When one examines the rise of Christianity and literary development from scattered early text, from the period of its inception through the disciples-turned-apostle after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth one can see a growth form the original followers to a number in the millions as Gentiles became the prime converts over the Jewish population.
In that respect examining what is available in Greek and Latin text, one wonders about the origin of hymns that developed along with Christianity, especially as organized Christianity became more complex after the Edict of Milan in 313 and First Council of Nicaea in 325; where doctrine was prescribed and text was filtered for its authenticity and incorporation into Canon that became the Holy Bible divided between Old and New Testaments.
|Constantine the Great|
Christianity has experienced a complex historical background from the fairly peaceful and constructive period of the Augustan era, when Christianity was founded, and through the period of persecution to the reign of Constantine the Great.
Civilization of that period was influenced by the Hellenistic period of civilization and Greek as well as oriental culture were woven like a fabric into Christian society. Indeed, the change in point of view and what was sacred and what was not accepted were based upon the opinion of the commentator of the text written at the time.
Early Christian 'hymnody' or 'hymnology', which is what the study of hymns and their origin, have become subordinate to the general history of Christian hymns. H. Leclercq, wrote Hymnes, an article in the Dictionnaire D' Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie, a short section on hymnology of the first three centuries. [Paris, 1925, vol. 16, 2826-2928]
Josef Kroll, a classical philologist, wrote Die Hymnendichtung des frühen Christentums [among other books] that was finally translated for English readers because of the independent and precise research given.
Original hymns in the form of poetry in the Old Testament Book of Psalms, celebrated by Hebrew and Christians alike since the founding of Christianity, are referenced in the New Testament and familiar to many. The influence of Hebrew psalms in the composition of Christian hymns is evident in the Gospels. Some examples of Old Testament psalms and phrases repeated in lyrical text are:
Holly, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. [Book of Isaiah 6:3]My heart rejoiceth in the Lord [I Samuel 2:1-10]Blessed art Thou, O Lord of our fathers … O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, from Book of Daniel, that became Latinized in Benedictus es Domine and Benedicite omnia opera. It became prayers and part of hymnal lyrical text.
When the Christian Church became divided between East and West, both officiated the Old Testament canticles, but the Greek Church kept them in “metrical compositions” - canons features of Greek hymnology of the 7th Century. [J. Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, London, 1892; p. 461 & 463]
Transition examples to the canticles of the New Testament, incorporated into Benedictus:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel [Gospel of Luke 1:68-79]Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace [Gospel of Luke 2:29-32]
Early Christian hymns used words of the Virgin Mother coupled with song concerning the angelic host at Jesus' birth – Gloria in excelsis – becoming a traditional Christmas mass song and recital … Glory to God in the highest [Gospel of Luke 2:14]
In the Book of Revelation 4:8, reference is made to the words of Isaiah 6:3, and used in classic hymns …
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty
|St. Paul, Apostle|
Apostle Paul and other authors of books and letters in the New Testament, quoted from Old Testament sources and used portions of hymns to emphasize their devotional message and doctrine. The Book of Revelation, as mentioned previously, with its apocalyptic vision, contains several hymns of praise, which demonstrate content of early hymns and the practice of putting psalms and phrases into songs of worship.
Poetic inspired spontaneous composition into hymns. The Greeks had improvised for centuries before Christianity dating back to Homer. Oriental Hellenism was historically famous for it that rise from inspiration of individuals and by turning it into lyrics with musical accompaniment can be more readily remembered.
Hymns were used by early Christians for special events. Irenaeus, Father of the Church and Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd Century, referred to a scene at Pentecost where there was singing of a hymn for the occasion. [Contra Haereses, III, xvii, 2]
|St. Justin Martyr|
There was another influence, that of the liturgical Hebrew, using the psalms in public worship in the synagogue. This occurred at the close of the service that was set aside for prayers, readings, psalms, and preaching when the Eucharist was celebrated. We know this because of the writings of Justin Martyr (100-165), Apologia.
The 2nd Century Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is in part information about the ritual of baptism, fasting, and the Eucharist and its prayers. They begin with We thank Thee, our Father. The heart of Christian worship being the communion ritual, those phrases and psalms are utilized.
The Didache is part of the Apostolic Constitutions manual that compromises eight books of ecclesiastical discipline, doctrine and worship. Dating from the 4th Century, it represents the practice of an earlier period, compiled in Antioch. Greek was the dominant language of that period of the Christian history and so it became the liturgical language of early Christianity for the first three centuries.
