On “Hymns” in the New Testament: A Suggestion
As illustrated in the recent articles I’ve reported on in earlier postings, scholars continue to approach the question of “hymns/odes” in the NT in what I regard as a curious fashion. They often first turn to “pagan” examples of hymns and formulate characteristics of Greek “pagan” hymns and poetry as a basis then for assessing putative hymnic material in the NT. This I find open to questions for a few reasons, and I’d think a more inductive approach more sensible.
To start from classical/pagan poetry and hymnody is to presume that earliest circles of what became Christianity would have adopted these as patterns for their own “odes”. But it seems to me much more likely that the earliest “hymnic” practices would have been shaped much more by the Psalms (which, by all evidence, seems to have been the most used and copied text in early Christianity). The Psalms don’t follow Greek poetic/hymnic forms. The earliest circles of the Jesus-movement, after all, were composed of Jews, and for the first few decades at least Jews (such as Paul) were prominent in leadership roles. It stands to reason that the sort of “hymnody” with which they were familiar would have shaped earliest Christian practices.
Likewise, the “singing” involved in earliest Christian circles was likely much closer to simple chanting, rather than involving any more complex musical patterns. You don’t need metre or rhyme to chant a text.
But, aside from these observations, I’d think it much more sensible to commence with early Christian texts that are explicitly identified as “hymns/odes,” and see what features they evince. Then, we might have a better set of earmarks to look for in searching out “hymnic” material that is not explicitly identified as such.
It seems to me that one (or perhaps the) obvious place to start is with the overtly-identified “hymns” of Revelation. There are at least two that the author identifies as “odes”: Revelation 5:9-10, and Revelation 15:3-4. In these two passages the author identifies the material as an “ode” that was “sung/chanted.” There are also other passages often taken as hymnic (e.g., 4:8; 5:12-13), but these don’t involve use of the terms “ode” or the verb for singing/chanting. So, let’s commence with the explicit cases.
These passages have an obvious solemnity and phonetic resonances when read in Greek, e.g., “hiereis (priests) and ges (earth) in v. 10, and a sonorous quality. Now, of course, these “hymns” are literary products, and are put in the mouths of heavenly and/or eschatological figures. They aren’t transcriptions of “hymns” chanted in churches such as those addressed by the author. But I think it’s a good bet that these odes reflect “hymnic” material with which the author was acquainted, at least in formal features if not in direct content. So, what would our expectations and criteria for what is or isn’t “hymnic” material elsewhere in the NT if we used these passages as key case studies?