Matthew Chapter 6.9-13: The Lord’s Prayer

This was intended to be part of the previous post. I don’t like to have too many short posts because I believe it may have an adverse affect on the continuity. However, this grew to be much larger than I had anticipated, so I decided to make it a stand-alone topic. Hope that works for most of you.

10 ἐλθέτω βασιλείασου, γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς.

1Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον:

12 καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν, ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν:

13 καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

So pray like this:

Our father in the heavens, let your name be holy. Let your kingdom come. Let your will become as in heaven also on earth (let it be the same on earth as in heaven). Our bread of existence give us today. And take away our debts, as we take away the debts owed to us. And do not lead us into temptation, but draw us away from wickedness.

Of course, this is the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, or the Pater Noster, or even the paternoster. If you glance down at the Latin, you will see that the first two words are, indeed, Pater noster, which translates directly as “our father”. It is very important to realize, or remember, or bear in mind that this did not occur in Mark. That means that if this can be attributable to Jesus, it had to be transmitted either via Q, or via oral tradition that circumvented Mark. It also bears mention that the version in Luke is significantly shorter, and leaves out many clauses, such as “who is in the heavens”. This has led to the inference that Luke’s version is more “primitive”, which leads to the further inference that Luke’s version is more like the version that was in Q. This is “true” because the version in Q was older, so it had to be shorter, because the shorter version is, necessarily, more primitive. Notice that the logic in the first part of that seems eminently reasonable; but once you try to go backwards, to the inference that shorter, necessarily, is more primitive, some of the force seems to leak out, like air from a football (of whichever variety). I fully admit that shorter = more primitive is generally the way that it goes. I have been saying all along that legends and stories grow with time, rather than shrink. As an example, I have cited the Arthur legend many times because that is exactly what happened.

But, while true in most instances, it is not always true, and not necessarily true under all circumstances. I’m not really going anywhere with that–for the moment–but I do want to point this out. The arguments for Q rely to some degree on extending logical implications where perhaps they should not always be extended. It is the statistical fallacy: because something is true 90, or even 99% of the time, there are times when it is not true. In informal logic, this is known as as the fallacy of composition: what is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. This is the “logic” of racism. One member of a group is bad, so all are.

So let’s look at what this actually says. I’ve been meaning to address the “father” part. I have pointed out many times that having God as “our father” means that we are all sons and daughters of God. And yet, when Jesus is called the son of God, this is taken to be a special designation. I’ve wondered about this ever since I wrote an essay on Alexander the Great’s trip to the temple of Ammon-Ra in Egypt. Alexander, at least in one interpretation, came to understand this “son o (a) god” concept in the very literal sense. And there is a plethora of literature on how the Hellenistic kings, and their Roman successors came to understand this term. And as I have said before, “son of a god” was a very comprehensible expression for pagans as a whole. They would have taken it, generally speaking, quite literally, in the way that we do. But if god/God is “our father”, what does this do to the way this term is interpreted? It changes significantly. What does it do to the understanding of Jesus as the “son of God”? How is that affected? Is it affected? To us, we have no trouble sort of taking a double-tracked approach. It means one thing for us to be the sons/daughters of God, and quite another when applied to Jesus. But we have come to this understanding after…some period of time. It’s hard to say when this double-tier meaning truly took root. The question is whether it had taken hold, had become commonplace by the time Matthew wrote these words? I’m not sure. But worse, I’m not sure that enough people are asking this question.

Who is in the heavens. First, how is this conceptually different from Zeus Sky Father? Then look at the whole expression “Our father in the heavens”–which could just as easily be rendered as “our father in the sky”–and tell me how this is conceptually different from “Zeus Sky Father”. And I am asking this question seriously; it is not at all a rhetorical question. Yes, theoretically, it refers to the Hebrew God and not the chief Greek god, but that’s not much of a difference. Not really. And here’s another question: instead of Luke being a more primitive version of this, did he leave off the “in the heavens” specifically because it is thematically so close to Zeus Sky Father? Is that such a ridiculous question? Perhaps it is for theologians and biblical scholars living a couple of millennia from the event, but what about a pagan living at the end of the First Century? And remember, Zeus Sky Father, in Greek, would be something very similar to << Πάτερ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς >>. We can make it look different in English, but in standard Greek the two would have been pretty much identical. Now add in that the audience may have been largely, if not predominately, pagan, and you have a real situation on your hands. The first thing someone brought up on Homer would think when hearing “father in the sky” would probably have been Zeus. Not the God of the Jews. Again, this is where a textual analysis of these books really misses a lot of issues.

