Christian Hymns Of The First Three Centuries
By Ruth Ellis Messenger

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IX Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries

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by Ruth Ellis Messenger, Ph.D. THE HYMN SOCIETY OF AMERICA New York City 1942...


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Carl F. Price , Editor Copies of these papers at 25 cents each may be obtained from the Executive Secretary of the Hymn Society. Note : Inquire before ordering as some numbers are temporarily out of print. Dr. Reginald L. McAll, 2268 Sedgwick Avenue New York 53, N. Y. Copyright, 1942, by Hymn Society of America Reprinted 1949 There is no part of the general field of Christian hymnology so baffling to the student or so full of difficulties as the one under consideration in this paper. Many accounts of the subject are in existence but are far from conclusive. This is due, first of all, to the unexpected scarcity of original sources. When one views the rise of Christianity from its inception to the period of the Council of Nicaea, 325, its numerical growth from a handful of original adherents to millions of followers at the time of the...

II. Old Testament Hymns

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At the threshold of Christianity the student crosses from the literary environment of the Old Testament into that of the New. But in actual practice the Hebrew psalms were never given up, and to this day are treasured in every branch of the faith. In the early centuries they formed the bulk of Christian hymnody. References to their use appear throughout the New Testament and are familiar to all. And, moreover, the influence of the Hebrew psalms upon the composition of new hymns is apparent even in the Gospels. Keeping these important facts in mind regarding the psalms, the student may pass on to other hymnic sources in the Old Testament. Many striking lyrical passages in the Hebrew scriptures, uttered or perhaps repeated in moments of emotional fervor, were used by later worshippers to express a similar attitude toward the Divine. [5] Among these may be cited the Songs of...

III. New Testament Hymns

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The transition, therefore, to the canticles of the New Testament was easy and perhaps inevitable. The Benedictus , Blessed be the Lord God of Israel ( Luke 1:68-79 ), spoken by Zacharias, the Nunc dimittis , Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ( Luke 2:29-32 ), by Simeon, and above all the Magnificat , My soul doth magnify the Lord ( Luke 1:46-55 ), from the lips of the Virgin Mother, are among the most famous of early Christian hymns, which, together with the song of the angelic host at the birth of Jesus, the Gloria in excelsis , Glory to God in the highest ( Luke 2:14 ), appear within the Gospel narratives. In the remaining portions of the New Testament other hymn fragments are found. Some of these are direct quotations from known sources. [10] In the Book of Revelation (4:8) , reference is made...

IV. Liturgical Hymns

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Christian practice reveals a third type of Hebrew influence, the liturgical, which brought about the use of the psalms in public worship, together with other elements familiar in the synagogue. At the close of a service of this kind, made up of prayers, readings, psalms and preaching, the eucharist was celebrated. Early writings, for example, the Apologia of Justin Martyr, 100?-165, [19] the Didache [20] and the Apostolic Constitutions , [21] testify to a somewhat fixed type of worship, which, varying in details, seems to foreshadow the liturgical models of the fourth century. Briefly stated, the Didache , or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles , is a second century treatise, the second part of which includes a ritual of baptism, fasting and the eucharist. [22] A series of eucharistic prayers is here recorded, beginning, Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι, πάτερ ἡμῶν , We thank Thee, our Father, offered at stages of the communion...

V. Contemporary Pagan and Heretical Hymns

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Christianity expanded, as we have seen, in the environment of eastern Mediterranean culture. Its original heritage was that of Judaism, but within the first century it had entered upon the conquest of the Gentile world. As that conquest proceeded and the penetration of new ideas into pagan thought continued, a corresponding reaction of paganism upon the new faith took place. With the general aspects of this phenomenon all are familiar. It is significant here only in the field of lyrical expression. The period of pagan influence in the sense of an imprint from Greek and Roman literature is also the period of impact with pagan heretical ideas derived either from current philosophies or the practices of mystery religions. Once more the chart and compass offered by the direct extant sources are the best guides through the cross currents of the literature in our possession. Representative pagan poetry must be examined,...

VI. Early Christian Hymns

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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 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...

VII. Conclusion

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Reviewing the total pagan influence, both Greek and Latin, upon Christian hymnody, it must be understood that, in comparison with Semitic pressure in its wider implication, as well as the strictly Hebraic, pagan influence was relatively slight. It was a matter of centuries before the Hebrew psalms were permitted any rivals whatever in the usage of worship, except other biblical citations or such poems as might be produced by unquestioned churchmen. Even these were sparingly used, for psalmi idiotici , as the novel and original compositions were called, were forbidden by the Church and a new hymnody was thus stifled at its very birth. In a period of confusion marked by the rival use of hymns on the part of the orthodox and non-orthodox, it was felt that worship must be safeguarded. Only after the appearance of the modern vernacular languages in Europe in the period of the ninth century,...