Musical Instruments of the Bible

    -- by Jeremy Montagu, Lanham & London: Scarecrow Press, 2002. 177 pages   

Thirty years of research went into making this book, and the efforts have paid off handsomely. The book reflects the most current scholarship about these ancient instruments. It is sure to be the standard comprehensive reference on the subject for decades to come.

Using an engaging writing style, Montagu goes through the books of the Bible in order, looking at the identification and usage of every musical instrument mentioned. His major discussion of each instrument appears the first time it is mentioned in the biblical text, but later references are also noted. A primary emphasis is placed on difficulties that translators have faced through the years when putting the instrument names into English. He especially considers instrument names in the Authorized Version/KJV. Bible translators will surely appreciate the discussions of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek instrument names.

Without referencing the model in Olsen’s book,1 Montagu makes use of all four “modes of enquiry” used to answer questions about the musical instruments of ancient cultures. His text and bibliography (about 100 entries) note many articles on music archaeology and iconology, and sixteen
relevant photos from those disciplines are included in the book. For an example of his ethnographic analysis, he compares the lyres of the Israelites with ancient lyres found in Mesopotamia2 and contemporary lyres from Africa, such as the one from Ethiopia that is pictured on this page. Each chapter has up to fifty footnotes, many of which refer the reader to other scholarly sources.

The author also deals with the history of many of the instruments, which helps to clarify the identification of many instruments. For an example concerning flutes, it is now known that the transverse flute did not arrive in the Middle East until the 11th century AD. If flutes were used at all in ancient Israel, they were the end-blown type still used today in the Near East, Middle East, parts of Asia, and North Africa. I have even seen such a flute used in West Africa by a Muslim musician, whose ancestors migrated with such instruments from the Middle East via northern Africa.

Concerning harps, the author surveys the literature and concludes that although harps were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia, there is no evidence for their existence in ancient Israel. David’s famous harp was actually a lyre.3 Concerning the psaltery, this type of instrument was not used in the Middle East until the 11th or 12th century. Montagu cites evidence that the pair of chordophones commonly translated as “harp and lyre” in English were probably two different lyres, differing in size, sound, number and material of strings, and playing technique.

How did anachronistic names of instruments such as the bagpipe, sackbut (trombone), panpipe, psaltery and cornett (small wooden trumpet) enter the English Bible translation in the first place? Montagu points out that whenever the translators met an unfamiliar word for a musical instrument, “they simply reached for something with which their readers would be familiar.” Hence we see that Coverdale imported the lute into several Psalms; Tyndale brought fiddles into an early English translation; the Geneva Bible introduced the dulcimer; the translators of the Authorized Version brought in organs, bagpipes, viols, and other instruments they were familiar with from their own culture.

Even instrument names in English are not always straightforward; for example, the term “dulcimer” is used for two completely different instruments. I remember hearing the player of a mountain dulcimer4 proudly state that the history of his instrument went back to biblical times, but the AV translators were referring to what we call the hammered dulcimer.5 Research has shown that the hammered dulcimer did not appear in its current form until the 1500s,6 so neither instrument could be equivalent to the biblical instrument.

In the case of Nebuchadnezzar’s court orchestra (described in Daniel 3), we run into even greater problems of identification. The original text of the section is in Aramaic but the instrument names are a mixture of Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. The list of instruments is repeated four times in the chapter with various changes each time. Translation of the instrument names “defeated the translators of the AV, not altogether surprisingly because to some extent at least it defeated the [Hebrew] author of the book” (p. 96). Montagu mentions a book that contains about 25 photos of carvings of instruments from approximately the area and time period of Nebuchadnezzar which helps to guide his own identification of the court instruments. As he points out, identification of these Babylonian instruments does not directly help with identification of Hebrew instruments, though possibly there was some influence on musical practice after the return from exile in Babylon.

Though the author is thorough, he is, of course, not inerrant. For example, when listing the instruments that accompanied the procession when the Ark of the Covenant was restored to Jerusalem, he omits the shofar although that word is in the Hebrew text (1 Chron. 15:28).

