Music was ubiquitous in all ancient Near Eastern cultures. We know more about some than others; whether it was pottery, technology, or language, it appears that they all borrowed and shared with one another. Variations of a number of instruments are nearly universal in ancient Near Eastern cultures, but various characteristics show that each group had special approaches and relationships with certain instruments. This is evident in music and musical instruments discussed in the Old and New Testaments.
Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures.
A brief description of how the instruments are categorized in the Old Testament is in order. Most are usually described according to the Sachs-Hornbostel or CAMI system—chordophone, aerophone, membranophone, and idiophone. For this discussion, the classification system applies to instruments mentioned in the Old and New Testaments and ancient Near Eastern cultures.
These are stringed instruments. Modern examples include guitars, violins, banjos, etc. The player typically strikes, plucks, or pulls strings stretched across a fret board, causing them to vibrate and produce a sound. The fret board is a long bar over which the strings are pulled. The board often has raised wooden horizontal slots marking specific harmonic points. The fret board usually has tuning pegs at the end. Pressing the vibrating string against the fret board creates different notes. The cultures biblical writers describe played lyres and harps.
Lyres are for the most part U-shaped instruments. The arms on each side are parallel to each other, and a bar sits on top of them. This bar also has tuning pegs that connect to the strings, which run vertically and attach to the bottom of the instrument. The pegs tighten and loosen the strings for tuning and intonation. The strings stretch across a sound hole, much like the one found on acoustic guitars. The hole amplifies the sound. Harps are very similar to the lyre; however, they do not have a sound hole.
Harps are generally shaped much like an “L” or sideways “V.” The strings are attached to both arms and become longer as the arms widen. There are usually tuning pegs on the top arm. Players can play the instruments while seated or standing and, at times, may employ a plectrum (similar to a pick for guitar).
Egyptian, Israelite, and other Near Eastern cultures also used lutes. Lutes were held and played in a manner similar to the guitar or banjo. Strings stretched across a hollowed gourd, tortoise shell, or similar object, which connected to a long bar (fret board) made of wood or bamboo. The strings ran along the bar and attached to tuning pegs at the end.
These are wind-blown instruments. Modern examples include flutes, oboes, trumpets, or any members of the woodwind and brass families. In the ancient Near East, cultures primarily played various types of pipes, flutes, and trumpets. Some instruments had single or double reeds. To produce sound with an aerophone, players blow into one end of the instrument, and the vibration of the reed(s) (if present), rotation of the air against the inside of the instrument, and its movement through it create the sounds. The player can change the notes or the timbre or vary the pitch by reducing the air blown into the instrument, manipulating the pressure and position of the lips (i.e., embouchure) or, if there are valves or holes, by pressing or covering them or altering other mechanisms on the instrument.
These are instruments in which a membrane (e.g., skin) is stretched across the surface or an opening and that surface is struck. Well-known membranophones are drums, which come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. Ancient texts and artifacts show that membranophones were popular in the Near East and throughout the ancient world. Material remains and iconographic depictions reveal that cultures constructed and performed with membranophones such as the frame drum (an instrument like the tambourine but without jingles) as well as large kettledrums that resemble modern tympani. Musicians among several groups played the instruments with their hands, as well as with sticks, and at times may have struck the instrument against their bodies.
These are self-sounding instruments, or instruments that sound within themselves. Rattles are excellent examples. These instruments, known in antiquity as well as today, produce sound when they are shaken. The basic construction in the past continues today. In the ancient Near East, rattles were made from fired clay. Creators of the instruments placed in them dried peas, hardened clay pellets, or other small objects that would produce sound when they struck the wall of the rattle as they were shaken. The sistrum, an instrument originating in Egypt, has rattle-like qualities but can also produce various pitches. The body of the instrument often has an oval or oblong shape (some resemble or purposely have the shape of the head of the Egyptian goddess Hathor). The body is attached to a handle. Several slim metal bars stretch across the body and are attached to the sides. Metal discs or jingles sit on bars. When the player shakes the sistrum, the discs strike against each other and the metal bars, producing sound.
