Monday Notes on Prayer: The Lord’s Prayer

I am introducing a new feature on this site: Monday Notes on Prayer—a brief critical and exegetical study on a verse or passage related to prayer, to be posted each Monday, as a supplement to the regular Daily Notes and Exegetical Study Series, etc. This first Monday Prayer Note will actually begin a week-long set of daily notes on the Lord’s Prayer—for Christians, certainly the most famous and well-known prayer in all the Scriptures. And yet, there are many textual and interpretive difficulties surrounding this prayer of which the average reader is largely unaware. Translations slant and gloss over some the difficulties, in order to provide a readable and understandable text. For the faithful commentator and exegete, however, it is necessary to dig into the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, critically analyzing the language, style, and context within the Gospel narrative. This we will do in this series of notes.

To begin with, as most students of the New Testament realize, there are two different forms, or versions, of the “Lord’s Prayer”—one in Matthew (6:9-13, part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) and another in Luke (11:2-4). There is actually a third instance of the Prayer in early Christian literature—in the writing known as the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”), 8:2, a work which, in the form we have it, likely dates from c. 125-150 A.D., but which may contain earlier traditional material. Some commentators regard Didache 8:2 as a third version of the Prayer, transmitted independently of those in Matthew and Luke. However, a close examination of the text shows, I think, that the Didache form of the Prayer is the same as the Matthean. It follows the Matthean version closely, differing in wording only slightly, so that it can be considered as an adaptation of it. The only question is whether the author/compiler of the Didache (and/or his underlying source material), made use of the Gospel of Matthew directly, or is drawing upon a tradition shared by that Gospel. The former view seems more likely.

That still leaves the two distinct versions of the Prayer, in Matthew and Luke, respectively. The Lukan version is noticeably shorter, and there are a number of other significant differences. This has led commentators to discuss and debate the precise relationship between the two versions. Since the Lord’s Prayer occurs in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, it technically belongs to the so-called “Q” material. Many commentators regard “Q” as a specific document, rather than a set of traditions considered more broadly; and, for these scholars, it remains something of a question whether the Lord’s Prayer belongs to such a Q-document, or was preserved through a separate line of tradition. This also brings up the historical critical question of whether Jesus himself uttered two different forms of the Prayer, or whether the differences are the result of the transmission and adaptation of a single historical tradition. There are thus several possibilities which must be considered:

    • Matthew and Luke record different historical scenarios, and Jesus spoke a distinct version of the Prayer in each. This takes the text at face value and harmonizes the two accounts, in a manner popular among many traditional-conservative commentators. The substance of the Prayer is largely the same, but Jesus, according to this view, did not adhere to one fixed form when he instructed his disciples on prayer.
    • There is one Prayer—that is, a single historical tradition—which came to be transmitted (and included in the Gospels) in two different versions. According to this view, the differences are primarily traditional, and not the result of editing by the Gospel writers.
    • There is a single “Q” Prayer form (historical tradition), which Matthew and Luke each handled differently; here there are two possibilities:
      • Luke represents the more original form, to which Matthew has added wording, etc, either by his own composition or from a known traditional/liturgical adaptation, or both.
      • Matthew has the fuller (original) form, which Luke has abridged/shortened, modifying the language, perhaps to make it more understandable for a Gentile audience.

The harmonizing approach (first option above) is problematic, for a variety of reasons. One simple difficulty seems obvious, and has been noticed by many commentators: if Jesus gave the instruction in Matt 6:5-13ff to his disciples at the point, and in the manner, described in the Matthean account, how is that the disciples subsequently (at the point in the Lukan account) would have felt the need to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, as they do in Lk 11:1? More to the point, such harmonizing efforts founder on the basic fact that in each Gospel there is just one (historical) account of the Lord’s Prayer. That it occurs at different points in the narrative, and in different contexts, is best explained as the result of a literary, not historical-chronological, arrangement of material.

Each Gospel writer has set the Prayer (a single historical tradition) within a distinctive collection of teachings/sayings of Jesus, according to their own literary/narrative framework. For Matthew, it is part of the great collection of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), which is set at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry—a compendium of the kind of instruction Jesus gave to his disciples during his (Galilean) period of ministry. Luke places it at a different point in the narrative—during the journey to Jerusalem, which the author has expanded (9:51-18:30; cp. Mk 10) to include a wide range of sayings, parables, and other teaching by Jesus (to his disciples). The journey to Jerusalem provides the narrative framework for these Gospel traditions in Luke.

