Friday, 6 January 2017

The Earliest Christian Hymn Outside Scripture

A happy Christmas to those whose Christmas today is. By the traditional Latin calendar it is Epiphany, so happy Epiphany, the Latins. I must find where B.A, has hidden the Three Wise Men and put them in the créche before the sitting-room hearth.

When I took my first Latin course, there was a ritual exchange between Sister W and us her young charges. It went like this:

"Salvete, puellae"

"Sal-VE, so-ror [Wah-DEEE-DAAAA]."


(She begins the prayer.)

I was strongly reminded of this yesterday as I listened to the first dialogue of my new Assimil Grec Ancien, for it was basically the same thing: "Hello, child." "Hello, teacher." "Hello, children!"  Not surprisingly, it did not end in the Greek for "Oremus" and a prayer.

However, I think it a good thing to begin classes for Catholics with prayer---thanks entirely to Sister W I have known the Salve Regina for most of my life---and so I went on a hunt for an early Greek hymn. Of course the Hellenic Mediterranean world of the first century was 400-500 years removed from Classical Attic Greek, so naturally anything Christian is going to be in the Koine Greek so beloved of Evangelical theology schools. 

I did a bit of Google searching and found that "Phos Hilaron", i.e. "O Gladsome Light", still used today by the Greek Orthodox Church as a vesper hymn, appeared in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD. 

Here is the music, followed by the Wikipedia lyrics and translation. 

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης ἀθανάτου Πατρός,
οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν,
ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα, Θεόν.
Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις,
Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς· διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

A classical pronunciation of above:

Phôs hilaròn hagías dóxēs, athanátou Patrós,
ouraníou, hagíou, mákaros, Iēsoû Christé,
elthóntes epì tḕn hēlíou dýsin, idóntes phôs hesperinón,
hymnoûmen Patéra, Hyión, kaì Hágion Pneûma, Theón.
Áxión se en pâsi kairoîs hymneîsthai phōnaîs aisíais,
Hyiè Theoû, zoḕn ho didoús, diò ho kósmos sè doxázei.

Literal translation:

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee.

Is that not lovely? You can find much slower version on Youtube, but they are more suitable for church than for class. 

Many biblical scholars think that there are traces of hymns in the New Testament itself, but I want to give my pupils something entirely new to them. It would interesting to find Septuagint psalms to sing, of course.


  1. There are some great settings of this hymn, my favourite probably being "Hail Gladdening Light" by Charles Wood:

  2. My favourite is Stainer's arrangement:

  3. I love that hymn! It was one of the first I committed to memory when I joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. Great Vespers was the first service I attended, and that hymn grabbed me at the first hearing. It makes a lovely lullaby, too.

    1. Let me know if you know an online recording of it with good female singers!