Hymnography as an Avenue of Biblical Interpretation

Hymnography (Greek: ὑμνογραφία) is one of the most prolific and creative genres of Christian literature, especially Byzantine. The word hymn (ὕμνος) means a song of religious content composed for liturgical use. Christian worship included the singing of hymns from the very beginning (Matt. 26:30; Eph. 1: 3-14). The Holy Scriptures, as the most important source and content of Christian worship, inspire and permeate church hymns, many of which represent a true “mosaic of biblical words and phrases” (Lash 2008, 35). Thus, the earliest Christian hymns developed from the singing of psalms and biblical odes, and then from non-biblical refrains and antiphons, which were inserted between biblical verses (Frøyshov 2013).

Unlike the traditional approach, where the focus was on the historical and literary characteristics of hymnography, recent scholarship emphasizes its exegetical significance (Wickes 2019; Pentiuc 2021). The roots of exegetical hymnography can be found in the hymn On Pascha by Melito of Sardis (d. ca 180). Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus is retold in its first part, while in the second the significance of that narrative is presented. However, exegetical hymnography gained its real momentum in the 4th century among the Syrian-speaking Christians with Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and his hymns known as madrasha. The main characteristic of madrasha is that it is based on biblical texts and gives their interpretations. Somewhat later, under the influence of madrasha, but also other genres of Syrian hymnography, such as mêmrê (a metrical sermon) and soghitha (a responsory song in the form of dialogues) (Brock 1983; Brock 1989), the kontakion appeared in the Greek tradition (Maas 1910; Brock 1989). This hymnographic genre, which flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries, was a type of biblical commentary–sometimes called “sung homily”–in which the poet used dialogues and elaboration of the biblical text in order to convey the content of the Holy Scriptures to the public, i.e. the gathered congregation. The most important representative of this hymnographic genre is Romanos the Melodist (d. after 555), to whom a large number of kontakia are attributed, of which approximately sixty are authentic (Maas and Trypanis 1963).

Romanos the Melodist and Virgin Mary, Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II (ca 1000 CE).

The last great hymnographic genre, even though not the last to appear, is the kanon. Its beginnings date back to the 4th-5th centuries (Frøyshov 2013), but, thanks to several prominent hymnographers, such as Andrew of Crete (d. 740), John of Damascus (d. ca 750) and Kosmas the Melodist (d. ca 752), the kanon eventually prevailed from the 8th century as the most represented hymnographic genre in the Byzantine liturgical tradition. Based on nine biblical odes, the structure of the kanon summarizes the entire history of salvation from the passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (ode 1) to the incarnation of Christ (ode 9).

Great Byzantine hymnographers: Joseph the Hymnographer, Theophanes Graptos, Theodore the Studite, John of Damascus and Kosmas the Melodist. Nerezi (North Macedonia), north wall (1164 CE).

Hymnography is permeated with virtually all biblical readings, while hymnographers, using both previously mentioned and other genres to provide their interpretation of specific biblical verses, employ methods that overcome divisions both among biblical books and between the Old and New Testaments. Christian poets, therefore, used hymnographic forms to interpret the Holy Scriptures, but also to revive, actualize and reenact them in a certain way at liturgical gatherings (Merton 1956; Krueger, 2015). Therefore, in addition to typology and allegory as the two primary exegetical methods in hymnography, we should also mention the remarkably widespread practice of reworking, supplementing and even rewriting the Bible in liturgical hymns (Bucur 2007). Namely, instead of establishing a connection between a certain Old Testament and New Testament event or person, achieved by employing typology, or instead of searching for the spiritual reality behind an Old Testament narrative, which is characteristic of allegory, hymnographers rework and supplement biblical narratives and adapt them to specific contexts. In this process of elaborating or a kind of rewriting the biblical text, we see a rhetorical technique quite common for late antique and Byzantine hymnography, i.e. inventing speeches for biblical characters (prosopopeia or personification) or constructing dialogues between them. Such fictional speeches and dialogues have served various purposes, such as explaining silence in a text, attaching a certain theological meaning to the text, or developing the psychological profile of a particular biblical figure. Among the most illustrative examples are undoubtedly fictional dialogues between biblical protagonists that we meet in the hymnography of great feasts, such as Christmas (between the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus), Epiphany (between Christ and John the Baptist), Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (between Simeon and the Infant Jesus), etc.

