Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
HE GREATEST joy any teacher can have is when former students enjoy success in their own right. Such is the case with my former choral student, Dr. Stephen J. Shoemaker, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, who specializes in the history of early Christianity and the beginnings of Islam. Fluent in several ancient languages, his research focuses, in part, on early Christian devotion to Mary. Shoemaker is the author of several ground-breaking books. His latest is entitled, The First Christian Hymnal: The Songs of the Ancient Jerusalem Church (2018, Brigham Young University Press).
Apropos to our CCWatershed series on hymns, this important new volume is the first English translation of the earliest extant Christian hymnal, the Jerusalem Georgian Choirbook. Dating from the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the choirbook survives only in an old Georgian translation made from the original Greek. In dustcover notes, Shoemaker states, “The fact that the hymnal reflects the ritual practices of early Christian Jerusalem is especially significant, since Jerusalem’s liturgies were more influential on subsequent Christian tradition that those of any other major center.” The hymns would have been heard regularly in Jerusalem’s Church of the Resurrection (the Holy Sepulchre).
The entire hymn book is in three main sections. In the year 2000, Charles Renoux published an important translation in French (Les Hymnes de la Résurrection I. Paris, 2000). Shoemaker here translates the hymns used for Sunday worship, which is the oldest part of the collection. The other sections are hymns for the evening and morning offices. They all follow the Jerusalem liturgical calendar which begins with the Feast of the Annunciation, rather than the Nativity. This is a crucial factor in placing the hymnal in such an early period (late 4th-early 5th c.). Shoemaker says that this calendar would indicate that the hymns were collected before Justinian’s mandate in the the mid-6th century that “Jerusalem’s observance of the Nativity should conform to the imperial standard” (p. xvi). Finally, the fact that the hymns are clearly for public and not monastic use means that they would have had a crucial impact on the faithful, especially as it relates to the “development of early Christian piety and the theological development of the laity” during this time period. (p.xii).
Besides being the only English translation of such an important early Christian text, Shoemaker makes several important points, both musicologically and theologically. Of special interest to our readers may well be evidence he brings about the importance and veneration of Mary prior to Ephesus.
In this hymnal, only texts survive. No musical notation is known to exist. However, these particular hymns have been studied by musicologists who have pointed out their arrangement according to a program of eight musical tones, or ‘modes,’ a structure still in use today in some Eastern churches and obviously related to the eight musical modes of Western music (p. xvi).
Within the introduction narrative, Shoemaker hones in on two theological points, one having to do with the early Church’s understanding of the Trinity and the other with the existence of a profound and persistent Marian veneration. Since the hymns were used for Sunday worship, Shoemaker makes the point that the texts are, not surprisingly, salvific in content, with a strong dose of the Trinitarian. Some scholars, he says, may wonder how such a doctrine was understood by the laity of the period. These hymns provided a more than adequate education for the faithful, since the Sunday worship would have been “saturated” with the “fundamental principles of the orthodox Christian faith…” (p. xxi). Even if certain subtleties were missed, (as they no doubt have been through the ages), the basics of the faith, including the Trinity, would have been ingested on a regular basis.
As for the cultus of the Virgin Mary, scholarship has long maintained that her veneration did not likely begin until after Ephesus in 431. Here, embedded within these hymns, is found evidence of a “…regular invocation of Mary’s powers of intercessions in the Jerusalem liturgy during the late fourth and early fifth centuries” (p. xxi). Shoemaker goes on to say that, “…the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook reveals a highly developed and rich devotion to the mother of Christ…in advance of the Council of Ephesus” (p. xxiii). Included with the texts are examples of an emotional and intimate bond between mother and son. One strophe sounds surprising close to the opening of the Stabat Mater, while others relate Mary to heaven itself. Other verses speak of the Virgin birth.
She, who gave birth to God, by word and without seed,
We sing to her, the Virgin Mary,
Who intercedes for the salvation of our souls.
This is but a small example of the many beautiful and profound hymn texts translated by Stephen Shoemaker. 1 I highly recommend this fascinating and truly important book to any of our readers, not just those involved in scholarly research, but to anyone interested in the early Church and in praying together with our forefathers the hymns of their ancient liturgies.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 For more on the early devotion to Mary see, Shoemaker, Stephen J. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion. Yale University Press, 2016.