Just as a final note, the term “son of God” is very common in Matthew, gets used fairly frequently by Paul, and is almost wholly absent from Mark. That is odd. This sort of thing does lend credence to the idea that Mark may have been off the beaten path, or something, somewhere outside the mainstream traditions. Of course it’s a truism that Mark prefers “son of man”. I have never read a good explanation for why Mark uses this term so frequently, and “son of God” so seldom. I’ve read all sorts of explanations for what the term might mean, but nothing about why it gets used in the first place. 

Let your kingdom come. Let your will become as in heaven also on earth. I have come across various discussions about the coming of the kingdom. I have seen it suggested that, for Mark, the miracles were meant to serve as signs that the kingdom had come. Here we get a contradiction of that. The imperative to let it happen, which can also be read as a subjunctive, “may it come”, pretty much states flat-out that this is still an anticipated event rather than something that has occurred. I don’t know if that’s any specal revelation, but it seems worth pointing out if just for the confirmation.

Just started a new book called Jesus and Paul, by James Tabor. And I mean “just”; as in I’m still reading the introduction. He says that Paul was expecting a heaven-on-earth outcome; but since it’s the introduction, he doesn’t explain how that expectation relates to this passage, and whether or not he thinks it traces to Jesus. Regardless, I don’t think that is what this means. The fact that there is a distinction between the sky and the earth tells me that Matthew saw the two as separate entitites. That he is asking that the earth be conformed to the way affairs are ordered in the heavens. Now, of course the key question is what Matthew meant when he said “the heavens/the sky”. We must keep in mind that, to a First Century speaker of Greek, as to a 21st Century speaker of English, “the heavens” = “the sky”. For Greeks, the term had this connotation since the time of Homer.

I took a glance at 1 Enoch recently. In 2:1 the author talks about the heaven, and the orderliness of the heavenly bodies. More, there is an astronomica treatise later in the work. 1 Enoch is pseudographica, and the date is uncertain, but it’s probably after the end of the 2nd Century BC, so it’s not entirely removed from the general thought-world of Matthew. The temporal relationship is close enough that we ought to ask if Matthew had something similar in mind here.

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of astronomy knows that the movemenst of the stars, planets, etc. are incredibly predictable. Eclipses can be predicted thousands of years into the future, and dated thousands of years in the past. Herodotus mentions that a battle between Medes and Lydians was interupted by an eclipse; that battle can be dated to May 28, 585 BCE. Astronomy was a very old science in Mesopotamia; the ability to predict the coming seasonal flood of te Tigris and Euphrates rivers gave the priest-caste enormous influence. The Magi of Matthew’s birth narrative were magoi; that is, they were astronomers. The regularity of the movements of the planets & c is what gave rise to the belief in astrology. OK, the magoi were astrologers; well, the point is that there was no real difference between the two back then. Even more recently, Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion were discovered as he tried to make his astrological forecasts more accurate. (At least, that’s the urban legend.)

So, given this, we are completely justified to ask what Matthew means here. Is he asking for a regularity like that of astronomical bodies to exist on earth? But that is not far-fetched. Thinking metaphorically, Matthew could easily be asking for a world in which affairs are ordered. That is, affairs should be ordered so that those who hunger for justice are satisfied, those who mourn are consoled, where the meek inherit the earth. In such a realm, the meek could inherit the earth and the poor in spirit would find that the kingdom of the heavens was “theirs”. IOW, heaven and earth have merged.

Is this what Matthew means? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, for the moment, that is my working hypothesis. At least, this idea of “the kingdom of the heavens” being a well-regulated place where all get their desserts begins to make some sense. It’s not our understanding of Heaven, but maybe we can see where/how the idea originated. 

Our bread of existence give us today. I don’t expect this needs much explanation. The petition for enough to eat dates back as long as religion. The possibly new wrinkle is that this may relate to the idea that we should “consider the birds of the air” and how the “father in the heavens” cares for them. But, on second thought, I’m not sure that this is a new wrinkle after all. We’ll discuss that more when we get to that passage.

