SermonIndex Audio Sermons
SermonIndex - Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival : Christian Books : V. Contemporary Pagan and Heretical Hymns

Christian Hymns Of The First Three Centuries by Ruth Ellis Messenger

V. Contemporary Pagan and Heretical Hymns

Christianity expanded, as we have seen, in the environment of eastern Mediterranean culture. Its original heritage was that of Judaism, but within the first century it had entered upon the conquest of the Gentile world. As that conquest proceeded and the penetration of new ideas into pagan thought continued, a corresponding reaction of paganism upon the new faith took place. With the general aspects of this phenomenon all are familiar. It is significant here only in the field of lyrical expression. The period of pagan influence in the sense of an imprint from Greek and Roman literature is also the period of impact with pagan heretical ideas derived either from current philosophies or the practices of mystery religions.

Once more the chart and compass offered by the direct extant sources are the best guides through the cross currents of the literature in our possession. Representative pagan poetry must be examined, at least of a few general types, in order to establish what influence, if any, was exerted upon contemporary Christian hymns.

Regarding the classical influence, per se, a large number of Greek hymns were in existence when Christianity was founded, and Roman lyrics were appearing in that very century. Paul was obviously acquainted with the Hymn of Cleanthes, a Stoic writer of the third century, B.C., for he quoted his words on the Areopagus. The original passage to which Paul refers has been translated as follows:

Thee it is meet that mortals should invoke,
For we Thine offspring are and sole of all
Created things that live and move on earth
Receive from Thee the image of the One.

It is evident that the Christian hymns embedded in the books of the New Testament were not constructed after a classical model of this type. The influence of Old Testament poetry was too strong, the associations of paganism repellant and, moreover, the Greek poetry, familiar to the average man of that day, quite different. The older Greek hymns, such as the Homeric Hymns, the Odes of Pindar, the choruses of Greek tragedy, were produced in the Hellenic or pre-Hellenic ages which had been followed by more than two centuries of Hellenistic culture. Dr. Edward Delavan Perry, writing of Hellenistic poetry, said, |Other forms of poetry, particularly the lyric, both the choral and the 'individual,' died out almost completely.|

There remain, then, only the extant hymns of the mystery cults. In spite of many references to the use of singing in connection with these religions, very few specimens of their hymns actually survive. The mystery religion was a sacramental religion |which stressed the approach to Deity through rite and liturgy after a severe probation and an oath pledging to secrecy.| The leading cults were those associated with Orpheus, the Magna Mater (Cybele) and Attis, Mithra, Serapis, Isis, Adonis, and especially the Eleusinian Mysteries, which flourished for twelve centuries, ending with their extinction by the Christians in 397.

During the period under consideration in this study Isis was honored in all parts of the Graeco-Roman world. An authentic hymn to Isis appears in the writings of Apuleius (b.125), who describes a procession in honor of the goddess and gives the words of the chorus, closing,

Thy divine countenance and most holy deity I shall guard and keep forever in the secret place of my heart.

Variants of the Isis cult hymn or hymns have been preserved in inscriptions; for example, a hymn of some fifty lines from Cyme in Aeolia,

I am Isis the sovereign of the whole land.

Liturgical survivals of the cult of Mithra are almost unknown. Franz Cumont, the great student of Mithraism, quotes one hymn fragment only,

Hail bridegroom, hail thou new light!

He is of the opinion, however, that the Manichaean song mentioned by Augustine, 354-430, affords some idea of Mithraic poetry. The song or hymn in question represents a chief divinity surrounded by twelve minor divinities, symbolizing the seasons, all clothed with floral tributes. Cumont also suggests that hero hymns were in existence, celebrating the exploits of the gods. The so-called Liturgy of Mithra, a magic formula not considered by Cumont, contains hymn fragments, one of which begins,

Lord, hail, potentate of the water,
hail, ruler of the earth,
hail, potentate of the spirit.

Hippolytus, a presbyter of Rome who died in 236, in his Refutation of all Heresies, quotes certain hymns in praise of Attis:

Whether thou art the race of Saturn or happy Jupiter,


I will hymn Attis, son of Rhea.

Here, as in so many cases, our information concerning pagan hymns is derived from an opponent, a Christian writer and defender of orthodox religion, but this circumstance in no way affects the validity of the text.

For the Orphic cult which had the longest period of influence, we possess what may be termed a hymn book containing eighty-seven hymns. It has been variously dated from the third century, B.C., to the fourth or fifth century, A.D. With a mental reservation as to the relevancy of the citations, we find that some of these hymns in praise of the gods are full of dignity, for instance,

Mother of Gods, great nurse of all, draw near,
Divinely honored, and regard my prayer.

So debatable is the subject of the Orphic hymns, both in respect to date and usage, that they offer little or no assistance to the student who is interested in a possible influence upon Christian hymnology.

Sooner or later, one must turn to the land of Egypt, if one desires a complete picture of early Christian culture. The mystery of the Egyptian Isis, mentioned above, was one element in the background of the times, illustrative of the religious syncretism which had been fostered throughout the Ptolemaic period. The identification of the Egyptian Thot with the Greek Hermes is reflected in the Hermetic literature of which the Poimandres is the oldest known writing. From this source a hymn of praise is derived:

By thy blessing my spirit is illumined,

and a thanksgiving hymn,

Holy is God, the Father of all the universe.

