New Wineskins: HistoryGuy’s Questions, Part 1

WineskinsbannerHistoryGuy posed some challenging questions in the comments. I thought I’d try my hand at a response.

(1) What is your evidence that the Ephesians of Paul’s day used instrumental music?

There is no evidence that conclusively says they did or did not use instrumental music. The possibility that instrumental music was used is suggested by Paul’s command to sing “psalms,” which were written to be sung to instruments. Psalmos refers to an accompanied song.

Liddell-Scott’s Greek Lexicon defines psalmos

twitching or twanging with the fingers, of a bow, Eur.
II. mostly of musical strings: the sound of the harp, Pind., Aesch.
2. later, a song sung to the harp, a psalm, N.T.

And so Paul said to sing a “song sung to the harp, a psalm.” You can’t insist that the Ephesians were necessarily a cappella based on Paul’s word choice.

Just so, Paul writes,

(Rom 15:8-11 ESV) 8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” 10 And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.”

These are references to Old Testament passages, quoted by a rabbi. He meant to use the words as used in their original contexts.

“Sing” in v. 9 is psallo. He is quoting the Septuagint, and in the Septuagint, psallo meant to sing with instrumental accompaniment.

Again, to a First Century reader, familiar with the Septuagint, a cappella would have been far removed from the language Paul quotes. Indeed, when the Septuagint was written, the words were an encouragement to sing instrumentally. This is surely a strange way for an apostle to argue if he intends to be understood as “no instruments allowed.”

Borrowing from Clyde Symonette’s work, we have to consider this Kingdom prophecy —

(Jer 31:4, 7, 12-13 ESV) 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. …

7 For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ …

12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.

13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Was this prophecy fulfilled? Why would God inspire a prophecy that the Messiah’s Kingdom would be marked by instrumental music if he intended to ban instrumental music from its worship?

The “Odes of Solomon,” written around 100 to 130 AD, include these songs —

Ode 7

And because of his salvation He will possess everything. And the Most High will be known by His holy ones:
To announce to those who have songs of the coming of the Lord, that they may go forth to meet Him and may sing to Him, with joy and with the harp of many tones. The Seers shall go before Him, and they shall be seen before Him.
And they shall praise the Lord in His love, because He is near and does see.

“The harp of many tones” doesn’t seem like a metaphor. Indeed, it sure reads like an exhortation to instrumental music.

Ode 26

I poured out praise to the Lord, because I am His own.
And I will recite His holy ode, because my heart is with Him.
For His harp is in my hand, and the odes of His rest shall not be silent.
I will call unto Him with all my heart, I will praise and exalt Him with all my members.

“I will recite His holy ode … For His harp is in my hand” doesn’t read like a metaphor. Indeed, “I will … exalt Him with all my members” is an obvious reference to physical worship (such as plucking the strings of a harp). And the Odes are entirely consistent with Jeremiah 31, not to mention the commands to sing psalms.

On what basis could someone insist that the early church was exclusively a cappella? The scriptures don’t say so — and even suggest to the contrary. The earliest hymns outside of scripture that we’ve found contradict that theory. Therefore, the theory is, at the least, unproven. In fact, I find no evidence for it at all, other than reading later church history back into the First Century, a highly suspect methodology indeed.

(2) What is your evidence that the word “psalm,” without supporting context, permits the use of instrumental music?

The Greek lexicons. I’ve already quoted Liddell-Scott. Moulton and Milligan, in Vocabulary of the New Testament, define psalmos

“psalm” or “song,” sung to a harp accompaniment: see Syll 524 ( = (3 )959)(10 (ii/A.D.), where kitharismos and psalmos are distinguished, the former, according to the editor, being “de eo qui plectro utitur,” the latter “de eo qui ipsis digitis chordas pulsat.” See also Preuschen-Bauer Wörterb. s.v.

I don’t know Latin, but the last phrase is translated by Google as “of a man who strikes the strings, even of the fingers.” I’m sure it could be better phrased, but it’s clear enough that psalmos is used of lyrics written for instrumental accompaniment.

You have to figure that a reference to a “psalm” would be heard in a Christian context, in a church founded by Jewish rabbis among Jews, as primarily a reference to the Old Testament psalms, which repeatedly exhort the reader to instrumental worship and which were written to be accompanied by instruments. The word is saturated with instrumental context.

(3) Upon what evidence do you tell the early church fathers they were wrong to reject instrumental music?

I never made such a claim. Instrumental music may well have been contra-missional in the late second and later centuries. The use or non-use of instrumental music is morally neutral as it has nothing to do with the gospel.

In a given culture, the use of instrumental music may well be missionally inappropriate. See further below.

(4) If the Apostles did not teach the didactic nature of Christian worship where a cappella flourished and instrumental music was irrelevant, who did?

