Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots

The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo of Alexandria, describes the singing of a contemplative Jewish sect called the Therapeutae:

“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”

Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.

This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.

Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.

Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

A choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.

One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.

This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.

We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure, but in my next post, the early testimony of a Roman official gives us a few clues.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

2 responses to “Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots”

  1. Jeffrey O'Rourke says :

    I have enjoyed this, but it has raised a few questions. I looked for an email address and since I found none I am posting here. So, here goes!
    1) Why no mention of the earliest extra-biblical reference to both church services and singing by Pliny?
    2) Where can I find Tertullian's statement?
    3) I agree, what you present as Origen's statement sounds fun, but I believe you have quoted him out of context. The quotation is part of his work against one Celsus, who was spreading calumnies against Christians – like the alliteration? 🙂 Here is the entire chapter (brief)
    “In the next place, Celsus forgets that he is addressing Christians, who pray to God alone through Jesus; and mixing up other notions with theirs, he absurdly attributes them all to Christians. “If,” says he, “they who are addressed are called upon by barbarous names, they will have power, but no longer will they have any if they are addressed in Greek or Latin.” Let him, then, state plainly whom we call upon for help by barbarous names. Any one will be convinced that this is a false charge which Celsus brings against us, when he considers that Christians in prayer do not even use the precise names which divine Scripture applies to God; but the Greeks use Greek names, the Romans Latin names, and every one prays and sings praises to God as he best can, in his mother tongue. For the Lord of all the languages of the earth hears those who pray to Him in each different tongue, hearing, if I may so say, but one voice, expressing itself in different dialects. For the Most High is not as one of those who select one language, Barbarian or Greek, knowing nothing of any other, and caring nothing for those who speak in other tongues.”
    As you can see, Origen is *not* describing a particular worship service, he is instead saying that Christians sing and pray to God using their mother tongue – wherever they may be. There is no “Christian tongue”, God hears us no matter what tongue we use. So this is a principle, not a practice.
    This of course still leaves unanswered the question, what did they do when there were several languages represented in a local church? And I have no idea about the singing. BUT, the principle would be, there would have to be some common tongue for prayer, preaching and fellowship. Otherwise it would be cacophony, and God is a God of order not confusion.
    Anyway, I was interested in the Tertullian reference and wanted to offer this on the Origen quote. If you prefer to communicate via private message, my address is yorkjeff@yahoo.com

  2. John Vagabond says :

    The singing in Mark 14 – I’d always imagined something like this…

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