The Significance of Music in the Holy Bible

    -- by Vida Chenoweth, Enid, OK: Dougherty Press, 1999. 28 pages   

Several aspects of music in the Bible are touched on in this short volume. Before concentrating on music of the Hebrews, the author gives some brief background on history, culture, and music in related nations: the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Akkadians, Romans, and Greeks.

After this introduction, attention is turned to the main topic. Unfortunately, the author relies heavily on outdated scholarship of others as a basis for many statements. Her primary source on biblical music was published in 1901 (Stainer); the other (Rumsey) was published in 1945. Even Stainer’s revision of 1914 is not listed in the bibliography.

Partially because of her source material and reliance on the King James Version of the Bible, a number of erroneous ideas and mis-translations of musical terms are found. Some examples will be given here.

She quotes the opinion of Stainer that cymbals mentioned in Scripture refer only to finger cymbals. However, Montagu’s new book,1 now the standard reference on the subject, goes into some detail—with support from archaeology—as to the various sizes of cymbals that were used at the time. Some were certainly large enough to require holding in the hands in the manner of modern orchestral cymbals (p. 55).

The author reports that percussion instruments were not used in Greece. However, we know that St. Paul referred to cymbals when he wrote an epistle to the Corinthian church in the Greek language (1 Cor 13:1). Obviously the Greeks were familiar with cymbals.

She states, “It is certain that the Jews took Egyptian instruments such as the harp and bagpipe with them when they departed from Egypt.” The bagpipe was never used in Egypt,2 and was certainly not transported by the Jews during the Exodus. There is also no evidence that the Jews had harps.

A similar assertion is “Babylon and Assyria exported the dulcimer.” However, “dulcimer” is an incorrect translation of an Aramaic term. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first Bible to use the world “dulcimer” in the list of instruments found in Daniel. According to Gifford’s book,3 “the translators of the King James Bible… influenced English speakers to regard the dulcimer as having an ancient origin. In fact, it was a relatively new instrument” (p. 9). It first appeared in England not long before, during the time of Henry VIII.4

Occasionally the author uses cryptic statements, such as: “Melody, in Egyptian thought, was a correction of nature.” No further explanation is given.

Sometimes the author presents incorrect conclusions and gives no support for them, such as these: “After David established the music of the temple, folk music was replaced by that of learned families of singers who were to officiate in the temple. This would seem to be the beginning of church music; what had preceded revered pagan gods or was secular” (p. 9, italics mine). It is certain that “folk music” was not replaced; rather, a guild of temple musicians was developed to perform formal worship music in a certain ritual context. Outside of the temple, there is no doubt that “the folk” continued to make their own music as they had done for millennia. As far as what type of music had preceded temple music, there had been “godly” music in praise of Yahweh at least since the time of Moses thousands of years earlier (cf. Exodus 15).

A 4 ½-page chart categorizes some of the biblical references to music and instruments into two columns: “God’s Purpose” (such as pronouncing judgment) and “Man’s Purpose” (such as a funeral, sacred feast, or battle cry). The author proposes the rather startling conclusion that regarding musical instruments, the purpose of God and the purpose of man coincided only twice in all of Scripture.

The book closes with three appendices. First is a “Glossary of Musical Instruments in the Bible,” apparently taken from Stainer’s work based on the King James Version which uses such incorrect terms as dulcimer, bagpipes, viol, and panpipes. The second appendix is an index of verses where musical instruments are mentioned in the Bible (taken from Stainer). The third appendix is a partial set of references to vocal music in the Bible.

The author did not have the benefit of Montagu’s book, of course, since it was published three years after this one. However, most of the source materials used by Montagu were available; out of the nearly 100 items listed in his bibliography, all but a handful were published before 1999. These include the articles he wrote on biblical instruments for the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments published in 1984. Chenoweth’s bibliography consists of eight books (the most recent dated 1948) and an interview. More research and better scholarship would have improved the usefulness of this book significantly. Chenoweth has written several outstanding books, but this is not one of them.

2002, see review on p. 12 in this issue
2 See the “bagpipe” entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments
3 2001, see review on p. 26 in this issue
4 Montagu 2002: 99

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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