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.

The Bible, or Reading the Bible? The Authority of Lay Religious Teachers in Fifteenth-Century Germany

In his 1479 printed Beichtspiegel (Mirror for Confession), lay barber and Meistersinger Han Folz of Nuremberg used rhyming verse to teach his readers about the triangle of rew, beicht, buß (contrition, confession, penance); the dangers of purgatory; and above all, the seemingly endless numerical lists of vices and virtues that so characterized fifteenth-century religious literature. [1] There was no need to limit oneself to the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues when there were also four sins that cry to heaven (one of which is, however, the silent sin), six sins against the Holy Spirit, and nine alien sins.

By 1479, a wealthy, prominent, and educated burgher like Folz evidently had little to fear from widely disseminating orthodox religious writing in the vernacular to instruct other laity. Indeed, while he printed the original Beichtspiegel himself, the text was later printed in an anthology alongside didactic literature by clerical authors. Nevertheless, the lack of authority of office led him to ground his authority throughout the Beichtspiegel via textual citation. More specifically, via a single type of citation. Folz cites “Levitici am vierundzweinzigisten capitel” (Leviticus 24); he cites “quarto Regum quinto” (4 Kings 5); he cites “Luce sedecimo” (Luke 16). [2] Throughout the entire Beichtspiegel, almost all of his citations take the same form, and without exception they come from the same source: the Bible.

Initial of the book of Genesis in the Wenceslas Bible (also known as the Bible of Wenceslaus IV); Vienna, Austrian National Library, Codex 2759–64 (1389 CE).

It was not for lack of knowledge of other religious texts. Folz’s Latin was good enough for him to accomplish two different translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, and his immense corpus of surviving poetry, songs, and Carnival plays reveals an extensive familiarity with the more theoretical or theological ideas that lay beneath the “mass market” Christianity of his day. [3] Furthermore, in his medical texts, Folz shows he understands the utility of citing earlier authorities through his references to Galen, Avicenna—and Augustine. [4] In the Beichtspiegel, his decision to rely solely on the Word of God as authority was indeed a decision.

Das wort gottes could be rallying cry of the Reformation because the late Middle Ages got there first. The Bible’s position as the focus of lay arguments in favor of the early Protestant movement, we have long known, was rooted in its already-existing popularity in lay religious life, not its absence. [5] In addition to the enormous amount of [[vernacular biblical material available to lay readers]], pastoral care manuals and priests’ prefaces to Bible translations emphasized the need to make scripture accessible to the laity.

Sandra Corbellini has noted a second important emphasis in pastoral texts encouraging lay Bible use: the act of reading scripture—independent of the specific contents—as an act of peri-mystical devotion reminiscent of monastic meditatio. One of the fifteenth century’s most influential preachers, Bernardino of Siena, preached that “the more you read and study [the Bible], the more sweetness you get, the more you feel the taste of God. If you try it, you will know; otherwise not.” [6]

No matter how rhythmic Folz’s verse (not really at all) or how perfect his rhymes (very imperfect), it is undeniable that his rote lists of sins and virtues put one in the mindset of learning facts, not the prayerful devotion Bernardino suggests. However, popular teaching’s legitimization of the act of reading scripture from the act of learning from reading scripture had its parallel at the more learned level, too.

Ian Christopher Levy’s aptly named Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages shows how the theological debates of the turbulent period between 1370 and 1430 so often turned on the question of who had the authority to determine what constituted a correct—therefore authoritative—interpretation of scripture.[7] The act of correct reading, separate from the interpretation itself, was important enough to be its own flashpoint for debate and worse. The act of reading was inseparable from the determination of authority.

The opening of the Ottheinrich Bible, the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament in the German language, commissioned by Ludwig VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt; Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cgm 8010, p.2 (c. 1430 CE).

In that light, the specific method by which Folz cites the Bible merits attention. With the exception of a couple of places where Folz refers briefly to a Bible story to illustrate his point, all biblical references take the same full form: book and chapter. (Verses were not regularly numbered and used until far later.) His citations are purposeful citations of the Bible as a book, not just a text.

Folz, moreover, is not the only fifteenth-century German layman to seek this association. 1460s-era lay apocalyptic prophets Livin and Johannes Wirsberger of Egerland were exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their position, given the dark fears of the devil corrupting ignorant lay people into proclaiming false prophecies. Their few surviving letters feature insistent deferrals to the Church as the ultimate judge of true and false messages, but also their authority to write anyway. [8] One favorite tactic? The citation of scripture by book and chapter.

Folz and to some extent the Wirsbergers direct their readers’ attention to the Bible as a book—inseparable from directing readers’ attention to the authors’ familiarity with the Bible as a book. They seem to signal not just their religious knowledge, but the fact that they are able to access it through reading the Bible.

The possibility that religious authority could lie in the act of reading scripture raises questions about the relationship of laity and clergy, and just as importantly, public perception of “clergy” and/versus “lay” in the realm of popular, vernacular religious teaching. In an era filled with das wort gottes and significantly increasing urban literacy rates, further investigation will hopefully help illuminate intersections between contemporary religious culture, benefit of clergy, and—yes—a priesthood of quite a few additional believers.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Hans Folz, “Beichtspiegel,” in Hans Folz: Die Reimpaarsprüche, ed. Hanns Fischer (Beck, 1961), 188-210.

[2] Folz, 195 (4 Kings 5); 202 (Leviticus 24);204 (Luke 16).

[3] See, for example, John D. Martin, “Dramatized Disputations: Late Medieval German Dramatizations of Jewish-Christian Religious Disputations, Church Policy, and Local Social Climates,” Medieval Encounters 8, no. 2–3 (2002): 209–27.

[4] Folz, “Pestregimen in Versen,” in Fischer, 412-428; “Pestregimen in Prosa,” in Fischer, 429-437.

[5] Although research on the use of the Bible in German-speaking lands has generally lagged behind studies in other regions, Anthony Gow’s work offers an excellent introduction to the medieval situation as well as briefly touching on earlier scholarly efforts: Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[6] Translated in Sandra Corbellini, “Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars, and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Brill, 2012), 24.

[7] Ian Christopher Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), xi.

[8] Frances Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy (Oxford, 2016), 115, translates: “Thus should you act justly in your reason and take to heart what the lords Matthew in 23, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all say.”