A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography

By Egon Wellesz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
EARLY CHRISTIAN HYMNS

I. THE PAGAN AND JEWISH BACKGROUND

THE singing of hymns was an adequate expression of the enthusiastic mood of the Early Christians. To the outside world it was the most remarkable aspect of their meetings. Thus Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, could state in his report to Trajan that the adherents of the new creed gathered before sunrise 'carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem'. Christians of the Apostolic age were accustomed to the singing of hymns from their worship in the Synagogue, though it acquired for them a greater significance as a thanksgiving for the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. When they ceased to take part in the Jewish ritual, and developed their own service, new hymns were added to those which were in use in the Apostolic age.

From the very beginnings of an independent Christian poetry, however, one of the most characteristic features of the liturgy was its tendency to preserve the connexion with the traditional Jewish treasury of psalms and hymns, and new hymns were modelled on patterns known to the Christian community from the Jewish Service. Later on, when Christians came into closer touch with the surrounding pagan civilization, a new type of hymn was added, modelled on Hellenistic pagan poetry. To converts from Greek paganism, the singing of hymns at certain hours of the day was not an alien custom, as the Epidaurian inscriptions show.1 One of the stelae contains fragments of hymns in the form of a breviary for the six daily hours of pryer.2 Another of the inscriptions refers to the performance of daily rites in the liturgy of the temple of Epidaurus. Morning and evening hymns were sung, incense was burnt, lamps were lighted.3 Among the Gnostics, especially, hymns were composed to an

____________________
1
IG. iv. 2.
2
Cf. P. Mass, 'Epidaurische Hymnen', Schriften d. Königsberger gelehrten Ges. ix, geisteswiss, Kl., vol. v ( 1933). The headline ὥρᾳ τρίτῃ on top of the hymn on the second column of stele B indicates that the missing title of the Paean of Ariphron on the first column must have been ὥρᾳ πρώτῃ.
3
For this and other examples of the pagan ritual see M. P. Nilsson, "'Pagan Divine Service in Late Antiquity'", The Harvard Theol. Review, xxxviii ( 1945), 63-9.

-146-

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