Early Christian Singing

By McFarland, Jason J. | Pastoral Music, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Early Christian Singing


McFarland, Jason J., Pastoral Music


Christians have been singing together from the very beginning. Joseph Gelineau summarized the relationship of music and Christian liturgy this way: "Christian assemblies have at all times and in all places read the Scriptures, prayed, and sung. The Christian liturgy was born in singing, and it has never ceased to sing. Singing must be regarded as one of the fundamental constituents of Christian worship."1 In fact, as St. Cyprian of Carthage makes clear, for early Christians singing was part of everyday life. He wrote: "A modest meal should sound with psalms, and if you have a good memory and a pleasant voice, you should take upon yourself the singer's office."2

As Gelineau and St. Cyprian indicate, singing is both fundamental to Christian worship and a ministry to be taken up by those in the community who are of good voice. Indeed, the Scriptures attest to the singing of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles" inearly Christian communities (Ephesians 5:18). The trinity of terms is not a list of three distinct musical genres or forms but refers to the great variety of music in use among Christians in the first century.

To be sure, understanding the origins of Christian singing is a matter of recognizing its foundational contexts. While there is no compelling evidence for either a deliberate program of music composition for worship or of defined roles for musical specialists in early Christian communities - no cantors, psalmists, choirs, and so forth3 - how the earliest followers of the risen Christ used music in worship is an intriguing question. Could these proto-Christians, who were ritual beings and part of a ritual culture, escape the ancient musical traditions of their day - namely, the pagan cult and the music of the Jewish Temple, synagogue, and home? Indeed, it is difficult to speak of a specifically Christian culture prior to what Gradon Snyder calls Christianity's "cultural break with Judaism."4 Before the late first century and early second century, Christianity, though in many ways unique, was simply one of several movements within Judaism and one of many new religious movements in the Roman Empire at the time.5

The foundations of Christian singing are located within a first- and early second-century cultural matrix that was simultaneously Greek, Jewish, and Roman.6 In the Near East and in the Roman Empire, Greek melodies,7 music theory, and philosophical understandings of music were predominant and necessary underpinnings for any music of the early Christians. The typical Greek sense of musical propriety regarding music used in religious rites was also influential - for example, a general preference for vocal music over instrumental music.8

The music of first-century imperial Roman culture also influenced the music of the first Christians but in a contrary sense. Early Christians were concerned with the intelligibility of texts and wished to distinguish their worship from Roman pagan rituals. In contrast to the Roman song, which utilized archaic texts that were no longer understood by the general population,9 Christian music was text-centered.

The music of Palestinian Jews was also important to the development of early Christian singing. All three traditional categories of Jewish religious music - Temple, synagogue, and home - probably influenced early Christian music to some degree.10 At the Temple in Jerusalem, a group of hereditary musical professionals or Levites performed the music. In the synagogues the entire assembly might have taken part in spontaneous or unprogrammed singing under the leadership of the sheliach tsibbur ("emissary of the people"), but without question the assembly would have heard the reader "cantillate"11 excerpts from their sacred texts.12

The music of the typical Jewish and pagan home, particularly the practice of singing at meals, also must have influenced early Christian singing.13 While it is true that direct evidence about such an influence is sparse,14 singing at meals was so prevalent in the cultural context of the first Christians that it is more likely than not to have influenced the development of their own musical practices. …

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