The Lord’s Prayer – a second look

Just this past Sunday the gospel was from Luke 11:1-13, which notably includes the Lukan version of the prayer so very familiar to all Christians:  the “Our Father” or also known as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Over the course of the week I wrote about the reading as a whole with the first installment on a July 18th posting. A few days later I got to the verses that constitute the prayer itself. Here is one paragraph of that later post:

The phrase “daily bread” – at least the “daily” part – presents a unique problem for the translators (see the note on v.3 below). That being as it may, whatever Aramaic or other original there may have been, Luke’s “daily” is generally accepted by the Christian churches throughout the ages and Luke’s own language tells us that we are to pray “each day” – today, tomorrow and the day after.

I did not post the referenced note, but it reads, in part, “the rare Greek word epiousios (daily) occurs in the New Testament only here and in Matthew 6:11.” I had always meant to come back to epiousios and why it was used in just these two places in the New Testament and nowhere else. There are perfectly good words for “daily” that Matthew and Luke employ in other places: hemeran. It begs the question as to why they chose a different word. In contemporary Greek the word epiousios…isn’t used. In fact it is not known to be a word in the lexicon of that day or any day. Many scholars and commentators refer to it as “the mysterious epiousios.” If it is a linguistic mystery then it is time for research.

My first stop on a search was a quick check of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And here is what it had to say:

2837 “Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day.

Clearly the literal translation is a show stopper:  “Give us this day our super-essential bread.” Any Catholic will hear that and immediately go to the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the source and summit of the Faith – the super-essential bread.

At one level the Catechism seems fairly casual about what one might consider a “drop the mic” moment. What was startling to me is that it turns out epiousios  has its own history of scholars and linguists having noticed the mysterious epiousios and commenting upon the possibilities and implications.

The word’s translation to “daily” relies upon the interpretation of epi– as “for” and ousia as meaning something to the effect of “for the being” with an implicit context of the current day. There is a whole history of how this phrase has been understood and translated, but clearly “daily” has a long legacy in the Western tradition of translation.

The prefix epi- has a whole range of uses and can be translated as “to,” “upon,” “next to,” “after,” “in addition,” “for,” “etc,” and sometimes just as an intensive. The word ousia -has a more narrow definition: substance or essence. It is this later use as an intensive that provide a literal translation as “Give us this day our super-substantial bread.” This was a translation that found support by a majority of early Christian scholars, including Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyprian of Carthage, John Cassian, and other early Church fathers, as well as by the Council of Trent.  Other Church fathers preferred “daily” such as Origen and John Chrysostom. As a point of interest Martin Luther originally kept the interpretation as “supersubstantial” but retranslated it as “daily” later in life.

What about St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible into what we know as the Latin Vulgate? He seems to have made a Solomon-like decision translating epiousios as “supersubstantial” in Matthew but as “daily” (quotidianum in Latin) in Luke.

It is not a new mystery – but it was news to me….and maybe for you. There are arguments to be made, but just maybe the temporal, qualitative and literal understandings are all true and at the same time. After all, Catholicism is not an “either or” understanding, but almost always a both-and perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.