From the standpoint of the development of the historical tradition, Lk 11:1-13 probably reflects an early collection of Jesus’ instruction on prayer (“Q” material), which Matthew has chosen to incorporate within the wider context of his “Sermon on the Mount” framework in a different manner. Indeed, the Matthean location of the Prayer appears to be intrusive. The Sermon structure in Matt 6:1-18 follows a consistent pattern: three areas of religious behavior are addressed—(1) almsgiving (vv. 2-4), (2) prayer (vv. 5-6), and (3) fasting (vv. 16-18)—each according to the principle taught in verse 1. Verses 7-15 (on prayer) disrupt this pattern, suggesting that separate traditions have been included by the author at this point; these may be outlined as follows:

    • Saying[s] of Jesus on prayer (v. 7-8)
    • The Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9b-13), introduced by v. 9a
    • Saying/teaching of Jesus on forgiveness (vv. 14-15)

This sequence (vv. 7-15) makes for a powerful little homily in its own right. The thematic significance of this setting is discussed below. First, let us compare the Lukan sequence in outline:

    • The Lord’s Prayer (11:2-4), introduced by the narrative summary in v. 1 with the request by the disciples
    • Parable by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Sayings of Jesus on the theme of asking God (to provide for one’s needs, etc), “Q” material (vv. 9-13, cp. Matt 7:7-11)

Each Gospel writer has incorporated traditional material in a different way. We must be careful not to confuse literary arrangement with a strict historical-chronological sequence. Moreover, this literary arrangement gives to the Lord’s Prayer, in each Gospel setting, a different thematic emphasis or thrust.

In Matthew, the main point of the teaching in 6:1-18 is a contrast between religion practiced in front of others, for the purpose (in part at least) of receiving recognition, and true religious devotion which is done privately (“in the hidden/secret [place]”) to be seen only by God the Father. The contrast is between things done ‘on earth’ (in front of other people), and things done in the sight of God the Father, “the One [who is] in the heavens“. The expression “the One (who is) in the heavens” is an important key phrase of the Sermon on the Mount, a fact that must be remembered when examining the Matthean Lord’s Prayer. This contrast between public religious expression (by the masses) and the private devotion expressed by true followers of Jesus informs the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer in context.

The Lukan setting of the Prayer has a rather different emphasis; the structure of the Journey narrative is much more complex than the Sermon on the Mount, but the immediate context (of chapters 10-11) provides several important themes:

    • Disciples following the example of Jesus, in ministry, etc (10:1-12, 16)
    • The presence and power of the Spirit (10:19-20, 21)
    • Authority, revelation, etc, given to the Disciples by Jesus, and, in turn, by God the Father (10:16, 19f, 21-22ff)

These themes govern the presentation of the instruction on prayer in chapter 11—note:

    • The Disciples see Jesus in prayer, and, seeking to follow his example, request that he teach them to pray (as he does) (v. 1)
    • When they ask of God (in prayer) as Jesus does, the Father will answer and give to them (vv. 5-13)
    • The ultimate goal of prayer for Jesus’ followers is the Holy Spirit which God the Father will give to them (v. 13)

There is a deeper theological dimension to the Lukan setting of the Prayer (and one that is more distinctly Christian). Again, it is important to keep these points in mind when examining the Lord’s Prayer, and not to treat it apart from its Gospel context. While it is possible that, at the historical level, the Lord’s Prayer may have originally been uttered by Jesus to his disciples in a different setting, we must admit that, if so, this is now lost to us. What has been preserved is the form of the Prayer as it appears within the narrative setting of the Matthean and Lukan Gospels. The setting of the Prayer in the Didache is secondary, but may be worth noting here in passing. The work is divided into two main parts: (1) The “Two Ways” (1:1-6:2), a dualistic instruction derived largely from the teaching of Jesus (esp. the Sermon on the Mount), and (2) a kind of Church Manual (6:3-16:8) providing instruction for congregations on a variety of religious and practical matters. The Church Manual begins with a brief warning against involvement with pagan culture (in terms of food sacrificed to idols, cf. Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor 8-10; Rev 2:14, 20), followed by teaching regarding baptism (chap. 7), fasting (8:1), prayer (8:2-3), and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, chaps. 9-10). The Lord’s Prayer is cited, almost verbatim, from Matt 6:9-13 (8:2), including the preceding teaching in verse 7 (8:2a), increasing the likelihood that a citation from Matthew is involved. There is really no theological or thematic context to the Prayer in the Didache—it is simply quoted as an authoritative (fixed) prayer, to be recited three times daily (8:3).

The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic?

If we accept that the Lord’s Prayer essentially derives from the words and teaching of Jesus himself (as even critical commentators almost universally admit), then we must consider the likelihood that the Prayer would originally have been spoken (by Jesus) in Aramaic. Even though an Aramaic original of the Prayer is now lost to us, being preserved only in Greek in the New Testament, it is not particularly difficult to reconstruct the Prayer back into Aramaic, such as it might have been spoken by Jesus and the earliest (Jewish) Christians in Palestine and Syria. I will be touching upon this at various points in these notes; however, I though it might be good here, in closing, to provide at least one possible Aramaic reconstruction. For the sake of simplicity, I limit this here to the Lukan version of the prayer; I am also, for the moment, following the Aramaic given by Joseph A. Fitzmyer (something of an Aramaic specialist among New Testament scholars) in his Commentary on Luke (Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A, p. 901):

°Abb¹°
yitqaddaš š§mak
t¢°têh malkût¹k
laµmán¹° dî mist§y¹° hab
lán¹h yôm¹° d§n¹h
ûš§buq lán¹h µôbayn¹°
k§dî š§báqn¹° l§µayy¹bayn¹°
w§°al ta±¢linnán¹° l§nisyôn

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