The oldest-surviving Christian hymns designed exclusively for Holy Week are a set known as the Idiomele. In the modern Orthodox Church, they are sung during the Royal Hours service of Good Friday morning (the final hymn is sung during two additional services). Apart from their antiquity, the most noteworthy feature of these hymns is that they were the first to blame “the Jews” for the death of Christ. Not only is this accusation historically misleading, it constituted a dramatic break from earlier hymns that reflected on the crucifixion. Based on recent historical research, we are now able to link the introduction of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Idiomele to precise events in Palestine at the time of their composition. This historical evidence further accentuates our need to address the theological incoherence of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of these hymns and others composed in later centuries.
The Idiomele may be the oldest Holy Week hymns but they were not the first to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Approximately one thousand hymns emphasizing those very themes predate the Idiomele. Those earlier hymns were composed for an eight-week cycle of Sunday services, known as the Octoechos, and survive in a text known as the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook. While a few of those hymns do contain negative statements about the Jews, on balance they consistently position the whole of humanity as responsible for the death of Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection save the whole of humanity from death. In other words, our earliest evidence of Christian Liturgy instructs us that, week after week, Christians sang of themselves as the ones most responsible for the death of Christ. It is both historically and theologically significant that the earliest Christians in Jerusalem did not assign blame for the death of Jesus outside of their own community.Continue reading