In conclusion, it can be said that classical Byzantine biblical commentaries and hymnography are mutually complementary. Moreover, if we accept as the point of departure the fact that the liturgical space is the context in which the Holy Scriptures are listened to and interpreted, then this is already a major step towards recognizing hymnography as a privileged bearer of biblical exegesis. Finally, if we keep in mind that we no longer have systematic biblical commentaries in the Christian East since the 6th century, and especially in the post-iconoclastic period, which coincides with the flourishing of hymnography, we can claim that hymnography takes over that role to some extent. Therefore, it is impossible to fully assess the reach and value of the medieval biblical exegesis of the Orthodox East if hymnography is not taken into account.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)


Further Reading:

Brock, Sebastian. “Dialogue Hymns of the Syriac Churches”. Sobornost incorporating Eastern Churches Review 5:2 (1983) 35–45

______. “From Ephrem to Romanos”. In Studia Patristica 20, edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 139–151. Leuven: Peeters, 1989.

Bucur, Bogdan. “Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies in Byzantine Hymnography: Rewritten Bible?”, Theological Studies 68 (2007) 92-112.

Frøyshov, Stig. ‘Byzantine Rite’, ‘Rite of Constantinople’ and ‘Rite of Jerusalem’, in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology at:https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/ b/byzantine-rite [by subscription], 2013.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. Theology and Poetry in Early Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Grosdidier de Matons, José Grosdidier. Romanos le Mélode et les origines de la poésie religieuse à Byzance, Paris: Éditions Beauchesne, 1977.

—. “Liturgie et Hymnographie: Kontakion et Canon”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34 (1980–81) 31-43.

Hall, Stuart George. Melito of Sardis “On Pascha” and Fragments, Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Lash, Ephrem. “Biblical Interpretation in Worship”. In The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, edited by Mary Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, 35–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hannick, Christian. “The Theotokos in Byzantine Hymnography: Typology and Allegory”. In Images of the Mother of God. Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, edited by Maria Vassilaki, 69-76. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

“Hymnography”. In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 2, edited by Alexander Kazhdan et al., 960-961. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Krueger, Derek. “Liturgical Time and Holy Land Reliquaries in Early Byzantium”. In Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein, 110-131. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2015.

Maas, Paul. “Das Kontakion”. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 19 (1910) 285–306.

Maas, Paul and Trypanis, Constantine Athanasius (eds). Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Genuina, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Merton, Thomas. “Time and Liturgy”, Worship 31 (1956) 2-10.

Pentiuc, Eugen. Hearing the Scriptures: Liturgical Exegesis of the Old Testament in Byzantine Orthodox Hymnography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Wellesz, Egon. A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Wickes, Jeffrey. “Poetry and Hymnody”. In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, edited by Paul Blowers and Peter Martens, 254-269. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Liturgy in Service of Imperial Authority

As an integral part of the Church ritual, liturgical hymns provide what is possibly the most effective means of communicating dogmatic truths and conveying ethical ideals to the congregation. Combining words and music, hymns can produce a strong impression upon the minds of the faithful and play an important role in their spiritual edification. However, it would not be correct to assume that their content is exclusively spiritual. Rather, due to a specific relationship between the state and the church in the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as Byzantium (330-1453), it is not surprising that liturgical hymns contain many references to the emperor. In the aftermath of the legalisation of Christianity with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, and especially when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the liturgy was regularly used to support imperial authority.

The promulgation of the Edict of Milan and the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337) to Christianity completely changed the position of the Church in the empire. After a period of persecutions, the Church became the second most important pillar of society, with the imperial power being the first. Especially important for the construction of this new reality was the production of the discourse surrounding Constantine’s conversion. This discourse was based on the cross, the supreme Christian symbol, and on several prominent Old Testament leaders of the chosen people, especially Moses, David, and later Joshua. The contribution of Eusebius (d. 339), sometimes characterised as “court theologian,” to the creation and dissemination of this discourse was enormous, and this laid the foundation for what would be later known as a ‘symphony’ or the harmonious coexistence of state and church.

The cross, initially understood as a symbol of Christ’s victory over the Devil and death, became closely related to the emperor and transformed into a symbol of imperial victories and prosperity of the empire with divine assistance after Constantine’s victory under that sign against Maxentius (Eusebius, VC 1.27-39).

The Vision of the Cross. Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Circle of Raphael (1520-1524).

