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Reference: Hymn


The Greek word signified specifically a poem in praise of a god or hero, but it is used, less exactly, also for a religious poem, even one of petition. The use of hymns in the early Christian Church was to be anticipated from the very nature of worship, and from the close connexion between the worship of the disciples and that of the Jews of that and earlier centuries. It is proved by the numerous incidental references in the NT (cf. Ac 16:25; 1Co 14:26; Eph 5:19; Jas 5:13, and the passages cited below), and by the famous letter of Pliny to Trajan describing the customs of the Christians. We lack, however, any collection of hymns comparable to the Psalms of the OT. Doubtless the Psalms were largely used, as at the Passover feast when the Lord's Supper was instituted (Mt 26:30); but in addition new songs would be written to express the Intense emotions of the disciples, and even their spontaneous utterances in the gatherings of early Christians would almost inevitably take a rhythmical form, modelled more or less closely upon the Psalms. In some localities, perhaps, Greek hymns served as the models. St. Paul insists (1Co 14:15; Col 3:16) that the singing be with the spirit and the understanding, an intelligent expression of real religious feeling. These passages specify 'psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.' While at first it seems as if three classes of composition are here distinguished, either as to source or character, it is probably not the case, especially as in Mt 26:30; Mr 14:26 the verb 'to hymn' is used of singing a psalm. Luke's Gospel contains several hymns, but does not mention their use by the disciples. They are the Magnificat (Lu 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Lu 1:68-76), the Gloria in Excelsis (Lu 2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis (Lu 2:29-32). Whether these were Jewish or Jewish-Christian in origin is disputed. The free introduction of hymns of praise in the Apocalypse, in description of the worship of the new Jerusalem, points to their use by the early Church. The poetical and liturgical character of some other NT passages is asserted with more or less reason by different scholars (e.g. Eph 5:14; 1Ti 1:17; 3:16; 6:16; 2Ti 4:18). See Hastings' CG Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, art. 'Hymn.'

Owen H. Gates.

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