Summarizing the Greek influence, both Hellenic and Graeco-oriental, upon Christian hymnology, it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace any connection between the classic Greek hymns or the hymns of mystery cults, and those of the new faith. If more sources were available, a valid conclusion might be reached. At present, a tentative conclusion involves the recognition of the vigorous protest and revolt against pagan ideas revealed in contemporary prose writings, in turn evoked by the actual pressure which was exerted upon Christianity by alien cults. The twentieth century has produced an impressive literature centered about the mystery religions and the problem of their influence upon Christianity; but in the field of hymnology there have been discovered only the faintest of traces. These are wholly stylistic. Christian hymns which reveal the characteristics of the repetition of direct address, or of relative clauses or predicates, previously mentioned, illustrate poetic forms which are, in the final analysis, oriental rather than Greek.

It is a satisfaction to the classicist, who is interested in the history of this subject, that the classical meters, ignored at this period, were destined to be revived at a later date. They were used to some extent from the fourth century. It was reserved for the court poets of the Carolingian circle of the ninth century to restore the old lyric meters. The Sapphic meter in its Horatian form not only was a favorite among medieval Latin hymn writers, but also it has found an occasional imitator in the course of the centuries even to modern times.

While hymn sources derived from oriental cults are extremely scanty, those originating in Gnosticism are much more numerous and suggestive in their relation to Christian hymnology. Gnosticism is not so much the name of a particular philosophy or definite system of belief, as it is a point of view, which sought to harmonize the speculative achievement of Greek thought with the oriental myths and with Christian teachings. The philosophical interpretation of pagan mythology was extended to Hebrew and Christian tradition. Thus, in accordance with the tenets of Neoplatonism, the primeval being has produced the universal mind and, in turn, mind has produced the soul which in contact with evil phases of matter has lost its original purity. Therefore, the soul must retrace its steps until it reaches the final stage of reunion with the origin of all being. It is easy to understand how a variety of meanings may be read into a simple statement like the above. It is also easy to understand that the possibilities of confusion arising in the first three centuries of Christian history were matters of the utmost concern to contemporary Christian writers and dogmatists. The period abounded in heresies and misunderstandings, to the discussion of which the ablest minds of the Church were devoted. Quotations from these authors furnish many of the extant hymns composed by Gnostics, either within or without the Christian fold. The range of literary excellence, of spiritual connotation and of intelligibility of subject matter in the so-called Gnostic hymns is so wide that it is difficult to evaluate them. To the modern reader they vary from the mere rigmarole to the genuinely inspiring hymn.

Perhaps the best known and certainly one of the loftiest expressions of Gnostic ideas is the Hymn of the Soul, which is found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas. Dating from the first half of the third century, the Acts of Thomas recounts the missionary preaching of the Apostle Thomas in India. While in prison, he chants this hymn, beginning,

When I was an infant child in the palace of my father.

It has no connection with the narrative but relates in allegorical fashion the return of the soul, which has been awakened from its preoccupation with earthly matters, to the higher state of heavenly existence. Here is a theme congenial to Christian thought and orthodox in its theology when extricated from the popular concepts of the times. The actual authorship of the Hymn of the Soul, which is found in the Syriac version of the Acts alone, is unknown, but it has been attributed to some disciple of the Syrian Bardesanes, a Christian Gnostic who lived in the second half of the second century. There seems to be no doubt that Bardesanes was himself influential as a hymn writer and that he was representative of a group of poets who were beginning to employ contemporary rhythms set to melodies familiar in daily secular life.

The Acts of Thomas contains a second hymn,

The damsel is the daughter of light,

a poem of oriental imagery, personifying the divine wisdom as a bride.

The apocryphal Acts of John, dating from the middle of the second century, yields a third hymn, the Hymn of Jesus. In the Gospel narrative of the last supper, Jesus and his disciples, before going to the Mount of Olives, sing a hymn together. It is not identified but is generally believed to be a part of the Hallel or group of Passover Psalms, 113-118. The writer of the Acts of John represents Jesus as using a new hymn which opens,

Glory be to Thee, Father.

It contains a long series of antitheses, as follows:

I would be saved and I would save,
I would be loosed and I would loose,
I would be wounded and I would wound,
I would be borne and I would bear, etc.

The hymn concludes,

A way am I to thee, a wayfarer.

Variants of the Hymn of Jesus are extant, one of which has been preserved by Augustine, the Hymn of the Priscillianists, which came to him from a correspondent in Spain.

Hippolytus, whose Refutation of all Heresies has been mentioned in another connection, discusses the Gnostic sect of the Naasenes. He quotes one of their hymns, beginning,

The world's producing law was Primal Mind,

in which Jesus is represented as the guide of mankind to the attainment of celestial knowledge. The system of Valentinus, a Gnostic leader, is also discussed and a psalm of his authorship is quoted:

I behold all things suspended in air by spirit,

a didactic presentation of Gnostic thought. It is composed in dactylic meter, affording another illustration of the adoption of popular rhythms in the hymnology of the heretical sects. A Gnostic hymn to the Highest God from a third century Coptic source may be cited:

Thou art alone the eternal and
thou art alone the deep and
thou art alone the unknowable, etc.

Whatever impression may be created upon the modern mind by the perusal of Gnostic poetry, its influence was admitted by contemporary Christians and combatted by every means in their power. The Gnostic leaders, unhampered by Hebrew traditions of religious poetry, were able to make use of popular forms and popular concepts. They met the trend of the times more than halfway. Heretical groups of all varieties of opinion were using hymns as a means of expressing their beliefs and persuading possible adherents. At the opening of the fourth century, Arius appeared, the leader of the group whose theology was rejected at the Council of Nicaea, 325, and whose hymns were met and overcome by the verses of Ambrose. Such was the influence of heretical upon orthodox hymnody.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy