VI. Early Christian Hymns
Turning once more to the authentic Christian hymns of
the first three centuries and this time omitting those which
appear in liturgical sources, we observe three distinct linguistic
groups, the Syriac, the Greek and the Latin.
The most familiar of the Syriac hymns were written by
Ephraem Syrus (b. 307), who strove to counteract the influence
of the Gnostic poets, especially that of his countryman,
Bardesanes. Strictly speaking, he belongs to the
first half of the fourth century but should be considered by
the student who is tracing the continuity of this subject.
His hymns are metrical in the sense of having lines with a
fixed number of syllables and strophic divisions. An Easter
hymn opens thus:
Blessed be the Messiah
Who has given us a hope
That the dead shall rise again.
A hymn for the Lord’s Day begins,
Glory be to the good
Who hath honoured and exalted
The first day of the week.6565H. Burgess, Select Metrical Hymns
and Homilies of Ephraem Syrus (London, Blackader, 1853), 77-83.
It is possible that the hymns of Ephraem were influenced
by the Syriac Odes of Solomon, discovered in 1909, which
were produced in the first century. Whether the Odes
themselves are of Gnostic or Christian origin cannot be
definitely asserted but the probability of the latter is strong.
For a full discussion of this most interesting but highly
controversial topic the work of special commentators must be
consulted.6666J. R. Harris & A. Mingana, The Odes and Psalms
of Solomon, vol. I, Text; II, Translation
(Manchester, Un. Press, 1916-1920), II, 69, 187-189, 197;
J. R. Harris, Odes and Psalms of Solomon (Cambridge, Un. Press,
1909), 1-15; M. Dibelius, op. cit. (see note 14), 248-251; J.
Kroll, op. cit. (see note 3), 265-268.
The intrinsic interest of the collection demands
more than a passing comment. Ode VI opens,
As the hand moves over the harp and the strings speak,
So speaks in my members the Spirit of the Lord, and I speak by His
love.6767Harris & Mingana, Odes and Psalms of Solomon,
Open your ears
And I will speak to you,
Give me your souls,
That I may also give you my soul.6868Supra, 259.
The Lord is my hope:
In Him I shall not be confounded
For according to His praise He made me,
And according to His goodness even so He gave unto me.6969Supra, 362.
Ode XXXI, in which Jesus speaks,
6. Come forth, ye that have been afflicted
and receive joy
7. And possess your souls by grace;
and take to you immortal life.
8. And they condemned me when I rose up,
me who had not been condemned.
9. And they divided my spoil
though nothing was due to them.7070Supra, 369.
Forty-two in number, the Odes reveal a true inspiration,
novel and significant from the religious and the literary
standpoint. They preserve the tradition of the Old Testament
hymns, yet breathe the spiritual life of the new revelation.
Their chief interest lies in the possibility that they
illustrate a valid Christian poetry of a very early date. If
it is true, as the editors suggest, that the Odes emanate from
we have further evidence of the spirit of worship
in that city with which early Christian liturgical forms are so
The tradition of Syriac hymnody, of which these illustrations
alone may be given from the early period, did not come
to an end as Christianity moved westward. It was continued
through thirteen centuries and is preserved in the
Nestorian and other branches of the Syrian Christian Church.
Before the main stream of hymnody in the Greek language
is traced, two sources from the second century will serve as an
introduction. The first of these is the Epistle to Diognetus,
by an unknown author, possibly a catechumen of the Pauline
group.7272Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 23.
It contains four selections, biblical in their phraseology,
the first three of which express the redemptive mission
of the Son of God:
As a king sends his son who is also a king, so sent He Him,
He did not regard us with hatred nor thrust us away,
He, being despised by the people.
The fourth admonishes the Christian to union with the mind
Let your heart be your wisdom.7373Chapters vii, ix, x, xii. Translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 27, 28, 29, 30.
The second source is a passage from a sermon on The Soul
and Body, written by Melito of Sardis, a bishop and philosopher
who was martyred in 170. The author pictures all
creation aghast at the crucifixion of Jesus, saying,
What new mystery then is this?
The Judge is judged and holds his peace;
The Invisible one is seen and is not ashamed;
. . .
The Celestial is laid in the grave, and endureth!
What new mystery is this?7474Translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers, VIII, 756.
Whether admissible as a hymn or not, this passage blends,
in a most striking way, oriental and Greek elements employed
in the expression of Christian belief.
Authentic Greek hymnody begins with Clement of Alexandria,
170-220. He is the author of a work of instruction
for catechumens, the Paedagogus, to which is appended a
Hymn to Christ the Savior,
Ὕμνος τοῦ σωτῆρος Χριστοῦ,
beginning, Στόμιον πώλων.
It is a hymn of praise and
thanksgiving on the part of those newly received into the
Church. Christ is addressed in the familiar oriental imagery
of the guide and shepherd, but the theme is rendered in a
poetic style, which, by the use of short lines and the anapest,
heightens the effect of ecstatic devotion.
Bridle of colts untamed,
Over our wills presiding;
Flight of unwandering birds,
Our flight securely guiding,— — — —7575Poetical translation
from Ante-Nicene Christian Library (Edinburgh, Clark, 1867), IV,
343, by William Wilson. A familiar poetical translation is found in
B. Pick, Hymns and Poetry of the Eastern Church (New York,
Eaton & Mains, 1908), 21.
The modern adaptation of Clement’s hymn, Shepherd of
Tender Youth, by Henry M. Dexter, 1846, while preserving
in a measure the spirit of this piece, in no way reproduces
the original. The Στόμιον πώλων
of Clement is representative
of a theme which pervades Christian hymnody
in all ages, the joy and enthusiasm of the initiate or the
admonition and encouragement addressed to the Christian
who stands upon the threshold of a new life. The Odes of
Solomon have been interpreted in these
terms.7676Harris & Mingana, op. cit. (see note 66), 187.
