Early Christian hymody (James 5)

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Pliny the Younger, in a famous letter sent to Emperor Trajan in around A.D. 110 (Epistle, 10.96), descrobed his encounter with Christians and reported on their practices. Among other remarks, this historian mentioned that the followers of Christ gathered early in the morning to “chant a song to Christ as if to a god.” It is not surprising that singing became a standard Christian practice; James 5:13 commands Christians to “sing songs of praise” as an expression of joy, and similar exhortations to and examples of singing praise are found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 26:30, Luke 1:46-55, Acts 16:25, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Revelation 5:9-10).

Paul, in Ephesians 5:19, spoke of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in the Christian church. It is uncertain how or even whether these three should be differentiated, although “psalms” certainly refers to the singing either of Biblical psalms or of songs modelled after them. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), although not an Old Testament psalm, is obviously psalm-like.

It is also difficult to ascertain the musical style of these early hymns. It is likely that the earliest Christian singing was heavily influenced by Jewish singing and liturgy; the medieval plainchant or “Gregorian chant” may preserve something of that style. It may be that the early Christians wanted a musical style that distinguished their hymns from the clapping, dancing and boisterous style of contemporary pagan music. The old music of the Armenian, Coptic and other ancient churches may preserve something of the flavour of early Christian singing. A few pieces of early Christian music have survived even in the modern, Western church. The words of the “Gloria Patri”, for example, go back to the first century A.D.

Some scholars suggest that fragments of early Christian hymns are included in certain New Testament epistles. Philippians 2:6-11 is often regarded as such, an other possible examples include Ephesians 5:14, 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. None of these texts is obviously poetic, however, and the suggestion that they are hymns remains speculative.


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