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Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries
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III. New Testament Hymns

The transition, therefore, to the canticles of the New Testament was easy and perhaps inevitable. The Benedictus,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel (Luke 1:68-79),

spoken by Zacharias, the Nunc dimittis,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace (Luke 2:29-32),

by Simeon, and above all the Magnificat,

My soul doth magnify the Lord (Luke 1:46-55),

from the lips of the Virgin Mother, are among the most famous of early Christian hymns, which, together with the song of the angelic host at the birth of Jesus, the Gloria in excelsis,

Glory to God in the highest (Luke 2:14),

appear within the Gospel narratives.

In the remaining portions of the New Testament other hymn fragments are found. Some of these are direct quotations from known sources.1010Quotations from the Psalms are not included in this paper. In the Book of Revelation (4:8), reference is made to the words of Isaiah (6:3),

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,

a passage which has survived in the Western Church in the expanded form of the Tersanctus, and in the Eastern Church as the Hymnus Angelicus. In the same Book (Rev. 15:3), the Song of Moses (Ex. 15:1-10) is recalled. Some passages are considered parts of familiar pieces otherwise unknown. The quotation in the Epistle to the Ephesians,

Awake thou that sleepest (Eph. 5:14),

may fall into this group or be considered a free rendering of certain passages in Isaiah.1111C. H. Toy, Quotations in the New Testament (New York, Scribners, 1884), 199-200. The “faithful sayings” from the Epistles to Timothy and to Titus have also been viewed in this light.1212E. F. Scott, The Pastoral Epistles (New York, Harper, no date), 14. The passage opening

For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him (II Tim. 2:11-13),

possesses a marked lyrical character. The lines beginning

Who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords (I Tim. 6:15-16),

reveal poetic features of a generally oriental style, framing the Old Testament content. Certain digressions in the Epistles, in which formulas of belief or of praise rise to a sure and effective climax, have the qualities of sustained hymns:

God was manifest in the flesh,

justified in the Spirit,

seen of angels,

preached unto the Gentiles,

believed on in the world,

received up into glory (I Tim. 3:16),

Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

who, when he was reviled, reviled not again;

when he suffered, he threatened not;— — — —(I Peter 2:22-25),

above all,

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God;

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant— — — —

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 6-11).

Poetic refrains are obvious in the following:

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).

The Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament, who quote freely from a variety of sources, have used fragments of hymns to reinforce their teachings or with a devotional purpose. One gains from such citations a text only, or a fragment of text. Singing is not implied. The apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation, however, contains several magnificent hymns of praise which testify not alone to the form and content of the early hymn but also to the practice of worship in song. The praises of the heavenly host are mirrored in the praises of the congregation upon earth.1313J. Kroll, op. cit. (see note 3), 264. “And they sung a new song, saying,”

Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof (Rev. 5:9-10),

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing (Rev. 5:12-14),

Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever (Rev. 7:12),

Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints (Rev. 15:3-4),

Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth (Rev. 19:6).

From the point of view of the evolution of Christian hymns, the hymns in the Book of Revelation are perhaps the most significant in the New Testament because they exhibit varied elements, from Judaism, from Christianity and from the mingling of the two.1414M. Dibelius, A Fresh Approach to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (New York, Scribners, 1936), 247.

It is interesting to re-read the New Testament in the search for hymns, but one should remember that the field is controversial. Some commentators would suggest that the entire 13th chapter of I Corinthians is a hymn, beginning,

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.1515R. Reitzenstein, Die Hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen (Leipzig, Teubner, 1927), 3rd edition, 385.

A moderate rather than an extreme position, however, upon the identity of hymn sources in the New Testament seems more likely to be productive of a genuine appreciation of the style, subject matter and number of primitive Christian hymns.

Traces of poetic improvisation, which is so closely allied to hymnody, must be seriously considered at this point. The art of improvisation belongs to no one age or country. It happens that the Greeks had practiced it for centuries and that illustrations exist from the time of Homer. To the Hellenized orient it was familiar. “The Greeks of Cilicia and of the region about Antioch and Tarsus,” as Dr. George Dwight Kellogg reminds us, “seem to have cultivated the art and become famous.” He also suggests that the “gift of tongues” refers to this art and that Paul himself possessed the poetic talent in no small degree.1616G. D. Kellogg, The Ancient Art of Poetic Improvisation, a paper read at the meeting of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States, April 26, 1940; J. Kroll, op. cit. (see note 3), 259. It is only natural to assume that, among the early Christians, certain individuals would react to the influence of heightened emotion in outbursts of poetic expression. Passages in the Book of Acts may refer to the use of such hymns, for example, in the case of the Gentiles at Caesarea, who “speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:45-46), or the Ephesians who “spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6), or perhaps the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). Irenaeus, a second century father of the Church and bishop of Lyons, referring to the scene at Pentecost, mentions the singing of a hymn on that occasion.1717Contra Haereses, III, xvii, 2; Migne (PG), VII, 929-930. For a recent commentator, see F. J. Foakes-Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1931), 10-13. The nature of improvisations is fugitive. They arise from individual inspiration and, even if expressed in familiar phrases, are not remembered or recorded by the singer or hearer. To whatever degree improvisation played a part in early Christian hymnody, to that same degree we lack corresponding literary survivals. Possibly this is one explanation of the dearth of sources which we now deplore.

On the whole, the hymnic evidence found in the New Testament points to a predominant Hebrew influence. Both in the use of psalms and other Old Testament hymns and in the phraseology of new hymns, the Christians found themselves more at home in the traditional forms of expression. Features of style, such as parallelism, uniformity and the repetition of words or word order, were not necessarily restricted to Hebrew poetry but might be found in other oriental sources—a consideration to which further attention will be given later.1818Note the citation, I Tim. 6:15-16, supra, p. 7, in which the repetition of the relative clause produces a stylistic effect. Still we may assume that the influence of Judaism in form as well as subject matter was supreme.


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