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Ancient Musical Instruments: “Sounding Brass” and Hellenistic Technology, William Harris, BAR 8:01, Jan-Feb 1982.

Bronze echoing vases or “sounding brass”Ancient acoustical device clarifies Paul’s well-known metaphor

No New Testament passage is better known than Chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Its singular lyrical felicity and its insistence upon love differentiates it from the often practical and pragmatic side of Paul’s mind.

This ode to love begins (in the King James Version)-

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”

In modern translations we sometimes find “noisy gong”1 instead of “sounding brass.” The Jerusalem Bible has a “gong booming-”

“If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or cymbal clashing.”

In the original Greek the words for “sounding brass” or “noisy gong” are chalkos echon; a “cymbal clashing” is kumbalon alalazon.

The cymbalon or kumbalon was a well-known musical instrument of the period. Alalazon is an onomatopoetic word which means re-sounding. It is used several times in the third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. So we have no difficulty in accepting the translation of a cymbal clashing or clanging or even tinkling.

The other Greek phrase, chalkos echon, translated as “sounding brass” or “noisy gong,” is more difficult.

One interpreter thinks that the phrase refers to the clanging of armor of men girding for battle2—just the opposite of love. For another scholar, certain that the phrase refers to a drum which has no pitch and hence cannot hold a melody3, it is thus a symbol for meaningless music or emptiness. Still other sources4 contend that chalkos refers to the “trumpet” of Cybele and the passage relates to the cults of Cybele and Dionysius, especially at Corinth. Without love, the passage from 1 Corinthians seems to be saying, I am like a pagan cult.

My own search of the lexical materials reveals that nowhere is the phrase chalkos echon found as a musical instrument in the Hellenistic world. The noun chalkos is used to describe a wide variety of objects cast from the copper-tin alloy called bronze or brass—armor, knives, cauldrons, mirrors, money, even tablets. But there is no proof of the word being used for a musical instrument.5
Moreover, had Paul wished to refer to a “drum” he would certainly have used the regular word tympanon, not chalkos; and had he wished to say “trumpet” he would have used salpinx, a word he actually does use in the following chapter. There would seem to be little reason for Paul to coin a new term in this context to refer to a common musical instrument.

The word echon comes from the root ech. Our word “echo” is derived from the same root. In Plutarch we read of an echeion which is a mysterious Parthian military device used to encourage men headed for battle. The effect is described as an awful sound “from the depths of the ocean.” The device appears to be a complicated contraption used in the military art of the day, however, rather than a traditional instrument of Parthian music.

The ancient commentator or Scholiast to the Clouds of Aristophanes used echeion to refer to a machine for producing stage thunder. Hesychius6 much later glossed our word echeion as chalkoma thereby indicating that in his understanding it would mean the reverberating metallic plate attached to the Greek lyre to amplify the sound. Philo, the engineer, spoke of an echeion organon or “reverberating instrument,” again in a strictly military setting. Plato once refers to a bronze vase echoing on and on, as do certain empty-headed speakers.

These and othera passages from Hellenistic literature suggest that what Paul was referring to was an echoing brass sound, signifying emptiness.

A passage from Vitruvius’ book, On Architecture, allows us, I believe, to be even more specific. Vitruvius was a practicing Roman architect in the last part of the first century B.C.; his book dates to the period shortly before 27 B.C.7 Vitruvius was a skilled builder, a practical man who could write well, and we can generally rely upon his firm understanding of the materials with which he deals.
Vitruvius described certain brass sounding vases (echeia) used in theaters of the time, including the theater in Corinth, to amplify the sound of the actors’ and singers’ voices. I think Paul refers to these brass sounding vases in 1 Corinthians when he spoke of “chalkos echon.”

