Your Sunday Brunch Special: The Lord’s Prayer, Ancient and Modern (part I)

Conference is coming up and we do a lot of hymning, praying, and preaching there, so this seems appropriate. Sometime I want to write about early Christian prayer in general and the connected discourse of early Christian hymns and the Second Coming, but in this post I’m just going to think out loud about the Lord’s Prayer and especially the version in Matthew 6. In the second part of this post, I will consider a little of that relationship in light of what I call the New Lord’s Prayer.

Reading the New Testament

First, a cautionary note. All the New Testament literature we have is written from a post-resurrectional perspective. This is completely independent of whether one believes in the resurrection of Jesus or not. Thus, any discussion of that literature must take place within that contextual background, and in particular, that applies to the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, how Jesus may have originally spoken the prayer, what it may have meant to him, or to the disciples at that time, is largely beyond the scope of what I can do with Mt. 6. That is, the end of the Gospel (the resurrection) colors the whole narrative often in rather subtle ways.[1] One might argue that LDS texts like section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants convey some original intent or meaning of Jesus’ words but I think it is self-evident that this is NOT the case.

New Testament is Driven in Part by Expectation of the End Times

So, to begin, recall that in the New Testament, even Jesus himself displays a very strong expectation that the Messiah (Himself) will come back and very soon–within people’s lifetimes then living–and that Jesus will be the *Jewish* Messiah at that point—that is, he will establish a kingdom from the Nile to Euphrates—and crush the enemies of Israel—bringing peace, triumph, and prosperity. In other words, it is important to remember (in Mark and Matthew in particular—much less so in John perhaps), that Jesus was

Rembrandt's Matthew and the Angel. (Image: Wikipedia) Matthew the Apostle and Matthew the Evangelist (writer of the Gospel) are not the same person.

Rembrandt’s Matthew and the Angel. (Image: Wikipedia) Matthew the Apostle and Matthew the Evangelist (writer of the Gospel) are not considered to be the same person.

a Jew of the first third of the first century and despite his inspiration and status, he carried with him the thought of the times such as he encountered it (and you can see this again in Acts–but that’s a post that maybe belongs between parts I and II of this post). I think this has to define much of what we read in the New Testament—at least, this is my belief–and it was a topic of conversation among early Christians.

Eschatology in Early Christian Prayers

There seems to be a strong eschatological expectation (Last Times are Near) in early Christian prayers, for example the Aramaic prayer, Maranatha or ma-ran-a-thaw [2], “Come Lord Jesus.” The idea here is Come as Lord (think of the Parley Pratt hymn, “Jesus Once of Humble Birth”–it wonderfully illustrates the thought of early *Jewish* Christians [that’s all there was] and how they split Messianic thought and therefore the coherent nature of early Mormon ideas about the Parousia [Second Coming of Christ]). [Hurry] Come back and be the Lord.[3] It’s preserved in Aramaic in the first Christian Greek texts (60-150AD), and so we may guess, in the earliest church (30 (33)-50AD). There was the belief that Jesus would return almost immediately, and that it would be in glory and power, rectifying all past inequities suffered by God’s people.

There exist some few prayers in Jesus’ native tongue–the Abba address (Rom. 8:17)–and the prayer of Jesus on the cross–Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani. In that prayer it’s interesting that it’s the only time Jesus addresses God as God–there is that awful distance. These three prayers are from Aramaic transliterated into Greek in the New Testament, which probably means that Greek speakers were taught at least some Aramaic prayer forms and they were evidently taught that first prayer, ma ran a thaw: come (as) Lord, Jesus.

Latter-day Saints (or Christians in general) don’t seem to pray this way now—unless we feel anxious or cornered as in the Missouri troubles–the persecution over polygamy and the resulting manifesto–and now, gay marriage–I’ve heard stories of people cashing out 401k-s over the latter–the end time must be near–and we seem to be getting more speech about a darkening world in conference addresses—and that is a part of the discussion here as well as in part II.[4]

The Lord’s Prayer as a Plea in Reference to the Nearness of the End of the World

Back to the Lord’s Prayer. Some scholars think that the Lord’s Prayer was originally very eschatological, that is, it was originally a prayer that strongly referenced the last times, addressing the idea that Jesus would (and had to) return soon. It was a kind of preparatory prayer. We hear the Prayer repeated all the time in the Mathean form–there was a certain irony about hearing it in Downton Abbey (end of season 2 if you’re interested). There is a Lucan form (in Lk 11), which is not the same, but the number of people who could recite Luke’s version is probably very small. Matthew’s version triumphs and I imagine that if Mormons had expanded weekly liturgy from its Protestant origins, this might have become a part of it. It is, after all, one of the more beautiful things in scripture.[5]

Structure of the Prayer. The Six Pleas to God: Three about God, Three about Humanity.

