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The ancient "Kinnor" was the very first lyre to be mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, where it is now commonly mistranslated as "harp" - Jubal was the son of Lamech and Adah, a brother of Jabal, a descendant of Cain, and according to the Bible, "he was the ancestor of all who played the lyre and pipe" (Genesis 4:21).

The identification of the Kinnor as a lyre is confirmed by the abundance of archaeological evidence – since the end of the Chalcolithic Age (4000 – 3200 BCE), no other stringed instruments besides lyres have ever been found in the areas which formed the land of Canaan, ancient Israel and ancient Palestine. The lyre seems to have completely replaced the use of the harp in the Levant in the Biblical era, and indeed, the only illustrations we have of harps being played in ancient Israel, dates to a time far before Biblical times; from c.3300 BCE – 3000 BCE, in rock etchings found in Megiddo.

The root of the word “Kinnor” is incredibly ancient, and can be found throughout the entire ancient Near East, long before the writings of the Old Testament – as early as the 3rd millennium BCE! A letter from the 18th century BCE from the archives at Mari describes lyre as “kinnaratim”, and the root of the word was even incorporated into the names of deities, such as the Canaanite “kinyras”. It was also used as a designation for “lotus wood” from the 18th/19th Egyptian Dynasty. In ancient Egypt at this time, the word “knwrw” definitely refers to a lyre. 




The 19th century theologian Albert Barnes tells us the following about the Biblical Kinnor in his commentary "Notes on the Bible", reference, Isaiah 5:12.:

 (Isaiah 5:12 KJV) And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.
(Isaiah 5:12 RSV) They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands.


"The harp - kinnor. This is a well-known stringed instrument, employed commonly in sacred music. It is often mentioned as having been used to express the pious feelings of David; Psa_32:2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5. It is early mentioned as having been invented by Jubal; Gen_4:21. It is supposed usually to have had ten strings (Josephus, “Ant.” B. x. ch. xii. Section 3). It was played by the hand; 1Sa_16:23; 1Sa_18:9. The “root” of the word kinnor, is unknown. The word “kinnor” is used in all the languages cognate to the Hebrew, and is recognized even in the Persian. It is probable that the instrument here referred to was common in all the oriental nations, as it seems to have been known before the Flood, and of course the knowledge of it would be extended far. It is an oriental name and instrument, and from this word the Greeks derived their word κινυ´ρα  kinura. The Septuagint renders it κιθα´ρα  kithara and κινυ´ρα  kinura.


 Once they substitute for it οργανον organon, Psa_136:2; and five times ψαλτη´ριον  psalterion, Gen_4:20; Psa_48:4; Psa_80:2; Psa_149:3; Eze_26:13. The harp - kinnor - is not only mentioned as having been invented by Jubal, but it is also mentioned by Laban in the description which be gives of various solemnities, in regard to which he assures the fleeing Jacob that it had been his wish to accompany him with all the testimonials of joy - ‘with music - ??  toph and ????  kinnor;’ Gen_31:27. In the first age it was consecrated to joy and exultation. Hence, it is referred to as the instrument employed by David to drive away the melancholy of Saul 1Sa_16:16-22, and is the instrument usually employed to celebrate the praises of God; Psa_33:1-2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5; Psa_71:22-23. But the harp was not only used on sacred occasions. Isaiah also mentions it as carried about by courtezans Isa_23:16, and also refers to it as used on occasions of gathering in the vintage, and of increasing the joy of the festival occasion.


 So also it was used in military triumphs. Under the reign of Jehoshaphat, after a victory which had been gained over the Moabites, they returned in triumph to Jerusalem, accompanied with playing on the kinnor;” 2Ch_20:27-28. The harp was generally used on occasions of joy. Only in one place, in Isaiah Isa_16:11, is it referred to as having been employed in times of mourning. There is no ancient figure of the kinnor that can be relied on as genuine. We can only say that it was an instrument made of sounding wood, and furnished with strings. Josephus says that it was furnished with ten strings, and was played with the plectrum (“Ant.” B. viii. ch. x.) Suidas, in his explanation of it, makes express mention of strings or sinews (p. 318); and Pollux speaks of goats’ claws as being used for the plectrum. David made it out of the berosh, or fir, and Solomon out of the almug. Pfeiffer supposes, that the strings were drawn over the belly of a hollow piece of wood, and that it had some resemblance to our violin. But it is more probable that the common representation of the harp as nearly in the form of a triangle, with one side or the front part missing, is the correct one. For a full discussion of the subject, see Pfeiffer on the Music of the ancient Hebrews, “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 366-373. Montfaucon has furnished a drawing of what was supposed to be the ancient kinnor, which is represented in the book. But, after all, the usual form is not quite certain.