Vitruvius described the problem of projecting voices in the theater and the consequent development of brass sounding vases. In an earlier period, wood theaters were usual in Italy. The natural acoustics of wood were sufficient to use as an amplifier- When an actor wished greater voice projection, he could turn and speak to the wood panelled double-doors (valvae) which would serve as an echoing board to reflect his voice back to the audience. When more rigid structural materials such as cement and marble were used to construct theaters, special devices known as echeia or sounding vases were developed. At the time Vitruvius wrote (27 B.C.) Rome had only recently acquired these devices; many examples were found in southern Italy, however. Vitruvius noted that sounding vases were first brought to Rome by Lucius Mummiuss from the sacked theater at Corinth! It seems hardly fortuitous that Paul, some hundred years later, mentioned sounding vases in a letter to the citizens of Corinth.8

Vitruvius described the sounding vases in some detail. The vases, each having a tuned response, were arranged in niches at the back of the amphitheater. Thirteen were equally spaced, inverted and placed on blocks to allow sufficient airspace beneath; the vases did not touch the walls at the back.9

Since the vases were tuned to specific intervals, they responded accurately, and the series covered roughly an octave range. In larger theaters three ranks or rows of niches were provided, one above the other, and the vases in the three ranks were tuned in harmonic, diatonic and chromatic scales respectively, thus providing a widened variety of intervals and thereby improving the acoustic response.

One further remark from Vitruvius is important. The vases were made from bronze, although some poorer Italian cities had them made from ceramic materials, with equally good results he reported.10
Thus, in the Hellenistic world, as attested in an architect’s detailed description from around 30 B.C., acoustic amplification or resonance systems were common in newly constructed stone amphitheaters. They were called “sounders” or echeia and were generally made from bronze (chalkos). Other echeia for making stage thunder are known from the fifth century B.C. down to the third century A.D. as part of military engineering. In no cases are these seen as musical instruments, but rather as engineering contraptions or devices. The absence of actual archaeological examples of bronze sounding vases from the ancient world is probably due to the high value of bronze as a coin metal, but Vitruvius’ detailed description leaves little question as to the device’s form and use.

The passage in 1 Corinthians refers, I believe, to these bronze sounding vases or echoers. The phrase chalkos echon really means a bronze sounding vase or bronze echoing vase.

This understanding of the phrase introduces a deeper level of meaning to the passage in 1 Corinthians.

The “sounding brass” or bronze echoing vases call to mind the civilization of the Hellenistic world. The rest of Paul’s letter demonstrates that he considered the various religious virtues of the whole of the ancient world and concluded that none of them satisfied the needs of the new society without the essential “x”-factor, which was love or agape. The acoustic amplifiers of the Hellenistic theaters, and certainly the famous theater at Corinth speak for the emptiness of the Hellenistic world, which had far more voice than inner meaning. In this phrase Paul seems to be saying, without Love, I am as empty as the acoustic amplifiers of the Greek theaters, full of sound but literally saying nothing in the decadent years of Hellenic achievement. The parallel phrase, “clashing cymbal,” may be interpreted as referring to the Hebrew tradition because it appears in the Septuagint, which was known to Paul. This tradition too had ceased to be real for Paul. The joining of the words “echoing bronze” and “clashing cymbal” summarizes, metaphorically, two poles of experience now meaningless to Paul.

1. Revised Standard Version and New English Bible.

2. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Westminster Press- Philadelphia, 1956).

3. M. T. Thrall, The 1st and 2nd Letters of Paul to the Corinthians (Cambridge University Press, 1965).

4. Hans Conzelmann, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Fortress Press- Philadelphia, 1975), p. 221.

5. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and edited Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick Mackenzie (Oxford University Press, 1940).

6. Liddell and Scott.

7. George Sarton, A History of Science, Vol. 2, p. 350.

8. Vitruvius, De Architettura, ed. Valentin Rose (Teubner- Leipzig, 1899), 5, 5, 7–8.

9. The inverted vases are supported on cunei “wedges,” not blocks. My colleague Professor R. Gould, Department of Physics, Middlebury College, has pointed out the possibility of fine-tuning Helmholz resonators by restriction at the mouth, and this makes the function of the elevating wedges clear.

10. Vitruvius 5, 5, 8 ff.

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