Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bythinia, wrote a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan around 112 AD seeking advice on how best to persecute the Christians. In that letter, he said Christians did were doing a weird thing – they gathered together before the sun came up and sang “a hymn to Christ as God.”
CHURCH MUSIC STYLE
Remember when you were a kid at VBS and your teacher sang a line and then you and your friends sang it back like an echo? Or, when Rich Mullins sang, “When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz,” and the crowd answered with, “Our God is an awesome God”? Or have you ever been to a Catholic gathering where the cantor sings a line and then the congregation sings a response?
This style of music is called “antiphonal” and it’s what Pliny the Younger heard Christians doing together.
Christians were primarily Jews in those days. Jewish music had been virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Jewish Christians simply stuck with the musical style they knew – not because scripture told them to or because God liked their musical style more than some other. They were simply Jews making Jewish music to God.
The Oxyrhynchus Hymn, discovered on the back of a papyrus in Egypt, dates back to 260AD, making it the oldest song (with both lyrics and notation) that we have from the Early Church. You can hear this “antiphonal” hymn here: https://youtu.be/mk8y9xjrkxM
Beyond this one example, we don’t know much more about the style of Early Church music. Only Paul speaks about musical style in the bible…well, sort of. In Ephesians 5:19-20, he told the earliest Christians to keep on speaking to one another in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
“Psalmos” means “to touch,” and stringed instruments were sometimes called “psalmos,” so we think (we don’t know for sure!) Paul was talking about songs that were accompanied by stringed instruments.
Then Paul mentions hymns – and he’s not speaking about what you and I call a hymn today. For us, a hymn is a song that might have numerous vocal parts (eg. bass, tenor, alto, soprano) that are all sung with the same rhythm at the same time. But in the ancient Near East we think a “hymn” was any song sung to God about God.
So, the only guidance scripture gives about church music’s style is 1)some songs can have accompaniment 2)some songs can be sung by us, to God, about God 3)some songs can be sung by us, about God, to each other. 4)keep doing all three.
THE EVOLUTION OF CHURCH MUSIC
As Christianity spread beyond the Jews, beyond the Near East, and throughout history, its music took on the flavors of the cultures it reached. The Ethiopians added drums. The Italians added choirs. The Americans added skinny jeans.
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs have always differed stylistically from place to place and time to time. And Christians have always bickered loudly over those stylistic differences even though God has remained completely silent on them.
But that’s because worshiping God is super important to us, right? Well, let’s talk about that here.