 Bruce found a sculpture of a harp resembling that usually put into the hands of David, or nearly in the form of a triangle, and under circumstances which led him to suppose that it was as old as the times of Sesostris." 




Biblical Musicologist, John Wheeler, also recently provided me with the following little gem of information, about just how wide-spread the radiation of the root of the word "Kinnor" was throughout the ancient Middle East:


"We find in the lexicon of Richard J. Dumbrill, THE ARCHAEOMUSICOLOGY OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST (Trafford Publishing, 2005, pp. 426-427) the following information:

"kinnar uhili
A Hurrian lyre player.

A Hittite lyre player.

A stringed instrument. Probably a lyre. The kinnor of the Bible.
Mari, ca. 1770 BC; Alalakh, 1500-1400 BC.

Found on a Hittlte tablet from. [sic] A hapx legomenon, kinir is cognate with kinnor and Tall indicates 'player of the instrument'. The large lyre was called hunzinar and the small one ippizinar in Hittite. The word zinar is probably Hattic. In fact the words zinar and kinir show a shift of k > z, which is seen in Luwian words derived from the Hittite. It could be suspected that zinar was Luwian and not Hattic. However, this cannot be since both hunzinar and ippizinar can have the suffix -nu which is not Luwian. The kinnor was loaned into Hattian with the same shift (Hattusas 1500-1200 BC).

In Ugarit, 1400-1300 BC, we have knr in alphabetic cuneiform and kinaru in syllabic, in several texts. In Emar, 1300 BC, there is kinnaru. In Egypt, about 1200 BC, the term knnr or kinnuru. The Hebrew Bible mentions the kinnor 42 times.


Also: 'With regards to the five lyres my lord wrote to me about', 'Person x made two lyres, now I am sending my lord the two lyres person x made.' It is composed of the lyre loan word and the Hurrian word huli which indicates a profession, that is either the player or the maker of the instrument"

On page 454 we have these related entries (noting the letter shift from k > z mentioned above):

See zinar
A lyre.


See zannaru above.
Hattic word used in hittite. Akkadian zannaru.
A stringed musical instrument.
It has two sizes, gal and tur which are identified as Hittite hunzinar and ippizinar respectively.


'Then the great master of ceremonies goes out to the forecourt and says to the herald: zinar, zinar. Then the musicians lift the Istar instruments. The herald marches in front of the musicians who carry in the Istar instruments.' 



The Kinnor was used for an incredibly diverse range of occasions, as described in its 42 references throughout the Old Testament. It was used for secular celebrations (Genesis 31:27), in times of lament (Job 30:31), praise, and was even described being played during the transporting of the Ark of the Covenant (Chronicles 15:16, Psalms 43:3, 98:5,149:3,150:3). References to this beautiful Biblical lyre of antiquity can also be found throughout the entire text of the Hebrew Bible:

Nehemiah 12:27
1st Samuel 10:5, 16:16, 16:23
1st Kings 10:12, 15:16, 15:21, 15:28, 16:5, 25:1, 25:6
1st Chronicles 25:, 13:8
2nd Chronicles 5:12, 9:11, 20:28, 29:25
2nd Samuel 6:51
Job 21:12, 30:31
Psalm 33:2, 43:4, 49:4, 57:8, 71:22, 81:2, 92:3, 98:5, 98:5, 108:2, 147:7, 149:3, 150:3, 137:2
Isaiah 5:12, 16:11, 23:16, 24:8, 30:32
Ezekiel 26:13

In Biblical times, the Kinnor was usually made of cypress or, in very precious instruments, of sandalwood (I Kings 10: 12; described as "almug"). According to the ancient writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who actually witnessed the Kinnor being played by the Levites in the Temple of Jerusalem, the lyre had ten strings, made of sheep gut (Antiquities vii.12.3). He also says that the Kinnor was made of electrum (Antiquities viii 3.8) – an alloy of silver and gold! 

This could possibly mean the external decoration of these lyres  - but after recently discovering from the research of Richard Dumbrill, that the soundboard of the Silver Lyre of Ur (dating to c.2600 BCE) was, in fact, itself made of Silver (and not silver-plated wood), maybe the soundboard of some of the Biblical Kinnors were themselves made of electrum. What a fascinating possibility, that somewhere under the Temple Mount, that a Biblical Kinnor made of such durable metals may still be waiting to be discovered! 

Josephus informs us that the Kinnor was usually played with a plectrum, although it could also be played with the fingers, to achieve a more soothing sound (as when David soothed King Saul).