And take away our debts, as we take away the debts owed to us. The base meaning of the word is “debt”. It’s not the more generic “trespasses” that we use in English. Now, of course, “debt” can have a meaning more generic than “money owed”. But if we’re going to use that less specific meaning, we need a very good reason to prefer it. The fact is that the bald Greek refers to monetary debts. As a result, we find ourselves being propelled into the world of social justice, social engineering, social reconstruction…society and social and monetary arrangements. Naturally, those with the most to lose in a general cancelation of debts are those to whom the most is owed. I’ve read about this extensively in re Athenian politics. The upper classes, those with the most money have the most to lend, and so are the ones, most often, to whom the most is owed. As such, they generally resist a cancelation of debts tooth and nail. This is true even today. If Matthew is calling for a cancelation of debts, he has become a social revolutionary, or a populist politician at the least, someone who would be (incorrectly) called a socialist.

So what is this all about? Is this part of a social program? It’s hard to deny that, especially when we recall that Matthew has apparently been addressing the underclass for most of this sermon. They are the audience, they are the ones who hunger for justice, who mourn, who are persecuted. They are the ones most likely to get hauled off to gaol (sorry, couldn’t resist) if their lawsuit goes badly. They are the ones most likely to be debtors, owing money to wealthy individuals. Debt can be a very corrosive problem for society. In those days, often the choice was debt or starve. Farmers in particular were subject to the whims of fate and a bad crop, which often required borrowing in order to have enough seed for the next season. And if that next season was less than stellar, then the debt easily compounded and debtors could find themselves facing  being sold into slavery as a means of paying the debt. This is debilitating for the society as a whole. As mentioned, Athens faced this problem in the 7/6th Century BCE, and there was a “seisachtheia”, a “shaking off” (as in a earthquake) that resulted in the cancelation of these debts. Due to this, Athenian society was put on a firmer footing, allowing it to prosper as time passed. 

Here is a question. Farming has a seasonal demand for capital. The farmer must have seed, a lot of it, at a specific time of the year. This requires reserves of either seed–usually left from the previous harvest–or of money to purchase seed. Either of these represents a capital investment. Now, given a bad harvest, farmers often faced the dilemma of eating their grain, or saving to plant. The former may get you through a tough spot, but at the cost of your long term prospects. As a result, debt has very often been a problem for agrarian-based societies. This is what happened in the American middle west during the 1920s and 1930s: many farmers lost their land when harvests were not enough to pay their mortgage. Farmers, and farming societies are prone to debt crises. As such, whom is Matthew addressing here? Farmers were certainly not the only ones to face debt problem, but it’s a situation and an occupation in/to which debt is endemic. Galilee was not particularly noted as a farming area; is this a clue to the area where Matthew was writing? As a legitimate inference, this is bordering on rank speculation. But it would solve a couple of issues. We don’t know where Matthew wrote; Antioch is often suggested. Was Antioch surrounded by farmland? I don’t think so. Does this indicate a different location? And this may help explain why–or corroborate that–Matthew was writing for non-Jews. Again to stress that this is a reach, but it’s based on something that may be present between the lines of the text.

I mentioned Tabor’s Paul and Jesus. It’s interesting to note that he seems to be validating some of the things that I read into Paul’s text. He also brings up James, brother of Jesus (where have I heard that before?); Tabor reminded me that James was in charge of the Jesus movement for a duration of time measured in decades rather than individual years. Given that the traditional reckoning is that Jesus’ public ministry lasted perhaps three, James could easily have been the leader of the group for ten times–IOW, an order of magnitude–as long as Jesus was. James’ leadership must have had some lasting impact on the direction of the nascent movement. If nothing else, things that James inaugurated–like, perhaps, the Twelve–must have filtered out into the wider milieu of the movement. Seriously, it would be impossible to imagine otherwise. He is also referred to as “James the Just”. As in, the sort who might hunger and thirst for justice? Or someone with a special inclination towards those who do? There is also the possibility that James was associated with the Ebionite movement, which was later determined to be heretical. From what we know, this group was particularly concerned with the poor. And we have Paul’s account of the Synod of Jerusalem, in which James, perhaps grudgingly, gave sanction to Paul’s mission to the non-Jews, on the stipulation that Paul “remember the poor”. Does this concern with debt trace to James, rather than Jesus? Was he the non- or anti-materialist? These are intriguing questions. And it would explain why Paul and Mark were unaware of the Sermon on the Mount material: because it came from James and not Jesus. This is something that has to be considered, I believe.