In the Mathean form, there is a title or opening address, and then six pleas. The title in the Mathean form is Our Father who art in Heaven. The Lucan form is just “Father.” Most scholars believe that this latter was an earlier form, but Matthew writes for (and with) a relatively established community with Jewish sensibilities and for them it would be unusual to address God simply as Father, Abba, an informal tone, without some other qualification. It is generally agreed that Matthew reflects a post-temple​ [after 70AD] debate between Jewish leaders of a synagogue and a group of Christians—Christians who were often yet observant Jews like their earlier predecessors at Jerusalem for example. Just “Father” would seem abrupt among Jews, the “Our Father who art in Heaven” version feels more appropriate. So the Mathean form is more reverential and developed in Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community so that people didn’t find the opening of the prayer too foreign if you will. But basically, Jesus calls upon the Father. Our normal translation follows with “hollowed be thy name”–may your name be hallowed or blessed, on earth as it is in Heaven–the first petition in the prayer.[6]

(Then) may thy (your) kingdom come to be, and may your will be done–be accomplished, be entrained, happen–on earth as it is in heaven. There is some thought that “on earth as it is in heaven” may be a later reversion of “on earth and in heaven.” The passive voice is a common Jewish technique for getting around constantly mentioning God. So the idea is this: God, make your name hallowed. God, bring your kingdom about (now). God, make your will done on earth, as it is done in the precincts of heaven. It’s a prayer based on asking God to accomplish three vital acts, acts the community believes are in the cards, so to speak. The passive is a way of saying “may you do this” without using the name, God, and these three different things all ask for God’s action, now. It’s more or less as in the Old Testament Prophets, roughly, “we praise the LORD’s name now, oh Israel, and the LORD in the last days will make His name known to the whole world, and make His name sanctified by everyone.” He’ll bring his kingdom, bring his will to pass in the end—it’s apocalyptic in that sense. Thus, the first three petitions are ways of seeking God’s definite action in the world, and there is an obvious eschatological tinge to it—let it be done now.

The Last Three Requests and the Human Condition

Then, there are three “responses”[7], that is, three more petitions that deal with the human portion if you will, while God does his part in the first three. First is the bread request—give us our daily bread as it is usually stated: I will come back to that–it is more complicated for my thesis that the prayer is eschatological. Instead, consider the trespass/debt petition.

Trespass-Matthew 25

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or debts. It’s written debts in Luke. Debts is more Jewish (and perhaps Mormon, and Book of Mormon) in the sense that for trespass, anyone who does evil to another, trespasses against them but they may not owe them a debt precisely. But if you’re a part of God’s covenant people you have committed yourself to behave properly toward a fellow member of the community, a fellow Israelite—something that has a very keen meaning for Mormons by the way–and especially early Mormons—it’s a debt you owe. If you act in hostility toward another member of the community, you’re not only trespassing, you’re violating your covenant. This is clearly reminiscent of the baptism of Alma, and that may be seen as playing to Old Testament themes—and for that matter, the LDS temple liturgy which has so many links to the past, the future, and even the heavenly, kingdom of Israel.

Christ said that in the last judgment (Matt. 25) things will be decided on the basis of “what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” And so this is very much in the sense of Jesus: that we’ll be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others.

Nature of the Gospels as it Applies to the Prayer

That the prayer might be linked to the later Mt 25 text is not unusual. Chronology in the Gospels is rather fluid, and the Gospel of Matthew was composed as gathered traditions toward the end of the first century (traditions that were pastorally redacted like all the Gospels). It is not strange that one portion of this Gospel might reference another irrespective of chronology, and in fact the four canonical Gospels do place events in different spots, probably according to the authors/editors’ purpose (for example, “cleansing the temple”). Harmonization can be a terrible mistake with these texts, and of course, it is possible, even probable, that Jesus announced the same idea more than once, or even in a different order than the purposely laid out text of any particular Gospel we have in view.[8]

Temptation and Eschatological Happenings

“And lead us not into temptation”—actually the idea is, with some likelihood at least, don’t lead us into the [center of?] the trial. The Greek word here is often the word that is used for the trial of the last times (so I’m told), the final times that are supposed to be devastating times–this is the time when conservative Jews look for the Messiah: how bad must it be for the Messiah to return?–it’s so bad that it’s called “the birth pangs of the Messiah.” The question is, would anyone be preserved and have faith through such a devastating period?—the prayer is: preserve us through that great test of the last times (that are nearly upon us is the idea) and deliver us from the evil ONE. Not from evil in general, but the evil ONE (to be fair, the scholarship is divided here, but I think there is merit to this position–and it works for my thesis). So, the last times are going to be terribly troubled times–don’t dump us into the trial–deliver us from the evil one–forgive us because it is a looming–almost immediate–time of judgment–and forgive us in the end according to the principle Christ has given (Matt. 25). The very early concept of Mormon Zion is important here, but I’ll save that for part II. (I should note here that the last part, “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen” is considered to be a later addition to the text, hence I don’t mention it here–but not because it’s not interesting.)

