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Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity

John Arthur Smith
Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity
Ashgate, 2011

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John Arthur Smith’s Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity has been described as “the most comprehensive single study to date of Jewish and Christian music in antiquity” 1 It is an academic monograph sharing the methodology of other liturgical historians like Paul Bradshaw, and it takes a similarly cautious approach to the historical evidence. Mr. Smith describes this as his “main concern” and “guiding principle,” writing:

It is important to be true to the sources, pointing out what they cannot tell us as well as what they can… By pointing out what cannot be known at present, as well as what can, I have hoped to establish a more nuanced approach to the available evidence, and thereby illuminate areas where further research is needed.

Indeed, the new ground broken by Mr. Smith’s study is in just how much we don’t know about music in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. The Old Testament is the most dependable source, yet it has relatively little to say about music, particularly musical instruments and their role in worship. Smith also makes use of 2nd Temple Jewish sources, as well as early Christian literature. Some of the noteworthy observations of Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity are its listing of the musical instruments found in the Bible, the distinction between cultic and non-cultic music, and the relatively minimal musical character of the early Christian churches.

Musical Instruments

Mr. Smith documents the kinds of musical instruments used in Jewish and Christian worship chronologically, noting where certain instruments are explicitly mentioned. He is careful to note the distinction between figurative and concrete instances of instruments, as well. In the Mosaic tabernacle worship, the primary instrument is the trumpet. Indeed, this is really the only instrument explicitly mentioned, though there are two kinds: the hasosera and the shofar (36). The Davidic Tabernacle and 1st Temple periods see the introduction of plucked stringed instruments (41), flutes or pipes of some sort (43), hand drums (46), and cymbals (55). These drums, Mr. Smith points out, are often wrongly translated as “timbrels” or “tambourines,” but are instead “small, round, hand-held frame drum[s]” (53). He notes that they may also have incorporated rattles and wood clappers. The cymbals, to the disappointment of many, were rather small, ranging from “3 to 12 cm in diameter” (54). Mr. Smith fills out the description in some more detail, writing:

In the Hebrew Bible selselim are referred to in the plural, suggesting they were played in pairs. They could have been held vertically and clashed together in the same manner as modern orchestral cymbals (although they were much smaller than the modern specimens) or alternatively they could have been held horizontally, but at slightly different heights, and moved vertically towards each other so that the rim of one made contact with the rim of the other, resulting in a weak clanging sound. Given that selselim could have diameters as small as 3-6cm, it is possible that the name subsumed finger cymbals which produced high-pitched ringing sounds when clashed together. (55)

The primary source for these instruments is the book of Psalms, but the prophetic critiques of temple worship are also instructive. There are really no new instruments added to this list, even in the later periods, and while there is relatively little explanation of how they were used, the instruments do seem to have definite cultic significance. In fact, they had a ceremonial or sacrificial character in their own right:

Even though in cultic worship stringed instruments were apparently normally played in conjunction with (at the same time as) vocal utterance (song or shouting), their music should not be thought of as an “accompaniment” to the vocal element. The idea that the instruments “accompanied” the voices suggests, at least to modern minds, that the instrumental element was subordinate to the vocal. But this is a position not supported by ancient Near Eastern sources. In the cultic music of ancient Israel, instrumental and vocal elements were of equal importance. (43)

Indeed, this suggestion that the musical instruments were themselves inherently cultic will reappear in Smith’s observations on early Christian a cappella worship.

Cultic and Non-Cultic Music

One of the main contentions in Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity is that there are clear distinguishing markers between cultic music, that is music performed in direct connection with the Jewish sacrificial cult, and non-cultic music. This is not a secular/sacred distinction, at least in the modern sense of those words, because non-cultic music was often religious. Neither is this distinction even along  the lines of liturgy, strictly speaking, since the Synagogue was a non-cultic setting with a sort of fixed liturgy. The key issue is the sacrificial cult.

