Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What Did Jesus Sing?

by Geoffrey Clarfield


Music plays an important role in Christianity, says Geoffrey Clarfield, and was likely heavily influenced by Jewish tradition.

Larger Work

National Post

Publisher & Date

Postmedia Network Inc., December 20, 2010

In the book of Matthew, we are given an account of the Last Supper. Many scholars now believe it was a Passover Seder where Jesus and his disciples most likely recounted, in story and song, the exodus of the Jewish people from their bondage in Egypt over a thousand years earlier. In verse 30 we are told that "when they had sung the hymn they went to the Mount of Olives." As the Old Testament Book of Psalms was the Jewish hymn book of the time, some scholars believe that perhaps Jesus and his disciples sang one of the praise psalms from Psalms 113-118. Given the theme of the Passover Seder it is no surprise that Psalm 114 includes the words, "When Israel came out of Egypt."

As Christmas Eve approaches, monks and nuns in their monasteries will chant Midnight Mass and many of the world's one billion Christians will sing some sort of Christmas music, secular or sacred. And so, we ask: What did Jesus sing? The answer is not simple. But perhaps of even greater importance is the question of whether what Jesus sang influenced the future liturgical music of the Catholic Church, which came to be known as Gregorian chant. For 2,000 years, we didn't know the answers. But during the last century, modern musicology and ethnomusicology have given us some inkling of what Jesus sang -- and what came of it.

It's important to remember that the peoples of the ancient eastern Mediterranean had many different kinds of folk music: songs for births, weddings, funerals and various celebrations throughout the life cycle. We do not have any of the melodies from this time for Judea as there was no written notation and mechanical recording was not invented until the late 1880s. But the music of those ancient times may have resembled, in both form and content, much of the folk music of the Jews, Samaritans, Armenians, Arabs and other inhabitants of the Holy Land during the Ottoman Empire and before -- music of which we have recordings that are over 100 years old. These may represent the last gasp of a musical oral tradition that began centuries before the rise of Islam.

In Roman-occupied Judea, in addition to folk music, there was sacred music, including the chanting of the Psalms by the choirs and musicians of the Temple. But given Jesus's antipathy to the Temple, it is more likely that he knew how to recite, rather than perform, the scriptures -- a practice that developed in the more than 300 synagogues that existed in Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed the Temple. This oral tradition of synagogue cantillation has survived unbroken among the Jewish people for more than 2,000 years and still flourishes today. Over the centuries communities in Spain, Eastern Europe and as far away as Iraq, Persia, Yemen and Uzbekistan have developed their own unique styles of cantillation. One would think that after 2,000 years there would be no more "family resemblance" of a musical nature among these traditions. But there is.

At the start of the 20th century, communities from all over the Islamic and Western world began immigrating to the land of Israel, which had become a mandated protectorate of Great Britain after the First World War. A European-born Jewish musicologist by the name of Idelsohn made it his life's work to record and compare the full range of cantillation of these newly ingathered communities of Jews in their homeland. Apart from the great service of musical preservation that he carried out for the Jewish people, and for the national archives of the future state of Israel, he also conducted the first comparative studies. He found that despite the relative historical separation and isolation of Jewish Diaspora communities, much of their traditional repertoires had similar melodic motives, especially when chanting the Psalms.

In 1938, a young Jew by the name of Eric Werner was allowed to come to New York as a refugee from Hitler's Germany. He was by then already a well-known musician and composer and one of Europe's finest musicologists. During that acme of European anti-Semitism, he asked himself a most counter-intuitive question. Was Gregorian Chant based on the cantillation of the Jewish synagogue?

He spent more than a decade trying to answer that question. In 1959 he published his landmark study on the relations between Jewish cantillation and Gregorian chant. It was called The Sacred Bridge and in it he argued that Gregorian chant was indeed a direct descendant of Jewish synagogue music. He never discovered a definitive medieval or early Christian text that bluntly announced that Christian cantillation was based on Jewish cantillation, but that is not how new religions develop. They adopt and adapt, and the evidence for adoption is circumstantial and comparative.

The Sacred Bridge was published in 1959. In 1974 Werner published an updated second edition with more data. Ever since it has been at the centre of controversy. Some scholars support his thesis while others, such as the chant expert Peter Jeffery, argue that Werner stretched the evidence beyond reasonable expectations.

However, Werner and his supporters have made a number of arguments in support of his thesis. The first and most recent is that now that New Testament scholarship recognizes the Jewishness of Jesus and the strict adherence to Jewish law and ritual by the early church of James (Jesus's brother) and his followers, one can assume that a strict adherence to the basics of cantillation practices among the Jews in the first century AD would have been transferred to the early Christian Church.

The second is the unique nature of the Old and New Testaments, and Christian ritual which had no counterpart in Pagan Hellenism. As Werner put it, the intonation of Jewish liturgical music is determined by "the structure of the sentence and its logical ... relations. Neither its music nor its notation ... [is] autonomous." Musicologists point out that the opening and closing tones of Jewish cantillation and Gregorian chant follow simple basic rising and falling patterns. Syllabic (one word one note) patterns are used throughout the service, but are punctuated with ornamented melismas (what jazz musicians would call improvs) at the most solemn moments in the service. Women were not allowed to participate and instruments were banned (until the rise of Western polyphony in the early middle ages).

The notation of Jewish cantillation and the "neumes" or signs of early Gregorian chant before the adoption of staff notation are similar to the Jewish ones as they emerged as visual "graphs" from hand gestures that give those who live within the oral musical tradition an understanding of varied musical phrases, as opposed to individual notes. This system is still in use in Jewish synagogues around the world. Finally, Werner provides the readers charts of almost identical pieces of Gregorian chant with synagogue melodies.

Curiously, once Christianity had distanced itself from its Hebraic origins in the fourth and fifth centuries, there emerged written accounts of senior Christian authorities like St. Augustine warning of deviation from the old tradition of singing in the Church -- implying an adherence to the musical traditions that came from Jerusalem. Despite the regional evolution of different kinds of church music, some early church fathers declared later musical innovations to be heresy.

Since Werner published his work, it has faced many criticisms, largely based on improvements in our understanding of the comparative history of chant in the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian and other traditions. But that does not mean that Werner's thesis and comparisons are invalid. The earliest notated Gregorian chant comes from 930 AD, almost 1,000 years after Jesus may have sung Hymn 114. It is really an argument about oral tradition and how new religions musically hive off from their parent creed.

But if hearing is believing, the most persuasive evidence available to the listening public can be found on the CD The Sacred Bridge, directed by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata early music ensemble. Song number three of the CD is Psalm 114. It oscillates between Latin and Hebrew, Gregorian chant and synagogue cantillation. The melodies are identical and despite the alteration between Hebrew and Latin you would think you were listening to the same song. In fact, you probably are, for no doubt this is a distant echo of what Jesus sang.

[email protected] Clarfield is an anthropologist-at-large.

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