Matthew 6:9-15,  the Lord's prayer

1. The parallel text in Luke

The Lord’s Prayer, also known as the “our Father”, or paternoster, also occurs in Luke’s Gospel, where the given context is entirely different from that of the Sermon.

11:1 ‘It happened, that when he finished praying in a certain place, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples.”
11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come. May your will be done on Earth, as it is in heaven.
11:3 Give us day by day our daily bread.
11:4 Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”’

(Luke 11:1-11:4 WEB)

The WEB adopts the longer form of Luke’s prayer, but many translations (e.g. NET and ESV) argue that a shorter version is better attested. This has led some interpreters to suggest that the prayer as found in Matthew is a later development (France 1995, 133). Furthermore, that later versions of Luke were then assimilated accretions from Matthew (see footnote on Luke 11:4 NET).

The differences between the version in Matthew and the shorter version of Luke may be appreciated from the following tabular comparison.

Matt 6:9-13 (WEB) Matt 6:9a-13 (Westcott and Hort) Luke 11:2b-4 (WEB, abbreviated to match shorter version) Luke 11:2b-4 (Westcott and Hort)
Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.
πατερ ημων ο εν τοις ουρανοις
αγιασθητω το ονομα σου
Father, may your name be kept holy.

πατερ αγιασθητω το ονομα σου” is the shorter version though most manuscripts add “ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς” as in Matthew (see footnote on Luke 11:2 NET)  
Let your Kingdom come.
ελθετω η βασιλεια σου
May your Kingdom come. 
ελθετω η βασιλεια σου 
Let your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. γενηθητω το θελημα σου ως εν ουρανω και επι γης 
Absent from some of those manuscripts given greater weight (see footnote on Luke 11:2 NET)
Give us today our daily bread. τον αρτον ημων τον επιουσιον δος ημιν σημερον  Give us day by day our daily bread. τον αρτον ημων τον επιουσιον διδου ημιν το καθ ημεραν 
Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. και αφες ημιν οφειλταηματα ημων ως και ημεις αφηκαμεν τοις οφειλεταις ημων  Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  και αφες ημιν τας αμαρτιας ημων και γαρ αυτοι αφιομεν παντι οφειλοντι ημιν 
Bring us not into temptation,  και μη εισενεγκης ημας εις πειρασμον   Bring us not into temptation, και μη εισενεγκης ημας εις πειρασμον 
but deliver us from the evil one. αλλα ρυσαι ημας απο του πονηρου 
Absent from those manuscripts given greater weight (see footnote on Luke 11:4 NET).
For yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’ Westcott and Hort choose to exclude the doxology as it is only present in some manuscripts.

The NET opts for the shorter version as the more original (footnote on Luke 11:4 NET), arguing that the lack of an obvious reason for the omission of the material makes that more likely. However, such a conclusion remains debatable, for  a policy of avoiding offense to official Roman sensibilities could easily explain the Lukan omissions. The suggestion that any will other than that of Roman should prevail could have proved an embarrassment, whilst prayer for deliverance from an “evil one” could suggest dissatisfaction with Roman rule in Judea. As both omissions are the second halves of parallelisms they could have been dropped for brevity without loosing the overall sense of the prayer, nor, unless one assumes that the teaching was given only once, need one conclude that the author of this abbreviation was not Jesus himself. 

Vermes notes that the majority of experts opt for Aramaic as the original language of the prayer and Matthew’s version is said to be closer to the Aramaic (Vermes 2004, 222). Moreover, the additional material in Matthew includes “genuine and fundamental ideas of Jesus” (Vermes 2004, 222). Taken together these observations prompt Vermes (2004, 222) to argue that the original version is found in Matthew, and to suggest that the version in Luke may recount the same teaching given on other occasions with a variant wording (Vermes 2004, 222). After noting that the Lukan version destroys the Aramaic metaphor of forgiving debts, he suggests “those New Testament scholars who hold that Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is the authentic one may need to do some serious rethinking” (Vermes 2004, 227).

The abbreviated form of address, using “Father” instead of “Father in Heaven”, may be a foible of Luke, for similar contraction is apparant in Luke’s account of the passion, where both Matthew and Mark use a longer form, e.g. Mark 14:36, Matt 26:39, Luke 23:34, 46 (Vermes 2004, 224).

