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Early Christian Songs |
The first Christian hymns

Early Christian Songs is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 125, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Some words from the New Testament were songs that still resound daily in the churches

Early Christian Songs - The first Christian hymns

Early Christian Songs - The first Christian hymns

Since the dawn of mankind, music has served to set the soul ringing with the love of God. Christ himself sang a hymn at the Last Supper, and on the cross cried out to his Father in the opening words of the Twenty-Second Psalm, written a thousand years before the Crucifixion, “My God, my God, why do you reject me?” The psalm ends with the promise that God will proclaim his deliverance “to a people yet unborn.” It was in this spirit that the early Christians began to sing.

Thus in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas, imprisoned at Philippi, sing hymns as the other prisoners listen. The earliest church services included singing as a regular component, and in two of his letters Paul specifically exhorts the faithful to sing.

The first Christian songs consisted of the canticles of the New Testament. There are three, all from Luke’s gospel: the Magnificat, the song of the Virgin Mary pregnant with the unborn Jesus (1:46—55); the Benedictus, sung by Zacharias, father of John the Baptist (1:68—79); and the Nunc Dimittis, pronounced by the aged prophet Simeon after he beholds the baby Jesus (2:29—32). All three are still sung as part of the daily offices in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches.

Many scholars discern hymns in the texts of the New Testament epistles. The historian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996) reassembles Philippians 2:6—11 into a magnificent hymn, even after its translation into English. He believes it was written by someone in one of the churches that Paul founded:

Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God

Did not claim godly treatment

But he emptied himself

Taking the form of a servant.

Being born in the likeness of men

And being found in shape as a man

He humbled himself

Becoming obedient unto death.

Therefore God super-exalted him

And gave him the supreme name

So that at Jesus’ name

Every knee should bow

And every tongue confess

“Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The earliest known Christian hymn book is a collection of songs known as the Odes of Solomon. Compiled in the late first century, this collection of forty-one psalms celebrates song as the best way to achieve salvation and communion with God. As Ode 16 has it:

My love is the Lord;

Hence I will sing unto him.

For I am strengthened by his praises,

And I have faith in him.

I will open my mouth,

And his spirit will speak through me.

The glory of the Lord and his beauty,

The work of his hands,

And the labor of his fingers;

For the multitude of his mercies,

And the strength of his Word.

Historians often puzzle over Christianity’s rapid spread through the ancient world. Perhaps the explanation lies in simple hymns sung with love and heard with wonder.

This is the end of the Early Christian Songs category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 125, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Early Christian Songs from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at