These are instruments that can belong to different categories. For example, the piano, for some, is a percussion instrument because the keys have hammers that strike strings, a chordophone because strings help to create the sound, or an idiophone because the instrument sounds within it. Some ancient Near Eastern cultures may have incorporated instruments like the daff or duff that combine the membranophone (e.g., the surface of the instrument is struck) and the idiophone (which has jingles around the rim of the instrument that sound when it is shaken or struck).
There are also instruments mentioned in the Bible that remain unknown for now. For example, shelishim, usually translated as “musical instruments,” may have been some kind of three-stringed instrument (1 Sam 18:6), but this is unclear.
The human voice is sometimes placed in the chordophone category, as sound is produced by air passing across the vocal cords. However, it could also fit in the aerophone family because of the use of air being pushed out of the body. It may also have connections to the membranophone and idiophone families when one considers its use in the modern art of beatboxing.
Music in Everyday Life in the Old Testament.
While there is still much to learn about music and the use of this magnificent art form in the biblical world, the biblical writers and archaeological findings show that it was an indelible part of daily life with the Israelites, as well as their ancient Near Eastern neighbors.
The biblical writers indicate the importance of music to Israelite culture in the book of Genesis, as they give an etiological explanation regarding the creation of specific chordophones and aerophones. Jubal, brother of Jabal, is named the ancestor of all who play the lyre and pipe (Gen 4:21). Although membranophones and idiophones are not mentioned specifically in this passage or connected with Jubal, the writers mention music, musical instruments, or a type of musical performance in many books of the Bible. In addition to describing musical scenes and events, writers use instruments in metaphors, similes, and as symbols. People also embedded music in victorious celebrations or to process grief.
Music and everyday life.
From the opening book of the Bible, it is clear that music was an essential part of life (Gen 4:21). Giving credit to a named individual and recognizing particular instruments is not happenstance. The presence of music is visible not only in the biblical text but also in the numerous figurines and depictions discovered in the archaeological record. It was unquestionably an essential part of Israelite culture from its inception. Following is a brief discussion of examples of the use of music presented in the Old Testament.
The precise sounds of voices in Israelite singing are long gone, but the biblical text gives examples of how the culture incorporated singing in societal practices. For instance, the Genesis writers explain that when Laban and his nephew Jacob have a disagreement, Jacob gathers his family and sneaks away from his uncle. Laban goes after Jacob and eventually catches him. He is upset that his nephew has deceived him and expresses that if Jacob had not fled secretly, he would have sent him and his family away “with mirth and songs, with frame drum and lyre” (Gen 31:17–27). This brief description of musical activity gives unique insight into a perplexing culture. This confession from Laban indicates that it was a common practice to send people, in this case, family members, departing on a journey on their way with well wishes and songs of laughter and joy with musical accompaniment. More than likely, the songs would have been melodies that were known among those belong to the culture, created and taught orally, specifically for the family, or possibly improvised or composed on the spot.
The biblical writers also attribute instances of singing to special characters in the stories. Often the songs commemorate a special event or people or pay homage to a deity. For instance, following his escape from Egypt and the pharaoh, Moses leads the people in a song that glorifies and celebrates what Yahweh did to bring them out of Egypt and to save their lives (Exod 15:1–18). Miriam follows Moses’s song with a short tune of her own. “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exod 15:21). The Israelite women sing with her while playing frame drums, celebrating what the Deity has done to the Egyptian horses and riders (Exod 15:20), echoing lyrics from the previous song. The Song of Deborah (Judg 5) follows this kind of celebration as well, as she rec0unts what she, Jael, and Barak accomplished with the assistance of Yahweh.
Lamenting, a passionate expression of grief, often through singing, was common in ancient Israel. It is a familiar theme among the Psalms (55:17; 64:1) and prophetical writings (Lam 1–2; Isa 3:26; Jer 9:20; Ezek 19:1). There were also women in the culture who had the specific duty to lament or wail (Jer 9:20; Ezek 32:16). One could view this as a therapeutic art form; for some, it was a part of a grieving process.