2. The Lord’s Prayer and ancient Judaism

2.1 The Qaddish

Duling (1996, 4:52) notes the similarity between the opening of the Lord’s Prayer and the Qaddish, the liturgical prayer used at the end of every synagogue service. “Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world that he has created according to his will. May he establish his Kingdom (malǩtêḥ) in your lifetime and in your days and in your lifetime of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time” (after Duling 1996, 4:52 ). This prayer appears as part of the Synagogue Liturgy only in the sixth century C.E. and its preserved Aramaic is typical of the later Rabbinic schools, yet, due to its simplicity and the basic nature of its eschatological hope, Duling (1996, 4:52) feels an earlier origin cannot be discounted. The lack of any request for the re-building of the Jerusalem temple would also seem to suggest an origin prior to 70 C.E. However, there is no evidence to corroborate this.

Vermes notes the existence of an enlarged, or ‘full’, Qaddish, in which an additional paragraph reads: “May the prayers and supplication of all Israel be acceptable before their Father who is in heaven (Vermes 2004, 222), and suggests that “the eschatological formula, requesting the coming of God’s Kingdom in the present generation, was known to Jesus and that he was influenced and inspired by the Qaddish as a whole” (Vermes 2004, 222).

One scholar, David de Sola Pool, has even go so far as to suggest that, except for a difference in person, there is a complete equivalence between the Lord’s Prayer and the Qaddish (Byargeon 1998, 354).

To infer that Jesus was influenced by the Qaddish, or some precursor of it, certainly seems reasonable. However, in the absence of better evidence, the supposition of such interdependence must remain speculative. Moreover, Jesus was probably drawing upon multiple sources.

2.2 The Eighteen Benedictions

Possibly the quintessential prayer of Judaism, the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh), or simply “The Prayer”, was prayed three times each day (Byargeon 1998, 355). They were traditionally standardised, in terms of components and sequence, by Gamaliel, at Jamnia and near the end of the first century (Byargeon 1998, 355). Byargeon (1998, 355-6) summarises the evidence for a relationship:

Again there is a lack of source material from which to establish the exact form of the Eighteen in the first century, but some connection would certainly seem likely. The more so, when one considers the comments surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in the Didache, it urges “Neither pray ye as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray ye” (Didache 8:2a, Lightfoot and Harmes), before quoting a version of the Lord’s Prayer very close to that in Matthew’s Gospel, according to which gospel the hypocrites love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets” (Matt 6:5 WEB) or “use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do” (Matt 6:7). Tellingly, the Didache concludes with an instruction to say this (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer) three times a day (Didache 8:3). Thus author of the Didache appears to have the synagogue use of the Eighteen in mind as he made these comments, for not only was the Eighteen recited three times a day, but it was much more wordy than the Lord’s Prayer; Its eighteen points are addressed by around forty sentences under normal use, many of which are long and complex, with more on special days. By contrast, the Lord’s Prayer’s nine points are made in just four or five simple sentences. 

Byargeon (1998, 356) seems to consider the a relationship with the Eighteen is only possible if Matthew was a late composition. However, this would seem to overlook the possibility that the Eighteen and the Lord’s Prayer shared some common source or even that the formulation of the Eighteen was a reaction to the Lord’s Prayer.

3. A biblical precedent for the Lord’s Prayer

King David’s prayer in 1 Chr 29:11-19

1 Chronicles 29:11-19 contains a prayer of David in which he acknowledge what God has done for him and which exhibits some striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer, as follows:

David thanks God for an existing situation, but translate the prayer into one that yearns for such a situation to come and the similarities, with at least the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, become even more striking; Whilst 1 Chr 29:17 suggests a direction for continuing any such prayer.

The petition of Agur in Prov 30:7-9

Byargeon (1998, 344), has advanced the hypothesis that the inspiration for the Lord’s prayer is to be found, not amongst the ancient liturgy of Judaism, the antiquity of which he considers uncertain (Byargeon 1998, 356-7), but amongst its wisdom literature, and specifically Prov 30:7-9, where a prayer for daily bread is essential to avoiding false behaviour. The petition is attributed to an enigmatic character called Agur, a name which Hebrew tradition views as a title for Solomon (the one who stored up wisdom and the son of the divinity who spewed it out), although some scholars would prefer to see him as an Arab leader (Berry 1996, 100).

