What is a Canticle? More on the Origins of Christian Hymn Singing

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

 

 

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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!

7 responses to “What is a Canticle? More on the Origins of Christian Hymn Singing”

  1. John Vagabond says :

    I'm not a Catholic – Heaven forfend – but still something of a liturgy junkie when it comes to singing. I well remember the songs that stayed with me were those which came from Scripture. The early fathers had I think a firmer grasp on the 'parousia' of the 'word' than many have left behind today in favour of cultural relevance.

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    Perceptive as ever, John. May I defer comment until a couple of posts from now, when in all probability I will be looking at the whole Christian liturgy thing vis-a-vis modern worship styles?

  3. Jeffrey O'Rourke says :

    Very good.
    For much of my life as a believer I have heard that
    God was manifest in the flesh,
    justified in the Spirit,
    seen of angels,
    preached unto the Gentiles,
    believed on in the world,
    received up into glory
    was an early song, and I’ve always had difficulty with that. It’s so incomplete. If Paul is quoting something, it’s strikes more as a confession than a song.

  4. John Vagabond says :

    After a lapse of five years – an additional, perhaps tangential comment. Congregations have by and large lost the art of singing together-the only exception being the Welsh choral tradition that had its Christian roots in the Methodist Revival of the late 18th century.
    If people can just take the trouble to learn to sing together – lesson one is learning to listen to each other – the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. I have had some experience of this and the results are nothing short of sublime.

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      I could not agree more, John. I remember the day when there would be congregational choir practice – at times excruciating but usually valuable. The individualism that has invaded Christianity in the West has taken away the listening, “us” rather than “me”, angle of worship – even in a ‘brotherhood’ church like mine.

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