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ψαλλω and Musical Instruments (Monday with Mounce 45)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonSomeone asked me the other day about the precise meaning of the Greek word ψαλλω and any relationships it has, if any, to the ancient debate of musical instruments in worship.

I hesitate to blog on this because I am sure there has been much discussion in the Worship Wars literature about this and I am not aware of the pitfalls lying in wait for me. (Can pitfalls "lie in wait" or am I mixing my metaphors? Oh well, you understand.) My books on worship are at school and I can't get to them. So much for disclaimers.

But the person mentioned that some lexicons support one position, and others lexicons support the other. Let's see.

The latest version of BDAG gives this meaning to ψαλλω: "to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment." The suggested glosses are "sing, sing praise." The cognate noun ψαλμος is defined as "song of praise, psalm and is used in the NT as a reference to the Psalms or more generally to a hymn of praise."

It is interesting that Liddell and Scott give these meanings for classical Greek: "to play a stringed instrument with the fingers; later, to sing to a harp, sing, N.T. Louw and Nida agree. "to sing songs of praise, with the possible implication of instrumental accompaniment."

Both words are used in the LXX to refer to the Psalms, which were often sung with musical accompaniment. However, the word can be used just of singing apart from mention of an instrument (Ps 33:2).

ψαλλω occurs five times in the NT, none of which specify anything more than the voice (Rom 15:9; 1 Cor 14:15 (2x); Eph 5:1; James 5:13). The noun occurs seven times, four times in Luke-Acts of a psalm, the books of Psalms, or the entire section of the Jewish canon also called the Writings (Luke 20:42; 24:44; acts 1:20; 13:33). In Paul they are used of a song sung (1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

So what can we conclude? It appears that the word has shifted somewhat in meaning, since originally it clearly referred to playing an instrument, but by NT times it could be used more generally of human singing. I suspect the lexical data will not take us any further than that.

But it does point out an important lesson for all young Greek translators to understand, and that is that words change their meaning.

They can widen in scope, narrow in scope, or shift altogether. I suspect the question that engendered this blog was because the Classical Greek definition and the Koine are somewhat different, and the person asking did not realize that Liddell Scott cannot be compared directly to Koine lexicons like BDAG.

But does this mean that the "songs" in the NT were unaccompanied by musical instrument. Absolutely not. The New Testament inherits the culture of the Old Testament, and the later was full of instrumentation.

The burden of proof would lie on the person assuming that instruments were not used in New Testament worship, and then it would have to be proven that the absence is normative for all worship of all time.

The lesson for us is to watch the dating of the references, realizing that words shift meaning from Classical to Koine. And also realizing that word studies don't necessarily solve debate. They may give us the range of possible options, but other factors usually determine which option we choose.

As for me and my house, we will use any means available to praise God for who he is and what he has done.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek (third edition coming in 2009!), and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at  

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