7“Two things I have asked of you; don’t deny me before I die:  
Remove far from me falsehood and lies.
Give me neither poverty nor riches. 
Feed me with the food that is needful for me [the NIV refers to “daily bread”];
9lest I be full, deny you [the NET has “act deceptively”], and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
or lest I be poor, and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”

(Prov 30:7-9 HNV, with annotations)

Pointing to the high proportion of wisdom-literature type material in the Sermon, Byargeon (1998, 357) suggests that it makes more sense to search for the Sermon’s inspiration amongst the biblical wisdom literature. He cites Bultmann in support of his view that the Sermon contains “a sapiential emphasis” (Byargeon 1998, 357), though the same point may be readily appreciated from Vermes’ analysis of the sayings within the Sermon on the Mount. Byargeon (1998, 358-9) offers several additional arguments for his view that the Sermon is wisdom oriented, including:

For Byargeon (1998, 359), Prov 30:7-9, as a prayer embedded in a book of wisdom, provides the ideal progenitor for the Sermon’s archetypical prayer, in which he suggests that one finds a variety of echoes, including:

The idea of a connection with Prov 30:7-9 is intriguing, for if one accepts that this section of the Sermon addresses false witness from the perspective of being an obedient son or daughter of God (see outline of the Sermon on the Mount), and furthermore that Jesus was preaching in response to both the rejection of John the Baptist’s message (cf. Matt 4:12) and the temple officials’ failure to accept his cleansing royal authority (John 2:12-56, as proposed in Emmaus View, chapter 27), then the context of Prov 30:7-9 takes on a particular relevance. It lends the Lord’s Prayer an unexpectedly political overtone, for preceding the Proverbs prayer we find a reference to false witness: “Don’t you add to his words, lest he reprove you, and you be found a liar” (Prov 30:8 HNV); and following the prayer come references to children cursing their parents and people not accepting their need for cleansing:

10 “Don’t slander a servant to his master, lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.  11There is a generation that curses their father, and doesn’t bless their mother.  12There is a generation that is pure in their own eyes, yet are not washed from their filthiness. 13There is a generation, oh how lofty are their eyes! Their eyelids are lifted up.  14There is a generation whose teeth are like swords, and their jaws like knives, to devour the poor from the earth, and the needy from among men.”’

(Prov 30:10-14 HNV)

The confession of Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 4:34-35

In Daniel, the four topics found in the opening of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-10) are placed on the lips of Nebuchadnezzar, where they follow one another in the same order.  Nebuchadnezzar has a dream, which Daniel then interprets: The great tree that represented Nebuchadnezzar’s dominion would be cut down for a season, but a stump remained so his kingdom would be restored. Nebuchadnezzar, after he has been restored recounts:

34At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted up my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored him who lives forever; for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation.  35All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he does according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or ask him, What are you doing?”

(Dan 4:34-35 WEB)

First hallowing God’s name (to Nebuchadnezzar this was “the Most High”, see Dan 4:17), then declaring that the divine kingdom prevails, and finally acknowledging that God’s will is done in heaven and on earth, Nebuchadnezzar’s statement provides a template for how God should be acknowledged when sovereignty is restored. This congruence seems more than simply incidental, for Judah was without a king and apparently not yet in a state to acknowledge that God would give the kingdom to whomever he wills. Hence, the Lord’s Prayer opens by yearning for the state which Nebuchadnezzar experienced, a state where the stump of David’s line has regained its crown and God’s will has been done. 

4. The Lord’s poetic prayer

The outline for the Sermon on the Mount proposed by Luz (Luz 2007, 173), places the Lord’s Prayer at the centre of a chiasmus, and, in the Lord’s Prayer itself, Jesus seems to resort to that poetic structure beloved by prophets like Isaiah.  Following a brief introduction, the prayer's structure, roughly echoes the themes of the Sermon itself. In the Sermon we find:

In the prayer, the leading limb again focuses on the positive outcomes of following the way, whilst the trailing limb dwells on the corrective issues. The prayer may feels rather like an aside, but it is perfectly suited to its place within the Sermon. 

