Studies in Hymns

The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook

Greek Hymns of the Early Church

by Wayne S. Walker

Andrew, age twelve, and Seth, age ten, were sitting at their desks in the family room working on their homeschool studies. Andrew was trying to do a little elementary translating from the Greek New Testament for his foreign language lesson, while Seth was struggling with some long division. When the boys' dad, a minister, came in to check on them, Andrew asked him a question. "Dad, since Greek was the universal language of New Testament days, did the apostles speak Greek on the day of Pentecost when they preached to the multitudes?"

Dad replied, "Well, the Bible says that they spoke in tongues, so they probably spoke in several different languages. Their native tongue would have been Aramaic, the common language of Palestine in the first century, but, as you say, Greek was the universal language of the civilized world at that time, so it is likely that many of them also knew Greek."

Seth spoke up. "Well, when Christians sang hymns in the first century, did they sing them in Aramaic or Greek or what?"

Dad sat down to explain. "We know from the New Testament, and can infer from later writings of church leaders, that Christians of the first century did sing in their worship, but we don't know precisely what songs they sang or exactly how they sang them. Some have thought that their singing may have probably sounded more like chanting, but all we know for sure is that they were told to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as we read in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

"It's thought by some that the singing of the early church may have reflected two influences, in addition to any direct revelation from God through inspired teachers. The first of these influences was the Hebrew Psalms of Old Testament temple rites, and the second was Greek songs composed in honor of their gods, heroes, and famous men. It's possible, then, that these two influences may have suggested to primitive Christians a style in which new songs of praise to Christ might be sung. Some believe that certain passages in the New Testament may contain fragments of early hymns, like Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:5-11; I Timothy 3.16; 6:15ff; II Timothy 2:11ff; Revelation 4:11; 5:12.

"It is true that the earliest hymns that we have any specific record of were written in Greek."

Andrew had another question. "How did Greek come to be the universal language in the first century?"

Dad answered, "Greek was the universal language of the civilized world from before the time of the church's beginning until around A.D. 500, and it's continued to be the primary language for Eastern or Orthodox churches through the middle ages and into modern times. In Galatians 4:4, Paul said that in the fullness of the time, God sent forth His Son. This simply means that God providentially prepared all things so that Jesus came at just the right time for His message of salvation reach the widest possible audience. One way in which God did this was through Alexander the Great, who's prophesied in Daniel 2:32, 39 (the belly and thighs of bronze in Nebuchadnezzar's image) and Daniel 8:1-14, 20-21 (the male goat who broke the horns of the ram in Daniel's vision).

"Ancient Greece is often considered the beginning of Western civilization. However, Greece never became a united nation in ancient times, but remained a group of small, independent, and often warring states. They could work together when presented with a common threat, as attack by the Persians under Xerxes (Ahasuerus of the book of Esther), but usually they spent most of their time fighting one another. One of the states of northern Greece, Macedon, was ruled by a man named Philip, who made Macedon the first strong, united nation in European history. He was succeeded by his son Alexander, who had studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle. A lover of Greek art, literature, and philosophy, Alexander embarked on an ambitious program of conquest to spread Greek culture as far as he could. First, he conquered and united Greece itself, then moved into Asia Minor, down through Syria to Egypt, and finally west to Persia. He died at the age of 33 in 323 B.C., but in that short time had succeeded in making most of the civilized world a Greek-speaking society. This common language aided the spread of the gospel and growth of the church by providing a more rapid means of communication than at previous times."

Seth, who by this time had abandoned his math and was listening attentively to Dad's discourse on Greek, wanted to know if any of the hymns in Greek from those days still survived.

Dad went to his library, pulled out a book on the history of hymns, and responded, "It's believed that the earliest surviving hymn text in Greek is the 'Phos Hilaron.' The author is unknown. It's sometimes attributed to Sophronimus the Patriarch, who lived about A.D. 629, but he probably only catalogued it because it was quoted by Basil of Caesarea in the late 300's as an old, anonymous hymn in his day. It's thought that it must have existed in the late second or early third century, perhaps as early as around A.D. 150-200. It's sometimes called the 'Lamplighting Hymn' because it's assumed that it was sung at evening services when lamps were being lighted. The most common English translation was made in 1834 by John Keble as 'Hail, Gladdening Light.' Here are the words:

1. Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured,Who is immortal Father, heavenly blest;
Highest and holiest—Jesus Christ our Lord! Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. Now are we come to the sun’s hour of rest; All times are ordered in Thy Word alone,
Therefore the day and night Thy glories own. Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. The lights of evening now around us shine; We hymn Thy blest humanity divine;
Worthiest art Thou at all times to be sung, Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. By grateful hearts, with undefilèd tongue, Son of our God, Giver of life, alone!
Therefore shall all the worlds Thy glories own. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Most of our books that contain the hymn use a tune (Sarum) composed in 1868 by Joseph Barnby and originally intended for another hymn, William W. How's 'For All The Saints.'"