There were pressures among Jews and secular Greeks to sing a cappella, quite independent of any supposed apostolic command. Again, borrowing from Clyde Symonette’s article

Marsha Edelman writes,

The destruction of the Second Temple also served as the catalyst for a vast change in the music of worship. In the Temple, the Levites had employed instruments — drums, cymbals, horns, lyres, trumpets — but after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis forbade the use of instruments during prayer. Two reasons for this proscription have been suggested. First, the absence of musical instruments would serve as a sign of mourning for the Temple. Second, the rabbis of the Talmud opposed the use of instruments in prayer services because of their anti-Hellenistic sentiments.

(Marsha B. Edelman, “Synagogue and Religious Music,” My JewishLearning).

Further, Eliyahu Schleifer tells us that there were Halakhic prohibitions on instruments —

The simplicity of the music in the early synagogue was influenced by the halakhic [rabbinic] prohibitions against playing musical instruments, or, under certain circumstances, even singing. These prohibitions stem from three different sources: rules of Sabbath observance; the mourning over the destruction of the Temple; and the struggle against what the Rabbis took to be promiscuity.

(Eliyahu Schleifer, Sacred Sound and Social Change: Liturgical Music in Jewish and Christian Experience (University of Notre Dame Press), republished at Jewish Liturgics, Chant Development, Jewish Liturgical Music, Part II”)

The Wikipedia (“A Cappella“) cites Philo as one source of Jewish objection to instrumental worship —

The popularization of the Jewish chant may be found in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, born 20 BCE. Weaving together Jewish and Greek thought, Philo promoted praise without instruments, and taught that “silent singing” (without even vocal chords) was better still.[27] So strong was his influence that the Jewish sect of the Pharisees even came to oppose the temple instruments.[28]

And the early church remained very Jewish for years after the apostles. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, by Oskar Skarsaune, explains how tightly the early church was tied to Judaism in the early years — only to later working to expunge its Judaism for ignoble reasons.

There were also Greek efforts to condemn instrumental music. Danny Corbitt quotes Louis H. Feldman, Studies in Hellenistic Judaism (Brill, 1996), p. 525 —

Philo reflects the Greek contempt for instrumental music.

In short, there were both Jewish and secular Greek cultural trends opposing the instrument. I presume some of this came from Platonic thought — the idea that physical things are unholy. Certainly Platonic thought eventually made its way into the church, leading to the very asceticism that Paul so roundly condemned in Colossians and elsewhere.

I think the apostles had very little interest in the instrumental question. They would have been happy celebrating with instruments, were there no cultural reasons not to. Indeed, doing so would have honored prophecy, emulated the worship of heaven as pictured in the Revelation, and would have been true to the heart of David — the man after God’s own heart.

But God neither commands nor prohibits the instrument. In cultural settings where the instrument would harm the gospel, the instrument takes a backseat to the gospel. And evidently, this very thing happened in the Second Century.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to New Wineskins: HistoryGuy’s Questions, Part 1

  1. Bruce Morton says:

    You write as if the parallels in the text (which have been much discussed in the last few months in your weblog) do not exist, nor the contrast of debauchery (Gk. asotia) versus song or Paul's remarkable use of the Septuagint in the text.

    To show love to a brother and go the extra mile, let me ask a question that helps eliminate wiggle room and our bandying "I thinks": Do you believe Ephesians 5:11 and 5:18-21 are parallelisms, or no?

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  2. R.J. says:

    I find it hard to believe psalmos only meant "harp singing" since the temple had wind and percussion instruments as well.

    Plus other lexicons, the Septuagint, and contemporary literature paint a picture witch conveys both it's noun and verbs counterparts evolved(from Classical to Koine Greek) to mean singing(or making music) with or without any and all types of instruments.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    (Eph 5:11 ESV) 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

    A parallel with 5:18-21? Both passages certainly oppose pagan practices. I'm not entirely sure how "expose them" parallels "be filled with the Spirit."

    The contrast with debauchery is being filled with the Spirit.

    I've just posted a comment re Paul's use of the Septuagint in Eph 5:19.

    There is nothing about instruments that is inherently contrary to being filled with the Spirit. Indeed, the Bible says quite to the contrary —

    (1Ch 25:1 ESV) David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals.

    As instruments do not inherently contradict the work of the Spirit and may in fact serve the Spirit's purposes, there's nothing in "be filled with the Spirit" that argues against instrumental music.

  4. HistoryGuy says:

    I feel a bit like a celebrity being headlined so much (lol). Thank you for clearly putting forth your current understanding of the background of and evidence that you have reviewed as well as HOW you arrive at your position (part 1 & 2). I sincerely say that it has been very enlightening (truly – thank you). I now see why many of my points were minimized or "missed." Perhaps you feel the same way and have been wondering why I have made the same statements 100 different ways (lol). Allow me to reflect on your post a little more. In the near future, instead of writing pages of broad information, I will "focus" my efforts and respond to the key differences in hopes that we will better understand each other on these points.

