Ancient Christian Hymns

Ancient Christian Hymns
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Songs of the Early Church

In the early days of Christianity, it was common practice within gatherings to sing songs of worship and praise to the Lord. Ancient Christian hymns and songs are among the earliest writings ever found in human history, giving us a peek into early church culture and life over 2,000 years ago. Some of these ancient hymns have survived and become a part of our modern-day hymnbooks.

Even non-believers recorded the practice of early Christian singing. For example, Pliny the Younger (c. 61-113 AD), a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome, wrote in one of his letters to Emperor Trajan, “they [Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god.”

The practice of singing to the risen Lord Jesus is well documented in the New Testament writings. For example, in Ephesians 5:19, believers are encouraged to lift their voices singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

In Hebrews 2:12, believers were told to sing boldly within the congregation, “Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.”

Paul tells gathered believers to edify God through song in I Corinthians 4:26, “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”

Paul also tells us that believers sing in conjunction with Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 14:15: “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”

Even when only two are gathered in His name, praising God in song can do a great work in people’s lives as in Acts 16:25, “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.” After an earthquake opened all the jail cell doors, a trembling jailor bowed to Paul and Silas and became a believer in Christ. Both he and his household were saved.

In the book of James 5:13, we are told to sing in joy to the Lord, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.”

Hymns of the New Testament

What did those first Christian hymns sound like? Sung over two millennia ago, they were certainly different than the ones we sing in modern-day churches. The early church used the book of Psalms as their hymnbook and sang songs that sounded like those sung in synagogues today.

There is a consensus among history scholars that some New Testament passages represent early hymns sung by believers. Here are a few examples:

Romans 11:33-36:

33: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

34: “For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?”

35: “Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?”

36: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

Colossians 1:15-20:

15: “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:”

16:” For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

17: “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”

18: “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”

19: “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;”

20: “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”

I Timothy 3:16:

16: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: 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.” You can listen to a modern-day composition of this ancient hymn known as “Hos Ephanerothe.”

Hebrews 1:3-4:

3: “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;”

4: “Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

New Hymns of the Early Church

Believers in Christ began composing new hymns and songs based on the psalms. The tunes, tempo, and words may be different from what we are familiar with today, but they carried the same message in praising and glorifying God, emphasizing the risen Savior who brings hope and light to the world.

What would it be like to hear the ancient hymns and songs that resonated in the early church? Here are some of the oldest Christian hymns in the world performed by artists who have carefully recreated them to connect the modern church with its ancient roots.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
c. 800 A.D.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Originally written in Latin over 1,200 years ago, this hymn was traditionally sung on Christmas Eve. A metrical version of the hymn appeared in the 13th century. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a transcriber of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered the hymn in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript and included his transcribed version in his work, “Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences” published in 1851. Hear a beautiful performance of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” sung by Vocal Majority:

“Be Thou My Vision”
c. 600 A.D.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Dallan Forgaill, an early Christian Irish poet, wrote the poem “Rop tú mo Baile” (“Be Thou my Vision”). Killed by pirates, Forgaill’s poem became a part of the Irish monastic tradition for centuries. In the early 20th century, the poem was translated into English by Mary Elizabeth Byrne. In 1912, Eleanor Hull versified the text into a beloved hymn and prayer in many Christian hymnbooks. You can listen and sing along to the timeless classic “Be Thou My Vision” here:

“Phos Hilaron”
c. 300 A.D. – 400 A.D.

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee.

“Phos Hilaron” is an ancient Christian hymn initially written in biblical Greek during the Hellenistic period. It was first documented in the late 3rd or early 4th centuries A.D. in the “Apostolic Constitutions” and is one of the earliest Christian hymns still sung in some churches today. The hymn is also known as the “Lamp-Lighting Hymn,” sung during lighting lamps in the evening. Watch the Cambridge Chorale sing a beautiful composition of the “Phos Hilaron” here:

“Oxyrhynchus Hymn”
c. 300 A.D.

… Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds (?) and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things, Amen Amen

“Oxyrhynchus Hymn” is the most ancient Christian Greek hymn found in recorded history containing both music and lyrics. It represents the oldest surviving fragment of a Christian melody and is sung in a Gregorian chant-like style. The hymn, written at the end of the third century, was preserved in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, discovered in Egypt in 1918. The original papyrus is on display at the Sackler Library in Oxford, England. The words were translated to English by Martin L. West, from “Ancient Greek Music” published in 1992. A comprehensive examination of the hymn by Charles H. Cosgrove, “An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation” was published in 2011. Listen to a rendition of the “Oxyrhynchus Hymn” here:

Shepherd of Tender Youth
c. 200 A.D.

Shepherd of tender youth, guiding in love and truth
Through devious ways; Christ our triumphant King,
We come Thy name to sing, and here our children bring
To join Thy praise.

Thou art our holy Lord, O all subduing Word,
Healer of strife. Thou didst Thyself abase
That from sin’s deep disgrace Thou mightest save our race
And give us life.

“Shepherd of Tender Youth” was written by Clement of Alexandria in about 200 A.D. The lyrics have been found but without any music. The words have been set to various tunes by churches and singers through the ages. The hymn, written about 100 years after the death of the Apostle John, is the earliest post-apostolic Christian hymn known to still be in use today. Henry Dexter published an English version in 1849 in “The Congregationalist.” Listen to “Shepherd of Tender Youth” and connect to the ancient time and culture of our fellow brethren, the early Christians:

==> Also read Called to Serve God and Country.

==> Learn about the importance of “Lest We Forget.”

Main Photo Credit: Luca della Robbia, Cantoria  (detail of children singing Psalms 510), 1431–1438. Marble,  Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy. Photo by Frans Vandewalle.

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