Oldest Christian Hymn?

So I was reading my EfM material this past week and I came across something rather startling. They point out a Christian hymn embedded within Colossians (1:15-20). So if Paul’s letters are our oldest surviving New Testament works, then would it not follow that a hymn embedded within Paul’s letter is the oldest hymn? If this is true then why isn’t this section better known? I don’t get it. This is the first time I’ve heard of these lines as being a hymn.

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things in heaven and earth were created,

things visible and invisible,

whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers —

all things have been created through him and for him.

He himself was before all things,

and in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church.

he is the beginning,

the firstborn of the dead,

so that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,

whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of the cross.

They note that this is a triptych form. The separation between the stanza doesn’t show up in the html. The first two stanzas contrast firstborn of creation with firstborn of the dead and it is pulled together in the third stanza. They suggest that ‘through the blood of the cross’ may have been added to the end to make it more explanatory. The EfM materials discussed that “If Christ is God’s agent in redemption, Christ is also God’s agent in creation.” Found first here – if this hymn is from Paul’s time or earlier – and last in the introduction to John’s Gospel?

So is Paul incorporating an early Christian hymn or has a hymn been later inserted? EfM notes that the letter suggests that Paul was not personally known among the Colossians, so I wonder if he inserted a hymn that might be familiar to them to help ease his way into the letter? Perhaps its a hymn that Epaphras who had preached in to the Colossae and was in prison with Paul had sung it in their cell. Presumably Epaphras is who prompted Paul to write.

Comments welcome….


14 thoughts on “Oldest Christian Hymn?

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for linking to my blog. I very much doubt that this was a hymn or a hymn fragment simply because there is no evidence for such an assertion. I doubt very much that this is Paul incorporating an early Christian hymn nor do I think that a hymn has been inserted at a later date. As far as I understand it, the early church sang psalms.

  2. I don’t know… there are four canticles in the Gospel of Luke and many quotes from the psalms in all four gospels. If Paul did include it from a hymn then I don’t think he intended it to be sung but simply for it to be familiar theology, something that would resonate with them.

  3. Hi Michelle,

    By the canticles I understand that you are refering to the Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimitis. These were all prophetic and were said as opposed to sung, even if the Anglican tradition has them being sung in our liturgy.

    Luke 1:46 “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,”
    Luke 1:67 “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,”
    Luke 2:28 “Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,”

    In addition, the psalms were prophetic of the Messianic age hence their being quoted a great deal. We know for certain that these psalms were sung and that they were prophetic.

    However, whilst scholars do like to ‘discover’ hymn fragments in the NT there is no real evidence of them. There is no historical evidence of hymns being sung in the early centuries. Northcott notes, “In the Western Church, the hymn was slower in winning its way largely because of the prejudice against non-Scriptural praise, and not until nearly the end of the fourth century was hymn-singing beginning to be practiced in the churches.” Phillip Schaff also notes, “We have no complete religious song remaining from the period of persecution (i.e. the first three centuries) except the song of Clement of Alexandria to the divine Logos — which, however, cannot be called a hymn.”

    Hey, I am a little sceptical 😉

  4. “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-20 from oremus)

    Ephesians 5:19 is specifically where Paul refers to singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”.

    How could there be a prejudice against non-scriptural NT praise, when the canon wasn’t set until 3rd-4th century?

    This may only be a fragment of a hymn…

  5. Yes I admit that that is a good question though whilst his reason may be a little off we do know that there is no evidence of singing things other than psalms until the 4th century.

    What is important to remember is that those who see early hymns in Scripture have no real evidence, it is just conjecture.

    The phrase “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are all titles of psalms. The following is taken from my “The Psalms in Anglican Worship”:

    “Let us now move to the New Testament wherein both Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 we find it written that “when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” What does it mean by “hymn”? I am of the opinion that this was a part of the “hallelujah” which begins at Psalm 113 and ends with Psalm 118 and which the Jews sang at the Feast of the Passover. Such is the view of Albert Barnes, Matthew Henry and others including William Romaine in An Essay on Psalmody hence this hymn was a psalm.

    “When St. Paul and Silas were imprisoned they “prayed, and sang praises unto God” (Acts 16:25) in accordance with James 5:13. The title of the Book of Psalms can be translated as “Book of Psalms”, “Book of Hymns” or “Book of Praises” and the root of the word Tehillim, translated as “Psalms”, is halal which means “to praise” hence when we are told that St. Paul and Silas “sang praises” we ought understand this as meaning they sang psalms.

    “Both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 speak of singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”.These all describe the Psalter. “Psalms” refer obviously to psalms; “hymns” refer to psalms for as John Gill wrote, “I take hymns to be but another name for the book of psalms; for the running title of that book may as well be, the book of hymns, as of psalms” but what of “spiritual songs”? A simple glance at the titles of a number of psalms will find them called songs as are Psalms 18, 30, 45, 46, 48, 65-68, 75, 76, 83, 87, 92, 108, and 120-134. They are called “spiritual” because they were written by the Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:21) and composed for spiritual edification. Do you find it odd that St. Paul would use three different words in one sentence to describe the same thing? I would point out that this is done in a number of places including Genesis 26:5, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 8:11, 1 Kings 2:3, Nehemiah 1:7 and Acts 2:22.”

  6. Sorry I’m a little late to the party…

    I’m also skeptical about the finding of “hymns” partly because many such finders seem to have no sesne of the three styles of classical rhetoric; the problem is that to my eye there’s very little in terms of criteria to distinguish between the grand style and actual poetry or hymnody. Indeed, it’s much like an African-American preacher breaking into cadence that could be mistaken for quoting a song. On the other hand–sometimes he is

    In support of the hymn idea, of course, we have Ephesians 5:14. Paul’s dio legei is a quotation formula. The two other times it appears in the NT (Eph 4:8 and James 4:6) it introduces a direct quote from Scripture. The quotation in 5:14 doesn’t match Scripture. So from what is it being quoted? A hymn seems possible…

    Whatever the matter there’s no doubt this is exquisite early Christian poetry whether it was composed by another hand or Paul’s own.

  7. I’m very late to this party. Apologies.

    While I have no evidence of any kind to offer for or against hymns before the 4th century, I’d like to offer an observation: people sing. All people everywhere. Especially when moved. I can’t imagine there not being spontaneously created/sung hymns in the early years. All that joy is bound to be expressed somehow.

    Again, I’ve no evidence except that, well, people are people.

  8. The text itself reminds me a bit like an early attempt at a creed. In this case statements of belief about who Jesus is.

    I agree Nicola. If song is was indeed an important part of early Christian worship, as we think it was, then it is nearly impossible for me to think that they would not have found it necessary to bring in some new hymns that reflect Christian, trinitarian theology. Christianizing antiphons can only do so much for the psalms. Keeping in mind that this was long before the development of creeds or the standardization of the canon, hymn development seems the most natural way to express a new Christian theology.

  9. The following is from “The Psalms in the New Testament Church” by Prof. W.G. Moorehead in The Psalms in Worship ed. by John McNaughter, pp. 113-118:

    IV. Are there traces of hymns in the Epistles? It is affirmed with much positiveness that there are fragments of hymns found in the Epistles, and that these must have been in use in the Apostolic Church. Prof. Fisher cites these passages in proof: Eph 5:14; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 3:10-12. The claim demands careful examination. If it is valid, the position of the Psalm-singers is overthrown. To them at least the matter is vital.

    1 Pet 3:10-12 is a quotation, with slight verbal changes, from Ps 34:12-16! Whatever led the learned historian to cite a Psalm in proof of the use of uninspired hymns in the worship of the Apostolic Church passes even conjecture. Is it a case when “Homer nods”? What would be thought of the judgment of a Psalm-singer who should quote a verse from Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” in support of the claim that Psalms are sung in United Presbyterian churches? But the cases are quite parallel.

