Skip to content

On “Hymns” in the New Testament: A Suggestion

May 11, 2015

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?

From → Uncategorized

  1. A very informative article indeed. I have learnt a lot from this small article on hymns in the new testament. I agree with you, even though I am not a scholar, that New Testament music must have borrowed extensively from Jewish worship.

    • Samuel: One correction of what appears to be a misunderstanding–We don’t technically have direct evidence of “music” in the NT. We have reference to people “singing” (or perhaps chanting) “psalms” and “hymns” and even “spiritual odes”. These seem to have been a part of earliest Christian corporate worship. But we don’t know that the practice derived from Jewish worship, at least synagogue worship. We don’t know enough about synagogue practice in the first century to say for sure, but there is scant indication that “singing” was a characteristic feature.

  2. Excellent. One question and one observation:

    Question: out of curiosity, what would make us prefer to see chanting instead of even simple (Jewish?) melodies as operative in the early Church, especially if they were using the Psalms?

    Observation: might using the Revelation passages (which are excellent examples) as test cases run into some problems, if we understand the author to have literally seen and heard these odes in a vision? Perhaps Paul and early Christians developed the hymns and odes recorded elsewhere in the NT out of personal or corporate revelations, but this is speculative, or at least not explicitly stated as with the author of Revelation. What I then wonder is the relationship between hymns/odes and divine revelation. Just thinking out loud here…

    • Based on later practices, it appears that the “singing” of the early churches was much more like a simple chanting, rising and falling intonations, but not the complicated melodies of modern hymnody. As to Revelation, even if we take the text as arising from revelatory experiences, it’s reasonable to think that his experiences were shaped by his culture and situation.

  3. johntjeffery permalink

    A “curious fashion” indeed! An inductive approach is not just “more sensible,” but the only way to go if the “hermeneutics of submission” is in play. You have hit on another example of what is, IMHO, a serious hermeneutical problem, i.e., interpreting the Scriptures using extra-biblical sources. This has been problematic (to say the least!) when the Biblical creation account, and the Biblical covenants are pressed into the extra-biblical molds of Ancient Near-Eastern documents, Other examples might be cited besides these two, but modern scholarship continues to put the cart before the horse when it comes to distinguishing the inspired from the uninspired texts. The engine that drives this approach seems to be fueled by an assumption that without such extra-biblical sources it is impossible for us to rightly interpret or understand the Biblical materials. Both sola Scriptura, and the corollary, the doctrine of the sufficiency of the Scriptures, seem to either take a back seat or to be denied outright in such schools of thought. There is a principle that applies in many fields of endeavor that should be borne in mind here: “Start right, end right!” Start with the unmixed truth and the absolute authority of the inspired Scriptures, and then interpret all else by them, not the other way around. This is not a level playing field!

    • John, I think you mistake the point of my posting. The problem isn’t with using appropriate evidence of the historical situation of biblical texts: that I totally endorse and try to practice. This is essential if we wish to read the texts respecting their historical situation, provenance and originating purposes.
      The problem with Bousset (and some others in his wake) was that he used texts that were much later (and so hardly indicative of the situation of the NT texts in question), and/or used the NT texts to construct a supposed source/influence.
      So, e.g., the use of ancient near eastern creation accounts to help read Genesis 1-2 seems to me perfectly appropriate, and when you do so you catch more clearly the distinctive emphases of the Genesis text, which might otherwise go undetected.
      In short, if you don’t read the biblical texts respecting their historical context, you will almost inevitably read into them your own context, and thus run the risk of serious misinterpretation. So, if you value the biblical texts theologically, you must be committed to respecting their historical context.

      • johntjeffery permalink

        Perhaps you are correct, Larry, and I did misunderstand your point. I certainly agree with you about the value of historical and cultural information, and the help gained in detecting emphases. Please don’t think that I am “throwing the baby out with the bathwater!” Not at all.

        However, I was focusing on your first paragraph:

        “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.”

        The problematic pattern you point out here of starting with the extra-biblical sources, and then setting them up as the basis for “assessing” the Scriptures, rather than “a more inductive approach” is what I have seen operating elsewhere in Biblical studies, and was referencing. My concern was not about the use, value, or helpfulness of such sources, in their place, but of them being prioritized in an unwarranted manner. I was keying on your pointing to a more inductive approach with my “Start right, end right!” remark.

        I hope this clarifies what my comment was directed towards. I value your contributions to this fascinating aspect of worship in the early Church, and the Scripture passages where it is found.

        On another subject, thank you for your participation in and contribution to “The Pericope of the Adulteress in Modern Research.” Peter M. Head, “Forthcoming Book on the Pericope of Jesus and the Adulteress” (11 MAY 2015), on Evangelical Textual Criticism at [accessed 12 MAY 2015].

  4. I happened to watch yesterday a TV documentary about Sappho, which made the point that all (?) ancient Greek poetry was meant to be sung and indeed was composed, like modern song lyrics, as musical text. Someone demonstrated what, he thought, the recently discovered poem of Sappho’s would have sounded like. It was too brief for me to gather how this was being done, but presumably the same could be done with these NT texts.

    Incidentally, the parallel with the hymns in Revelation suggests that, if the Pauline passages are hymnic in the same way, that does not mean they necessarily pre-existed the composition of these Pauline letters.

  5. Brian Lopez permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, a curious question revolving phonetics and resonances in Greek in concert with identifying hymns/odes: how could this be affected if scholars using the erasmian pronounciation (academic use, esp. in North America) dont take into account the reconstructed (Randall Buth et al.) or neo-hellenic greek pronounciation (Chrys C. Caragounis, et al.)? Wouldn’t “iotacism” affect what you believe something may resonate in a specific way or not? I’ve learned all three with audio since 2007/2008 from various scholars, including Buth and Caragounis; and clearly, some phonetic patterns would be destroyed if one choses to read or chant a passage in erasmian vs reconstructed/neo-hellenic (“modern”).


    • Personally, I suspect that Koine pronunciation was much closer to modern Greek pronunciation than to the traditional Erasmian pattern. I say this partly on the basis of observing the “itacisms” in Greek manuscripts (the variation in vowels/diphthongs). In the examples I’ve cited, however, the resonances are valid: e.g., the epsilon-iota-sigma of hiereis and the eta-sigma of ges in Rev 5:10 would both be pronounced the same. On the Koine-pronunciation topic see: Gignac, Francis T. A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods: Vol. 1, Phonology (Milan: Cicalpino–La Goiardica, 1976); Gignac, Francis T. “Phonological Phenomena in the Greek Papyri Significant for the Text and Language of the New Testament, in To Touch the Text: Biblical and Related Studies in Honor of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., edited by Maurya P. Horgan and Paul J. Kobelski (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 33-46.

      • Brian Lopez permalink

        Thank you Larry. It confirms what I originally thought.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: