It’s often been argued that the Jewish synagogues had a cappella singing, and the early church copied their practice. This is plainly untrue. The synagogues did adopt congregational singing at some point after the destruction of the Temple, but there is precious little evidence that they routinely sang as a congregation before then, and if they did, that it was a cappella. Moreover, the rationale for a cappella singing after the Temple was destroyed was to avoid attempting to replicate the elements unique to the Temple — animal sacrifice, instruments, and such.
The OT speaks of instrumental music frequently, and it’s almost always positive. Instruments are spoken of as indicators of celebration. The absence of instruments is a sign of mourning.
Therefore, the Babylonian Captivity was to be marked by an end to instrumental
(Ps. 137:1-5 ESV) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(Ezek. 26:12-13 ESV) 12 They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more.
However, the return from Exile — marked by the coming of the Messiah — will be marked by instrumental music in celebration.
(Jer. 31:2-4 ESV) 2 Thus says the LORD: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 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.”
As one commentary explains,
The joy of the redeemed is manifest in dancing and singing as they go up to celebrate the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness in the house of the Lord. The language of Deuteronomy echoes in these verses, not only in “the Lord our God” and the reference to the love of the Lord for Israel (Deut 7:7–8), but also in the way the future deliverance reverses the curses of Deuteronomy (Deut 28:30). The futility curses that arose for breach of covenant will be nullified. What was before shall be again. The final verse of this proclamation of future salvation echoes the great vision of Isa 2:2–5: all the nations going up to the mountain of the Lord. The image of the kingdom of peace stands in the background in these verses.
Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” in Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Lamentations-Ezekiel (vol. 6 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 809.
In other words, Jeremiah predicts that when the Kingdom comes, God’s people will celebrate with tambourines and dancing. And I have no doubt that in the evening hours after Pentecost, the Jews who’d been baptized and found the Messiah, the Kingdom, the Spirit, and redemption celebrated long into the night in just that way.
The NT says nothing about instruments, and most of the early church’s uninspired First and Second Century literature is silent on the subject. However, the Odes of Solomon (100 to 150 AD) — discovered in the 20th Century and thus after much of the Puritan arguments against instruments were developed — speak plainly of instrumental music —
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.
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.
There are other Odes of Solomon in which “harp” is clearly a metaphor for the human voice, and so it’s argued by some to be true here. However, the reference to worshiping God with “all my members” and “His harp is in my hand” indicate the use of more than just the voice.
Even Everett Ferguson concedes that the rejection of instrumental music in worship was not taught by the early church fathers until the Third Century. Earlier criticisms of instrumental music dealt with idolatrous pagan banquets and such like.
For example, Clement of Alexandria (late Second or early Third Century) wrote extensively against the use of instruments in banquets. He opposed instruments because the military used them. He was a strict pacifist. (Chapter 4 of The Instructor, vol. II, “How to Conduct Ourselves at Feasts.”) (I don’t understand how the conservative Churches can insist that we obey Clement’s rejection of instruments but not his reason for rejecting them.)
When I was a child, standard Church of Christ arguments against the instrument included quotations from Justin Martyr, a well-respected Second Century church author. But it was shown over 100 years ago that these quotations were wrongly attributed to Justin by earlier scholars and in fact reflect Fourth or Fifth Century teaching. These passages are still found in tract racks, because no one has bothered to check his sources since these arguments were cribbed from the Puritans in the 19th Century.
In short, we know that by sometime in the Third Century (150 years or more after the apostles) Christian writers begin to object to instrumental music. However, they also began to insist on unison singing (rather than harmony) (Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context), leading Ferguson to argue for the Churches of Christ to insist on unison singing — a teaching no one else has accepted.
But we also know that the various authors give differing reasons for insisting on a cappella music — such as pacifism or the desire for “spiritual” music or to reject Jewish forms of worship (even though the Jews also sang a cappella by this time!) None of the early church fathers give the same rationale as modern conservative Churches of Christ, that is, a lack of biblical authority — an argument found in Zwingli and Calvin, not Jesus and Paul.
Moreover, by the time of Clement of Alexandria, the Roman world was consumed with Neo-Platonic philosophy. It had become their worldview, and hence invisible to most Romans. They just assumed a dualistic world, in which the physical and spiritual are two different realms (contrary to Judaism and early Christianity). These are the same generation of Christians who insisted on the blessedness of virginity — even for married Christians. Christianity absorbed the assumptions of Greek philosophy, unaware of its syncretism. And so, the physicality of musical instruments made them seem base or worldly, whereas singing was considered holy and even other-worldly.
But this is Greek dualism, not Christianity or even Judaism. According to the scriptures, the Kingdom is be received with tambourines and dancing — because God redeems not just our souls but also our bodies.