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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):

危蔚 蟺维蟿蔚蟻 魏蠈蟽渭蠅谓, 蟺维蟿蔚蟻 伪峒跋幬较壩, 渭苇位蟺蠅渭蔚谓 峤佄嘉酷喀, 蟺峋断兾蔽 蟿蔚 胃蔚慰峥 位蠈纬喂渭慰喂 未慰峥ξ晃课.
峤呄兾 魏蠈蟽渭慰蟼 峒斚囄滴 蟺蟻峤赶 峒愊慰蠀蟻伪谓委蠅谓 峒佄澄壩 蟽蔚位维蠅谓 蟺蟻蠀蟿伪谓萎蟽蠅
蟽喂纬维蟿蠅 渭畏未鈥 峒勏兿勏佄 蠁伪蔚蟽蠁蠈蟻伪 位伪渭蟺蔚蟽胃蠅谓 峒蟺慰位蔚喂蠈谓蟿蠅谓 峥ノ瓜伪峤 蟺谓慰喂峥段, 蟺畏纬伪峤 蟺慰蟿伪渭峥段 峥ノ课肝壩 蟺峋断兾蔽 峤懳嘉轿肯嵨较勏壩 未鈥 峒∥坚慷谓 蟺伪蟿苇蟻伪 蠂蠀喂蠈谓, 蠂维纬喂慰谓 蟺谓蔚峥ξ嘉 蟺峋断兾蔽 未蠀谓维渭蔚喂蟼 峒愊喂蠁蠅谓慰蠉谓蟿蠅谓 峒埼嘉 峒埼嘉.
魏蟻维蟿慰蟼, 伪峒段轿肯 峒蔚峤 魏伪峤 未蠈尉伪 螛蔚峥 蟽蠅蟿峥喯佄 渭蠈谓峥 蟺维谓蟿蠅谓 峒纬伪胃峥段.
峒埼嘉 峒埼嘉.

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!

4 thoughts to “An Early Christian Hymn”

  1. Certainly, if I remember when I get home, I will scan it and e-mail it to you.

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