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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 20 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, II, 232.

Ode IX,

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 Antioch,7171Supra, 69. we have further evidence of the spirit of worship in that city with which early Christian liturgical forms are so closely associated.

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 of God,

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 chorus,

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 medieval centuries.

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 24 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.

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