    Eph 5:14 reads: “Wherefore he saith, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Who or what is here quoted? The verb “saith” has no subject expressed. King James and both the Revised Versions have “he” as the subject of “saith.” In this case it is God that saith, “Awake.” If we insert “it” as subject of “saith,” then the reference is to Scripture—”Scripture saith.” In either case the result is the same; it is an inspired word the Apostle quotes, no merely human utterance. By no possibility of exegetical dexterity can this verse of Ephesians be made to serve as evidence that “fragments of Christian hymns” are found in the New Testament Epistles. Moreover, Dr. Charles Hodge very strongly holds that “as this formula of quotation is never used in the New Testament except when citations are made from the Old Testament, it cannot properly be assumed that the Apostle here quotes some Christian hymn with which the believers in Ephesus were familiar.” With Dr. Hodge agree Alford, Ellicott, Eadie, Graham, Moule, Brown, Blaikie, Barnes, and Meyer. Every one of these able students of Scripture affirms that Paul quotes from the Word of God, not at all from a merely human composition. They differ somewhat as to what place he cites, but that this is a Bible quotation they are unanimous. Thus it appears beyond peradventure that two of the texts appealed to by Prof. Fisher and others with him do not denote “Christian hymns”; they pertain to the inspired Scripture.

    Turn we now to the third proof text, 1 Tim 3:16—”And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Is this passage a fragment of a Christian hymn? So many besides Prof. Fisher affirm. On what ground does the claim rest? Not on history. The passage has no more history back of it or connected with it than a score of others in the Epistles to Timothy. It has nothing like the history which belongs to 1 Tim 1:15-16, for this has a background in Paul’s own life and experience; nor that of 1 Tim 6:13-16, which summarizes two supreme events in our Lord’s life. In all the historical records that have been consulted there is not a hint that this text is the fragment of a Christian hymn. Assertions by interpreters there are in plenty; of historical evidence there is none. The chief, if not the only, proof adduced in support of the view that it is the fragment of a “Christian hymn” is its poetical structure. It has the parallelism that distinguishes Hebrew poetry. Accordingly, the American Revision prints it as verse. Is the plea well founded? All intense thought, whether of writing or public speech, falls into rhythm. This is true of the best writing of uninspired men; it is preeminently true of the penmen of Scripture. There is often a measured beat in the sentences that the reader feels, can almost hear. There are many such rhythmical passages in the Epistles. Let the witness of two Greek grammars be heard. The first is Winer’s, “the prince of New Testament grammars.” Winer furnishes thirteen instances of poetical parallelism, 1 Tim 3:16 being one of the thirteen. Green’s Handbook, the second, gives seven more. Thus in all we have twenty such rhythmical texts in the Epistles. If we include the whole body of New Testament Scripture, the number will exceed thirty. These all have the poetical structure of 1 Tim 3:16. Are they all “fragments of Christian hymns”?

    To establish beyond peradventure the truthfulness of the statements just made, three examples are given. Here is a specimen of what one (Humphreys) supposes is a “rhythmical doxology,” 1 Tim 6:15-16:—

    “Who is the blessed and only Potentate,
    The King of kings,
    And Lord of lords;
    Who only hath immortality,
    Dwelling in light unapproachable;
    Whom no man hath seen, nor can see;
    To Whom be honor and power eternal. Amen.”

    The second is furnished by Green’s Handbook—Phil 3:10:—

    “To know Him,
    and the power of His resurrection,
    and the fellowship of His sufferings,
    being made conformable to His death.”

    The third, found also in Green’s Handbook, is John 10:14-15:—

    “I am the good Shepherd;
    and I know My own,
    and Mine own know Me,
    even as the Father knoweth Me,
    and I know the Father;
    and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

    It thus appears that 1 Tim 3:16 does not by any means stand alone as to poetical structure; it is only one of many passages of the like form. Therefore no weight can attach to its parallelism as proof of its being a “Christian hymn.” The argument breaks down totally because it proves too much. If such exegesis should prevail, then no limit scarcely can be fixed to the hymnal fragments of the New Testament; the Book abounds with them.