Men also sang laments. David, one of the most noted musical figures in the biblical text, sings a haunting dirge titled the “The Song of the Bow” for his father-in-law, Saul, his best friend and brother-in-law, Jonathan, and the Israelite army who were killed in a battle with the Philistines (2 Sam 1:17–27). According to the story, David placed major importance on the composition of this lament for the people of Judah. “He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar” (2 Sam 1:18).
Singing was also a major part of musical activities in the Israelite Temple. The Chronicler describes a scene in which Hezekiah commanded a burnt offering to be placed upon the altar (2 Chr 29:24–30). As this is done, a large number of people also participated in this offering ritual with specific musical activities. Depending upon the biblical translation, this group has been identified as an “assembly” (NRSV; JPS) or “congregation” (KJV). Whatever the case, they worshipped as singers sang and musicians sounded trumpets. Their actions were an integral part of the offering ritual. There is also the identification of choirs (New English Translation) or “great companies of them that gave thanks” (Neh 12:31, KJV).
Singing was also a musical activity that was at times inclusive in ancient Israel. Individuals could sing alone or with others, with or without musical accompaniment, and they could do this anytime they wished. We see this kind of action in the Psalms. “I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High” (Ps 7:17). “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps 13:6).
The Psalter contains various types of psalms: individual laments, communal laments, hymns of thanksgiving, royal psalms. Many attribute the composition of the Psalms to David. For the most part, however, while it is possible that David is recognized as a contributor, many of the authors are unknown, and there is much uncertainty in dating them to a particular time period. Nevertheless, these compositions may have been sung collectively, individually, responsively, or by choirs with musical accompaniment. They could have been performed a number of ways. The important factor is that these songs were sung.
Each of these examples demonstrates the importance of singing to express joy, celebration, and turmoil in Israelite culture. At times, the writers describe groups singing the songs collectively, and in other instances figures sing alone. Yet the art of singing was a means of expression in the culture that all could use to assist in navigating joys and sorrows of everyday life.
It is also possible that many parts of the Old Testament may have been sung at some point. There have been several attempts to find musical keys and notation in the Hebrew text that give clues to how this was done. Although this work is controversial and dismissed by many, there are some interesting approaches and musical creations that have developed out of this. For example, the late Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, a world-renowned composer and organist, developed a musical system derived from the letters of the Masoretic text that provides a means to sing passages. While she was not a trained academic, this system, the te’amim, allowed her to write compositions and arrangements to make recordings of her musical interpretations with instruments and voices. Although there is no way that any of the approaches and interpretations can be considered authentic or the means to knowing what the music of the past sounded like, they are incredible artistic creations based on the biblical text.
Prophets also used music to prophesy. The biblical writers describe a band of prophets descending from a high place, and a group of musicians play in front of them. As they play, the prophets are in a prophetic frenzy. In this instance, the music is connected to the prophets’ actions, and a bystander, King Saul, is passively pulled into the fray. As the prophets and musicians approach, Samuel, a priest and prophet, tells King Saul that “the spirit of the LORD will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). At times, the king’s court prophets employed music to help with prophesying. The king of Israel desired to know what to do. He asked the prophet Elisha to prophesy. Elisha said, “But get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the LORD came on him” (2 Kgs 3:15). The prophet used this art form to help him to hear and deliver the prophesy to the king.
Music and dance.
Dance was also an essential part of the culture. The writers describe dancing with musical accompaniment. The instruments are usually rhythmical, like the frame drum, and mostly involve women. Miriam and women following her celebrate with frame drums, singing, and dancing (Exod 15:20). It appears that there were women’s troupes as well among the Israelites. The writers describe groups of women that entertained. The Benjaminites used this to their advantage when attempting to find wives. “And they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyard, and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin’ ” (Judg 21:20). The musical accompaniment is not mentioned, but there would have been musicians playing music to which they danced. The women’s victory song groups also welcome home soldiers returning from a victorious battle “… the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul” (1 Sam 18:6).
The Israelites danced in celebration and praise as a group. When Moses comes down from the mountain after receiving the tablets from God, he hears noise coming from the camp. “As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’s anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod 32:19).
There were individuals that danced alone. As the Israelites made their way with the Ark into Jerusalem, David danced “before the LORD with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14). The writers list the instruments performing as they made their trek: lyres, harps, frame drums, cymbals, and castanets (rattles) (2 Sam 6:5).
What kinds of instruments were used in creating this art in ancient Israel? Following is a brief discussion including specific descriptions of instruments from Israelite culture.
Lyres and harps were the most prominent instruments in Israel. Musicians played them to accompany singers, and they were played with other instruments as well. In the biblical writers’ description of prophets coming from the high place (1 Sam 10:5), the group of musicians that play in front of them consists of four instruments—a harp, lyre, frame drum, and pipe—and their music contributes to the prophets being in a prophetic frenzy.
Lyres and harps are also played alone. When Saul has problems with a tormenting evil spirit, David plays the lyre to ease the anguish and cause the spirit to depart (1 Sam 16:23). Lyres played alone are also connected to prophesying. In the Chronicler’s description of music in the Israelite Temple, he states that Jeduthun’s sons, Gediliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, under the direction of their father, prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to Yahweh. Musicians also played the harp alone in similar ways (e.g., Ps 71:22).
Pipes and flutes are often connected with frame drums or lyres or played alone to celebrate, mourn, or praise Yahweh or another deity (e.g., Job 21:12; 30:31; Ps 150:4; Dan 3:5). They are also used in similes (Jer 48:36). When Solomon is anointed king, the people celebrate playing pipes: “And all the people went up following him, playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise” (1 Kgs 1:40). These single pipes are similar to whistles.
In addition to single pipes, there are double-pipes (chalil ). They are often roughly the same length and are joined to each other with a mud mixture, string, or leather. There are reeds on top of the pipes, and both may have holes in the bodies. When the player blows into the pipes, one will sound as a drone and at the same time a melody or harmony can be played on the other. The mijwiz, a modern version of this instrument, is commonly found in several Middle Eastern countries.
The ram’s horn or shofar is one of the most symbolic objects of Israelite culture. Although it is classified as a musical instrument, the Israelites also used it as a signaler. When the Israelites destroyed the city of Jericho, whose claim to fame was its impenetrable wall, the army, led by Joshua, received commands from Yahweh to march around the wall for six days with seven priests blowing seven ram’s horns before the Ark. On the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns and with a great shout. According to the story, the aerophones combined with other actions were instrumental in causing the Jericho wall to fall.
There are also similar actions in the book of Exodus. As Moses prepares the people to hear from Yahweh and move toward Mt. Sinai, they must be consecrated. Once they have done this, Yahweh explains, “ ‘No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’ When the trumpet [ram’s horn] sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain” (Exod 19:13). The writers do not say who blew the ram’s horn, but it seems to act as the voice of the Deity. “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exod 19:16). Also, the blowing of the ram’s horn continues as the Deity speaks. “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder” (Exod 19:18–19).
Yahweh instructs Moses to construct two silver trumpets (hassosera). Note that the trumpet is different from the shofar or ram’s horn in that the trumpet is made from metal and the shofar is fashioned from an animal’s (typically a ram) horn. The trumpet is the only instrument that is commissioned by the Deity. The idea that Moses must custom-make these horns from a specific metal indicates the quality and their special place in the musical instrument hierarchy. Like the shofar, the instrument is to be blown at specific times and on certain occasions (e.g., breaking of camp, gathering of the assembly). The player had specific types of blasts the people were aware of, and they acted accordingly.
The Chronicler also describes an interesting use of the trumpets (hassosera) and the Ark. David tells the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel to blow their instruments without stopping, “regularly, before the ark of the covenant of God” (1 Chr 16:6). This instruction to play without stopping may indicate the practice of circular breathing. This is a technique used by aerophone players to keep the sound of the instrument going without stopping to take a breath. If done correctly, the player can perform as long as he wishes without stopping the sound. Circular breathing would be another tool musicians could have used in creating and playing music, intensifying rituals, or, in this instance, symbolizing the voice of God.
The term tof (pl. tofim) is often translated as tambourine or timbrel, which is questionable. A better translation is frame drum. No matter the translation, these drums were the most prominent membranophones during the Old Testament period. These tambourine-like instruments appear in several biblical stories and are often combined with other instruments (e.g., 1 Sam 10:5; 18:6). According to the Bible, figurines, and other artifacts, women played frame drum primarily. They are the instrument used by Miriam and the women that sing with her. “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine [frame drum] in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing” (Exod 15:20). Women played frame drums solo, or they were combined with other instruments. The biblical writers describe Jephthah’s daughter, for example, coming out to meet her father returning home from a victorious battle, playing frame drums and dancing. She celebrated his victory alone, but while playing more than one drum and dancing.
Aside from the bells on the lower hem of the priests’ robe (Exod 28:34; 39:26), the biblical writers do not mention idiophones specifically. There is some question regarding the translation of the mena’anim in 2 Samuel 6:5. Most Bibles have the word translated as castanets. However, the JPS presents it as sistrum, and the NET renders it rattles. Taking into consideration the archaeological material, the latter is the best translation.
Although there are some questions regarding the discussion of idiophones in the Bible, the archaeological record shows that rattles were prominent during this period in ancient Israel. Artisans created them in anthropomorphic forms, geometric shapes, and other recognizable objects. A large group may have played these at times, as they could be manufactured quickly and in sizable quantity. There are ideas that these idiophones were simply children’s toys, but there is no reason that they could not have functioned in both capacities.
There are also numerous figurines from several Israelite sites displaying women playing or holding frame drums (e.g., Achzib, Shikmona, Megiddo). These figurines reveal the predominant recognized use of the instrument in the culture, the fact that women often played them.
Coins, ostraca, and vessels display musical scenes and depictions of figures performing with or holding various instruments mentioned in the Old Testament. Photographs and illustrations of artifacts, as well as some of their present locations, can be found in several of the references listed in the bibliography of this article.
Music continued its prevalence in the Greco-Roman period (332 B.C.E. through the sixth century C.E.), the world from which the New Testament comes. Like their predecessors, New Testament writers describe an array of cultures, cosmopolitan living, numerous gods, goddesses, and rituals and practices, with music woven in all of them. Although the corpus of instruments mentioned by the New Testament writers is smaller in comparison to those discussed in the Old Testament, it is still clear that music was a major art form that people everywhere used to express themselves.
Music in everyday life.
The practice of singing is present in the New Testament, and the references are to sing praises to God. “What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). In his revelation, John sees and hears creatures singing. “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’ ” (Rev 4:8).
Stringed instruments remained prominent in the New Testament. The kithara, a lyre-like instrument, was very popular. Although some translate the word as harp, iconographic depictions and archaeological remains show that it is a lyre. Musicians played the instrument solo and at times with other instruments, specifically with other lyres (kitharas). John, in the book of Revelation, has a vision in which he sees them and how they are used: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders threw themselves on the ground before the Lamb. Each of them had a lyre (kitharan) and golden bowls full of incense (which are the prayers of the saints)” (Rev 5:8). In a prophetic vision, the author incorporates the performance of musical instruments. Later in the same vision, he shares a similar description: “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beats and its image and the numbers of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:2–3). Note that this expression connects to the testaments musically through the mentioning of the transcendent figure, Moses. Others not mentioned in the text but known during this time are various kinds of harps and lutes.
Pipes were also a part of the instruments used during this time. One of the most common was the aulos. The word may be translated as pipe (American Standard Version) or flute. It appears that people danced to the music of the flute. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke state that when Jesus was speaking about the generation of that time, he said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (Matt 11:17; Luke 7:32). Although Jesus is speaking about not being able to move a specific group of people in any way, his description is one that people could relate to. They knew that the flute was an instrument musicians played for dancing. In order to play the instrument, some players wore a phorbeia, a leather strap or cloth wrapped around the player’s head, neck, and cheeks. The mouthpiece of the aulos slid through an opening on the phorbeia and helped to hold it in place.
Another well-known aerophone in the New Testament was the salpinx (Rom tuba). This trumpet-like instrument has a long cone-shaped body with a flared bell. The player blows through a mouthpiece and manipulates the pitch with the embouchure and the amount of air expelled into the horn. The artistic imagery of the instrument the biblical writer gives is one of proclamation and connects it with the actions of the Deity of Israel. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 4:16). In this description, the salpinx, blown by a high-ranking angel, makes a sound that acts as a voice of God, announcing his impending arrival to earth and what will happen once he gets there. This link with the Deity in this image is very similar to imagery that the Old Testament writers present with Yahweh and his commission to Moses to make silver trumpets. At times, both aerophones work as the voice of the Deity.
