Famous voices bring world's oldest hymn back to life

John Dickson, Chris Tomlin and Ben Fielding unite in ‘The First Hymn Project’

While filming his new music documentary, The First Hymn Project, author, historian and former pop singer John Dickson had a few spine-tingling moments.

Taking a film crew to the archaeological site in Egypt where the 1800-year-old hymn was discovered beneath the sands of time was one.

“I went to a ruined old church in Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and sang the original song in Greek on the site where it was last heard,” marvels Dickson, the lead singer for a Christian rock band in his youth.

“That was one of those spine-tingling moments because no one had sung that song in that spot for 1800 years.”

For the first time, the world could know what these ancient believers were singing about and hear what they sounded like.

The First Hymn Project is a music documentary made by the Undeceptions podcast team that tracks the attempts of historians and musicians to resurrect an ancient hymn and give it back to the world.

‘P.Oxy 1786’ is a scrap of parchment uncovered in the ruins of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Specialists were stunned to discover it contained the words of the oldest Christian hymn ever found and even the music. So, for the first time, the world could know what these ancient believers were singing about and hear what they sounded like.

John Dickson in Nashville with Chris Tomlin and Ben Fielding in the background.

Now Dickson has traced the history of P.Oxy 1786 from its ancient resting place in Egypt to Oxford University, where it is stored, and then its journey to Australia and the US as two of the world’s finest Christian musicians resurrect the song for the modern church.

And for a rock fan such as Dickson, being in a studio in Nashville with musical hitmakers Ben Fielding and Chris Tomlin as they brought the song together “as an amazing anthemic congregational praise song” was just as exciting as visiting the archaeological site.

“My translation is not poetic, but they’ve somehow made it so and set it to a beautiful, modern tune.” – John Dickson

Having filmed the scenes in Egypt and Oxford, Dickson went to Nashville expecting to film the award-winning Christian singer-songwriters workshop writing the song and then return a few months later for the recording session. But there was a big surprise waiting.

Ben Fielding and Chris Tomlin surprise John Dickson by playing the song.

“I turn up and they surprise me – and the whole crew was in on it – that they had basically finished the song. So I sit down and say, ‘Okay, so have you got any ideas?’ And they said, ‘Well, let’s play you a couple of ideas.’ And they just played on the guitars the whole thing to me. I was like, ‘What?’ It was surreal,” he tells Eternity.

“I got the shivers because what they’ve come up with is extraordinary. Lyrically, what they’ve done is they’ve taken my English translation of the original Greek of the hymn and incorporated every word of the translation. I didn’t think they would be able to pull it off because my translation is not poetic, but they’ve somehow made it so and set it to a beautiful, modern tune. It’s not the original notation, but they’ve honoured the original tune by having some little elements in their melody that signal the ancient tune.”

Buff and Josie Dickson at the recording session in Nashville.

The next day, Dickson, along with his wife Buff and younger daughter Josie, watched in the corner of the Nashville studio as a crack musical team recorded the song, “piecing it together with some extraordinary musicians and laying down the whole track – both vocals, all the drums and bass and keys and guitars, and it was beautiful.”

Dating from the mid-200s AD, this hymn is one of the earliest known manuscripts for a Christian hymn, complete with the squiggles that unlock the melody. The fascinating thing is that these four lines of ancient Greek include an idea that some have claimed Christians this early didn’t yet believe. The lyrics call on all creation to “be silent” as we “sing our hymn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – “the only giver of all good gifts. Amen. Amen.” This was two generations before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.

“Now, scholars often say, ‘This line is of some interest,’ and what they mean is, ‘It’s amazing!’” Dickson says in the promotional trailer (see below).

“This is the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christian idea that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And you sometimes hear that that idea was only invented much later, say in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, when Emperor Constantine forced this doctrine on the church.”

The hymn was eventually buried along with hundreds of other pieces of papyri under mounds of earth until two English scholars, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, stumbled upon them in Oxyrhynchus about 100 years ago.

Grenfell and Hunt had little idea of what they had uncovered at the time. The fragments were catalogued, packed in biscuit tins and sent to Oxford to rest safely in the Sackler Library.

“To give back to the church a song that hasn’t been sung for nearly 2,000 years just seemed irresistible.”

With more than half of the documentary filmed and none of the creatives being paid for their work, the project is a labour of sacrificial service to the church. $100,000 has been raised from donors to cover the costs of the film crew and travel, but they still need another $100,000 to finish the project.

“We will lose tens of thousands of dollars, but we’re willing to do that. We didn’t do this because we thought it would make money. We did it because it just felt like too good an idea. To give back to the church a song that hasn’t been sung for nearly 2000 years just seemed irresistible,” says Dickson.

“And especially as this song predates there being any denominations. It’s from the middle of the third century, so no Roman Catholic church existed. There was no Orthodox church. There was, obviously, no Protestant church. It’s before all of that. The lyrics are completely theologically down the line, praising the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit as the giver of all good gifts. And so to give that back to the church feels right.”

Engineers and producers will mix the song in April, and an Egyptian female singer will lay down a backing track. A concert of the song will also be filmed. After which, the documentary will be ready for simultaneous release with Chris Tomlin’s next album, which will include ‘The First Hymn’, which is slated for release in early 2025.

“So Lord willing, we can all be singing it by Easter 2025,” Dickson concludes.

If you can help bring The First Hymn back to life, click here.