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The Earliest Christian Hymns
From the very beginning of the church Christians have gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread and give thanks to God in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus – Christ’s victory over death1. They would study the scriptures*, offer prayers to God, and sing hymns to their savior. Pliny the younger, writing to the Emperor c. 112 A.D., describe this practice in brief:
“On an appointed day they…meet before daybreak, and…recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god…3”
Here we will consider two very important examples of the earliest known hymns of the Christian church.
The Carmen Christi
The earliest known hymn comes to us in the text of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2:6-11. Although written smoothly into the surrounding text, most major scholars agree that this passage, known as the “Carmen Christi,” is a portion of an ancient hymn familiar to the church at Philippi (at least). As Paul almost certainly died in the great Neronian persecution of between 64-68 A.D.5, the Carmen Christi represents a hymn sung in the first half of the first century; a prize for any historian!
"Though he [Christ] existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
– even death on a cross!
As a result God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father6"
This song of Christ’s voluntary humiliation is also known as the “Kenotic” or “Kenosis” Hymn. [from Greek “Kenosis” – an emptying7] Aside from its elegance, this hymn is notable for its theology, as it denotes a worship of Christ and recognition of his equality with God that predated Paul's epistle. By integrating this hymn, Paul is appealing to a hymn both be and the church to which he was writing knew well, denoting an already established recognition of a fundamental Christian doctrine.
The Oxyrhynchus Hymn - P.Oxy1786
Among the many writings unearthed in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, is P.Oxy 1786, a Hymn to the Trinity. At first glance, this document might seem underwhelming. Fragmentary and written on the back of a financial account, this hymn is dated rather late (at the turn of the 3rd/4th century), but what makes the Oxyrhynchus hymn so notable is that it contains the earliest musical notations known on a Christian hymn8.
“Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds…and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things, Amen Amen9.”
* During the first century this would include only the Old Testament books (“writings of the prophets”) and individual epistles sent to a church by the apostles. When the gospels were written, these too joined the ranks of readings and seem to have been first to be regarded as having equal authority with the Old Testament scriptures. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, references these gatherings on the first day as being opened with a reading from “The memoirs of the apostles or…the writings of the prophets.”2 See The New Testament Canon
1. The Acts of the Apostles, chapters 2 and 20, Hebrews chapter 10 verse 25
2. Justin Martyr, First Apology, sighted from Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. I, page 109
3. Pliny the Younger, Harvard Classics “Letters and Treatises of Cicero and Pliny”
4. Dr. James White, Beyond the Veil of Eternity, CRI publication 298, http://jesusiscreator.org/?p=298
5. Justo Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity, Vol. I
6. Philippians 2:6-7, New English Translation, https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Philippians+2
7. Online Etymological Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/kenosis
8. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, page 24 note #56 , p 226
9. M. L. West, Ancient Greek Music – Oxford university Press, according to Dr. David May https://ntstudies.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/oxyrhynchus-hymn/