In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity
  • Edward Foley
Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, by John Arthur Smith. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. 271 pp.

In his introduction the author states that the sole precursor of this volume is Eric Werner's two-volume The Sacred Bridge, which he calls a "pioneering working exploring for the first time in extended format the common ground between Judaism and Christianity" (xviii). Noting those volumes to be seriously out of date, Smith sets out to rectify this situation. His main sources for this volume are literary and archaeological (xviii), but he wisely notes that early texts cannot always be taken at face value and do not always allow concrete conclusions (xx). Smith does not think such inconclusiveness is a sign of weakness, but rather a "dual strength": bearing witness to "a sober respect for what the sources say, and . . . an open invitation to investigate the subject further" (xx). [End Page 164]

Aware of such challenges, Smith begins with an instructive opening chapter, "Background," which includes an overview of the history from approximately 1000 BCE to 313 CE. In this useful prolegomenon the author tackles issues of transliteration and provides a helpful introduction to the literary, archaeological, and few musical sources that support this work. This is the work of a gifted teacher, who not only maps out the terrain for his readers but also alerts them to some of the swamps and morasses inevitably encountered.

Next follow five chapters on various aspects of music in ancient Judaism, a topic that occupies the bulk of the volume (33-165). Chapter 2, on "Music at the Tabernacle and the First Temple," is quite cautious, as the sources demand, since the Hebrew Bible provides very little concrete information about music in this period (38). Staying very close to the texts, especially the psalms, Smith provides a careful reading of the relationship between vocal utterances and the use of stringed instruments, suggesting that "in the cultic music of ancient Israel, instrumental and vocal elements were of equal importance" (43).

Chapters 3 and 4 are both on "Music at the Second Temple." In these rich chapters Smith underscores how instruments (that is, plucked strings) and song were a sacred unity (65). In the process he provides what amounts to a short primer on the Temple and its organization; especially valuable is his careful outlining of the ritual settings for the music both at sacrificial and nonsacrificial rites. His reinterpretation of the psalms of "ascent" (120-32) as psalms sung on the 15 "steps" leading from the Court of the Women to the court of the Israelites (80-81) is most intriguing. The second of these chapters provides an insight analysis of how Levites were trained for this musical service, in which he rejects the concept of Levites as professional musicians (100) as well as that of a temple "orchestra" (109). Most helpful was his examination of the Second Temple repertoire, including a charting of psalms possibly sung at the temple according to various literary witnesses (93) and his cautious conclusions that hypothetically the repertory of the Levites "could have included some 84 psalms" (97).

Chapter 5, on music in religious devotion and worship outside of the Temple, provides a good overview of musical practices in private homes and sectarian communities such as the Therapeutai and Qumran. His treatment of music in the synagogue is appropriately brief (131-34). Duly noted is the change in synagogal worship with the destruction of the temple, as by the second century synagogal services were now "approaching a liturgy [End Page 165] of worship" (132). Chapter 6, on music outside religion devotion and worship, was particularly eye opening. With all the gifts of a mature scholar, Smith moves us from dirges, funerals, and music in the face of calamity, to the joyful music making that accompanies weddings, the birth of children, banquets, and even prostitution.

Impressed with the Jewish segments of the volume, this reviewer turned to the Christian section with high expectations. Unfortunately they were not met. Limited to two chapters totaling 54 pages, the survey of music in early Christianity in the first three centuries seemed much less...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 164-166
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.