Wineskins Archive

December 18, 2013

Psallo: Lost in Translation? (Sept-Dec 2010)

Filed under: — @ 9:46 am and

by Danny Corbitt
September – December, 2010

Accompanied or A Capella?If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, you’ll remember your teacher occasionally saying, “English just doesn’t have a word for this.” Sometimes these rare words find their way into English, like déjà vu. Less fortunate ones, though, can get lost in the translation. There is beauty in understanding these special words’ original meanings.

When we see the word “sing” or “song” in our Bibles, we shouldn’t be tempted to think that the original word behind ours is restricted to the meaning of our English word. When we do that, the meanings of the original Greek words can be, as we say, “lost in translation.” Let’s look at those words through the eyes of the original writers and their audiences, long before anyone spoke the King’s English.

A key set of Greek words for “song” and “sing” is the Greek pair psalmos/psallō. (You can see the English word “psalm” in the Greek noun.) In discussing Colossians 3:16, Thayer’s lexicon says that “the leading idea of ψαλμ [psalm] is a musical accompaniment.”1 It could also refer specifically to the OT psalms.2

1 Corinthians 14:16 speaks of Christians sharing their psalms. While Fourth Century Christian ascetics were condemning instrumental music in all praise, non-monastic Fourth Century morning prayers in the West “nearly always included Psalms 148-150.”3 And these songs remind us of God’s pleasure with instrumental praise.

Everyone agrees that the verb psallō evolved from its earlier sense of merely “plucking the strings of a musical instrument.” In the First Century, psallō had more than one meaning, though the meanings were related. Frederick Danker is representative of most modern lexicons when he identifies the primary NT meaning of psallō as “to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment.”4 Notice that this definition is specific to the NT, where psallō always refers to praise, not just any song. Thayer noted this distinction over a century ago.5

Notice also that the primary meaning is to sing praise with or without accompaniment. To sing praise and wash dishes would be to psallō AND something else, because “wash dishes” is not part of the definition of psallō. To sing praise with accompaniment, however, is not to psallō and something else; it is merely to psallō. To sing praise with accompaniment or to sing praise without in either case is, by definition, to psallō, with no apologies.

The secondary First Century meaning of psallō was to play on a musical instrument, and this meaning continued long after the NT was written.6 Danker gives “singing and playing (instrumentally) heartily to the Lord” as a possible translation of Ephesians 5:19,7 although he also suggests that cultural reasons – not scriptural or linguistic ones – are why psallō is more often translated with a generic “making music” in that passage.8

We often say that psallō was no longer used for playing an instrument in the First Century, but there are many examples to the contrary. Ferguson confirms, for example, that the First Century Jewish historian Josephus always used psallō for playing an instrument,9 and we know that Josephus wrote in the same common Greek as the NT.10 The earliest Aramaic translation of the Bible, the Syriac Peshitta (“peshitta” meaning simple or common) translates psallō with the same word (zammar) that it uses to translate “play (an instrument)” in Matthew 11:17 and Luke 7:32, where we read, “We played the flute for you.”11 Psallō had not lost its secondary meaning of “to play an instrument” when the NT was written.

Even the Church Fathers still sometimes used psallō for playing an instrument. Commenting on Colossians 3:16, Clement of Alexandria (died 215) writes, “If you should wish to sing and play (psallein) to the cithara and lyre, that is not blameworthy.”12 Eusebius (died 340) shares this usage,

As is written in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles, David, king after the death of Saul, brought up the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant — it had been in the house of Obedom for twenty years, when it had been taken from the Azotians — installed it in Jerusalem, and chose by lot four musicians from the tribe of Levi as leaders of song, to play and sing (psallein kai adein) before the Ark of the Lord, and to raise a voice of joy in confession and praise upon harmonious instruments and in song — upon kinuras, nablas, tympana, cymbals, psaltery and keratin.13

It is interesting that Eusebius uses the same pair of Greek verbs (ado and psallō) that we find in Ephesians 5:19, demonstrating that even in his day, psallō retained its secondary meaning of “to play an instrument.”

You may have noticed that no lexicon distinguishes a meaning for psallō in public versus private worship. The differences between public and private worship are not defined by psallō or any of the passages where it is found.

Some have thought that if psallō meant to play, then it had to be on a stringed instrument. That was an early meaning, but Delling shows where psallō was used for playing a flute or oboe,14 and the Septuagint has psallō for playing a tambourine (Psalm 149:3). Eusebius’ example quoted above also is not limited to stringed instruments.

Some have thought that if psallō allowed an instrument, then everyone would always be required to play an instrument in praise, but that would go against the understanding of the same kinds passages in the OT, from beginning (Psalm 81, in Egypt) to the end (such as Psalm 150). The many OT passages urging the worship of God with instruments did not imply that a Jew must only praise God with an instrument! Moreover, the primary meaning of psallō itself is to sing praise with or without accompaniment.