This idea, after being developed in various literary genres, especially panegyrics, found its way into liturgical hymns. Hymnographers frequently eulogise the cross as a powerful weapon, which brings victories to the emperor and secures peace in the empire. Liturgical hymns for the Exaltation of the True Cross (14 September), the central annual feast of the cross in the Byzantine tradition, repeatedly stress not only the spiritual dimension of the cross in Christian life but also its military and triumphant functions. The best example is probably the apolytikion, as the main celebratory hymn for each feast is called, for the feast of the Exaltation: “O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance, grant victory to the emperor against the barbarians, and guard your empire through your cross” (Festal Menaion, September 14). The hymn strongly emphasises the close interrelation between the cross, the empire and the church community. The community prays to God to save and protect the subjects of the empire through his cross, which secures imperial victories against the barbarian enemies (cf. Demacopoulos, 123). Similar references to the cross abound in hymns for this feast. However, for this occasion I will include only two more examples, both taken from an unpublished hymn attributed to Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 740), and preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript from the collection of Mount Sinai. The first one reads as follows:

“We pray, grant to the most pious emperor your power, through your life-giving cross, O Christ; he boasts about you and, placing his hopes in you, will be saved.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 129

In the second one, the invocation of the cross’s might is not phrased in generic terms; rather, the hymnographer makes specific references to the power of the cross against the Arab Muslims.

“Let us bow before the wood of the Cross, which provides the power to the most pious emperor against enemies, and subjects to him the foolish offspring of Hagar.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 128v

The cited example shows how a reference to the cross becomes part of inter-religious polemics. The author praises the cross as a source of power for the emperor to defeat his foes who are denoted as descendants of Hagar. The word “Hagarenes”, designating the offspring of Abraham’s slave Hagar in its biblical usage (Gen. 16; Chr. 5:19, and Ps. 82:7), was commonly employed by Christian authors to denote the Arabs both before and after the appearance of Islam, as they were believed to be the offshoot of Hagar’s son Ishmael.

In Byzantium, the emperor was also frequently related to distinguished Old Testament figures, especially to prominent leaders of the Israelites. Byzantine rhetorical treatises, such as the tenth-century On the Eight Parts of Rhetorical Speech, provide clear instructions to panegyrists to compare the emperor with Moses, David and Joshua the son of Nun. This practice gradually found its way to liturgical hymns. The aforementioned manuscript from the Mount Sinai collection transmits a hymn for the annual celebration of Joshua the son of Nun. Intriguingly, in the Christian tradition of the first millennium, Joshua was rarely regarded as a model warrior or related to the emperor. This perception changed from the ninth century onwards, especially at the time when Byzantine emperors attempted to recapture Palestine from the Arabs.

Joshua. Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece, 11th c.

Having as the point of departure Joshua’s accomplishments and military exploits against the Amalekites, and especially the narrative that he led the Israelites into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:1-14), the author of the hymn from the Sinai manuscript puts Joshua’s leadership and military exploits in the foreground, directly associating him with the emperor.  Thus in one of the stanzas, the poet appeals to God as follows:

“You who were fellow-general of your servant Joshua against his opponents in the past, now in a similar way be fellow-general of the emperors against [their] enemies.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 11

There is little doubt that this and other references to Joshua need to be seen within the broader historical context of the Middle Byzantine period, especially in relation to the Byzantine-Arab wars during the reign of the emperors from the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056) who sought to return Palestine to Byzantine control. Joshua’s leadership skills and military prowess, which he demonstrated in warfare against the native population of the Promised Land, became a source of inspiration for Byzantine authors and artists during the same period. As a result, visual representations of Joshua appear with some frequency in monumental painting and on portable objects produced during the so-called Macedonian Renaissance.

The Joshua Roll, 10th century, Tempera and gold on vellum, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Pal. gr. 431.

Hymnographic texts, addressed to a wide audience, could also be effectively mobilised to reinforce imperial authority among imperial subjects. Even more so when a good opportunity was available, as in the present case, namely on the feast day of one of the most prominent leaders of God’s chosen people. Since the Byzantines regarded themselves as the New Israel, with the pious emperor as their leader comparable to the Old Testament leaders, the author of the kanon exploited this to relate the emperor to Joshua. In this respect, the hymn can be compared to other genres of Byzantine literature whose main purpose was to glorify the emperor.

Scenes from an Ivory Casket with Scenes of the Story of Joshua, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (10th c.).

