Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Biblical Odes and the Text of the Christian Bible: A Reconsideration of the Impact of Liturgical Singing on the Transmission of the Gospel of Luke

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Biblical Odes and the Text of the Christian Bible: A Reconsideration of the Impact of Liturgical Singing on the Transmission of the Gospel of Luke

Article excerpt

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The biblical Odes, a collection of songs excerpted from their biblical and apocryphal contexts and sung during Christian worship from an early period, are an important witness both to the liturgical activities of the earliest Christians and to the transmission of the Bible as it was sung, read, and employed in a number of settings. Still, Odes collections are regularly overlooked by text critics, presumably because liturgical use is often regarded as a source of textual corruption. A closer analysis of the biblical Odes, however, reveals that liturgical singing could sometimes preserve text. Audiences expected the lyrics of well-known songs to remain consistent, and they knew these lyrics well, even in contexts where Greek was no longer the dominant language. It took several centuries for Odes collections to achieve a somewhat stable format-by the early medieval period Odes were circulating as appendixes to the Psalter and most often in collections of nine songs. Nevertheless, a close comparison of the text of the Odes across documentary witnesses, with special attention to the Song of Mary (also known as the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55) shows that Odes texts remained remarkably fixed over time. The role of singing in the transmission of the Christian Bible therefore needs to be reconsidered.

I. Early Christian Song

Investigating the activities of the Christians circa 110 c.e., Pliny the Younger reported to the emperor Trajan that the guilt of the Christians involved meeting just before dawn on a fixed day, singing a hymn to Christ, pledging their commitment to virtuous behavior and then gathering later to share a meal:

They maintained moreover that this was the whole of their guilt or error; that they were accustomed on a certain day to come together before light to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god with each other in turn [carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem] and to bind themselves by oath-not for any wicked deed-but not to commit thefts or robberies or adulteries, or to break a promise or to deny a deposit when called upon for it (Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.7)1

Pliny's observation that the Christians "sing a hymn" (carmenque... dicere) would be unlikely to acquit them of the charge of "superstition" (superstitio)-the malicious chanting (cantare or incantare) of songs (carmina) was viewed as a dangerous and potent ritual practice in Roman contexts and was therefore explicitly outlawed.2 Nevertheless, the results of Pliny's investigation accord well with what was claimed by Christians in their own writings, though they surely regarded their activity as pious (evaeßeia) and pleasing to God and not as a form of superstitious chanting. The writer of Colossians, for example, urges Christians to "sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" (Col 3:16); Ephesians includes a similar exhortation, urging readers to "sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs ... singing and making melodies to the Lord in your heart" (Eph 5:19); and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark end the Last Supper account by noting that Jesus and his disciples proceeded to the Mount of Olives "singing hymns" (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26; cf. Heb 13:15). Singing was clearly an important feature of earliest Christian worship, as it was in religious settings across the Mediterranean world, including in earlier Jewish liturgical practices.3

The incorporation of song lyrics within the NT books further confirms the important role of singing in the Uves of early Christian assemblies. Though there is no documentary evidence to corroborate it, the songs of praise in the Lukan infancy narrative (l:46b-55, 68-79; 2:14);4 the "christological hymns" in John (1:1-18), Philippians (2:6-11), Colossians (1:15-20), and 1 Timothy (3:16);5 and the heavenly songs in Revelation (4:8b, 11; 5:9-10,12,13b; 7:10b, 12; 11:15,17-18; 12:10-12; 15:3b-4; 19:lb-3, 6b-8; 21:3b-4) may have had their origin in early liturgical practices. …

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