Montagu does not necessarily take the biblical text at face value—for example, he says that 1 Chronicles 23:5 uses “characteristic exaggeration” when it describes the Temple orchestra of 4,000 musicians. Related passages before and after seem to indicate that the size of the Temple music ensemble was less than 30 musicians and no more than a few hundred singers, so Montagu wonders about the supposed enormous increase in size. Looking at the biblical text, I see two things to consider. First, the appointment of the 4,000 musicians took place when all of the Levites were gathered for the coronation ceremony of Solomon (see verse 2), and the emphasis was not yet on details of Temple worship. Second, it seems likely that this passage says that God appointed 4,000 Levites to serve as a pool of instrumental musicians who would be rotated in and out of Temple service, as were other Levites. Two chapters later, First Chronicles 25: 8 clearly states that the Temple musicians “were appointed to their particular term of service by means of sacred lots.”

The last three chapters of the book deal with instruments of the Apocrypha, instruments of the New Testament, and playing techniques of biblical instruments. This final chapter includes helps such as transcriptions of shofar calls and their meanings.

Three indices supplement the text: first is an index of Biblical references where instruments are mentioned and the corresponding pages in Montagu’s book that discuss the biblical passage. The second index is a quadrilingual parallel index of musical references, which includes the biblical chapter and verse, the English instrument names from the KJV, the Latin names from the Vulgate, the Greek names as found in the Septuagint, and the original Hebrew terms. For the New Testament instruments, the column of Hebrew instrument names is replaced by one taken from Tyndale’s New Testament, published in English in 1526.7 A general index completes the book.

My only significant criticism stems from the way the author has organized his material. He considers each biblical book in order, and this can make it difficult when a reader tries to consolidate all the information on a particular instrument when the instrument is mentioned in many places. For example, the Hebrew word for “lyre” is referenced in the index 39 times. That makes for a lot of flipping back and forth to read all of Montagu’s discussion about the instrument.

It can be time-consuming to take into account all of the nuances and variable interpretations of musical instrument identification when they are spread throughout the book. Fortunately the general index is thorough; even so, it took me a long time to work out the chart of some Old Testament instruments that I based on his identification.8

I would have preferred an arrangement of instruments by the “–phone” categories which are common in organology. Ivor Jones arranged his study of biblical instruments in this way (see review on p. 11), and it made the identification of the instruments more readily accessible to readers. However, Jones’ article is much shorter and 15 years older than this full-length book, and it doesn’t even mention stringed instruments.

Another new book, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine by Joachim Braun (2002, Eerdmans), also has an excellent section (23 pages) on biblical musical instruments. In this book, each instrument receives up to three pages of discussion about various possible identifications before the author’s conclusion is given. Perhaps since they rely on many of the same sources, Braun and Montagu reach the same conclusions about the identification of most of the instruments. Braun’s chapter serves in some ways as a summary of the main points of Montagu’s book, omitting many details for the sake of conciseness. Montagu does use Braun’s original 1999 book (in German) as one of the sources for his own study. 9

Montagu’s study is the definitive work, replacing those by Stainer10 and Sendrey,11 and is highly recommended to all who are interested in the topic. It is a valuable resource to ensure accuracy in translating the names of instruments for everyone working in the field of Bible translation. English translations of instrument names have improved quite a bit since the time of John Wyclif, who placed a hurdy-gurdy in his translation of Luke 15:25 (published about 1385). Nonetheless, a look at all of the contemporary Bible translations in English shows that lyres are often called harps, reed woodwinds are called flutes, and similar mis-identification occurs regularly. We can thank Dr. Montagu for the results of his decades of study and research presented in this book. It should help us have clearer understanding and more accurate mental pictures ourselves, and provide better instrument identification in future translations.

Music of El Dorado by Dale Olsen, 2002, Gainseville:
University Press of Florida, p. 23-31. See a review of Olsen’s book on p. 17 of this issue of EthnoDoxology.
2 See a related book review on p. 15 of this issue.
3 A harp has the neck attached directly to the body, while a lyre has a crossbar attached indirectly by means of two arms.
4 It has a fretboard and strings strummed or plucked.
5 It has strings struck with wooden sticks.
6 The Hammered Dulcimer: A History by Paul Gifford, 2001, Lanham & London: Scarecrow Press (see review on p. 26 of this issue)
7 Just in case you want to relish phrases such as “soundynge brasse and as a tynklynge Cymball” rolling off your tongue.
8 That chart is found on p. 6 of this issue.
9 Look for a review of Braun’s book in an upcoming issue.
10 Music of the Bible with some account of the Development of Modern Musical Instruments from Ancient Types by John Stainer, 1914 (revised edition), London: Novello (reprinted in 1970 by New York: Da Capo Press)
11 Music in Ancient Israel by Alfred Sendrey, 1969, New York: Philosophical Library & London: Vision

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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