Some have said that if Ephesians 5:19 allows instruments, then it would contradict Colossians 3:16, but neither passage uses words that mean “sing only a cappella.” Rather, although Colossians 3:16 doesn’t use psallō, the verb used for “sing” is ado, which is used elsewhere in the Bible of singing with accompaniment.

In Colossians 3:16, the verb form of ádō is adontes. Speaking of this passage, Page makes the comparison, “As a noun, adontes is the standard term in the Septuagint [the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by many of the NT writers] for the Temple singers (Ezra 2:41, 65, 70, etc.).”15 A look at those passages will confirm that those who sing with instruments are identified merely as “singers”; Temple singing was, of course, accompanied with instruments.

It is not surprising, then, to see the Apostle John using these words in that same sense in the Revelation. The ōdē/ádō pair occurs in Revelation 5:9, 14:3, and 15:3. All three instances occur with harps (or the sound of harps) specified in the preceding verse. Those who praise God with harps in chapters 5 and 15 are described only with the ōdē and ádō, translated “song” and “sing.”

Therefore, the word translated “sing” in Col 3:16 would not by itself communicate “sing only a cappella” in the eyes of first century inspired writers.

Some have said that psallō meant “to play” only if it was followed by a preposition and a specific instrument (e.g., “on a harp”), but again, no lexicon agrees, and it is counter to Eusebius’ example. Delling also gives counter-examples in the Septuagint.16

Some have said that the instrument to be played in Ephesians 5:19 is the heart, but the lexicons disagree. Danker translates with “heartily,” as we have seen (above), and Delling concurs, citing Psalms 9:1; 86:12; 111:1, and 138:1 as similar passages, where an audible activity is offered with “the engagement of the heart.”17 Compare Psalm 108:1, 2, where David sings and makes music (on the harp and lyre) “with all my soul.”18

When we truncate the meanings of the Greek words and censor the instruments, the rich meanings of the Greek words are “lost in the translation.” The English translation doesn’t show Paul’s preference for words with a long history, pre- and post-NT, of referring to instrumental music.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what better words Paul might have chosen for the sense “singing, with instruments permitted.” He certainly didn’t use words that his readers would have understood to mean “sing only a cappella,” which is surely one reason why not a single Church Father argues against the instrument based on the wording of Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16.
1 Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 637
2 New Testament Greek-English Dictionary, volume 16 “Sigma to Omega”, (Springfield, MO: The Complete Biblical Library, 1991), p. 542.
3 David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 488.
4 Frederick William Danker, editor, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, third edition (based on Walter Bauer’s sixth edition), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 1096.
5 Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 675.
6 Danker, p. 1096.
7 Danker, p. 22.
8 Danker, p. 1096.
9 Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Revised Edition), Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press, 1972, p.11.
10 Danker, pp. xiv, xv.
11 The Concordance to the Peshitta Version of the Aramaic New Testament (New Knoxville, Ohio: American College Press, 1985), p 102.
12 James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 33.
13 McKinnon, p. 97.
14 Gerhard Delling, “Umnos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Cushing p Malloy, Inc., 1972), volume VIII, p. 490.
15 Christopher Page, the Christian West and its singers: The First thousand Years, p. 75.
16 Delling, p. 493.
17 Delling, p 498, footnote 96.
18 Jay Guin, “Eph 5:19 and the Psalms,” showing that Eph 5:19 borrows much of its language from Psa 108:1-2, which speaks of singing to an instrument.New Wineskins

Danny CorbittDanny Corbitt is the author of Missing More Than Music: When Disputable Matters Eclipse Worship and Unity, offering additional fresh material dealing with the instrumental music controversy. The book is available for purchase at or download.

Danny has worked as a youth minister, a missionary, and a state college minister for the Churches of Christ. He presently works as a computer programmer in Arlington, Texas. Danny and his wife, the former Cindy Russell, have been married for 25 years. They and their sons, Cason and Austin, love music.

1 Comment »

  1.   Monte Hawk — November 20, 2020 @ 6:00 pm    Reply

    Danny’s thoughts are well stated. There are four passages, two from the Old that are quoted in the New covenant which brings the mechanical instrument from the Old into the New. Heb.2:12 is quoting Psa.22:22 and Rom.15:9 is referring to 2 Sam.22:50 and Psa.18:49. Also, there is as much authority for accompanying a song with an instrument as there is for getting the pitch with an instrument. The Bible is more silent about the pitch than it is with the accompaniment. Yet, I prefer congregational singing.

RSS feed for comments on this post.TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

© 2022 Wineskins Archive