Singing In Acts 16:25 And Plausibility Structures

In the English Standard Version Acts 16:25 says “[a]bout midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…”. Several other translations (e.g., NASB, NIV, TEV, ASV, RSV, NLT, NKJV, HCSB) follow this or a similar pattern. They all supply a direct object for the verb, “they were singing” (ὕμνουν). The noun “hymns” does not occur in the original text. Some earlier translations took a different approach. The Vulgate translated the verb with laudabant (they were praising). In the late 14th century, Wycliffe chose “worschipide (worshiped) God.” Tyndale (1525) translated it, “lauded God,” obviously nodding to the Vulgate. The 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible supplied a different object altogether: “they sang a psalme.” The 1611 edition of the King James Version had “they sang praises.” There is a distinct difference between the way the same text was translated in the pre-modern period and the way it has been translated since the late 19th century.

One way to ascertain the intended sense of a New Testament word is to look at the way it is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, i.e., in the Septuagint (LXX). The same verb occurs in the same form three times in the LXX in 2 Chronicles 29:30 and Daniel 3:51 in the canonical scriptures and in 1 Maccabees 4:24 in the Apocrypha. In none of these texts would we supply the noun “hymn” in order to translate them well. For one reason, in the LXX, the noun υμνος is used regularly in the superscriptions to the Psalms to stand for a class of psalms. For more on that see this article.

Since, in the LXX, it the verb simply means “to praise,” and since the earlier translations did not why do modern translators supply the noun “hymns” in Acts 16:25 where it would seem unlikely? Indeed, given the larger canonical context and Paul’s experience, the Geneva Bible translator’s choice of “Psalms” seems rather more likely. One might plausibly argue that a neutral translation of “praising God” would be fair but by supplying the noun “hymns” translators create the impression, in the minds of readers and hearers, that Paul and Silas were singing non-canonical songs. Why would translators choose supply a noun that, on the face of it, seems unlikely?

One reason for this choice is that, in the modern period, many of those who translate Scripture do not regularly worship in congregations where the psalms are sung as a part of public worship. Thus, it may never have occurred to them to supply any other noun but hymns since that is all they know. Sociologists have written about “plausibility structures.” People make decisions in social contexts. Sociologists study contemporary contexts and historians study past contexts to discover how those contexts influence what people say and how they behave. Our social context shapes our “plausibility structures.”

Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice is much influenced by movements such as Pietism, which is a facet of what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The immediate (i.e., un-mediated) experience of the divine has mattered much more in modern evangelicalism than doctrine or the way public worship is organized and conducted (e.g., liturgy). Indeed, given its roots in Pietism, modern evangelicals tend to be suspicious of formal liturgical structure and practice. The Pietists gave us a large number of non-canonical hymns, which facilitated the move away from the Scriptures as the source for the material used in public worship (sola Scriptura). Under the influence of Pietism (and other movements) in 18th and 19th centuries, the regulating question was no longer, “has God commanded it?” but rather, “does it produce the right sort of religious experience?”

In contrast, the translators in the 5th, 16th, and 17th centuries sang the Psalms regularly and, in some cases, almost exclusively in public worship. Further, they did so without the aid of musical instruments and without the goal of achieving a certain quality of religious experience. When the translators of the Genevan Bible chose to supply the noun psalm they were not being provocative or tendentious. They were supplying the noun they saw as completely obvious to any rational person. It was beyond imagination that Paul and Silas would have been worshiping God with other than Psalms, the divinely inspired song book. In their world, the idea that Paul and Silas were singing to God non-canonical songs would have been almost unthinkable. To the degree non-canonical songs had come to be used in the public worship under Gregory I (c. AD 540–604), the Reformed saw that as a corruption.

As noted above, the translators of the Geneva Bible would have had a right to think that what Paul and Silas were singing was a psalm since we have know that the Psalms were sung in the synagogue and in the early Christian church. We have no positive, unequivocal evidence that the apostolic (and early post-apostolic) church sang anything else but Psalms. As a Pharisee, it is certain that Paul would have memorized the Torah (Gen–Deut) and it is likely that he had memorized much more than, including the Psalms. Indeed, there is little question that the Psalter was the songbook out of which our Lord sang (Luke 24) and that it was the Psalms of ascent that Jesus and the disciples sang in connection with the Passover.

Is it possible that the Spirit inspired new songs for the Apostolic church? Yes. Do we have positive, unequivocal evidence of the existence of such? No. There are passages in the New Testament that have long been regarded as “songs,” e.g., the “Song of Mary” (Luke 1:46–55; The Magnificat) and the “Song of Simeon” (Luke 2:29–32; the Nunc Dimittis). There are songs in the Revelation also. Because these are recorded for us in God’s God it seems that, as part of the Canon, they are imposed upon the church for worship, thus satisfying the rule of worship (“Has God commanded it?”). Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519–1605) thought so as did a minority in Scotland about the time of the Westminster Assembly. Nevertheless, I hasten to note that none of these songs is materially different from the Psalter and none of them meets the relatively arbitrary test by which some, in the modern period, have sought to marginalized Psalmody: that a song mention the name of Jesus.

The major point of this essay, however, is not to try to sort out every possible problem with singing the Psalms in public worship or to advocate for exclusive psalmody, but to alert those readers who do not have access to the Greek New Testament that the majority English translation of Acts 16:25 is arguably misleading at this point and thereby to explain why so many translations get it wrong and to try to suggest that the older translations of this verse had a point that should be reconsidered.

