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