Hymns in the New Testament by Joshua W. Jipp

What did the practices of the earliest Christians look like to non-Christian observers? One of the earliest and best descriptions of early Christian behavior comes from Pliny, the governor of Bithynia and client of the Roman emperor Trajan. After hearing suspicious reports about the practices and meetings of Christians, he made an inquiry and found that they “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god” (Letter 10.96).

Pliny’s statement coheres well with early Christian texts that testify that it was common practice within the worship gathering of the assemblies to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord” (Eph 5:19; see also 1Cor 14:26, Acts 16:25, Jas 5:13).

That the early Christians sang hymns is no surprise, for in addition to sharing a common meal and offering sacrifices, libations, and prayers to a deity, singing a hymn to honor and worship that particular god was common practice for ancient Mediterranean religious groups. To sing a hymn to a god or to a supremely powerful king or ruler was considered an act of worship, a way of bestowing respect and benefactions upon one whose powerful acts were worthy of divine honors.

Furthermore, the sacred scriptures of the early Christians—the Hebrew Bible—celebrate through song the divine deliverance experienced in the Exodus event (Exod 15:1-18), God’s enabling the barren Hannah to conceive the ruler and prophet Samuel (1Sam 2:1-10), and the future restoration of Jerusalem and the temple (Tob 13:1-17). And perhaps most importantly, the early Christians used the Psalter as their hymnbook and, almost certainly, as the basis for their own creative compositions of hymns and songs.

So if this is the case, where are the hymns in the New Testament? How can they be found?

Most biblical scholars use the method of form criticism—looking for clues that suggest a biblical passage had an earlier use than its current literary location—to locate hymns that have found their way into the New Testament compositions. These include: parallel statements, vocabulary that is distinctive to the author, the frequent use of pronouns, and elevated prose. If one uses these critical criteria, one will likely conclude that such passages as Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, 1Tim 3:16, Heb 1:1-3, and 1Pet 2:21-25 may very well have had earlier literary lives as actual hymns sung by early Christian communities.

But what is the content of these hymns, and why were they included in the literature of the New Testament? Almost all of the hymns celebrate and bestow worship upon Jesus the Messiah, whose bloody death has procured humanity’s salvation, who is resurrected and enthroned at God’s right hand as his powerful agent ruling the church, and who will one day be revealed as the rightful ruler of the world. One example is Paul’s adaptation of what is likely an early Christian hymn to Christ in Col 1:15-20, where he draws the audience into joining their voices to bestow worship upon the sole king and ruler of the universe.

While the purposes of including these early hymns within the literature of the New Testament are diverse, the biblical authors use these hymns to teach the early churches the content of their confession and socialize them into a world where Jesus the Messiah reigns over all other political and supernatural powers and authorities.

Joshua W. Jipp, "Hymns in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament


Joshua W. Jipp

Joshua W. Jipp
Assistant Professor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Joshua W. Jipp is assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His most recent scholarly work includes “Paul’s Areopagus Speech of Acts 17:16-34 as both Critique and Propaganda” (Journal of Biblical Literature) and Divine Visitations and Hospitality to Strangers in Luke-Acts (Brill, 2013).

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A song or poem that is religious in nature.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Another name for the biblical book of Psalms or for a copy of this book bound separately from the rest of the Bible.

Eph 5:19

19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,

1Cor 14:26

Orderly Worship
26What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let ... View more

Acts 16:25

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Jas 5:13

The Prayer of Faith
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Exod 15:1-18

The Song of Moses
1Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has t ... View more

1Sam 2:1-10

Hannah's Prayer
1Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my vi ... View more

Tob 13:1-17

Tobit's Thanksgiving to God
1Then Tobit said:
“Blessed be God who lives forever,
because his kingdom lasts throughout all ages.2For he afflicts, and he shows me ... View more

Phil 2:5-11

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,7but ... View more

Col 1:15-20

The Supremacy of Christ
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, thing ... View more

1Tim 3:16

16Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed i ... View more

Heb 1:1-3

God Has Spoken by His Son
1Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, wh ... View more

1Pet 2:21-25

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.22“He committed no sin, ... View more

Col 1:15-20

The Supremacy of Christ
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, thing ... View more

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