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.