‘Our Father in heaven,

  • may your name be kept holy.
    Let your Kingdom come.
    • Let your will be done,
      as in heaven, so on earth.
      • Give us today our daily bread.
    • Forgive us our debts [in accord with your will],
      as we [on earth] also [emulate you in Heaven and] forgive our debtors.
  • Bring us not into temptation [so those who claim your name remain holy],
    but deliver us from the evil one [so your Kingdom will prevail].’
(Matt 6:9-13, based on WEB, reformatted and with my comments)

This correspondence suggests that doing and teaching the word of God was the daily bread about which Jesus spoke. It also calls to mind Moses’ comments concerning the bread with which God daily fed his people in the wilderness (Deut 8:3), which Jesus had so recently cited, when countering the Devil’s challenge to command that stones become bread (Matt 4:4, cf. Deut 8:3). As Moses reminded Israel:

“He humbled you, and allowed you to be hungry, and fed you with manna, which you didn’t know, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.”

(Deut 8:3, HNV)

5. Our father and his name

The concept of God as a true Israelite’s father was already firmly established within first-century Judaism (see the background on God as Heavenly Father). Thus, Jesus seems to have used a thoroughly typical Jewish form of address at the outset of this prayer. Moreover, this father/child relationship has already been stressed repeatedly in the earlier part of the Sermon (Matt 5:16, 5:45-48, Matt 6:1, 4, Matt 6:6, 8) and will continue to be stressed throughout the remainder (Matt 6:14-15, 18, Matt 26, 32; Matt 7:11, 21). This emphasis is only to be expected in teaching which is, at the most basic level, about ‘what it means to call God “Father”’ (Wright 2004, 58)

In the Hebrew Bible God’s name is explicitly identified as holy, and deserving of glory, e.g. :

That, God wishes to preserve that status is evident from the third of the ten commandments, where those who take his name are instructed that their declaration of allegiance must not be a vain or meaningless act. It is telling how often mention of God’s holy name is combined with the complaint that men have profaned it. Thus, the ultimate motivation for God to intervene in the affairs of humanity would often seem to be the preservation of the holiness of his name. This was true both at the individual level (Ps 23:3, 31:3) and when dealing with nations, e.g.:

Concern for his name has always been central to God’s agenda. Indeed, the apostle Paul goes as far as to identify this as the purpose of leading people into the Christian faith (Rom 1:4), whilst John also sees it behind the Church’s evangelistic endeavour (3 John 7-8)

God is motivated to act in defense of his name, hence any God directed request that his name be holy is ultimately an appeal for him to intervene and ensure that is the case. Thus, a prayer for salvation could appeal to the holiness of God’s name, as when the psalmist prays “Revive me, LORD, for your name’s sake. In your righteousness, bring my soul out of trouble” (Ps 143:11 HNV). More pertinently to the Lord’s Prayer, some psalms link such an appeal to Gods name to a request for forgiveness, E.g. “For your name’s sake, LORD, pardon my iniquity, for it is great” (Ps 25:11 HNV) and “Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of your name. Deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake” (Ps 79:9 HNV). Jeremiah develops this further as he appeals to the holiness of God’s name and acknowledges apostate Judah’s need of forgiveness in a prayer concerning a drought that has robbed Israel of their daily bread (cf. Ezek 14:12):

4Because of the ground which is cracked, because no rain has been in the land, the plowmen are disappointed, they cover their heads.  5Yes, the hind also in the field calves, and forsakes her young, because there is no grass.  6The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights, they pant for air like jackals; their eyes fail, because there is no herbage.  7Though our iniquities testify against us, work for your name’s sake, LORD; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you.” . . .  “20We acknowledge, LORD, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers; for we have sinned against you.  21Do not abhor us, for your name’s sake; do not disgrace the throne of your glory: remember, don’t break your covenant with us.  22Are there any among the vanities of the nations that can cause rain? or can the sky give showers? Aren’t you he, the LORD our God? therefore we will wait for you; for you have made all these things.”

(Jer 14:4-7, 20-22 HNV)

In similar vain, Daniel, after reading Jeremiah, concludes his great prayer of confession on behalf of Judah with the words “Lord, hear; Lord, forgive; Lord, listen and do; don’t defer, for your own sake, my God, because your city and your people are called by your name” (Dan 9:19 HNV). The Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to the holiness of God’s name is therefore an implicit request for divine intervention, of the sort that is properly be accompanied by a petition for forgiveness, as indeed it is, but later in the prayer.