    Grace and peace

  5. Bruce Morton says:

    It was a simple question so that I could get to square one with you. Is a simple response too much to hope for in this IM discussion with you? (I guess it is because it is me, right? 🙂

    And no, you are not correct regarding the conclusion you have reached about the parallelism(s). And I was not talking about contrasts yet, just a parallelism in the text. This is not a matter of "I think." Look at the "therefores" in the text and you will see it; I have tried to surface such in previous posts over the past few months; this webchain announces that I was unsuccessful. Whew!

    If you and/or your readers would like me to post what I have previously posted as an overview of the parallelisms in Ephesians 4:17-5:21, I will gladly do (again). It really is important to the IM-in-congregational assemblies discussion. You have challenged the understanding of many regarding Galatians — and I appreciate much of what you have written on that subject. You have been "on target" re the real threat of legalism. But now you are "off target" re Ephesians 4:17-5:21 and I am going to be as intent as you have been re Galatians. Why? Call it love.

    Please let me know if you want me to post (again) a look at the parallels in the text.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  6. Laymond says:

    "And so Paul said to sing a “song sung to the harp, a psalm.” You can’t insist that the Ephesians were necessarily a cappella based on Paul’s word choice."

    Sometimes I feel lost, not "lost, lost" but left behind, here, not left behind as in the series, but in Jay's posts. understanding them, that is. Sometimes I have no way of connecting what one post says to what another said. I could have misunderstood other posts of his that seemed to say we needed to be filled with the spirit or holy ghost, be guided by this indwelt being, and not depend upon the word only. Then all the proof he points to, to bolster his arguments point right back to the bible, mostly what Paul wrote. but the bible the same. People who have the "Holy Spirit " living within them, should not have this much trouble deciding right from wrong. In my opinion.

  7. HistoryGuy says:

    Come on into the conversation.

  8. Bruce Morton says:

    I wanted to allow a week for any interest to surface. I now know I may be speaking into the wind — a strong one. Not much interest here. Jay, I gather you are far from ready to entertain a look at the structure of Ephesians 4:17-5:21. So, I have decided after some prayer to pen for others to consider.

    The language, structure, parallels, and contrasts in Ephesians 4:17-5:21 announce to us why the early churches were a cappella in a Mediterranean world filled with instrumental-accompanied music (IAM) in worship assemblies. The a cappella early churches "stood out from" Mediterranean religious culture as much as vocal-only worship does in our time and place.

    Commentators (both in the Restoration Movement and beyond) have spent too little time looking at the context of Ephesians 5:18-21. As a result the structure of the text has rarely surfaced for discussion. Here is a start (there is more). All quotes are from the NIV, save verse 19:

    Ephesians 5:7-8a
    "Therefore, do not be partners with them for you were once darkness,"
    Ephesians 5:17a
    "Therefore, do not be foolish,"

    Ephesians 5:8b-10
    "but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth, and find out what pleases the Lord."
    Ephesians 5:17b
    "but understand what the Lord's will is,"

    Ephesians 5:11a
    "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness,"
    Ephesians 5:18a
    "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery."

    Ephesians 5:11b
    "but rather expose them."
    Ephesians 5:18b-21
    "Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in reverence to Christ."

    Also, we should note how all of this ties to the overarching contrast in the text between being children of light versus people consumed by darkness. We are being called to childlikeness.


    Those who have suggested that the text has nothing to do with a public worship assembly need to take a look at the Asian practice of worshipping in public often and in many settings (see. Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations). Yes, Paul is speaking regarding public worship. We should have no question.

    Second, those who have argued that worship ritual is not in view should take a look at the language of "fruitless deeds of darkness" (as contrasted with "fruit of the light"). Paul is dealing with both moral/ethical lapses and with ritual/worship ones. Both are in view — which should be no surprise, given the power of the Asian cults. Ethics and worship practices were strongly woven together for Asians (see again Harland's study if a question).

    All that Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18-21 is more than an ad hoc statement. It is part of a parallelism that puts detail to his "but rather expose them." Expose what? That is what we should be asking; it is the key to better understanding his teaching about Christian music.

    The reason the IAM (instrument-accompanied music) discussion hounds the believing Western world is largely related to our not seeing the broader context of a spiritual war in Paul's writing.

    He is urging a specific practice because of a spiritual siege. He says nothing about private worship here, only about a public corporate assembly. Why? I can only guess. Perhaps it is related to where a dark lord focuses his pressure. What could undo Christian faith more than for our assemblies to degenerate into gatherings filled with the sensational — with the Word of God all but lost from them?