The Biblical Kinnor Lyre was the actual "Harp of David", once played by King David himself, 3000 years ago, as he danced before the very Ark of the Covenant (II Samuel 6:5), and for over 1000 years, the mystical resonance of the Kinnor could be heard wafting down from Temple Mount, as my very own, very ancient Levite ancestors played their Kinnors in the Courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem, to accompany the almost legendary singing of the Levitical Choir (II Chronicles 5:12):


Illustrations of the what could possibly be Jewish Kinnor players from the time of Solomon’s Temple, can be seen in an early 7th century BCE Assyrian bas-relief in the Southern Palace at Nineveh of Assurbanipal (704 - 681 BCE) depicting the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s conquest of Israel. The relief, preserved at the British Museum, depicts the fall of the Judean city of Lachish - what could be interpreted as 3 Jewish lyre players are depicted amongst the other Jewish prisoners taken from Lachish to slavery in Nineveh:

This specific image of musicians being carried away into captivity is also tantalizingly evoked in a specific Biblical passage:

"They that carried us away captive required of us a song" - Psalm 137:3

However, it is still not in any way conclusive that the 3 captives depicted here were actually Jewish:

"The employment of captives as musicians is interesting, though we cannot say that the captives are Jews. It shows us that the Assyrians, like the later Babylonians, were in the habit of "requiring" music from their prisoners, who, when transported into a "strange land," had to entertain their masters with their native melodies." (Henry Rawlinson)

As also explained in the description of the bas relief as it is currently preserved in the British Museum:

"The musicians are often thought to have come from the state of Judah, though there is no evidence for this. The style of their dress is different to that worn by the people of Lachish (see for example, a panel showing the siege of Lachish). They are, however, almost certainly Western or Levantine in origin."


There is, then, regrettably scant visual evidence of what the actual appearance of the Biblical kinnor actually looked like. The modern evocation of the Biblical kinnor with which I recorded my debut 2008 album, "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel", is more likely similar to the type of kinnor of the Second Temple Era; from the about time of Jesus. However, the only actual basis of the design of my modern evocation of the Biblical instrument is based only on the scant illustrations we have, of the what might be a Biblical kinnor - a form of symmetrical, elongated form of lyre depicted on ancient Jewish coins minted at the time of the Simon Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman occupation in Israel:

It must therefore be noted, that at the time the Simon Bar Kokhba coins were minted in the second century CE, almost a whole century had already passed since the Romans had destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and along with it, all the ancient musical traditions of the Levites - including the original Biblical lyres once performed in the ancient Temple services.

Indeed, in my opinion, the distinctive vertical line seen down the centre of the lyre depicted on the Simon Bar Kochba coins is actually the precisely the same distinctive feature seen on the ancient Greek Kithara . In the 1st century CE, due the quite obvious evidence of Hellenisation of Jewish culture, if this lyre was an illustration of the actual Biblical kinnor, then the Biblical Kinnor of the 1st century CE was virtually identical to the ancient Greek Kithara - according to the musicologist Michalis P Georgio, the ridge on the back of the ancient Greek kithara was meant to represent the spine of a tortoise, as seen on the more primitive tortoise shell lyre of the god Hermes:

After a little more Google searching for further evidence of a vertical ridge also being featured down the back of the virtually identical ancient Greek Kithara, I found another article in "The Journal of Hellenic Studies" (Volume 95 / November 1975, pp 175-175), by Martha Maas of the Ohio State University, entitled "Back Views of the Ancient Greek Kithara", in which the article clearly states:

"the back of the kithara soundbox bulges out at the top, tapering toward the base; and in examples from the fifth century and later, it rises to a vertical ridge running down the centre of the back".

Following some more research, I was delighted to stumble into this fascinating image of the back of an ancient Greek Kithara, as depicted on an ancient Greek silver stater coin - the ridge is very clearly visible, almost identical to the ridge on the Biblical lyre illustrated on the Bar Kokhba coins:

What was this distinctively pagan reference to the ancient Greek god Hermes, doing on the back of what was supposed to represent a biblical lyre? Regrettably, from this, I have to infer that the elongated lyre depicted on the Bar Kokhba coins is not the Biblical kinnor, but rather a representation of the Greco-Roman kithara - which at the time that these coins were minted, was the most commonly played lyre of the professional musicians of Classical antiquity, with which the artisans who actually minted these coins would have been far more familiar with (in contrast to the strictly covert world of the biblical Levites and the nuances of the ancient Temple services, which has already been erased from living memory by the Romans a century earlier).



On the Bar Kokhba coins, I think that the reverse of the lyres were depicted, simply for pragmatic reasons - it is an easier image to mass produce & stamp on coins which needed to be manufactured quickly, than the additional detail required to depict all the strings and bridge etc, as seen from the front of the lyre.