Daily or SuperSubstantial Bread? Uniqueness of the Prayer.

Now to the bread. This may offer the most interesting bit with regard to the eschaton and the Lord’s Prayer. It may seem, to begin with, that it is difficult to fit the plea about bread into a last times orientation for the prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is a deep curiosity here though. The Greek word that is typically translated as “daily” at this point occurs just once in the whole available history of ancient Greek. In all of the extant plays, histories, etc., only once does this word occur, epiousious (ep–eee–ooo–see–us) and that single occurrence is in the Lord’s Prayer (or in linguistic discussions of it). And since it doesn’t occur anywhere else in Greek, there is no context to tell us what it means–we don’t know. If you break it up, EPI is “on” or “upon,” “super,” (a Greek preposition) and OUSIOS is related to OUSIA: nature, substance. If you know the debate over Christology in terms of OUSIA–Mormons tend to encounter this sometimes as missionaries, or when reading the missionary library — Nicea, Trinitarian theology and so forth, then you’ve heard of OUSIA.[9]

Christological debates weren’t settled forever by Nicea- “Scholaticism was also in its day regarded as the compendium of all heresies. For there was no part of patristic tradition that it did not modify and disfigure in the endeavour to squeeze the whole into the categories of the formerly anathemized Aristotle.” -George Tyrell (Image: Wikipedia)

OUSIA–it’s relevant to the question: is there more than one substance among the Trinity? Do Father, Son, and Holy Ghost partake of the same “nature”? That was part of the Christological debate and it was important, given the cosmology of the time, and the resulting tradition without that early context makes it a bit strange to us now. In any case, EPIOUSIOS–upon substance, upon nature, super-nature, super-substance–what does it mean? There is a somewhat similar Greek word that supports “daily” on the principle that if you need it for your substance, you need it often, daily, and that’s what guided some early believers apparently, and it appears in old Latin–that is, early on it was translated as “daily.” They were guessing, apparently by analogy, that the word had something to do with substance as support, say. So you probably need it all the time, and you get the Latin translation for it, QUOTIDIANIS, which means “daily.” But other Latin translations (for example, the Vulgate –Jerome) took it literally. Hence you get this really interesting word in Jerome’s translation, “supersubstantialem.”[10] And there were groups of people who prayed for “supersubstantial bread.”[11] Precisely what “supersubstantial bread” might be is somewhat

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. (Image: Wikipedia)

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. (Image: Wikipedia)

mysterious but it’s a very literal translation and in the Catharian heresy much later, that use came back and that was one of the heretical tests, that they prayed for this “supersubstantial bread.” One might imagine that Cathar thought, (gnostic?) may see this as important perhaps. Swendenborg called this “the bread of the angels,” and the Manicheans had this–but all this is really beyond my pay grade.[12]

Jerome (ca. 340-420) evidently had an Aramaic Gospel[13], and he knew there were two different Latin translations of the text (“daily,” and “super substantial”) but in this Aramaic Gospel the prayer reads, “tomorrow’s” bread. That is, in fact, a Jewish expression (see, for example, Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew). The manna came six days a week. On Friday you collected not only today’s bread but tomorrow’s bread, so it meant the bread of the Sabbath. Some early Christian writers believed that the bread passage meant praying for the bread of the last times, that is, the bread of the heavenly feast (Mt 25 again—this is mentioned in various ways in Mormon scripture, for example in D&C 27) and so in this light we may style all of the petitions in the Mathean Lord’s Prayer as being concerned with the eschaton (end times).

Summary and Pastoral Evolution of Meaning. The Interpretation of Scripture Through Time.

Thus, if God brings about his will, brings judgment, makes his name holy, then we ask for a share in the heavenly feast (Sabbath bread), we ask to be judged mercifully at the end of the world (soon to be), according to the mercy we show others, not to be put to the trial of the last times, but be delivered from the evil one at the end.[14]

In sum: the early context of the Lord’s prayer may have been very strongly attached to the eschaton.[15] Later, the prayer came to be read in a different way—no doubt from important pastoral motivations—and that’s very Nephite if you will—when the expectation of the last times grew less apparent. The bread became daily, the temptation became ordinary temptations of life, and it became forgiveness of sins all the time–every day–not just at the final judgment.