As a conclusion, it can be said that the New Testament commandment to pray for those in power (1 Tim 2: 1-2) from the time of Constantine developed into the concept that the emperor is the chief protector of the church and orthodoxy and has to be glorified in liturgy. In addition, imperial success in wars against those of a different religion was understood as a guarantee for the freedom of the Christian faith in the empire. Moreover, by comparing the warfare between the Eastern Roman Empire and their enemies, particularly against the Persians and Arabs, with the wars that the biblical chosen people of ancient Israel waged against the Amalekites, Byzantine authors situated those wars within the biblical context attaching a sacred character to them. In that way, the Byzantines became the New Israel, and their emperors were understood as the successors of the Israelite leaders. Consequently, their inclusion in liturgical texts and the ritual was considered legitimate.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Eusebios, Eusebius Werke I. Über das Leben Constantins. Constantins Rede an die Heilige Versammlung. Tricennatsrede an Constantin, GCS 7, edited by I. A. Heikel, Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1902. English translation: Life of Constantine, trans. A. Cameron and S. Hall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Demacopoulos, George. “The Eusebian Valorization of Violence and Constantine’s Wars for God”. In Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy, edited by Edward Siecienski, 115-128. London: Routledge, 2017.

Schapiro, Meyer. “The Place of the Joshua Roll in Byzantine History,” Gazette des beaux-arts 35 (1949) 161–176.

Rapp, Claudia. “Old Testament Models for Emperors in Early Byzantium”. In The Old Testament in Byzantium, edited by P. Magdalino and R. Nelson, 175-197. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2010.

Simic, Kosta. “Remembering the Damned. Byzantine Liturgical Hymns as Instruments of Religious Polemics”. In Memories of Utopia: The Revision of Histories and Landscapes in Late Antiquity, edited by Bronwen Neil and Kosta Simic, 156-170. London: Routledge, 2020.

The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Thierry, Nicole. “Le culte de la croix dans l’empire byzantine du VIIe siècle au Xe dans les rapports avec la guerre contre l’infidèle”. Rivista di studi bizantini e slavi 1 (1980/81) 205-228.

The “Sinful” Soldiers of the Early Ottoman Military Structure: οι ἁμαρτωλόι

This short research blog focuses on the development of the word ἁμαρτάνω “to sin” from the advent of Christianity to the late Byzantine era. The word, ἁμαρτάνω, is widely used in the Bible as it appears forty-three times. To word’s primary meaning in the Bible was to “err and sin”; however, from time to time, it was also used to signify the action of offending. ἁμαρτάνω occurs in many different forms in the New Testament as we see it in aorist first-person singular active form Ἥμαρτον” eight times, second-person singular indicative middle six times, and second-person indicative active plural form three times.[1] I will trace the different nuances in the meaning of this word in the subsequent periods, especially in the late Byzantine period. My argument is that as several Greek and non-Greek sources indicate, the word ἁμαρτάνω began having a military connotation in this period as it was applied to the Christian military units who had cooperated with the enemy forces, especially the Turks.

Inscription, in The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum

        In Homeric times, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious connotation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament suggests that, initially, the word was used to convey the action of “missing” i.e failure to follow rules and signify a moral deficit or immoral physical undertaking. [2] However, in the later periods (c. 400 BCE), we begin seeing a shift from legal to religious use since ἁμαρτάνω made its way to the Book of Kings in the old testament, meaning “to rebel” against the god and his order in the earth.[3] From a theological standpoint, rebelling against the will of God means to err from the true path and therefore to sin. In this way, those who had intentionally deviated from moral or religious standards came to be defined as αμαρτωλός “the sinful one” in the later Christian religious texts.[4]

Early Christian symbols on an Egyptian textile, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

        ἁμαρτάνω is mostly used to signify the action of “sin” and neglecting the commands of God with an exception of “offending” in the New Testament.[5] In the Book of Romans, for instance, we see the following structure: “γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον ἀνόμως καὶ” which means “Indeed without law I sinned without law also[…]”.[6] Here, ἁμαρτάνω was used in the aorist, active, and indicative form. In another example, this time from the Book of Corinthians, the word is used in such a construction: “οὕτως δὲ ἁμαρτάνοντες εἰς τοὺς” meaning “thus moreover sinning against those […]” in the participle, present, active form.[7] Besides the action of sinning, ἁμαρτάνω seems to be used in a different meaning, “to offend”, in the Book of Apostles although a minor disagreement exists between various interpreters. Regarding the following phase: “Καίσαρά τι ἥμαρτον[…]” while New American Standard Bible renders the word as “committing”, the King James version translate the term as “offending”. However, the new international version disagrees with these suggestions, interpreting the whole phrase as “Caesar [in] anything sinned […]”.[8]

Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. London: Osprey, 1983.

