Skip to main content

An Early Christian Hymn

I’ve been studying Biblical Greek from quite a young age, and at times I wondered about the songs the first Christians sang. I figured many of them must have been in Greek, but have any of these hymns survived to the present day? As I researched this question recently, I discovered that there actually are Greek Christian hymns that have come to us through the ages from the early years of the church. That is, we have the hymns themselves, but not the music to which they were set.

However, in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, someone came across a very unique papyrus–one of a kind, in fact–on which someone had written a Christian hymn to the Trinity, along with Greek musical notation.

You may not have known that the Greeks knew how to write music. Well, they did, and were quite advanced in their ideas of modes and music theory. But the importance of this little piece of papyrus that someone threw in an Egyptian rubbish heap ages ago is not that it has music (there is a good amount of extant Ancient Greek music), but that it is a spiritual song from the time when most all such songs were written with only the words–if they were written at all.

Unless something older turns up, this hymn to the Trinity appears to be the oldest surviving Christian hymn with both the words and the music. And this is really fascinating, especially since it gives us a little glimpse into the past, and allows us to hear what the music of the early church sounded like. To modern ears, the tune is not very remarkable. If anything it resembles Byzantine chant (which would be no coincidence), but you must understand that the ancients’ music was markedly different from ours, and it would be quite contemptuous of us to judge their tunes by our standards. But we must also remember that when it comes to praising God, it is the words that count.

Unfortunately the papyrus is missing a few pieces, but in general the song is complete. The missing text may be inserted from other sources, and yields the following (the bold text is not present in the original manuscript):

Σε πάτερ κόσμων, πάτερ αἰώνων, μέλπωμεν ὁμοῦ, πᾶσαι τε θεοῦ λόγιμοι δοῦλοι.
ὅσα κόσμος ἔχει πρὸς ἐπουρανίων ἁγίων σελάων πρυτανήσω
σιγάτω μηδ’ ἄστρα φαεσφόρα λαμπεσθων ἀπολειόντων ῥιπαὶ πνοιῶν, πηγαὶ ποταμῶν ῥοθίων πᾶσαι ὑμνούντων δ’ ἡμῶν πατέρα χυιόν, χάγιον πνεῦμα πᾶσαι δυνάμεις ἐπιφωνούντων Ἀμήν Ἀμήν.
κράτος, αἶνος ἀεὶ καὶ δόξα Θεῷ σωτῆρι μόνῳ πάντων ἀγαθῶν.
Ἀμήν Ἀμήν.

Here is a translation of only the extant text:

.. 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 Amen.

(from West, M. L. 1992. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford University Press)

Someday perhaps I’ll fill in the holes in the music and record the song. May all glory be to God forever!