Mr. Smith begins laying out this case by an appeal to the Hebrew root words. He shows that “both SYR– and ZMR– words imply cultic music, the former emphasizing its vocal aspect, the latter its instrumental, but neither excluding the aspect emphasized by the other” (42-43). Smith also observes what he calls a “hierarchy of sanctity” among the instruments:

Plucked-string instruments and shofars could be employed at sacrifices and at non-sacrificial rituals’ percussion instruments and the halil would have ranked below these since they do not seem to have been employed at scrifices. Metal trumpets would have ranked highest since, apart from their use for signaling, they were blown “over” the sacrifices as a “reminder” on the Israelites’ behalf before their Deity (Num. 10:10). (59)

Moving later into the 2nd Temple period, Smith explains that female singers were allowed only in non-cultic settings (83):

A major problem with most of the earlier discussions of this topic is their failure to distinguish between sacrificial and non-sacrificial rites where musicians are concerned. While there is no evidence that women sang or played at the sacrificial rites, there is evidence that they did so at non-sacrificial ones. (84)

This distinction comes to its most obvious relevance for Christians when we turn to the earliest Christian churches. The temple practice effectively came to an end in the 1st century AD, and the Christian practice exhibited certain logical and understandable discontinuities.  Mr. Smith writes:

Ancient Jewish cultic music was valid only in connection with the cult, and the cult was valid only at the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE, and the Temple destroyed, the cult ceased, and with it cultic music. Hope that the city and the Temple would be rebuilt and cultic worship restored nevertheless persisted, as is witnessed by the Mishnah (m. ‘Abot 5:20; m. Tamid 7:3, end), and persists still among the devout. It may have been this hope that inspired the compilers of the Mishnah to include in its tractates details of the measurements and most important rites of the Temple. (116)

With the Christian view that the temple had been fulfilled in the work of Christ and the life of the Church, many of earlier practices were discontinued or understood as having been transformed and therefore most appropriately manifested through the human voice. Mr. Smith states that there are no positive concrete references to musical instruments in the first four centuries of Christian literature, while there are criticisms of them as being polluted by pagan or sinful uses (172-173), as well as allegorical interpretations arguing that the Old Testament passages referring to instruments now refer to the human voice (173-174).

Early Christian Music

This distinction between cultic and non-cultic music is essential for understanding Mr. Smith’s presentation of early Christian music. He does argue that the early Christian churches discontinued much of the temple liturgy, as the believed that it had been fulfilled in the work of Christ and transformed into a service of prayer and song. However, he does not argue, as is rather popular at present, that the early Christian churches were therefore a continuation of the synagogue service. While having many obvious parallels with the synagogue, Smith points out that the origins and makeup of the synagogue is itself a contested matter and that much of what we now know of it was constructed in reaction to Christianity (223-225). Essentially, the Christian service was something new, though it had many clear points of continuity with earlier traditions.

The most obvious characteristics of the Christian worship of the first two centuries are “singing,” prayer, and eating, whether that of the agape feast or the Eucharistic breaking of bread. The agape was a sort of communal meal, similar to Jewish feasts like the Passover, and the Eucharist was a prayer service which culminated in the sacrament of Communion. Both had formal liturgies. Mr. Smith lists four kinds of “religious poetry” that appeared in early song: direct quotations from the Jewish Scripture, altered quotations from Jewish scripture (sometimes providing a Christian slant to the texts), material dependent on Jewish models, and Christian material without any obvious Jewish dependence (183). This amounted to Psalms, Scriptural canticles, and new material such as the Oxyrhynchus Hymn.

Christian liturgy developed significantly over the third and fourth centuries, mostly due to monasticism and the cathedral office. There was an overall similarity of liturgical rubrics and rites, though there was great diversity when it came to music. Athanasius “preferred a relatively modest melodic style of psalmody” (210), whereas Ambrose’s style was more elaborated (211, 235). Mr. Smith also points out, again perhaps surprising to some, that what we think of as liturgical chant, whether Western or Eastern, cannot be dated reliably any earlier than the 8th century.


Readers looking for apologetic support for later Christian traditions will, no doubt, be disappointed with Mr. Smith’s work. It is just as important, however, to note that he never argues that later developments are somehow illicit simply because they cannot be located in the early church. Still, his work does support the position that the earliest Christian liturgies were simple and wholly vocal and that this was the case for at least three hundred years. These early services made great but not exclusive use of the Psalter and allowed for regional diversity.

The fact that Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity is such a historically-minded study is its great strength. No attempts at ecclesiastical or theological justification are made, and every urge to infer traditional biases is resisted. This makes Mr. Smith’s work of great value to all honest-minded readers, and while it does not answer all of our remaining questions, his book is a valuable contribution to the study of liturgical origins and does give us a concrete picture of at least part of the early church worship.

  1. Charles H. Cosgrove’s review in Church History Volume 82. Issue 01. pp 166-168; available online here.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.