One of the very first prayers that Christians learn is the Our Father. It’s a prayer that all Christians know and pray daily, and it’s one of the only prayers that Jesus taught us. It is such an important prayer that the entire English-speaking Christian world has adopted the same translation.
As I’ve been reading some commentaries on the Greek text of the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve come to see how much meaning we miss in the English translation. Consequently, also lost in translation is some of the original intent that Jesus had in mind.
It is some of these findings that I would like to share in this post. I’ve decided to limit myself to the sentence that has provoked the most discussion over the ages, the phrase “give us this day our daily bread.” Here are three points that I will tackle:
- Does Jesus speak of ordinary, material bread or the Eucharistic bread?
- Is the Our Father neatly divided in two, the first part addressing things pertaining to God and the second part addressing our material needs?
- What is the correct interpretation of the mysterious word epiousion (translated as ‘daily’)?
Matthew 6: Give us [the verb is in the aorist tense, signifying a one-time, completed event] today our bread, which is epiousion [daily? Meaning to be discussed below].
Luke 11: Be giving to us [the verb is in the present – continually] day by day [or, according to each day] our bread, which is epiousion.
Since I am constrained by space and time, and since our English translation is based more on the Matthew version than on the Luke version, I will chiefly focus on the former.
It must be stated at the beginning of our investigation that, as good Catholic exegetes, we have to understand the context and always keep it in mind. Jesus gives this prayer during the Sermon on the Mount. The obvious should be stated that the Our Father is Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, pre- and post-Resurrection. The prayer is for those who believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that he has risen from the dead. The recipients of the prayer have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, they also call God ‘Abba,’ and they are convinced that they already mystically belong to the Kingdom of Heaven due to their participation in the life of Christ. In short, the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer asking the Father to bring the Kingdom of God into the whole reality of the world – or, to bring the whole reality of the world into the Kingdom of God.
Concerning the prayer as a whole, many divide the prayer into two sections: The first three petitions are concerned with God and His Kingdom, and the rest of the prayer addresses the earthly realm and our needs. The phrase concerning “our daily bread” is where this shift takes place, from heavenly to worldly cares. A dichotomy is therefore created. If we do interpret the prayer in this way, then the bread is seen in a purely materialistic sense.
Unfortunately, this interpretation is not very Scriptural. Firstly, it must be noted that the first three petitions in the Our Father each conclude with “on earth as it is in heaven”, a fact that is not at all evident in the English translation but is evident in the Greek text. If we were to translate the first three petitions into English, the text would be something like:
“Hallowed be Thy name on earth as it is in heaven; Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is also on earth that we want God’s name to be hallowed, God’s will to be done, and God’s Kingdom to come – these realities are not in some abstract spiritual realm that ought not influence our lives here on earth; we ask that they take root here on earth too!
Secondly, this kind of dualism does not accord with Scripture. The whole created cosmos have to enter the Kingdom of God: “For He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).
Finally, interpreting the second part of the prayer as asking for material needs for ourselves is in outright opposition to what Jesus teaches us in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Soon after the Our Father in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body” (Matt 6:25-26). Does it make sense for Jesus to tell them to pray for material bread and then to tell them not to pray for food?
Now we turn to that mysterious word that has given many a scholar a headache. The understanding of the word epiousion in the context of the prayer, the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels will bring us closer to the original meaning of this sentence. There are three possible interpretations of the Greek word.
- Sufficient, necessary, essential: The material bread that we really need to survive on a day-by-day basis (hence the word “daily” in the English translation). And so the meaning of the phrase: Give us this day the bread that we need to survive.
- More than essential, supernatural: epi literally means over or on, and ousios means being, substance, existence, essence, or nature. Putting these together, the phrase can mean: give us today our bread that is super-essential; the bread that’s more than necessary; the super-substantial bread; that belongs to another realm of being.
- Later essential, beyond current being, still to come, existing after: epi can metaphorically be taken to mean after, later, or beyond. If this is the case, the word has a futuristic meaning. Since the first three petitions deal with the future Kingdom becoming a reality now, it makes perfect sense that the rest of the prayer continues along the same lines. As such, this phrase can be interpreted in a number of creative ways: Give us the bread of the coming age for today; give us, being still in this age, the bread that we’ll eat in the age or the Kingdom to come. It is significant to note here that some early Syriac versions of this phrase literally say: Give us today tomorrow’s bread
As we bring all of this together, the first part of the prayer’s meaning is: give me to eat now the living bread that has come from heaven, Jesus, the Eucharistic bread of the age to come, where your Name is already holy, where your kingdom has already come, and where your will is already being done. It will certainly enrich our experience of praying this prayer in English if we keep these fascinating points in mind. I know it has for me.