The salpinx appears in this familiar role in John’s revelation. He compares a voice he heard commanding him to write to the sound of the salpinx. “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). The pronouncement imagery continues in the book, as seven angels prepare to blow trumpets. As each trumpet blows, the sound of their instruments set magnificent, catastrophic actions in motion. The writer presents these events with vivid literary artistry. The blast of the first angel brings forth hail, fire, and blood and causes destruction to a portion of the earth (Rev 8:7). The second blows, and a mountain is thrown into the sea, and a portion of animals and ships are obliterated (Rev 8:8–9). The third blows, causing a star to fall onto the rivers and springs, causing them to be undrinkable (Rev 8:10). The fourth blasts his aerophone, and portions of the sun and moon are extinguished (Rev 8:12). The fifth blows, and another star falls from heaven, and the angel is given a key to a bottomless pit that he opens, unleashing more destructive forces (Rev 9:1–4). The sixth blares, and a voice speaks from the four horns of a golden altar before God (Rev 9:13). When the final angel blows his trumpet, a voice in heaven proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev 11:15). All of the vivacious activity in John’s revelation is set into motion by sounds produced from angels blowing trumpets (salpinx). Other aerophones not mentioned in the Bible, but known during this period, include the syrinx (panpipe) and plagiaulos.
The New Testament writers do not give specific examples of anyone using or playing drums. However, their presence is seen in artifacts, specifically iconographic depictions and other textual descriptions dating to the time period of the New Testament. Drums (tympana) continued in much the same fashion as before and were played by men and women. This instrument was much like the frame drum. They varied in size but were played in the same manner as those described in the Old Testament. During the Roman period, the cult of Cybele was active. Priests, priestesses, and others cut themselves; there were instances of male castration, as well as ecstatic chanting and enthusiastic dancing to the music of drums and cymbals.
The writers only mention one kind of idiophone, and that is the kymbalon, an instrument that is similar to the cymbal(s). In 1 Corinthians, Paul expresses ideas regarding love in a metaphor. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Although the New Testament writers do not say much more about idiophones, archaeological excavations have produced crotala (forked cymbals) that date to this time period. Herodotus observed people playing crotala with flutes (auloi) as early as the fifth century. He describes men and women playing these instruments as they take a boat to the Egyptian city of Bubastis.
Another idiophone that is not mentioned in the New Testament but was known during this time is the bell. Priests wore bells sewn to the hem of their robes in the Old Testament, and this continued into the Greco-Roman period. The instruments jingled as the priests ministered. People wore them as ornaments and used them as a means to communicate. The New Testament writers do not mention the sistrum (psithyra), but it appears that this idiophone was present at this time.
There are vast depictions of musicians and musical instruments from the New Testament period and the Greco-Roman period. A Greek vessel called “Wine Cup with Flirtation Scene,” dating from about 480–470 B.C.E., shows musicians performing. Two figures are prominent: one plays forked cymbals, and the other blows a double pipe. Another vessel, the “Water Jar with a Reveler,” dating to about 480 B.C.E., displays a nude figure performing an aulos in front of another, larger figure. There is also a Roman sarcophagus dating to about 210–220 C.E. showing a number of musicians performing. Two prominent figures play a tympanum and salpinx. Each of these vessels is located at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Photos and locations of them can be found in several of the listed references.
Music is ubiquitous but unique to all cultures. People shape this timeless art form to communicate. They construct instruments from wood, metal, and other found materials to express and convey information. Although we can no longer hear the voices and instruments, the remains of artifacts, the depictions of performance, and even the places where musical activity took place continue to intrigue and inspire us. In its own way, the music continues to play.
[See also HEBREW BIBLICAL POETRY.]
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- Jones, Ivor H. “Music and Musical Instruments.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, Vol. 4, pp. 934–939. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
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Theodore W. Burgh