Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots
“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 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.
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.
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).