Vermes (2004, 224), comes at this section from a somewhat different angle, suggesting that, in anticipation of the sentiment of Matt 6:10, this verse is intended to echo the heavenly worship of the angels, as described in e.g. Isa 6:3. In support of this, he calls attention to a document from Qumran, known as the Songs of the Holocaust of the Sabbath, which infers belief in “the simultaneity of heavenly and earthly worship” (Vermes 1998, 321). However, as the context of the Lord’s Prayer is not worship, as in Isa 6:3, but intercession for God to intervene and provide for his faithful people, as in Jer 14:21, this seems a secondary consideration. 

6. On earth as in heaven

“Your Kingdom come” is effectively echoed in the phrase “your will be done, on earth as in heaven”, so the two are best considered together.

To do the will of God was seen as the fundamental motivation of God’s servants. Psalm 40 reveals that the desire of the Lord’s faithful servant is that God’s will should be done (Ps 40:6-8). If Psalm 40 is, as some suggest, a royal psalm, then “Behold, I have come. It is written about me in the book in the scroll.  I delight to do your will, my God. Yes, your law is within my heart” (Ps 40:7-8 WEB) is probably referring to the rules for kingship in Deuteronomy (see footnote on Ps 40:7 NET). These rules (Deut 17:14-20) instruct the king to familiarise himself with God’s commandments, learn to revere them, and not to turn from them (Deut 17:18-20). In the ancient near-east, it was not uncommon for the local deity to be seen as the true king of the nation, with the human king acting as their viceroy (Matthews et al. 2000, Isa 43:15). Thus God was the true king of Israel (c.f. Isa 43:15) and the Davidic kings were tasked with implementing his will. Therefore, one might reasonably expect to find amidst those who served David’s heir, a similar concern for God’s will.

In the LXX, θέλημα (will) translates for חפץ, which is found in other psalms that also speak of the desire of the faithful to fulfill the will of God (e.g. Ps 143:9-10). Psalm 103:20-22 (= Ps 102:20-22 LXX) is of particular interest as it displays parallelism between three classes of God’s servants: angels; ministers; and works, all of which are obedient to God.

20 Bless the Lord, all ye his angels, mighty in strength, who perform his bidding, ready to hearken to the voice of his words. 
21 Bless the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his that do his will.
22 Bless the Lord, all his works, in every place of his dominion:
bless the Lord, my soul.

(Ps 102:20-22 LXX, Brenton)

The salutation that opens the second book of Maccabees acknowledges the need for God’s servants to do God’s will, desiring that God give to the Jews in Egypt a “heart to serve him, and to do his will, with a good courage and a willing mind” (2 Macc 1:3 KJV). Interestingly, the Maccabean period also saw Judas Maccabeus expressing the sentiment that what prevails on earth is whatever God’s will was in heaven.  When contemplating the likelihood of defeat, should God fail to intervene, Judas is reported to have said “Nevertheless, as the will of God is in heaven, so let him do” (1 Macc 3:60 KJV).

The same emphasis on doing the will of God persisted within Judaism. For example, the Babylonian Talmud suggests that Rabbi Hamnuna (active in the third and fourth centuries C.E.) used to conclude his prayers as follows: “Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to Thee that our will is to perform Thy will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjection to the foreign Powers. May it be Thy will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Thy will with a perfect heart!” (bBer 17a, Epstein). In the same collection of Rabbinic material, Rabbi Eliezer (active in the first to second centuries C.E.) is credited with saying “Do Thy will in heaven above, and grant relief to them that fear Thee below and do that which is good in Thine eyes. (b Ber 29b, Epstein).

Vermes suggests that the form of the request, that the kingdom come, “clearly distinguishes Jesus’ perspective from that of the early church,” (Vermes 2004, 225), and its similarity to the Quaddish (see above) proves that its sentiments are authentically Jewish. Moreover, it is also clearly in keeping with the stated focus of Jesus’ early ministry for it looks forward to the manifestation of the Kingdom, rather than the return of Christ (Matt 4:17, cf. Matt 3:2-3, Matt 11:12 NIV).