        Besides its use in legal and religious spheres, towards the late Byzantine period, we begin seeing the word, ἁμαρτάνω, or its variants in Greek and Turkish texts in the military context. With the Turkish advance towards western Asia Minor and the Balkans in the later 13th and early 14th centuries, the local Greek-speaking people began adjusting to the newly established political reality in their respective territories by means of cooperating with their new rulers. A significant portion of the Greek population in these regions had converted to Islam, while others participated in the Ottoman military system as auxiliary units. As the later Byzantine writer Pachymeres states in his Ιστορία, the Greeks from Anatolia, “ἐπιμιξάντων καὶ Ῥωμαíων ἐξ ἀνατολῆς”, had occasionally joined the Turkish forces to raid the Byzantine territories in the hopes of acquiring material gain.[9] Besides Pachymeres, Doukas also refers to these Greek collaborators in his historical work, calling them “μιξοβαρβαροι” meaning half-Greek and half-Turks.[10] Although these authors shunned using the word, ἁμαρτωλός, several Turkish authors borrow this term from their Greek correspondents. An early Ottoman called Aşıkpaşazade reports that the founder of the Ottoman principality, Osman Gazi, had a “martolos” ( مارتلوس) by the name of Artun who acted as a spy in the Byzantine territories for the Ottomans.[11] After the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, as the land surveys indicate, the Ottomans had given landed estates to several Christian military units who were also called “martolos”.[12]

Greek Armatolos by Carl Haag (1820–1915).

         Lastly, after the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans also formed provincial forces in mainland Greece named “armatolos” which had a clear phonetic resemblance with the word “amartolos”. Although several scholars argued that this term had derived from a medieval loan word from Latin arma “weapon” via Greek αρματολός it is also within the boundaries of possibility that the development of that word might have originated from αμαρτωλός since the use of the latter preceded the former. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), these αρματολός units had actively participated in military encounters against the Ottoman forces as we are able to trace their role in Greek folk songs: “συλλογιστείτε το καλά, /ότι (: γιατί) σας καίμε τα χωριά· / γρήγορα τ’ αρματολίκι,/ οτ’ ερχόμαστε σαν λύκοι” “Think well, / that [why] we burn your villages; / quickly the armatoliki, / that we come like wolves”.[13]

        In sum, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious implications during Homeric times as it was used to convey the idea of “missing” (i.e. “missing the mark”). However, in the later periods, it started appearing in the Bible as the word began to signify the act of transgression against the word of God. In the late Byzantine period, however, a derivation of this word,  ἁμαρτωλός, was used for Christians who cooperated with the enemy forces since it was thought that they rebelled against God by aligning themselves with the non-Christian adversaries. 


[1] Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Search for word: ἁμαρτάνω.

[2]Danker, Frederick W. et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Exeter: Eerdmans, 1974) 44.

[3] Ibid. 43.

[4] Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed. James Morwood and John Taylor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

[5] Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Exeter: William Eerdmen Publishing, 1985. 49.

[6] www.biblegateway.com, Romans 2:12-16.

[7] www.biblegateway.com, Corinthians 8-12.

[8] www.biblegateway.com, Acts 25:8.

[9] George Pachymeres, Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, 5 vols (Paris, 1984–2000) 4:643.18.

[10] Doukas, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas, ed. Harry Magouilas. Detroit, 1975. 33.

[11] Aşıkpaşazade, Osmanoğulları’nın Tarihi ed. Kemal Yavuz and Yekta Saraç. İstanbul: MAS Matbaacılık, 2003. 324.

[12] Suret-i Defter-i Sancak-ı Tirhala, ed. Melek Delilbasi and Muzaffer Arikan, (Ankara: TTK, 2001) 296-334.

[13] Demetrius Petropoulos, ελληνικα δημοτικα τραγουδια Vol1 (Greek Popular Songs), (Athens: Βασικη βιβλιοθηκη, 1958): 3-65.