Music of the Temple -- By: John Wheeler

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 02:1 (Winter 1989)
Article: Music of the Temple
Author: John Wheeler


Music of the Temple

John Wheeler*

*Member of the Foundation Roi David, Paris. Director of King David’s Harp, Inc., San Francisco.

In the past fifty years, our knowledge of the historical and cultural background of the Bible has exploded. Archaeology, in particular, has shed brilliant light on many aspects of Israelite culture and the culture of its neighbors.

One area of Israel’s culture, however, has remained but little enlightened by the searchlight of science: its music. Particularly the revered music of the Temple at Jerusalem. Maintained for nearly a millennium by the Levites (who held the priesthood since the days of Moses), this musical service perished in the ruins of the Second Temple in AD 70 - and until recently its melodies (so highly esteemed by Biblical and later authors) seemed lost beyond recovery in this age.

Most Bible students do not realize that the singing of Psalms was but a part of the temple service. It seems that in antiquity, from what evidence archaeology and history provides, all scripture and epic poetry was intended to be sung or chanted in public reading: in Greece, Sumeria, Egypt, India, and the Celtic tribes, to name just a few.1 Israel was not different in this respect. In temple and synagogue alike, portions from the Law, Prophets and Writings were chanted (as they are today by Jewish communities). Some authorities have long suspected that the authors of the Old Testament, like {he authors of other works in antiquity, intended their laws, prophecies, histories, to be musical works from the beginning, and that some of their melodies, at least, would have become part of the temple service.

What melodies they would have intended for their works have remained completely unknown to us. Many musicologists claim that one or another of the divergent forms of archaic synagogue chant preserves in some fashion the temple chant. But if one makes

connection, he must confess either that these melodies (so very “lifeless” as they are) must have been greatly denatured by time; or else that the high opinion the ancients (including the Israelites) had of their music was basically unfounded. Here again, lack of information has led many to doubt the Biblical accounts - in this case, those concerning the origins, nature and preservation of the sacred chant - as well as the testimonies of history supporting the biblical evidences.

Exceptional Music Quality

That Israel’s religious music was of high quality, Scripture itself leaves us no doubt. Poetry such as found in Israel’s earliest songs (e...

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