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Worship and Musical Instruments in the Church: the First Millennium

Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite, and how while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.

The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny used the same phrase (Latin carmen dicere). Does it suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.

We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise and wrote some beautiful lines in praise of dancing (though with no mention of instruments).

 

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines Image: artship.org

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines    Image: artship.org

Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.

Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.

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One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapé, the ‘love feast’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when many of the apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.

In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:

‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’

The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.

Image: disciplemagazine.com

Image: disciplemagazine.com

It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.

We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. For the arrival of the earliest church organs we must wait until the mid-11th century.

 

 

 

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).

 

 

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.

Why Sing Hymns? Insights From Some Early Church Fathers

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A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In this post, I’ll start at the very beginning: why sing hymns at all? In today’s churches they have largely been supplanted by choruses, after all. Yet there has been a heavy price to pay.

In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.

Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.

In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.

From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

 

d490b-notescolor1Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:

The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.

In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.

In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.

In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the Jewish roots of Christian spiritual song and choral worship.

The ‘Odes of Solomon’: the Earliest Christian Hymnbook?

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An early papyrus fragment (not of this text)

 

I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.

These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.

An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. Scholars quickly established, however, that the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.

These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.

What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

An early representation of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

A fresco of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

 

There is a Helper for me: the Lord… He became like me, that I might receive Him.
I trembled not when I saw Him, for He was gracious to me.
Like my nature He became, that I might understand him; and like my form, that I might not turn away from Him.    Ode 7:3-6

It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.

What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).

Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].

A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:

I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.

To read the Odes of Solomon for yourself, follow this link. The Odes have of recent times been set to music – for more details, visit The Odes Project.

Gratitude in the Darkest Hour: Martin Rinkart and the Plague


Humanly speaking, Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In God’s plan, though, he was in the right place and destined to be a shining example of gratitude to God in the direst of circumstances.

He had just been made Lutheran minister of the walled town of Eilenburg, north-east of Leipzig, when the Thirty Years War broke out. It lasted for the rest of his life, almost exactly 30 years. For all this time he served the townsfolk and the many hundreds of refugees who sought shelter there.

Soldiers were billeted in his house and they stole his belongings and the food meant for his family. But this was small compared to the suffering in the town. In 1637 a plague swept through the overcrowded slums, and in that one year alone, 8,000 people died. At that time there were four pastors in the town. One fled for his life and never returned. Two others contracted the plague while serving the sick and died.

As the only pastor left, Rinkart was in constant demand, visiting and comforting the sick and dying, and sometimes conducting funerals for 40-50 persons a day. In May of that year, his own wife died. Before long, plague victims had to be buried in trenches without services.

Even worse was to follow. After the plague came a famine so extreme that thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow. Rinkart and the town mayor did what they could to organize relief. Rinkart himself gave away everything but the barest rations for his own family, and his doorway was usually crowded with starving wretches. So great were Rinkart’s own losses and charitable gifts that he had the utmost difficulty in finding bread and clothes for his children, and was forced to mortgage his future income for several years.

Yet, living in a world dominated by death, Martin Rinkart’s spirit was unbroken and clung to the true life of God. After years or horror and agonies, he wrote a prayer for his children to offer to the Lord. It was soon turned into a hymn, known to the English-speaking world through Catherine Winkworth’s translation. It is a remarkable testimony to the faith of a remarkable man but also to the triumph of generosity and thankfulness over bestiality and despair.

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
In this world and the next!

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