Paul quoted from various classical poets. When preaching to the Greek intellectuals on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) he quoted from as many as three poets: Epimenides of Crete (Acts 17:28, "For in him we live and move and exist", NASB), Aratus of Cilicia and/or the Stoic philisopher Cleanthes (Acts 17:28, "For we also are his offspring", NASB). In Titus 1:12 he again quoted Epimenides ("The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons," NASB), and in I Corinthians he used the words of Menander ("Evil company corrupts good morals", NASB).
There are many clearly poetic fragments in Paul's writings. Some scholars suggest that these were originally parts of early Christian hymns. These fragments employ various kinds of parallelism, or at least very exalted rhythmical language that could have been set to music (e.g., I Tim. 3:16; II Tim. 2:11-13; Eph. 5:14; and Phil. 2:5-11).
Other poetical passages in the New Testament are directly patterned after Old Testament quotations. There are over 200 direct Old Testament quotations and probably 2000 literary asides. Luke 1 and 2 contain 8 such passages (1:14-17,32-33,35,46-55,68-79; 2:14,29-32,33-35). Some of these passages are well-known among Christians because of their use in formal public worship.
Luke 1:46-55 is known as the Magnificat ("My soul doth magnify the LORD"), because of its opening words in the Latin translation. This outpouring of Mary's heart revealed that she was steeped in the Old Testament. She alludes to the song of Hannah (I Sam. 2:7) and several Psalms (e.g., Psa. 31,113, 1126). The opening line is virtually identical with the Greek translation of Psalm 31:8. The poem consists of three or four stanzas that repeat well-known praises from the prophetic perspective, celebrating GOD's grace, omnipotence, holiness, justice, and faithfulness.
Luke 1:67-79 is known as the Benedictus, from the Latin translation of its opening word, "blessed". This poem is also full of direct references to Old Testament poetry, such as Malachi 3:1, 7:20, Jeremiah 11:5, and Psalms 41, 72, 106, 107, 111, 132, 105. The resemblances are quite striking. This poem has two stanzas, with the first verse having three lines (68-69,70-72,73-75) and the second, two lines (76-77,78-79).
Luke 2:14 is known by the Latin version of the words with which it opens, Gloria in Excelsis ("Glory in the highest"). This poem has two parts. Each part has three members in the poetic sequence a:b:c::b:a:c. Although it is consistent with Old Testament teachings, this poem has no Old Testament parallel as do the previous two poems.
Luke 2:29-32 also is known by the first words of its Latin translation - i.e., Nunc Dimittis ("Now, let depart..."). This poem has two stanzas (29-30,31-32). The first stanza states what the coming of the Messiah means to the speaker and the second what that coming means to the world. It is an extremely moving and beautiful poem.
The Gospels and Epistles contain many passages that use well-known poetical devices or appear in smooth-flowing, highly intense language. All of these characteristics were exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus appeared as an Old Testament wisdom teacher. He attacked the prevailing religious abuses, holding them up for ridicule (i.e., He used satire). The opening section of his sermon (the Beatitudes) employed the parallelism so well-known from Old Testament poetry. The entire mood of His presentation ran counter to what is ordinarily found in classical literature. "It is obvious that Jesus is setting up ideals that differ from those espoused in literature."
Several of the verses in the Book of James recall the cadence and literary qualities of the Sermon on the Mount. The other epistles contain several encomiums (poetic songs of praise), such as the praise of the incarnate Christ (I Cor. 1:15-20), the praise of love (I Cor. 13), and the praise of faith (Heb. 11). Other exalted passages include Romans 8:35-38; I Corinthians 15:51-57; and Jude 24-25.
The Book of Revelation contains many psalms or hymns and poems (cf. 4:8,11; 5:9,12-13; 7:15-17; 11:17-19). These poems employ various kinds of parallelism that remind us of Old Testament prophetic poetry. Yet they differ from the Old Testament, because they ascribe to Jesus Christ the titles, names, and perfections of GOD. In addition, Revelation is marked by strong symbolism, repetition, parallelism of structure, and so on. All of its visionary material is couched in a rhapsodic, poetic type of prose.
It is impossble to determine what was the "first" Christian hymn. Christians adopted singing as an expression of thanksgiving or joy from the Jewish faith. Scripture tells us that Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples following the Last Supper (Mark 14:26); this most likely was Psalms 113-118 which were traditionally sung at the Passover celebration. The New Testament records other occasions when the apostles and other Christians sang. Paul and Silas, for example, prayed and sang hymns in the jail in Philippi (Acts 16:25).|
What were these songs and hymns? It is impossible to say with certainty, but we find some fragments of these early songs throughout the New Testament. Ephesians 5:14 records part of what may have been a hymn of penitence:
"Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light". A hymn on the glory of martyrdom may have been the source of the saying in II Timothy 2:11-13: "For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him..." Other samples are: Titus 3:4-7 on salvation; Revelation 22:17 on invitation; Philippians 2:6-11 on Christ as GOD's servant; and I Timothy 3:16 on Jesus' incarnation and triumph over death.
Besides serving as songs of praise, these songs were often intended to teach converts the basic truths of Christian faith and life.
Doxologies, or hymns praising GOD, were sung by early Christians and are recorded in fragments. For example, "Thou art worthy, O LORD, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev. 4:11).
Luke records a number of spontaneous songs that were so joyful they were often repeated by early Christians. These canticles have found their way into songs sung today. They include the "Magnificat", Mary's song of praise on learning she would give birth to the Savior (1:46-55); the "Benedictus", Zachariah's joy in the arrival of the Messiah (1:68-79); the "Gloria in Excelsis", the angels' song of praise to GOD (2:14); and the "Nunc Dimittis", Simeon's joyous thanks that the Savior has at last come (2:29-32).
Other early Christian hymns were written after the time the New Testament was written. "A Hymn to the Savior" is credited to the second century A.D. teacher and writer Clement. A literal translation of the first line of this song, which was included at the end of Clement's three-volume work about Christ entitled "The Tutor", is: "Bridle of steeds untamed". However, an English translation reads, "Shepherd of tender youth". This hymn uses numerous metaphors to describe Christ: Fisher of Souls, Everlasting Word, Eternal Light, and so on. This hymn instructed pagan converts on the nature of Christ.
"The Candlelighting Hymn", or "A Hymn for the Lighting of Lamps", was written at about the same time, though the exact date and authorship are unknown. We do know that second-century Christians gathered at dawn and again at twilight to sing hymns, and this hymn would certainly have been appropriate. This song is still used in the Greek Orthodox church as the vesper hymn.
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