A governor called Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan (around AD 112) seeking advice on how to handle a newfound dilemma called “Christians.” Were they to be researched? Or punished? Should they be shut down or allowed to continue their “excessive investigation?” In order to investigate these Christians, Pliny tortured two female slaves. His matter-of-fact description of having the girls beaten is saddening. Pliny also described the gathering of Christians to Trajan. He wrote: “that they [the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god...”[1]

“They sang a hymn to Christ.” Have you ever wondered what the early church music was like? What songs did they sing? How many songs were in a service? The apostle Paul said a defining mark of someone whose life is being led by the Spirit of God is music. “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18-19). But we know very little about the music of the early church.

It is possible that some early church songs have been right in front of us, but we don’t know how to recognize them. For example, did you know some famous Bible passages are considered to be hymns? That is, they are poetic expressions of praise to God. Some Bible Versions (e.g. HCSB, NET) set the texts as poetry to show their distinct nature. A few of passages considered to be hymnic in nature are Colossians 1:15-20, Titus 3:4-7, 2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:3-4, Ephesians 1:3-14, and more. Perhaps the most famous, most glorious, theologically rich, hymn is Philippians 2:6-11. While many students of Scripture know it as one of the great theological passages about Jesus, few know that Philippians 2:6-11—the kenosis passage—is likely a hymn to Christ.

Bible scholars believe these texts to be hymnic because of their style, structure, and unusual vocabulary.[2] “The words are obviously carefully chosen, with the result that, when the verses are read aloud, the stress falls in such a way as to give rhythmical cadence to the lines. When the text is written in the form of poetry, this fact is more easily appreciated.”[3] Even if you don’t know Greek you immediately see how significant those texts of Scripture are. Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1, for example, are loved by many for their theologically rich, strikingly beautiful language about Jesus Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God.” “He is radiance of the glory of God and the exact representation of his nature!”

Does it really matter that these texts may be hymns? In one sense, not really. We need not get hung up on questions like “what was the original purpose of the hymn?” or “did Paul write this or did he include an already existing hymn?” We ought to study these hymns as they exist within the inspired text of Scripture rather than trying to get behind the text.

In another sense, however, if these hymns are a glimpse into the worship of the early church, they remind us that even the most complex theology is meant to lead us to praise our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. The kenosis (Philippians 2), the hypostatic union (Hebrews 1), the deity of Christ (Colossians 1), even the doctrine of election (Ephesians 1) are not just texts for theologians. They are songs for every Christian. Gordon Fee said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.” 

[1]  You can read the whole letter and Trajan’s response at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html

[2]  O’Brien, Peter. Philippians (NIGTC) 188-89).

[3]  Martin, Philippians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 110–111.