"Another hymn which dates from about the same period of time and often vies with 'Hail, Gladdening Light' as the earliest known Christian hymn was written by Titus Flavius Clemens, better known as Clement of Alexandria, who lived from around 160 to 215. He had been a Platonist philosopher, and some believe that he was identified with an early sect of Christians known as Gnostics. About A.D. 200 he penned a prose work 'Paidagogos' or 'The Tutor' to which he appended a poem of thanksgiving and praise to Christ. It was translated in 1846 by Henry Martyn Dexter as 'Shepherd of Tender Youth.' Here are the words:

1. Shepherd of tender youth, Guiding in love and truth Through devious ways;
Christ our triumphant King, We come Thy Name to sing, Hither our children bring To shout Thy praise.

2. Thou art our holy Lord, O all subduing Word, Healer of strife.
Thou didst Thyself abase That from sin’s deep disgrace Thou mightest save our race And give us life.

3. Thou art the great High Priest; Thou hast prepared the feast Of heavenly love;
While in our mortal pain, None calls on Thee in vain; Help Thou dost not disdain, Help from above.

4. Ever be Thou our guide, Our shepherd and our pride, Our staff and song;
Jesus, Thou Christ of God, By Thy perennial Word Lead us where Thou hast trod, Make our faith strong.

5. So now, and till we die, Sound we Thy praises high And joyful sing;
Let all the holy throng Who to Thy church belong, Unite to swell the song To Christ, our King.

Our books which use the song have a tune (Kirby Bedon) composed in 1887 by Edward Bunnett.

"As we move on in time, the so-called Oxyrhynchus Hymn to the Trinity, ascribed to Alypius, comes from the late third century, but into the fourth century, we have a hymnwriter named Gregory Nazianzen. One of his hymns that has survived was translated by John Brownlie as 'O Light That Knew No Dawn.'

"One of the earliest known standard forms of hymns was the troparion, a short stanza inserted in a psalm; independent troparia date from the time of Leo I in the mid 400's. Two known authors of troparia were Anthimus and Timocles. Sophronimus the Patriarch of Jerusalem, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote two cycles each of ten troparia. The troparion was succeeded by the kontakion, a practical homily or metrical sermon derived from Syriac poetry with a number of stanzas and a refrain. It developed in the 400's and 500's. Two well-known authors of kontakia were Romanos in the reign of Anastasius I who died in 518 and Germanus around 718, but the best-known was Synesius of Cyrene. He had been a Neo-Platonist philosopher before his conversion and was later made bishop of Ptolemais in Cyrene. About 410 he wrote Ten Odes in the form of kontakia, the last of which was translated by Allan William Chatfield in 1875 as 'Lord Jesus, Think On Me.' Look at these words:

1. Lord Jesus, think on me And purge away my sin;
From earthborn passions set me free And make me pure within.

2. Lord Jesus, think on me, With care and woe oppressed;
Let me Thy loving servant be And taste Thy promised rest.

3. Lord Jesus, think on me Amid the battle’s strife;
In all my pain and misery Be Thou my Health and Life.

4. Lord Jesus, think on me Nor let me go astray;
Through darkness and perplexity Point Thou the heavenly way.

5. Lord Jesus, think on me When flows the tempest high;
When on doth rush the enemy, O Savior, be Thou nigh!

6. Lord Jesus, think on me That, when the flood is past,
I may th’eternal brightness see And share Thy joy at last.

7. Lord Jesus, think on me That I may sing above
To Father, Spirit, and to Thee The strains of praise and love.

Almost all books use a minor-key tune (Southwell) from 1579 attributed to William Damon, but I prefer a more gentle and reflective tune (Dulce Domum) composed by Robert Steele Ambrose.

"From this same general time comes another hymn, whose text is taken from the Liturgy of St. James, which seems to have found its earliest form under Cyril of Jerusalem who flourished around 347. This particular hymn, 'Sigesato Pasa Sarx Broteia,' appears to date from the fifth century, and was translated in 1864 by Gerard Moultrie as, 'Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.'

"Even though Latin began to replace Greek as the universal language of Europe after the fall of Rome, the Eastern or Orthodox churches, through which much of the civilization of the first four centuries was preserved during the dark ages, continue to use Greek. By the end of the seventh century, the kanon had replaced the kontakion as the primary form of hymn in Greek speaking churches. Kanons are Byzantine liturgical odes, nine in number based on the nine Biblical canticles of the Greek church developed after the Trullian Council of 691-692. Some of the leading writers of kanons were Andrew of Crete from the late 600's and the early 700's; Cosmas of Jerusalem; Kasia who lived around 810; and St. Nilus of the 11th century. However, the two most famous come from the Mar Saba monastary in the wilderness of Judea outside of Jerusalem. The first was John of Damascus who also lived in the late 600's and early to mid-700's. Around 750 he wrote Eight Odes in his work 'The Golden Canon,' the first of which was translated in 1853 by John Mason Neale as, 'The Day of Resurrection.' Here are the words:

1. The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad; The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky, Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

2. Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain, His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

3. Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin! Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend, For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end."

A lot of books use a tune (Lancashire) composed in 1835 by Henry T. Smart, originally intended for Reginald Heber's 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains' but now more commonly associated with Ernest W. Shurtleff's 'Lead On, O King Eternal.' However, one of our books uses a tune (Greenland) attributed by Johann Michael Haydn, Franz Josef Haydn's younger brother, that I like better.

"John of Damascus had a nephew who came to live at Mar Saba and is known as Stephen the Sabaite who lived in the mid- to late 700's and early 800's. A fragment of a text by him, 'Kopon te kai Kamaton' has been found. A hymn based upon it, originally said to be a translation by John Mason Neale in 1862, though later Neal admitted that it was more a paraphrase in his own words of some things that Stephen said than an actual translation, is 'Art Thou Weary?' Consider these words:

1. Art thou weary, art thou languid, Art thou sore distressed?
“Come to Me,” saith One, “and coming, Be at rest.”

2. Hath He marks to lead me to Him, If He be my Guide?
In His feet and hands are wound prints And His side.

3. Hath He diadem, as monarch, That His brow adorns?
Yes, a crown in very surety, But of thorns.

4. If I find Him, if I follow, What His guerdon here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor, Many a tear.

5. If I still hold closely to Him, What hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed.

6. If I ask Him to receive me, Will He say me nay?
Not till earth and not till Heaven Pass away.

7. Finding, following, keeping, struggling, Is He sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, Answer, Yes!

In 1868 Henry Williams Baker composed a tune (Stephanos) specifically for this hymn. Some hymnbooks that strive to update the language of older hymns to more modern terminology have changed it to 'Are You Weary, Heavy Laden?', but I happen to prefer the original. Even though we don't speak Elizabethan English with 'thee' and 'thou' anymore, we can still understand what it means when we sing older hymns and read from the King James Version of the Bible.

"I need to go get some work done, so we'll close by looking at a couple of later Greek hymns which are still used in some circles today. A writer named Anatolius, about whom very little is known except that he lived in the ninth century and was said to have been a pupil of Theodore, is reputed to have produced over 100 hymns. One attributed to him, dating from around 810 and in Greek entitled 'Ten Hemeran Diethlon,' was translated in 1853 by John Mason Neale as 'The Day Is Past and Over.'

"A slightly later Greek hymnwriter was John the Hymnographer from the 800's. His best-known hymn, entitled in Greek 'Phosteres Tes Aulou Ousias,' is a cento from the Canon of 'The Bodiless Ones, Tuesday in the Week of the First Tone' dating from around 840, and was translated in 1862 by John Mason Neale as 'Stars of the Morning, So Gloriously Bright.' There may be other Greek hymns from this and subsequent times, but by the Middle Ages Latin had become the universal language, so not as many Greek hymns from that time are as well known."

Andrew asked, "I noticed that one name which has kept popping up quite a bit in your explanation is John Mason Neale. Who was he?"

Dad said, "He was an Anglican minister who lived from 1818 to 1866 and was a scholar of ancient languages. He translated many of the older hymns from Greek and Latin into English in such collections as Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences and Hymns of the Eastern Church. As a result, his name appears quite a bit in hymnbooks that have a lot of translations from Greek and Latin."

As Dad was walking out the door, Seth called out, "That was really interesting, Dad. Next time we're singing in church, I'm going to look and see if any of the songs are from the ancient Greek."

Dad replied over his shoulder, "Unfortunately, the vast majority of modern hymnbooks that most churches use today do not contain very many of these ancient hymns. It seems that a lot of editors have decided to jettison the past in favor of the 'what's happ'nin' now' songs under the mistaken notion that the new is more 'relevant.' But go ahead and look to see if you can find any."

Next in Series: The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook: Latin Hymns of the Medieval Church