7. Our daily bread

7.1 The problem of epiousios

In Matt 6:11 the adjective ἐπιούσιος (epiousios) is usually rendered daily. However, the word was apparently unknown to the ancients. Indeed, Origen suggested the evangelists could have coined it (Stott 2003, 149). However, the prefix epi- carries the sense of on top of, above, or over, and ousios carries the sense of substance or being. In the New Testament the simple form of ousios occurs only in Luke 15:12, where the prodigal son asks for the share of the property (ousios) due to him. So a literal translation might be something like above-property bread. St Jerome seems to have had some idea what the term meant, as he notes that where Matthew uses ἐπιούσιος (epiousios), the LXX translators frequently preferred περιούσιος (periousios), which refers to a peculiar or personal possession (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 6.11), i.e to near-property. Tracing the LXX use of periousios back to the Hebrew, as Jerome did, one finds that it equates to סְגֻלָּה (sĕgūllâ), which is a word well attested as referring to personal property. The similar word πλούσιος (plousios), means wealthy or possessing a lot. Therefore, one might infer that Matthew’s above-property carries something of the sense of above-possessed. The prayer would then be asking for daily provision of that bread which is alloted as our possession above, which would tie in particularly well with the previous sentiment of “on earth as in heaven,” and also with the concerns addressed in the parable of the prodigal son.

Needful has also been offered as a meaning that would fit the Matthean context (DeHoog 1992, 853). In the Syriac this element of need is found in  Matt 6:8 where the prayer petitions “give us the bread of our need this day” (Matt 6:8 Peshitta, Younan).

7.2 Today or tomorrow

Today opinion is divided over whether the prayer seeks bread ‘for today’ or ‘for the morrow’. Many, especially those who see eschatological implications in the prayer (DeHoog 1992, 853), prefer the latter. Luke 11:3 has “day by day” (WEB), i.e. each day, which could imply either. However, in the Syriac version of the petition, “give us the bread of our need this day” (Matt 6:8 Peshitta, Younan), the meaning of the word rendered ‘today’ is clear from its use in other contexts; For example where Pilate’s wife recounts a dream she had today (Matt 21:28), and where Christ is born this day (Luke 2:11). Furthermore, as Vermes (2004, 226) observes, “the guiding principle for a correct understanding and exposition of this phrase must be Jesus’ emphasis on the supremacy of the present,” as emphasised later in the Sermon (Matt 6:34).

Taken together with the above observation that the bread was ‘above-possessed’, but not yet manifest on earth, the present would seem the more fitting of the two options. Thus, giving a sense to the petition that is along the lines: “give us today that bread which we already possess in heaven,” and raising the possibility that this verse was intended to parallel Let your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth” (Matt 6:10b WEB).

7.2 Physical or spiritual?

John Stott (Stott, 2003, 148-9) observes that early Christian writers were divided on the meaning of the bread. He notes that Augustine (VI, 25, 27) saw three ways in which this could be interpreted:

  1. “all those things which meet the wants of this life”;
  2. “the sacrament of the body of Christ”;
  3. “the spiritual food or divine precepts which we ought daily to meditate and labour after”.

France (France 1995, 135) readily dismisses bread as a reference to daily needs, as does Wright (Wright, 2004, 59). However, after noting that Calvin and Luther both voted firmly for the ‘wants of this life’ option, Stott throws in his lot with them.  In support of the “all those things which meet the wants of this life” option, one may offer the link with Prov 30:7-9 (discussed above), in which the bread of Prov 30:8 becomes, in the Septuagint, “what is needful and sufficient” (Prov 30:8 LXX, Brenton)

The idea that this petition for bread anticipated the later sacrament is rather too anachronistic for a prayer that otherwise seems firmly set within the pre-resurrection era. Augustine himself preferred the last of the three, referring to the bread as “the invisible bread of the Word of God”. In support of his position one might point out that, despite the divine daily provision of bread in the wilderness, Moses reminded Israel:

“He humbled you, and allowed you to be hungry, and fed you with manna, which you didn’t know, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.”

(Deut 8:3, HNV)

Moreover, it was this precisely this passage that Jesus had so recently cited, in responding to the devil’s challenge to command stones to become bread (Matt 4:4). The correspondence in structure between the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon as a whole (see The Prayer as Poetry, below) also supports the idea that doing and teaching the word of God relates to the daily bread about which Jesus spoke.

In the final analysis, it may well be counterproductive to try to resolve whether this bread is spiritual insight or practical provision, for the concepts are so intimately intertwined in Hebrew thought. Daily wisdom is the prerequisite of daily sustenance, so the one petition may serve for both.

