of these hymns and forms the song into a cohesive whole. They do not simply fuse topics together in an artistic fashion, but seem to carry one’s thoughts from one place to another, almost telling a story.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into early Christian hymnody. What, if anything, stuck out to you within these hymns? How do you think they compare to modern worship music?