Friday, May 26, 2006


The Lord's Prayer is compared to gospel parallels and to other early related Christian and Jewish texts. Such comparison constitutes a telescope that to some extent makes it possible to look back at the process of development of the gospel text which is the basis of comparison, although what we see there may be unexpected.
The Lord's Prayer, often considered the central Christian text, may well have been part of the sayings-text Q which contained textual material shared by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. It certainly circulated independently as a prayer taught to new Christian converts, probably already in the first century AD. Much of the text is dependent on and perhaps a simplification of Jewish models. It is not distinctively Christian, the first part being modelled on the Jewish Qaddish prayer. The requests which are appended to the praise of God which is the central feature of the Qaddish are consistent with Jewish usage (also in the Amidah prayer), as is the final doxology.


The Texts

Recently I was bemused when I heard a Unitarian minister comment on the use in some Unitarian-Universalist congregations of the Lord's Prayer as the classic text of Christianity. Some readers of these lines will have learned by heart at some time a somewhat more archaic version of the Lord's Prayer, Mt 6:9-13, which in the NRSV reads (following W.J.Harrelson ed. New Interpreter's Study Bible 2003):

"Our father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one."

Perhaps preferable translations would be, in the next to last line, "into temptation",

and in the last line "from evil". Few people learn or pray with the shorter parallel version found in Luke 11:2-4, although the form of its text is probably more original:

" Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial."

Mutual Relation of the Texts
Luke's text may seem incomplete. A number of variant manuscript readings in Luke can be accounted for as signifying a tendency on the part of scribes to import the fuller text of Matthew on the assumption that something has been left out of the available text of Luke. B.M.Metzger has pointed out this tendency for scribes to harmonize discordant parallel passages (Text of the New Testament 4th ed. 2005; Textual Commentary on the Greek NT 2nd ed. 1994, pp.130-132). The oldest Greek manuscript of Luke's version, papyrus P75 from the late second century AD, shows no such harmonization, and agrees perfectly with the text above apart from spelling details. However, of more significance is the fact that there is no corresponding text in the gospel of Mark. This passage belongs to those 220-odd verses in the gospels referred to as coming from a written Greek source labelled "Q" for the German word Quelle, used to indicate a common source of textual material which appears in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, their mutual main source.

So, if there was a source text in Greek, what did it say? Did Luke cut down the fuller text in Matthew, or did Matthew elaborate on something like the shorter text of Luke? It is widely regarded that Luke's version was the original one, while it is likely that Matthews's version was elaborated for the liturgy. As the older Peake's Commentary (1937) comments in a brief but significant clause, "liturgical formulae tend to expansion rather than abbreviation".

Should churchpeople all over the world use the shorter text of Luke instead of that of Matthew? Is there any text to serve as a third witness that can clarify the issue? Of course, these are not new questions. The most common answers that I encounter come from two classic treatments of the synoptic problem, that of J.C.Scott (Horae Synopticae 1909), and that of B.H.Streeter ( The Four Gospels 1924/1956). Scott (p.108) lists the parallel texts of Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11: 2-4 as being by definition part of Q. This is still a common view of many responsible scholars. Streeter's comments suggest (p.277) that "the difference between the two versions of the Lord's Prayer, Lk. xi.1-4 and Mt. vi.9-13, is so great as to put a considerable strain on the theory that they are both derived from the same written source". Streeter notes that each version falls in a block of material peculiar to that gospel, and concludes that Q did not include the Lord's Prayer, a view that is maintained occasionally in modern discussions.

Streeter further advocates (p.508) the view that there is a third witness, but it is not in the canonical gospels. The Didache or "Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles" is an early Christian Greek text that might be described as an answer to the question "How can I be a Christian?" in a moral and liturgical sense. Occasionally I suggest that it would be a good idea to print the Didache in the NT instead of e.g. Revelation or one of the more obviously non-Pauline epistles, but so far I have no takers. Although our only Greek manuscript of the Didache was written in 1056 AD (published only in 1883), the text is widely (not universally) accepted to come from the first century AD. In the Didache, the convert is instructed to say the Lord's Prayer three times a day, in a long version (verses 8:2-3) which differs very little from that which is found in Matthew (the three forms can be found together in Kurt Aland's Synopsis quattuor evangeliorum 1996). It could be argued that any shorter form of the prayer would have been assimilated to Matthew by scribes who copied the text, as was usual in Byzantine texts of the Lord's Prayer in the gospel of Luke. However, argues Streeter, a number of other passages in the text of the Didache come from Matthew, which is referred to in it as "the Gospel", besides a single passage which appears to derive from Q. Consequently, he concludes, it is reasonable to infer that Matthew's form of the Lord's Prayer as it stands in the Didache is old and circulated independently and early in liturgical usage outside the gospel context, so that its history cannot be conceived in the same terms as those of other passages included in the sayings-source Q.

Nature of the Texts
A. Glorification
Now let us turn to a different aspect of this enigmatic text. Where does it come from? What sort of a milieu does it reflect? The first word is generally considered to represent the Aramaic word "Abba", "father". The longer form in Matthew with "in heaven" corresponds to Jewish usage, as I.Howard Marshall points out in his admirable commentary on Luke (1978) which I follow here. The first petition "hallowed be your name" corresponds to the Jewish Qaddish prayer "Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will". Qaddish is the prayer praising God, which is spoken at the conclusion of each section of the Jewish service. Five different forms of it are used for special occasions, such as when mourning for a death.