8. Forgive us our debts

When Jesus speaks of forgiving our debtors, he is preserving an Aramaic idiom, which Luke translates in part (Luke 11:4), so that his readers might better understand that it was not financial debt of which Jesus spoke. Jesus repeatedly chose to use debt as a metaphor for sin, as in Luke 7:40-43 where he defends a female sinner’s lavish appreciation of his forgiveness. Such use has parallels in the Targum of Isaiah (Chilton 1996,115), a first-century C.E. transcription of Aramaic oral traditions.

The concept that obtaining God’s forgiveness was conditional on forgiving others was already well established within Judaism, for it is stated explicitly in the Greek version of Sirach 28:2, the original Hebrew being written in the period 226–198 B.C.E. and translation dating to between 132 and 116 B.C.E. (Charles 2004, 1:293).  The passage reads “Forgive thy neighbour the injury (done to thee), And then, when thou prayest, thy sins will be forgiven (Sir 28:2). Nor was this a transitory teaching, for some three hundred years later similar words were uttered by a later Rabbi, to find their way into the Talmud as “whosoever forgives the wrong done unto him, God will also forgive his sins” (Der. Er. Zuṭ. 8:4, after Einspruch 1920, 18).

9. Leading into temptation

However, in suggesting a link with Prov 3:7-9, Byargeon (1998, 344) has highlighted a scriptural precedent. In that prayer, a request for daily bread is accompanied by the caveat that this should in a way that leads to neither excess or want, for both lead to temptation. The contrast in Prov 3:7-9 is between the rich who are tempted to deny God because they have no need of him, and the poor who are tempted to break the commandments and steal. 

Many are concerned by the suggestion that God might actively lead individuals into temptation. France (France 1995, 133) suggests that πειρασμός (peirasmos) is better rendered as ‘testing’ than ‘temptation’. This is testing as in 2 Cor 13:5, where Paul urged the Corinthian’s to test themselves, or as in the process that Jesus underwent when the Spirit led him into the wilderness. 

10. The doxology in verse 13

Luke’s version lacks the “For yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matt 6:13b WEB) found in Matthew. However, that section is also absent from several of the more important earlier manuscripts of Matthew (France 1995, 136). France observes that, as a concluding doxology was an essential part of a Jewish prayer, so suggests that it was probably left to be supplied as the congregation saw fit, then later standardised (France 1995, 136). However, that same observation might be taken to suggest that Jesus would originally have included some form of doxology.

The Lord’s Prayer appears in the late first, or early second-century work known as the Didache, by which point the doxology: For thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever” (8:2, Lightfoot and Harmer), was already attached to the prayer. 

The footnotes in the NET draw attention to the similarity between this doxology and 1 Chr 29:11-13.

11. The prayer’s original use

Richard T. France (1995, 133) notes that the prayer’s first person pronouns are all plural and so it was intended to be prayed by a group. He contends that its beginning “Our Father”, made it a prayer for disciples. However, others within Judah would also have referred to God as their Father on the basis of Ex. 4:22. The prayer’s similarities with Jewish liturgical prayers again implies a corporate focus for its intended use (France 1995, 133)

An early version of the Lord’s Prayer appears in the Didache, preceded by the instruction “Nor should you pray like the hypocrites” (Didache 8:2, Lightfoot and Harmer) and followed by the instruction: Three times in the day pray ye so” (Didache 8:3, Lightfoot and Harmer). The general context of the Didache, together with these instructions, suggests that the prayer was already being used in a liturgical context. 

12. The Lord’s Prayer in the Didache

The Didache represents a collection of material for the instruction of new believers, and is thought to date from the late first, or early second, century. It contains a version of the Lord’s Prayer that is very close to that found in Matthew’s Gospel. 

“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, as in heaven, so also on earth; give us this day our daily bread;and forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever.”  

(Didache 8:2b Lightfoot and Harmer)

In the Greek, the only differences between Matthew 6:9-13 and the Didache 8:2b are:

That the Didache has opted for the singular where Matthew uses the plural is perhaps understandable, for Matthew’s Hebrew audience, envisaged multiple heavens, whereas Greek cultures thought in terms of just one. If Heavens became Heaven, and the prayer’s symmetry is important (as has been suggested above), then debts must become debt.