In an attempt for me to illustrate my hypothesis, when I take a photo of my own modern evocation of the Kinnor as seen from behind, minus the vertical ridge, it now looks almost identical to the lyre seen on the Simon Bar Kokhba coins:

The image of the elongated lyres seen on the Simon Bar Kokhba coins was actually first seen over 200 years earlier, on the coins from Acco (Acre) in ancient Israel:



Frustratingly, though, it just may be possible, though, that the image we see on  the Acco coins, as well as the Bar Kokhba coins, as argued above, is not the Biblical kinnor, but rather a version of the Greco-Roman kithara - which at the time both of these coins were minted, was the most commonly played lyre of the professional musicians of Classical antiquity. It is more than likely, that the sacred biblical lyres themselves were only ever witnessed by the Levitical priests during the ancient Temple service - the artisans who minted both the Acco and Bar Kokhba coins therefore were probably only familiar with the appearance of the then common sight of the Greco-Roman kithara.

The reason that an image of the actual Biblical kinnor was not definitively depicted anywhere in the archaeological record, was most probably due to the ancient tradition in Judaism of aniconism - the prohibition of depictions of sacred imagery. 

Indeed, possibly the only reason why Flavius Josephus was able to give us one of the precious few first-hand, extra-biblical descriptions of the kinnor which we have, was due to his privileged priestly family lineage, as described in this entry from Wikipedia:

"He descended through his father from the priestly order of the Jehoiarib, which was the first of the 24 orders of priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus was a descendant of the high priest Jonathon"

To add weight to this argument regarding the identification of the lyres on the Acco and Bar Kokhba coins actually depicting the ancient Greek kithara and not, in fact, the biblical kinnor, below is an illustration of the ancient Greek kithara as seen from the front of the instrument, which also shows the distinctive discs at either end of the yoke - exactly the same as is seen on the elongated lyre depicted on the Acco coins:

It is therefore sadly a real possibility, that the true appearance of the Biblical kinnor from the period of the Second Temple has been lost to history, along with the all of the other ancient musical traditions of the Levites, following the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.


Quite possibly, the only vague clue as to what the actual shape of the actual outline of the biblical kinnor may have looked like, can be derived from the original Hebrew word for the Sea of Galilee - Lake Kinneret (Hebrew: יָם כִּנֶּרֶת‎ ) Indeed, when viewed from above, the ghostly outline of an ancient lyre can indeed be perceived:

Regarding the origin of the original Hebrew name of the lake, to quote from Wikipedia:

"The scholarly consensus though is that the origin of the name lies with the important Bronze and Iron Age city of Kinneret, excavated at Tell el-'Oreimeh. However, there is no evidence that the city of Kinneret itself was not named after the body of water rather than vice versa, or for the origin of the town's name."

If this is the case, then linguistically at least, it may be still a very real possibility that the shape of the Sea of Galilee is still the nearest thing we have, to an actual image of the approximate outline of the ever elusive biblical kinnor - the lyre of the Levites.


My final hunch, is that the actual reason why there is virtually no depictions of the Biblical lyres in the archaeological record, was the ancient practice of aniconism in Judasim – the prohibition of sacred imagery.

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.

— Exodus 20:3–6




This whole issue of how we interpret depictions of ancient musical instruments which we are no longer familiar with and how the ancients depicted these instruments, which were a common sight in their everyday life, can lead to a whole vista of ridiculous modern day misinterpretations.

Indeed, the most absurd modern misinterpretation of the images of the Kinnor depicted on the Bar Kokhba coins I have so far found, is the view expounded by Dennis McCorkle, who thinks the representations of the strings on these lyres, indicated by 3 bars on the coins, were, in fact, some sort of fret board, from which he then extrapolates an even more bizarre notion, that there were also multiple bridges on these Biblical lyres for each string, as can be seen in his almost "Sci Fi" diagram of his particular interpretation of the Kinnor:

Despite the eloquent manner in which Mc Corkle expresses his theory, it certainly violates every aspect of Occam's Razor:

"Of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred"

In other words, what would be the most likely explanation of the representation of the lyre on these coins? Either a truly bizzare multi-fretted hybrid of a guitar & lyre with 3 separate finger boards, of which there is absolutely no other single example of in the entire corpus of the archaeological record of depictions of musical instruments ever discovered in the ancient Near East, or a regular elongated symmetrical lyre shown from the reverse, similar to the Greco-Roman Kithara, of which there are literally thousands of of other examples of in the rest of the archaeological record? I would opt for the latter explanation, every time!

Imagine an ancient lyre player from antiquity trying to figure out how to interpret an image of a modern day violin from the reverse view of the instrument:


Having had no prior concept of the instrument, when seen from this perspective, the ancient lyre player might make the mistake that as no strings can be seen, this was a wind instrument and the neck was the part one probably blew down to make a noise!

Similarly, modern people who have no prior concepts of the various designs of the lyres of antiquity, are going to continue to make mistakes in misinterpreting ancient depictions of ancient lyres, which are of course, going to be illustrated from all the various perspectives which the ancients thought was a perfectly acceptable way to depict their lyres with which they were so familiar with in their own times...