 And do not lead us into temptation, but draw us away from wickedness.  And we end with an imprecation, a request for God’s help. But it’s rather an odd one. It’s not asking to be spared sorrow or sickness, but to be delivered from evil by being spared…what, exactly? This is more or less an NT word, which means it means what NT people think it should mean. The Latin is fairly clear, but largely because we in the West were discussing this concept in Latin for a thousand years before going back to the Greek. Of course St Jerome presumably knew what the word meant, and he gave us a Latin meaning that we can, sort of, be reasonably certain about. But these NT consensus translations make me a little nervous. I don’t use an NT dictionary; I start from the Classical meaning. Why? Because I don’t entirely trust NT translations; there is an inherent conflict of interest, I think. It can benefit NT studies to agree that certain words mean certain things, especially when we don’t have much Classical material for comparison. Yes, these words can be compared to other usages in other koine texts. But what happens when we come across a word like this that doesn’t provide a lot of other examples? That’s when I get nervous.

Anyway, I don’t think “temptation/trial” are too far off. After all, we end with an imprecation to be delivered from evil. But what kind of evil? If we take this in conjunction “temptation”, the type of evil becomes quite clear: it’s the evil of sin, brought about by temptation. But this feels really anachronistic to the time the text was written. This idea feels like a 7th Century understanding of the text. I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the early Middle Ages, and “lead us not into temptation so that we don’t sin” has the fingerprints of Augustine and Gregory the Great all over it. And in Latin, this can possibly be rendered as “an attack”. So we could be attacked by wickedness, or by pain or toil. In which case, this could have the sense of “lead us not into a trial, but deliver us from toil” or perhaps “worry”. IOW, don’t try us/our faith through worry and toil. That is not at all the same thing. The way we normally interpret this is as a moral imprecation. Perhaps it could be taken as something more prosaic. Or perhaps I’m full of it. But what I am trying to do is look past the way the meaning of these words have become ossified, especially when dealing with an NT consensus translation.

The thing about the Vulgate is that the translation was made only after several hundred years of interpretation had occurred, so it’s questionable how deeply St Jerome understood the circumstances of the writing. No doubt he understood the languages better than I could ever hope to; he was a native speaker of Latin. But he came at this with an agenda, and looking at this through a very distinct lens that certainly constricted the range of meaning he could–or would–bring to the translation. I do a lot of statistical analysis in my day job, and I make a lot of charts. Choosing between a bar, or line, or pie chart has a major bearing on how data is interpreted. So too, with translation: choosing the word is to set the tone of the theology. The Vulgate leaves no doubt: deliver us from “malo”. As in mal-iyygnant, mal-icious, mal-adjusted. As in, bad. Or maybe Bad. Or just plain evil.

Sic ergo vos orabitis:

Pater noster, qui es in caelis, / sanctificetur nomen tuum, 10 adveniat regnum tuum, / fiat voluntas tua, / sicut in caelo, et in terra. 11 Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie; 12 et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; 13 et ne inducas nos in tentationem, sed libera nos a Malo.

Our father in the heavens, let your name be holy. Let your kingdom come. Let your will become as in heaven also on earth (let it be the same on earth as in heaven). Our bread of existence give us today. And take away our debts, as we take away the debts owed to us. And do not lead us into temptation, but draw us away from wickedness.

Bottom line: this prayer is all over the place. God in heaven, praise him, let his name be holy. And let the kingdom come, but in the meantime feed us, and let’s have a social revolution to cancel debts. And, don’t let us be tried by worry or toil, or maybe keep us away from evil. The theme of one of these sentences is not truly related to any of the other sentences. Maybe that’s normal for a prayer; but the Hail Mary, and the Creed hold together as units more effectively, I think. There is probably no significance to this, but I suspect it bears being noticed. One could say that it starts in flattery (holy be…thy kingdom/thy will) and ends in the request. Do ut des is the Latin phrase to describe the formulaic construction of most religious veneration: I give, so you give. So maybe this falls into standard parameters after all.

Other than that, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve been repeating these words since I was very small, so it’s difficult to look at them with fresh eyes, or hear them with fresh ears. Mostly it seems to be what it is; only the last sentence raises any doubts. To be honest, for 95% of what we’ve read, there hasn’t really been a pressing need to be all that fussy about the translation; most of the time, the meaning is reasonably clear. However, in the last sentence, temptation vs. trial, hardship vs. evil, those are meaningful decisions that have to be made.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 8, 2015, in gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Q and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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