    One other passage must be briefly noted—2 Tim 2:11-13: “Faithful is the saying: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we shall deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He abideth faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (RV). This great sentence has rhythmical arrangement; its parts balance each other as in genuine parallelism; it is as poetical in its structure as 1 Tim 3:16. But yet it is not the “fragment of a hymn,” nor a brief “creed,” nor yet a “liturgical fragment,” although it has been called all these. The words, “faithful is the saying,” seem to denote a quotation, but in the other places where they occur they cannot be thus understood (1 Tim 1:15; 1 Tim 3:1; 1 Tim 4:9). All these “sayings” of Paul in the Pastoral Epistles belong to a time of extreme danger and persecution. These Letters were written in martyr times. Nero’s persecution of Christians began in AD 64; it lasted till 68—four years of indescribable torture and suffering for the people of God. First and Second Timothy and Titus were written almost certainly after Nero’s atrocities had begun. The peril was that Christians would quail before the dreadful trial, that they would deny Christ. Hence Paul writes to these young ministers of the Gospel to be steadfast, faithful, true even in death. Read in the light of martyr fires, his “sayings” glow with intensity of feeling, with the pathos and the entreaty of one who himself faces death as a witness for Christ. His words ring like a battle shout, like the sharp, abrupt orders of the commander on the field—”Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life”; [1 Tim 6:12] “watch thou in all things, endure afflictions”; [2 Tim 4:5] “hold fast the form of sound words”; [2 Tim 1:13] “great is the mystery of godliness”; [1 Tim 3:16] “if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us.” [2 Tim 2:12] Every one of these texts, and many more like them, have something of cadence; they ring like sharp steel, and there is a rhythm in their ring. Accordingly, they are not fragments of hymns, nor short creeds, nor quotations of any sort. They are the impassioned words of Christ’s servant who appeals to his fellow-saints by the Spirit of God to hold fast, to fight bravely, and to hope to the end.

    There are fourteen songs in the Book of Revelation, viz., Rev 4:8,11; Rev 5:9-10,12-13; Rev 7:10,12; Rev 11:8,17-18; Rev 12:10-12; Rev 15:3-4; Rev 19:1,2,5-8. The American Revision of the Bible marks these songs typographically as distinct and different from the rest of the Book. Sometimes these songs are cited as a justification of the use of other songs than the Psalms in God’s worship. Let the following points be noted as a reply to the assertion above referred to:

    1. These songs are all inspired by the Spirit of God. More than any other Book of the New Testament Canon, the Revelation insists on its being from God, that in it God unveils His purpose touching the future of this world, of His people, of their enemies, and of His Kingdom. Therefore these inspired songs can afford no ground whatever for the use of uninspired compositions in the worship of God.

    2. They are sung almost exclusively by angels and glorified saints. The only apparent exception is Rev 5:13—the song of creation. But even this does not contradict our statement. The voices of angels and saints are joined by the voice of creation, animate and inanimate, now made vocal in its praise to the Lamb. The tuneful utterances of the glorified and of angels before the Throne hardly belong to sinful mortals on earth.

    3. They are sung in heaven. Hence, they do not pertain to this world.

    4. There is not a shadow of a hint that these and the like songs in the New Testament are divinely authorized to be employed in the worship of Christ’s Church.

    5. They are an essential part in the structure of the Apocalypse; they move within the circle of those mighty events which mark the winding up of the world’s affairs, which characterize the final struggle between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. Hence, in the judgment of some of the most earnest students of the Book, they do not pertain to this dispensation.

  10. Nicola,

    No one is saying that the early Christians did not sing. They did. They sang psalms from the Psalter. The question is whether they sang anything else. A mere historical analysis provides no evidence that they did.

    Note also that worship of the Old Testament, up until David, was silent to a great extent. Song was by direct inspiration but did not form a part of ordinary corporate worship.

    May I draw your attention to this sermon series called “History of the Service of Song”.

  11. “There is no historical evidence of hymns being sung in the early centuries”

    Pliny’s letter to Trajan mentions Christian hymn singing. The letter was written between 113-115 AD.

  12. Remember the atmosphere among early Christians, was focused on their redemption. Christ crucified, dead, buried, risen, ascended, glorified, coming again.was raw in the minds of all knew Him. I have no doubt whatsoever the early Christians sang experimental and experiential praises unto God through their new found Savior. Evidence? Fragments of circulated.letters by Pliny, etc? Doesn’t matter. There is no command to sing old testament psalms. New testament psalms, of course. would be what Paul had in mind in context of body of Christ. No head of church mentioned in OT psalms. No heavenly Man to focus on while singing OT psalms. Head now in heaven. Church did not exist before Pentecost. Any believer can write or sing new testament psalm or hymn.so long as they stick to scripture. Anyone out there think of one today? It is natural to be attracted to the flesh and sing earthly national Jewish psalms but not for heavenly minded redeemed (gentile sinners-past tense)! .

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