In the next part of this thing, unwritten as yet I’m afraid, there is a new Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll discuss that a little, along with some Mormon eschatology, and our periodic “the end is near” speech, and what that may mean.

[1] A useful analogy for Latter-day Saints might be this. Think of the so-called “Manuscript History of the Church” composed essentially between 1842 and 1856 or so. It is written from a faith perspective, one that sees Joseph Smith’s work as divine, and is generally silent about Joseph’s human traits and his private life to a large extent (there is no polygamy in evidence for example). Imagine that this was really all we had to go on in terms of events of early Mormonism, nothing else from that period survived and no other eyewitness material ever surfaced, save perhaps extremely meager general information from indifferent distant cultures. Joseph had relatively little to do with its composition, and he wrote none of it himself. A work like Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling could not exist in that world. There would be no church-sponsored essays regarding various things like polygamy and Joseph Smith. What would exist would be discussions of that text, and discussions of that text, various hermeneutics applied to it and in general the historical landscape would be far different, almost impossible to imagine.

[2] 1 Cor. 16:22. The text of the (usually counted as seven authentic) letters in the Pauline corpus came before the Gospels in terms of composition.

[3] This time–not the sacrificial offering but the triumphant bringer of Israel’s glory.

[4] On Paul and the Abba prayer see, for example, James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 193.

[5] Byron Stuhlman, who was rector as Grace Episcopal Church in Waterville, New York at the time, gave a nice summary of the Prayer in Christian worship: “The Lord’s Prayer in Worship,” Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 78-83. And it’s online.

[6] It’s hard to determine Luke’s audience, he doesn’t seem to fight issues like Matthew, or Mark, in some ways. On Matthew’s audience, see Edwin Keith Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 143. Broadhead styles the controversy as between Pharisees and followers of Jesus. But the dominance and later even existence of a group(s) that can be called Pharisees seems to be in question.

[7] And probably, in early Christian congregations, there were prayers/hymns (little difference) that were dialogic, like the shepherds-angels counterpoint announcing the birth (peace on earth/peace in heaven). What was church worship like in the immediate years after Jesus? Probably something like this: you celebrated Sabbath (because you were likely a faithful Jew) and after sundown, or maybe the next day, you went to a fellow believer’s house to break bread and talk of the Lord and the stories about him maybe. Perhaps baptisms were done, or other liturgy, like prayers and such. You still went to the temple, you didn’t discount the temple priesthood. You lived the law. The struggle to separate Judaism and Christianity was a very long one, and no one figured it out easily, it just wasn’t obvious. How could you possibly believe in Jesus without believing in Abraham and Moses? And how could you believe in them without circumcision, and sacrifice, etc.? (Even Mormons have had their issues here.) You get the picture. By 200AD, Jews and Christians had developed their dividing traditions: Mishnah for Jews, Gospel for Christians, sort of. That, of course, was not the end or even the middle of it. On Jewish and Christian worship gatherings, see Valeriy Alikin, Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development, and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries (Brill, 2009), 30-78.

[8] The underlying issue is the nature of revelation, inspiration, and scripture. I’m going to offer some thoughts on this at some point, perhaps in part II of this post, or in an intervening one. It’s an important matter.

[9] By the way, 3 Nephi 13 doesn’t mention the bread at all! This is interesting, and may even support what’s going on here, but tangential again. One thing I think it does NOT tell us: that the bread text was not present in the archetypal Mathean Gospel text (whatever that may mean).

[10] 6:11 panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie. Origen does a bit about this. See Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers (Paulist, 1954), 94-98. Other opinions abound. See for example Westerfield, Studia Liturgia 35 (2005): 208-10.

[11] Cf. “Gospel of the Nazareans.” Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia, 1982), 97-102. The Nazareans were, according to Jerome and Augustine, Jewish Christians who still tried to observe the Law. Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus, chap. 7.

[12] Anne Bradford Townsend, “The Cathars of Languedoc as Heretics: From the Perspectives of Five Contemporary Scholars,” (Ph.D. diss. Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007), 169-71. Also, Brown, Introduction (note 14 below). On Swedenborg, see his Apocalypse Revealed vol. 1, page 2.

[13] Helmut Koster, Introduction to New Testament, vol. 2 (Fortress, 1983), 61, 87. Also, see Jerome’s commentary (in the references in the following note for example).

