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what did new testament music sound like - the earliest Christian music | a thing worth doing blog | atwd daniel Aaron webster - worship, ministry, and culture

What Did Early Christian Music Sound Like?

Unfortunately, there are no extant Christian musical compositions from the first century, but we do have a surviving Christian hymn from the 3rd century. This hymn is called the Oxyrhynchus hymn (pronounced Oxi-REEN-kus). The reason why this fragment is so important is that both the music and the text are preserved. And, thanks to the few surviving writings of Alypios of Alexandria (a 3rd or 4th century AD musician), modern readers can read the music notation that accompanies the text found on the papyrus fragment.

A Recording of the Earliest Christian Hymn

Here is a recording of the earliest hymn, the Oxyrhynchus hymn, on YouTube entitled Hymne Chrétienne d’Oxyrhynchus by Gregorio Paniagua. You can follow along with the English text pictured below. As you listen, notice that there is no harmony in the vocals or accompanying instruments. Songs and hymns were sung without instrumental accompaniment (a cappella) for about the first 1000 years of Christian history. While the organ, the first instrument to be widely used in churches, made its way into some churches near the beginning of the Middle Ages, there is debate as to when the organ was used for the elements of Christian worship services.

The Words to the Oxyrhynchus hymn

Charles H. Cosgrove provides the following translation:

. . . together all the eminent ones of God. . .
. . . night] nor day (?) Let it/them be silent. Let the luminous stars not [. . .],
. . . [Let the rushings of winds, the sources] of all surging rivers [cease]. While we hymn
Father and Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers answer, “Amen, amen, Strength, praise,
[and glory forever to God], the sole giver of all good things. Amen, amen.”

Charles H. Cosgrove in An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation

As you can see this hymn follows the pattern of the Psalms by naming God’s works in natures (see Psalms 8, 19, 139). The “amen” is used, which is common in Scripture (Psa. 106:48; 1 Chron. 16:36; Neh. 5:13, 8:6; 1 Cor. 14:16; Rev. 7:12, 19:4) for songs used in worship. We also find the “amen” used in the second century among the congregations of Justin Martyr.

The trinitarian formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is also used which would have been common in early Christian worship, especially during baptism. The “Strength, praise, [and glory forever to God]” line is reminiscent of Revelation 7:12 which says, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The Oxyrhynchus hymn from John G Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome
The Oxyrhynchus hymn from John G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, 1998.

The Papyrus Fragment that Contains the Oxyrhynchus hymn

The Oxyrhynchus hymn is found among the fragments found in the late 1800s in a trash dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. The form of music notation on this fragment is very different than the modern notation pictured above. Deciphering the characters would not be possible if we did not have access to the writings of Alypius of Alexandria (a 3rd or 4th century AD musician) whose small amount of extant writings happen to provide an extensive explanation of Greek music theory and notation.

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Paul F., The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2002.

Cosgrove, Charles H. An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1786: Text and Commentary, 2011.

Grenfell, Bernard Pyne, and Arthur Surridge Hunt. “1786. Christian Hymn with Musical Notation”. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 1922.

Landels, John G., Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, 1999.

Holleman, A. W. J., The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1786 and the Relationship between Ancient Greek and Early Christian Music, 1972.

3 Responses

  1. Growing up every week we sang a psalm . They were in the back of our hymn books. They were beautiful that was years ago. After I move that denomination changed so I don’t think they do it any more

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Daniel Aaron Webster - blog a thing worth doing - worship, culture, ministry - early Christian music

Daniel Aaron Webster is a minister, writer, and teacher. His primary research interest is early Christian music, especially the musical thought of Clement of Alexandria.

Daniel serves at Welch College as Director of Enrollment & Marketing and as Adjunct Instructor of Music & Theology. He is also the Associate Pastor for Music & Worship at Immanuel Church in Gallatin, TN. 

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