Matthew 6:9b; Luke 11:2b, continued
Here again is the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in the three versions:
Pa/ter (“[O] Father”) [Lk]
Pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
(“Our Father, the [One who is] in the heavens”) [Matt]
Pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n tw=| ou)ranw=|
(“Our Father, the [One who is] in heaven”) [Didache]
As I discussed previously, most critical scholars hold that Luke preserves the original opening of the prayer, and that the longer form in Matthew (followed by the Didache) represents an expansion by the author (and/or an underlying tradition he follows).
Eventually the majority of manuscripts of Luke came to have the longer (Matthean) reading as well. This reflects scribal harmonization; the shorter reading is almost certainly original to Luke’s version of the Prayer.
To begin with, it seems clear that the Didache simply adapts the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/) in Matthew to the more common singular (“heaven” [ou)rano/$]). Thus, we really only need to consider the Matthean form here at this point. There are two parts to the invocation, as recorded by Matthew:
- “our Father” (pa/ter h(mw=n)
- “the (One who is) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$)
The expansion of “Father…” to “Our Father…” is simple enough, and a natural development in prayer form, as I mentioned in the previous note. The plural pronoun assumes a community orientation, which perhaps suggests a liturgical setting for the Prayer as recorded in Matthew. This is certainly the case for the adaptation in the Didache (8:2), which is part of instruction (a kind of “Church manual”) for believers in conducting public worship and managing the congregation. Some commentators feel that Matthew’s version in the Sermon on the Mount is drawing upon a similar (albeit earlier) community setting. A critical examination requires that we consider the evidence for the use of both parts of the Matthean invocation (by Jesus).
First, “our Father”. This expression occurs just once in the Gospels, here in Matt 6:9b. More common is the expression “your [pl.] Father”, used when Jesus in addressing/teaching his disciples. However, it must be noted that it hardly occurs at all in the core Synoptic tradition (represented by Mark), just once—the saying in Mk 11:25, discussed below. Similarly, in Luke it is occurs just twice, both “Q” traditions with parallels in Matthew (6:36 [Mt 5:48]; 12:30 [Mt 6:32]). By contrast, it occurs 16 times in Matthew, nearly all in the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5-7). The evidence is more complicated in the Gospel of John, which largely represents an entirely separate line of tradition. Jesus frequently refers to God as “(my) Father”, but does not speaks of him specifically as “your Father” when addressing his disciples (but cf. 8:19ff, 38ff for the idea), nor does the expression “our Father” occur (but again note 8:38ff). As in John, Jesus frequently speaks of God as “my Father” in Matthew, less often in the Synoptic tradition as a whole (and never in Mark, but cf. Mk 8:38). As noted previously, Paul uses the expression “our Father” (or “our God and Father”) about a dozen times in his letters, especially in the opening sections; we find a similar “our Lord and Father” once in James (3:9), but otherwise it does not occur in the New Testament.
The phrase “the (One) in the heavens” is even more telling, especially when we consider its use in Matt 6:9. The specific expression “my/your Father the (One) in the heavens” occurs six times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), along with another 7 times in the Gospel (10:32-33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19)—13 total (cf. also 23:9). By comparison, it occurs just once in all the other Gospel combined (Mk 11:25). Similarly, the parallel expression “(my/your) heavenly Father” occurs six times in Matthew, including 4 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32; 15:13; 18:35), but just once in the other Gospels (Lk 11:13) [and nowhere else in the New Testament]. We must consider also the fact that use of the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/) and the expression “in the heavens” (e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$) itself is especially prevalent in the Gospel of Matthew:
- e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$ occurs 15 times in Matthew, including 7 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:12, 16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), but only 6 in the other Gospels (Mk 11:25; 12:25; 13:25; Lk 10:20; 12:33; 18:22).
- Matthew has “kingdom of the heavens” (basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n) instead of “kingdom of God” (basilei/a tou= qeou=) for a number of Synoptic (and “Q”) sayings of Jesus. The former expression is only found in Matthew (32 times), nowhere else in the New Testament; by contrast, “kingdom of God” is used only 5 times in Matthew, compared with 14 in Mark, 32 in Luke, and 16 times in John and the rest of the New Testament.
How are we to explain this data? If the expression “…Father the (One) in the heavens” reflects the genuine language of Jesus when referring to God the Father, we would expect to find more evidence of it throughout the Gospels; however, outside the Gospel of Matthew it only occurs once (Mk 11:25, cf. below). Moreover, the expression, along with the use of “(in the) heavens [pl.]”, clearly represents a distinctive Matthean vocabulary and style, at least when presenting the words and teachings of Jesus. These two facts would tend to support the position held by many critical commentators. At the same time, one must recognize the possibility that Matthew preserves a Semitic mode of expression which may have been altered or omitted when presenting Jesus’ sayings in Greek (to a Greek audience), which could explain why it disappeared from the Synoptic tradition as a whole. The Synoptic saying in Mark 11:25 might be seen as confirming this (note the similar in content and style with the instruction by Jesus on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount and the “Q” material):
“And when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release [i.e. forgive] (it) if you hold any(thing) against any(one), (so) that your Father the (One who is) in the heavens [o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$] might also release [i.e. forgive] for you your (moment)s of falling alongside [i.e. sins/trespasses]”
At the very least, this demonstrates that the expression on the lips of Jesus was not the invention of the Gospel writer. In a similar way, direct evidence for the use of the Aramaic aB*a^ (°abb¹°) by Jesus has disappeared from the Gospel tradition, except for one place in Mark (14:36) where it happens to be preserved.
The meaning and significance of the expression, with the use of the plural “heavens”, will be discussed in the next note.
These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.