Again, the theme is preserved in the so-called Amherst papyrus, which
consists of a hymn of twenty-five tripartite lines, a catechism
or liturgy for the newly baptized. Originating in the third century,
it appears in fragmentary form but sufficiently complete to make clear
its language and purport, as illustrated in the following:7777B. F.
Grenfell & A. S. Hunt, Amherst Papyri (London, Frowde,
1900-1901), 23; Leclercq, op. cit. (see note 1), 2853f.
That thou mayest receive life eternal
Thou hast escaped the hard law of the unjust ...
. . .
Seek to live with the saints, seek to receive life,
Seek to escape the fire.
Hold the hope that thou hast learnt. The day that
the master has appointed for thee is known to no man.
. . .
Tell the glad tidings unto children saying: the poor
have received the kingdom, the children are the inheritors.7878Translation
from P. D. Scott-Moncrieff, Paganism and Christianity
(Cambridge, Un. Press, 1913), 83-84.
The Amherst papyrus is a part of the new store of knowledge
from antiquity which has been opened up within recent
years by the discovery and study of papyri. This branch
of archaeology and palaeography has made available new
fields of research in the study of early Christianity hitherto
unfamiliar. In 1920, among the Oxyrhynchus papyri was
discovered a fragment of a Christian hymn. It appears on
the back of a strip which records a grain account of the first
half of the third century. The hymn has a musical setting,
the earliest example of Christian church music extant. The
fragment consists of the conclusion only, so that the length
and subject matter of the hymn as a whole are unknown.
Creation is enjoined to praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
in the form of a doxology. The meter is anapestic and
purely quantitative.7979B. F. Grenfell & A. S. Hunt,
Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Pt. XV (London, Oxford Un. Press,
1922), no. 1786, 21-22; also Preface.
The Hymn of Thekla, Ἄνωθεν παρθένοι,
appears in the Banquet of the Ten Virgins, a work of Methodius,
Bishop of Olympus and Patara in Lydia, who was martyred
at Chalcis in 312. It is a hymn of twenty-four stanzas
sung by Thekla, each followed by a refrain sung by the
I keep myself pure for Thee, O Bridegroom, and holding a lighted
torch I go to meet
Thee.8080Συμπόσιον τῶν δέκα παρθένων,
xi, 2; Migne (PG), XVIII, 207-214; Translation
from Ante-Nicene Fathers, VI, 351.
Once more, a traditional theme in Christian hymnody is
set forth, familiar from biblical as well as classical connotations
and perpetuated either in the praise of virginity or in
the form of the mystic union of Christ and the Church.
It is customary in presenting the subject of Greek hymn
writers to pass from Clement of Alexandria to Gregory of
Nanzianzus and Synesius of Cyrene, poets of the fourth
century who mark the beginning of a new era beyond the
limits of this study. They are mentioned here only as a
reminder of the long succession of great poets who created
and maintained Greek hymnody throughout the ancient and
Contemporary with the development of Greek hymns, the
literature of the Church was moving toward its destination
in Latin culture. As Latin became a liturgical language the
service hymns, already cited, appeared in their Latin form.
Perhaps this is one reason why the production of original
Latin hymns was so long postponed. It was not until the
middle of the fourth century that the hymns of Hilary of
Poitiers, the first Latin hymn writer, appeared. His authentic
hymns are three in number:
O Thou who dost exist before time
is a hymn of seventy verses in honor of the Trinity,
The Incarnate Word hath deceived thee, (Death)
an Easter hymn, and
In the person of the Heavenly Adam,
a hymn on the theme of the temptation of Jesus.8181W. N. Myers,
The Hymns of Saint Hilary of Poitiers in the Codex Aretinus
(Philadelphia, Un. of Penn., 1928), 12, 29, 53, 67. For a discussion
of other hymns attributed to Hilary see supra, p. 14 and A. S.
Walpole, Early Latin Hymns (Cambridge, Un. Press, 1922), 1-4.
Hilary, like his Greek contemporaries, stands at the beginning of a
new era, but it was Ambrose, and not he, who inaugurated
the tradition of the medieval Latin hymn.
So far no mention has been made of the fact that the early
period of Christian history was characterized by persecution.
As a rule sporadic and intermittent, it was periodically
severe. At all times Christians, if not actually persecuted,
were objects of suspicion to the Roman government. We
owe to the official zeal of Pliny the Younger, who was a
proconsul in Bithynia in 112, our first glimpse of Christian
worship from the point of view of the outsider. In a letter to the
Emperor Trajan on the subject of the Christians, he says that, as a
part of their service at sunrise, they chanted a hymn, antiphonally,
to Christ as a God.8282Epistulae, x, 96.
Speculation as to the identity of this hymn has never ceased among
students. Leclercq summarizes the theories as follows: It is a morning
hymn later attributed to Hilary. It is the morning hymn of the Greek
liturgy. It is the morning hymn of the Apostolic Constitutions.
It is the Great Doxology.8383Leclercq, op. cit.
(see note l), 2837-2838.
Since they are
all unsatisfactory as identifications, we remain in ignorance on this
point. A recent study of Pliny’s letter by Casper J. Kraemer, a
classicist, proposes the translation of the words carmen dicere,
“to chant a psalm.”8484C. J. Kraemer, “Pliny and the Early Church
Worship,” Classical Philology 29 (1934), 293-300.
This most interesting
suggestion is in thorough harmony with our knowledge of the
continuity of the use of the psalms in public worship at this time.