In the field of lyrical text, the heritage of Judaism in the 1st Century Christianity, became influenced by the environment of the Mediterranean culture as well as the world of the Gentile who had been converted. That means before the organized Church had omitted pagan heretical ideas in literature that was derived from philosophy and mystery religions of that period.
The influence of Old Testament poetry was stronger than the older Greek hymns, such as the Homeric Hymns and poetic texts in pre-Hellenic and Hellenic ages. Hellenic culture had remained strong for 200 years. The leading cults were associated with Orpheus, Cybele, Attis, Mithra, Serapis, Isis, Adonis, and the Eleusinian Mysteries that enjoyed popularity for twelve centuries that Christianity made extinct in 397.
In the writings of Apuleius, he describes the procession to honor the goddess, Isis, and whose words of chorus end with:
Thy divine countenance and most holy deity, I shall guard and keep forever in the secret place of my heart.
Despite this and other examples, it is not possible to trace the connection of both Hellenic and Graeco-Oriental influence upon Christian hymnology. However, the modern student of Christian hymnology accepts how the mystery religion of the Egyptian Isis become infused in the development of Hermetic literature and identification with the Egyptian Thot being the oldest known writing and source of hymns of praise …
By they blessing my spirit is illumined, and a thanksgiving hymn, Holy is God, the Father of all the universe. [Mystery Religions and Christianity, pp. 241-242]
The correlation can be more readily found in Gnosticism, not just a philosophy or system of belief, denounced by the Council of Nicaea, but a theological point of view that was harmonious with oriental myths and Christian teaching.
Neoplatonism reveals that the primeval being has produce the universal mind and, in turn, mind has produced the soul which in contact with evil phases of matter has lost its original purity. Therefore, the soul must retrace its steps until it reaches the final stage of reunion with the origin of all being. Thus, the Gnostics extended such philosophies within their hymns. Such hymns are found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, where he chants a hymn while in prison, beginning with:When I was an infant child in the palace of my father. [Acts of Thomas, IX, 108]
Hippolytus in Refutation of all Heresies is connected to Gnostic sect of the Naasenes, quoting from the Hymn of Jesus …
The world's producing law was Primal Mind, in which Jesus is represented as the guide of mankind to the attainment of celestial knowledge. [Philosophumena, v. 5]
Another example is a Gnostic hymn to the Highest God from a Coptic source of the 3rd Century:
Thou art alone the eternal and thou art alone the deep and thou art alone the unknowable …
The Christian hymns of the first three centuries are catalogued into three linguistic groups: Syriac, Greek, and Latin. The most familiar of early hymns were the Syriac, written by Ephraem Syrus, whose purpose was to influence Gnostic poets and his countrymen. His hymns are metrical, which means having lines with a fixed number of syllables and strophic divisions. …
Blessed be the MessiahWho has given us a hopeThat the dead shall rise againA hymn for the Lord's Day begins,Glory be to the goodWho hath honoured and exaltedThe first day of the week.
[H. Burgess, Select Metrical Hymns and Homilies of Ephraem Syrus; London, 1853; pp. 77-83]
The Amherst Papyrus opened up a new vein of knowledge that archaeology has made available for research. In 1920, mingled in with the Oxyrhynchus papyri was a fragment of a Christian hymn. It is on the back of a grain account record, written in the 3rd Century.
It is the conclusion of the Hymn of Thekla, which was in the work of Methodius, Bishop of Olympus and Patara in Lydia, martyred at Chalcis in 321. The text was Banquet of the Ten Virgins.
Greek hymn writers lasted a long time, from Clement of Alexandria to Gregory of Nanzianzus and Synesisus of Cyrene – poets of the 4th Century.
As the literature of the Church moved toward establishment of Latin as its official language and adopting its culture, service hymns appeared in Latin writing. The first Latin hymn writer appeared in the middle of the 4th Century – Hilary of Poitiers. It was also the period of the severest persecution within that time frame of three centuries.
Not much has been written about the history of hymnology because of the frustration of not finding enough text for proper and concise research. The isolated finds of various hymnal text has confounded even the most patient researcher as far as hymns of the early Christian Church and the stages of its development. Some have been lost because of their declaration of being heretic and thus destroyed. The great Gnostic scroll find in the 20th Century certainly improved the chance to examine such text, fragmented as they were. As time goes on, there will be less of a chance to discover text that time and environment have not destroyed; even fragmented text would be a welcome addition for an historical hymnal researcher.