The same Qaddish prayer continues, following Marshall still, with an emphasis on the sovereignty of God, "May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of Israel, speedily and soon", which is clearly parallel to "Your kingdom come". So far, the two prayers are essentially the same, except that the Christian version has been simplified and (especially in Matthew) is presented in the context of the eschatological assumption that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The third petition in Matthew "Your will be done" was absent in the original text of Luke's gospel, although it is often found there in manuscripts as a result of synoptic influence from Matthew, where it is original. A.H.M'Neile in his substantial (1915) commentary on Matthew gives a collection of Rabbinic quotations which make quite clear how much in a Jewish spirit is this line. Some take this verse as equivalent in meaning to the preceding one.

The line "on earth as it is in heaven", absent in Luke, on the other hand, has no Jewish source that my references know. M'Neile points out a similar correspondence between heaven and earth in Mt. 16:19, 18:18, and adds "If the clause was not originally part of the Prayer, its origin cannot be determined."

B. Requests
This is followed by a transition in both Luke and Matthew which M'Neile states clearly: "Aspirations for God's glory are followed by petitions for human needs" (p.79), in the line "Give us this day our daily bread", in which the Greek word translated "daily" is unusual and difficult to explain. The form of the verb "give" has more temporal generality in Luke than in Matthew. The addition of specific requests to the Qaddish is consistent with Jewish usage (R.Werblowsky and G.Vigoder Oxford Dict. of the Jewish Religion 1997); personal petitions are also part of the Amidah prayer (R.L.Eisenberg JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions 2004). Biblical sources are possible but not obvious.

"And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mt.), "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us" (Luke) is a Jewish conceptualization of sin as equivalent to debt for which M'Neile cites parallels both in the NT and in Jewish texts. The Greek verb "forgive" is used of forgiveness of both sins and debts in both Jewish and gentile texts. M'Neile suggests that an original Aramaic source contained a participle which does not specify tense, making possible varied tense interpretations in different versions of the prayer.

"And do not bring us into temptation

But rescue us from the evil one".

There is no reason to print the NRSV rendering as "time of trial" since the expression of time lacks justification in the Greek; which in this line is identical in Matthew and Luke. Marshall reads the text of the first line as a request to God to "cause us not to succumb to temptation" in a Hebrew usage, and M'Neile also draws on a parallel in Jewish prayer. The last line appears to have been absent in the original form of the text of Luke. The last noun phrase may equally well be translated "from evil". M'Neile points out that the adjective "evil" is well attested in the NT literature in both a masculine (the devil) and a neuter (abstract evil) form, and that either interpretation may be justified.

C. Doxology

Many manuscript sources add a doxology "For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever, Amen" (NRSV) with various expansions. Metzger (Textual Commentary pp.13-14) confirms that the doxology (ascription is his term) was an adaptation of the prayer for liturgical use. The doxology was eventually incorporated into the gospel textual tradition, resulting in its presence in the KJV. The newer Peake's Commentary (1962) comments on this verse "It was a Jewish practice to end public prayers with a doxology, although they were not in the text."

The Lord's Prayer has somehow survived well through successive transformations from its origin when Jesus introduced an Aramaic variant of the Jewish Qaddish to his followers. Especially in the secondary and longer liturgical version of its Greek translation, for Christians it became what Tertullian called "a summary of the whole gospel", and it is still meaningful for many Unitarians and Universalists. This has been possible because its meaning is very general, and ultimately does not reside in the text itself, but varies from one speaker of the prayer to another. On the other hand, there has been enough stability in these factors to make the Lord's Prayer a viable and central part of Western religious tradition. When it is considered in terms of its origins, however, it is a different part of this tradition from what it has often seemed to be.



Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for this interesting UU perspective on the Lord's Prayer (surely one of many, I suppose :-)

(By the way, it is J. C. Hawkins, not J. C. Scott who wrote Horae Synopticae).

LinguistFriend said...

Dear Carlson:
Thank you for noticing the slip on the Rev. Sir John C. Hawkins. I had the book near me when I wrote that, likewise everything else cited, and I don't know how I did that, but such things sometimes happen. I don't know as much about Hawkins as I would like. He must have been quite a fellow.
I'm not sure that my note had a UU perspective, actually. UUs sometimes think my point of view too Christian, and Christians rarely accept me as such. I prefer to think that perspectives on such things are not UU, or Buddhist, or Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, but the result of historical thinking about facts. Once that has been done, people can take a theological perspective, but my basic point of view here was that of a philologist, not a UU.

PeaceBang said...

Thanks, LinguistFriend, for reminding us that a scholarly approach to ancient texts or traditions is hardly Unitarian Universalist (not to knock Stephen, just sayin').

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you, with the slight modification that a scholarly approach to religious texts and traditions is not exclusively Unitarian-Universalist. It is one of those endeavours that cut off religious groups in a wonderful way. Although sentiment and familiarity with particular texts and traditions may militate against it at times, this means that those of us for whom religous traditions have special significance do well to study them with the same objectivity as when we try to understand the rest of world. Of course, we do come to points where we have to go on hope, and faith, and love, or noone would ever have babies. Just sayin'.
Best wishes -