Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 1786, a Christian Hymn

If you’ve ever gone to church and wondered, “When did Christians start singing hymns?” one answer with manuscript evidence to back it is “mid to late third century or before.” We can say that with certainty because we have P.Oxy. 1786, which (thanks to a grain receipt on one side) we can be pretty sure was written sometime in the third century (200–299), likelier in the later half of that range.


P.Oxy. 1786

Even better, we not only have an idea of the words of the hymn, but we also have an idea of the music. This is the earliest Christian hymn with musical notation extant. You can see the notation above the word line. It’s pretty awesome. In the ed. princ., Grenfell and Hunt supply the complete transcsription as well as a reconstruction of the hymn in modern musical notation (courtesy H. Stuart Jones). So slip this to your worship team for Sunday, and see what they do with it:


P.Oxy. 1786 transcription and with musical notation

But what is the translation? Here’s Blumell & Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus, (p. 323), though note that this translation (which I’ve roughly broken to follow the stanzas above; note the first line has no musical notation extant) is based on a slightly different transcription with more reconstruction. The [bracketed] portions are Blumell & Wayment’s reconstructions and have no musical notation available:

… together all the notable of God (sing?)
… or the day (?), let it be silent. Let the lu-
minous stars not … [Let the winds(?) and] all the flowing rivers [be silent],
while we sing, Father and
Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers
respond, “Amen, amen.” Strength and praise
[and glory forever to God], the sole giver
of all good things, “Amen, amen.”

This is pretty solid stuff. There’s the Trinitarian formula (“Father and Son and Holy Spirit”) clearly expressed. In a hymn. In the mid-to-late third century. This is pre-Constantine, and only 200 years or so removed from the birth of Christianity. The notion of calling the elements (wind, rivers) and heavenly phenomenon (stars) to silence while the Trinitarian formula is sung, followed by a call for the “all the powers” to respond with a double amen affirming the Godhead is (at least as I read it) stunning.


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