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10 comments

  1. Luke 1:46 and 2:28 suggest that these “songs” might actually have been speeches. That caught me off-guard when I first noticed it.

  2. Strong arguments Scott…..thank you for the continued good teaching on the subject. While I can’t refute any of your views (nor do I care to try) I must say that I love singing hymns and have since I was a child. They are rich and deep in theology and add to our sanctification by reinforcing concepts and precepts taught in God’s Word. I can’t imagine life without them. I also enjoy singing psalms to familiar melodies…..as long as God is glorified it all works for me.

  3. “Hymneo” is the verb used in the Septuagint when musical instruments are specifically excluded and is also the verb used for what the Lord and the disciples did at the Last Supper before they went to the Mount of Olives. There also it has no implications about WHAT they sang, so translations like “they sang an hymn” are saying more than the Greek does.
    That the Holy Spirit avoids the use of “hymneo” in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 should give those opposed to the use of musical instruments in public worship pause for thought – My understanding of these verses is that the Ephesian church used musical instruments. whereas the Colossian church may not have, and Paul encouraged both churches to carry on as they were doing, “singing and playing” and “singing with grace” both being acceptable ways for an assembled local church to worship the Lord.

    • Anthony,

      What actual evidence is there that the Ephesians used instruments? There is none in the NT itself nor in the early 2nd century, when instruments were universally rejected.

  4. The Book of Odes is a collection of songs or prayers placed at the end of the Book of Psalms in the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus.

    It contains 15 songs or prayers drawn from Scripture such as the Song of Moses or the Prayer of Hannah. Because they were appended to the Book of Psalms, they testify to liturgical use of these Biblical songs and prayers along with the Psalms in the 5th century. Because of their inclusion in an early Biblical text, the Codex Alexandrinus, the collection may go back farther than the 5th century.

    Interestingly, this ancient Christian liturgical text labels the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis as the “Prayer of Mary the Theotokos” and “Prayer of Simeon” in distinction from other Biblical “songs”.

    So they recognized that these were in fact prayers, not songs, in the Bible when they appropriated them for use in the early Church.

    • Donald,

      This is helpful. Thank you. There is evidence that these were sung. They were collected as “Odes” because of their liturgical use, as they were sung in the liturgy. We might disagree over whether they should be sung but it does not follow from the fact that they were designated “prayers” that therefore they were not sung since prayers were sung by the 5th century.

    • Makes sense when one considers that in Scripture the Prayer of Moses and the Prayer of Habakkuk are both meant to be given musical treatment.

  5. Thanks for this.
    Any number of comments come to mind.

    1. The contemporary reformed church doesn’t understand that the reformed church is reformed, not only in doctrine, but also in worship and government. Rather just so long as we don’t have overhead projectors, choruses and electric guitars, all is well and we are still reformed.

    2. The whole “psalm=hymn= definitely uninspired song” has been around awhile in P&R circles. How else does one explain the barefaced expositions of WCF 21:5 to mean the divines intended “the singing of psalms with grace in the heart” to obviously mean uninspired hymns?

    3. From what I know, the songbook context shaping the plausibility structure in the URCNA is the blue CRC Psalter Hymnal, which is based on the old United Presbyterian Psalter 1912, hardly a top notch work to begin with. Consequently the conflation of inspired psalms with uninspired songs to produce in worship the typical ‘for our next hymn we will sing #256/456’ is a done deal, never mind the ESV.

    Because these are recorded for us in God’s God Word it seems that, as part of the Canon, they are imposed upon the church for worship, thus satisfying the rule of worship (“Has God commanded it?”)

    FWIW the opposing view to Beza’s et al thought that the approved songs for worship should not only be inspired, but also included in the Book of Praises, the Psalter.

    Still when all is said and done, the other can of worms is just exactly how did Paul and Silas, with their feet “fast in the stocks”, pump the organ to accompany whatever it was that they were singing.
    Which everybody knows, couldn’t have been John Newton’s Amazing Grace, because it doesn’t mention the name of the Saviour, right?
    Maybe next time, eh?

    Thanks again,

    • The verb used in the Greek is “hymneo”, which is the verb the Septuagint uses when and only when musical instruments are definitely EXCLUDED.
      My education has not made me aware of a proper published word study of how the verbs psallo, hymneo and ado and corresponding Greek nouns are used in the Septuagint/NT and the Hebrew words they translate, but my impressions from observation are:
      The verbs and morphemically corresponding nouns are not related semantically: Psallo dees not mean sing psalmoi, nor hymneo mean sing hymnoi nor ado mean sing odai; In the Hebrew this apparent correspondence doesn’t exist even morphemically.
      Hymneo always implies the non-use of musical intruments.
      Psallo implies, at the very least, liberty to use an instrument (as in James’s Epistle), if not the actual use.
      Ado may be neutral in this regard.

      • Anthony,

        For the life of me, even if your correlation is correct (I have not verified it for myself) I cannot see how your conclusion follows from your premis(es). It seems clear to me that Paul was invoking the categories used in the LXX to guide the Ephesians and the Colossians regarding worship (so that “hymn” certainly does not refer to uninspired songs; the point of the categories is to invoke the Psalter) but nothing about the passages or the contexts suggests or supports the use of instruments in the NT.

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