    Paul is not just urging unified song together, but song that is the Word of God. I am convinced that our a cappella assemblies would be healthier, our teens happier, if we sang Scripture more often. I speak from experience. I teach junior and senior high students often — and they like to sing Scripture. They feel more sure of themselves spiritually. At least that is what they say — and I believe them. Jesus' clash with Satan should shout to us the importance of writing the Word on our heart. And one of the best ways we do so is by singing it often.

    Paul is guiding the Asian Christians to replace their fruitless (a word pun associated with wine-stimulated Dionysian-like worship?) actions/worship with fruitful worship that depends on the Spirit — not on how people feel. We need to take the lesson to heart in a land where our feelings about the assembly is almost all of how we measure an assembly's effectiveness. Do we memorize Scripture as we worship? Do we recite it corporately often? Do we come away from an assembly with the Word of God in the forefront of our thought and on our tongues, in our conversation?

    Finally, I will share that the suggestion by some that the early church praticed a cappella to line up with their culture makes no sense. And similarly, the argument that we need IAM for cultural/missional reasons today sounds the same bell. We are exactly where Ephesus was 2000 years ago — same powerful religious pressures pushing down on "simple worship" and living/worshipping as children of light.

    Churches of Christ, Eastern Orthodox assemblies, some Mennonites, some Baptists have embraced exactly what Paul was urging. The unity of singing the Word to one another. We do not need to know the background to grasp the simple message of the text. But seeing better the background and seeing the structure certainly emphasizes the message of the apostle.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  9. Price says:

    Bruce, I don't doubt your sincerity but this is a little difficult to accept. It contains so much reading into the text that the text gets lost in your paraphrase…My main difficulty with it is trying to determine that which applies to worship and which doesn't?? Singing surely COULD apply but what about drinking wine…It says don't get does not say, don't drink…who would propose drinking wine in the middle of church ?? When I go back and read it and ask myself if I can or should I do this in church I just find it VERY difficult to align your thoughts with the passage…Besides, when Paul writes in I Corinthians about what kind of conduct should be exemplified in worship it's clear as a bell what he's talking about…no need to strain the text… I'm sorry but after giving what you suggested an honest look out of respect for you, I still come away with considerable doubt that this passage's purpose is to direct us in our worship style…I find it much more convincing that this passage is an instruction for daily life in as much that hardly any of the things that are discussed would be a function of the assembly and all of it could be done in one's daily walk…but..what do I know..That's just MHO..

  10. Bruce Morton says:

    I appreciate your kind and pointed post; thank you for taking the time to read and write. And I do understand your conclusions. They are the conclusions of numerous commentators of Ephesians over the past 75 years and more (including Rick Atchley).

    Let me first highlight that the look at the background to Ephesians 5:18-21 has improved in clarity, especially in the past decade or so. And I will elaborate a little more later. But I do want to highlight one part of the text that is often overlooked. Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 2:18 are closely paralleled. Both use like wording and point to more than ethical action. Both point to religious thought.

    Next, let me highlight that Philip Harland argues (well) and convincingly in his Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) that we misunderstand the character of the Asian cults and Asian worship practices. Asians worshipped everywhere. Public worship was woven into all of their society. Trade guild gatherings; athletic contests; birthdays; weddings; births; funerals; feasts of all types. I am not the first to note some of this. E.g. John Mark Hicks has highlighted something of the ancient feast practices as he has looked at the Lord's Supper.

    Quotes for your/ consideration from Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations:

    “There is no reason to question the genuineness of their [associations’] religious dimensions in the sense that appropriately honoring the gods in a variety of ways was a real concern of virtually all types of groups and their members.” (61)

    “Underestimating the social and religious significance of imperial cults for the populace is partially the result of the imposition of modern viewpoints and assumptions onto ancient evidence….” (120)

    Social, religious and economic characteristics of associations “were intricately interconnected and often inseparable.” (120)

    Price, we are simply mistaken if we believe Paul is not talking about worship assemblies in the text. And the reference to wine? Some commentators (including Michael Weed) have concluded (and I agree) that Paul appears to be addressing the impact of Dionysiac-like practices within the congregation. And that should be no surprise, given the power of the Dionysus cult in Roman Asia and throughout the Mediterranean.

    In the West we probably have some additional challenges to seeing all of this because our nation even struggles to accept the backdrop of a spiritual war — a setting the Asians believed without question. And when we miss the backdrop of Paul's words, we miss seeing the crucial character of what he writes to Roman Asia.

    Glad to discuss further. Also, if you (or other readers) want to consider further evidence, glad to also discuss "off line." Also, if you would like a copy of an in-print publication that talks about the background of Ephesians 5:18-21 (and other aspects of Ephesians and 1 and 2 Timothy), please feel free to send a note to my email address: MortonBLSL7 at I will be glad to give a copy to you without cost.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

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