March 10: Matt 6:11; Luke 11:3

Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3

The next petition (4th in Matthew, 3rd in Luke) of the Lord’s Prayer to be discussed is the request for “our daily bread”. This begins the second part of the Prayer, focusing specifically on the needs which Jesus’ disciples have, in common with other human beings. The Matthean and Lukan forms differ slightly, though the first phrase is identical in both:

to\n a&rton h(mw=n to\n e)piou/sion
ton arton h¢mœn ton epiousion
“our {…} bread”

The placeholder in braces represents the word e)piou/sio$, which remains difficult to interpret and translate precisely (see the discussion below). The second phrase differs between the two versions:

di/dou h(mi=n to\ kaq’ h(me/ran
didou h¢min to kath’ h¢meran
“may you give (it) to us according to (the) day [i.e. each day]” (Lk)

do\$ h(mi=n sh/meron
dos h¢min s¢meron
“may you give (it) to us t(o)day” (Matt)

Because of these differences, and the difficulties surrounding the word e)piou/sio$, it is harder to reconstruct a possible Aramaic original for this petition; Fitzmyer (p. 901) suggests: laµmán¹° dî mist§y¹° [or laµmán¹° dî limµar] hab lán¹h yôm¹° d§n¹h.

The first phrase of the petition is simple enough to understand, except for the meaning of the adjective that is used. “Bread” (a&rto$) serves as a concrete symbol for food and nourishment generally, as we see numerous times in Scripture.  The plural pronoun “our” (h(mw=n) indicates that it refers to the nourishment required by all human beings, Jesus’ disciples being no different in this regard. However, there is undoubtedly also a communal aspect involved—i.e. the community of Jesus’ disciples (believers); this is true of all the plural pronouns used in the prayer. Early Christians would increasingly have interpreted this petition in light of the “breaking of bread” in the Lord’s Supper (cf. Lk 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11, etc), though there is no indication that this was meant in the original prayer (cf. below).

As noted above, the main difficulty lies in the adjective e)piou/sio$ (epioúsios), which does not appear to have been in existence as a Greek word prior to its occurrence (only here) in the New Testament. Origen, one of the best informed of all early Christians in terms of the Greek literature and vocabulary of the period, was not aware of any contemporary extra-biblical usage (On Prayer §27), nor have any examples come to light since. Commentators have isolated several possible meanings and derivations:

    1. As a participle, from the verb e)pie/nai, in which case the phrase would mean “coming to be upon (us)”, or “…upon (the previous day)”, i.e. the coming day, the next day, tomorrow.
    2. As a present participle, based on the verb of being (ei)mi, ou@sa), either in the sense of “(com)ing to be upon (us)”, similar to #1; or, as a reference to the current day (“today”), perhaps corresponding to the expression e)pi\ th\n ou@san.
    3. As a compound noun, e)pi + ou)si/a, something which is “upon (our) being”, i.e. being necessary for (our) existence.

The majority of commentators would probably opt for the last of these as (still) the most plausible interpretation. The idea is that this “bread” represents what is needed to sustain life (existence) for human beings. The closest parallel, though with different wording, would seem to be in James 2:15-16, where we find the expressions “food upon the day [e)fh/mero$]” and “the (thing)s for the purpose/need [e)pith/deio$] of the body”. Even if this meaning is adopted, there are still several different ways to understand this petition:

    • As a general request for the food/nourishment (necessary to sustain life) each day
    • An expression of one’s reliance on God for sustenance each day
    • As a request only for what is needed (as food, etc) for each day

At the historical level of the Prayer, the first option is probably most appropriate. However, the Matthean context of the Sermon on the Mount suggests that the second or third (or both) interpretations are in mind, as they reflect themes and principles expressed by Jesus throughout the Sermon—see especially, 6:8, 25-33, 34, also 5:45; 7:11. The teaching in 6:34 seems most pertinent: “You must not be concerned into the (next) morning, for the (next) morning will be concerned for itself—sufficient for the day is its (own) trouble!” This emphasis on being concerned only for the day at hand, of taking each day as it comes, may explain the specific language used in the petition which apparently proved difficult to render into Greek, and thus the resultant differences between the versions in Matthew and Luke. The expression to\ kaq’ h(me/ran in Luke may be intended to clarify Jesus’ meaning—”give to us th(at which is necessary) according to (each) day“. The use of sh/meron (“th[is] day, today”) in Matthew is a bit more ambiguous, and could be read two ways: (a) give to us (only) what is needed today, or (b) give to us today what is needed (for tomorrow); presumably the former is intended.

This apparent emphasis on (ordinary) daily needs was re-interpreted by early Christians as a reference to “bread” in a spiritual sense, either sacramentally, in terms of the Eucharist, or as the word of God/Christ experienced by the believer as spiritual nourishment. The Johannine Bread of Life discourse (chap. 6) certainly would have influenced such a view among believers. The manna tradition (Exod 16:4ff) may underlie the petition in the Prayer as it does the Bread of Life Discourse; it began to be interpreted and applied in a symbolic sense long before the time of Jesus (cf. Psalm 78:23-25; Neh 9:20). Perhaps the earliest interpretation of the Prayer in this light is found in Origen, On Prayer [27.9]. While this is clearly a secondary interpretation or application of the text, it is worth noting again the Lukan context with its emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit as as the ultimate goal and purpose of prayer (11:18). This corresponds generally with the climax of the Johannine Discourse of Jesus, where the “bread” as Jesus’ own flesh (as the incarnate Word) is defined entirely in terms of the Spirit:

“the one eating my flesh…remains in me….(and) he will live through me. This is the bread coming down from heaven…the one eating this bread will live into the Age. … It is the Spirit th(at) makes (one) live, the flesh does not benefit anything—th(ese) words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life” (Jn 6:56-57, 60, 63)

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.