[14] Raymond E. Brown, “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,Theological Studies, 22 (1961), 175-208. Koster, 2:70, 86. Broadhead, 140, note 42. Much of what I’m talking about here is based on my appreciation of Brown’s thought here and his later Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor/Doubleday, 1998), a very fine book and accessible to beginners–I think a highly useful book for Latter-day Saints interested in the New Testament. Brown’s untimely death was unfortunate.

[15] Scholarship on the origin of the prayer and its relation to Matthew’s Gospel is not settled. For a reasonably current discussion beyond the scope of my feeble attempt, see Broadhead, and my guess is that those people over at FPR have said something cogent.


  1. Excellent. RE: Restoration. The primaries used to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, well into the 20th century.

  2. Had no idea. That is cool. Surely this extended from family traditions of converts or at least, say, Sunday School runners. Would UK converts have come from traditions where this was kosher? I wonder if it was common in other Mormon contexts.

  3. I’m not sure. Eliza had the primaries do it. It was included in Sunday School conferences in the 1890s, and in recitals as late as 1919. I remember one birthday Rudger Clawson’s grandkids repeated it as part of a formal program.

  4. This doesn’t really comment on what you’ve written here, but if you don’t already have it I think you’ll find George Q. Cannon’s notes from 20 September 1899 to be interesting:

    A question arose before the First Presidency in relation to the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. The Sunday School Union intend to get out a card containing the Lord’s Prayer, and a point had arisen in the Sunday School Union Board as to the language that should be used in the expression “Lead us not into temptation”. There was a difference of view on this among the members of the Board. Brother Maeser clung to the old version; Brother Reynolds favored the translation of Joseph Smith. It was decided to submit the question to the First Presidency. The matter was taken up in the Council when I was absent, and on motion of Brother Joseph F. Smith, seconded by Brother Clawson, it was proposed that the translation of Joseph be used, “Suffer us not to be led into temptation.” Before the vote was taken, however, Brother Lyman suggested it be left till I should be present. To-day, in considering the question, I suggested that it would lead to endless inquiries, if the new version were adopted, because the old version was in the Book of Mormon, and it might be asked, if Joseph translated the Book of Mormon correctly why was not this new version put in the Book of Mormon? I suggested that it would be far better to have the old version remain, and make verbal explanations if necessary. However, I said I was not at all particular myself. Whatever President Snow and the Council decided would be quite acceptable to me. Brother Joseph F. Smith being absent, no decision was reached, though Brothers Grant and Lund (who were present) favored the old version under the circumstances, and President Snow was inclined that way.

  5. Interesting on many levels, but impressed that this is the first mention I recall on BCC of the Cathars. Looking forward to part II.

  6. Ardis, that’s a really nice bit–thanks much. I’ll figure a way of using it in part 2.

  7. Really great. Still digesting, but this is exciting stuff.

  8. I love this, Bill: looking forward to Part 2.

    Ardis: thanks, as always, for pulling relevant and cool stuff out of your archive.

  9. Thanks Steve, Jason. Kevinf, you never know what might pop up around here.

  10. The Jesuit priest George Tyrell, an apostle of the syncretism of all heresies (ie, Modernism), was rightfully excommunicated by the Catholic Church for obstinately sticking to his errors. Why should anyone then believe his negative remarks against Scholasticism? To find the truth? The pillar and ground of the truth is the Catholic Church, not Tyrell.

    The greatest Scholastic, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), wrote the text of “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels) for the Feast of Corpus Christi. He predated Swedenborg by 500 years. Why prefer Swedenborg’s “bread of angels” over Aquinas? To find the truth? But the pillar and ground of truth is the Church where Aquinas belongs, not the church of Swedenborg.

    Supersubstantialem bread refers to no other than the Holy Eucharist of the Catholic Church, the very church which is the pillar and ground of truth. She alone is able to feed her sheep the Corpus Christi, body of Christ himself, the living bread that came down from heaven, the very bread of angels.

    “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” (John 6:55)

    The Gospel of Matthew, where the Lord’s Prayer is found, is a Christian work that would have been as obscure as the Gospel of Judas. Were it not for the Catholic Church’s supernatural ability to sift the wheat among the tares, it would have been lumped along with other questionable pseudo-Christian writings. Therefore, to interpret Matthew outside the mind of the Catholic Church is to be Protestant, ie one who consistently violates 2 Peter 1:20.

    If you want to know what Matthew’s supersubstantialem bread is, don’t ask excommunicates like Tyrell, or occultists like Swedenborg. Don’t even ask Joseph Smith. Ask the Catholic Church, the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

  11. I think the idea needs to be explored that the sacrament, representing our daily super substantial bread, is the way to prepare for the marriage supper of the lamb.

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