The Lord’s Prayer and Early Christian Eschatology

This post is based on a post I did at By Common Consent last year. I’ve reworked it a bit because I like the subject and I present it to you here.

Reading the New Testament

First, a cautionary note. All the New Testament literature we have is written from a post-resurrectional perspective. This is completely independent of whether one believes in the resurrection of Jesus or not. Thus, any discussion of that literature must take place within that contextual background, and in particular, that applies to the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, how Jesus may have originally spoken the prayer, what it may have meant to him, or to the disciples at that time, is largely beyond the scope of what we can do from these texts–the end of the Gospel colors the whole narrative and that can be important in subtle ways.[1] One might argue that LDS texts like section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants convey some original intent or meaning of Jesus’ words but I’m not at all sure this is the case.

New Testament Driven in Part by Expectation of the End Times

So, to begin, recall that in the New Testament, even Jesus himself displays a very strong expectation that the Messiah (Himself) will come back and it’s going to happen soon–within people’s lifetimes–and that he will be the *Jewish* Messiah at that point—establishing a kingdom from the Nile to Euphrates—crushing the enemies of Israel—bringing peace, triumph, and prosperity. In other words, it is important to remember, that Jesus was

Rembrandt's Matthew and the Angel. (Image: Wikipedia) Matthew the Apostle and Matthew the Evangelist (writer of the Gospel) are not the same person.

Rembrandt’s Matthew and the Angel. (Image: Wikipedia) Matthew the Apostle and Matthew the Evangelist (writer of the Gospel) are not considered to be the same person.

a Jew of the first third of the first century and despite his inspiration and status, carried with him the thought of the times such as he encountered it (and you can see this again in Acts–but that’s another post). I think this has to define much of what we read in the New Testament—at least, this is my belief–and it was a topic of conversation among early Christians.

Eschatology in Early Christian Prayers

There seems to be a strong eschatological expectation (Last Times are Near) in early Christian prayers, for example the Aramaic prayer, Maranatha or ma-ran-a-thaw [2], “Come Lord Jesus.” The idea here is Come as Lord (think of the Parley Pratt hymn, “Jesus Once of Humble Birth”–it wonderfully illustrates the thought of early Jewish Christians and how they split Messianic thought and therefore the coherent nature of Mormon ideas about the Parousia [Second Coming of Christ]). [Hurry] Come back and be the Lord.[3] It’s preserved in Aramaic in the first Christian Greek texts (60-150AD), and we may guess, in the earliest church (30 (33)-50AD).

There exist some few prayers in Jesus’ native tongue–the Abba address (Rom. 8:17)–and the prayer of Jesus on the cross–Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani. In that prayer it’s interesting that it’s the only time Jesus addresses God as God–there is that awful distance. These three prayers from Aramaic transliterated into Greek in the New Testament, which probably means that Greek speakers were taught at least some Aramaic prayer forms and they were evidently taught that prayer, ma ran a thaw: come (as) Lord, Jesus.

We don’t seem to pray this way now (unless we feel anxious or perhaps cornered–Missouri–manifesto–gay marriage–I’ve heard stories of people cashing out 401k-s now–the time must be near–and we seem to get more speech about a darkening world) and that is a part of the discussion here as well as in part II.[4]

The Lord’s Prayer as a Plea in Reference to the Nearness of the End of the World

Back to the Lord’s Prayer. Some scholars think that the Lord’s Prayer was originally very eschatological, that is, it was originally a prayer that strongly referenced the last times, addressing the idea that Jesus would return soon. It was a kind of preparatory prayer. We hear the Prayer repeated all the time in the Mathean form–there was a certain irony about hearing it in Downton Abbey (end of season 2 if you’re interested). There is a Lucan form (Luke 11), which is not the same, but the number of people who could recite Luke’s version is probably very small. Matthew’s version triumphs and I imagine that if Mormons had expanded weekly liturgy from it’s Protestant origins, this might have become a part of it. It is, after all, one of the more beautiful things in scripture.[5]

Structure of the Prayer. The Six Pleas to God: Three about God, Three about Humanity.

In the Mathean form, there is a title or opening address, and then six pleas. The title in the Mathean form is Our Father who art in Heaven. The Lucan form is just “Father” and most scholars believe that this was an earlier form, but Matthew writes for (with) a relatively established community with Jewish sensibilities and for them it would be unusual to address God simply as Father, Abba, without some other qualification (most scholars agree that Matthew reflects a post-temple​ [after 70AD] debate between Jewish leaders of the [a] synagogue and a group of Christians–yet seen as observant Jews). Just “Father” would seem abrupt among Jews, the “Our Father who art in Heaven” version feels more appropriate. So the Mathean form is probably more reverential and has developed in Matthew’s community so that people didn’t find it too foreign if you will. But basically, Jesus calls upon the Father. Our normal translation follows with “hollowed be thy name”–may your name be hallowed or blessed, on earth as it is in Heaven.[6]

(Then) may thy (your) kingdom come to be, and may your will be done–be accomplished, be entrained, happen–on earth as it is in heaven (whenever I see this now, I always think of Sam Brown’s book: and how Mormons lived/thought to reverse this in a way). There is some thought that “on earth as it is in heaven” may be a later version of “on earth and in heaven.” The passive voice is a normal Jewish technique for getting around constantly mentioning God. So the idea is this: God, make your name hallowed. God, bring your kingdom about (now). God, make your will done on earth, as it is done in the precincts of heaven. It’s a prayer based on asking God to accomplish vital acts, acts the community believes are in the cards, so to speak. The passive is a way of saying “may you do this” without using the name, God, and these three different things all ask for God’s action, now. It’s more or less as in the Old Testament Prophets, roughly, “we praise the LORD’s name now, oh Israel, and the LORD in the last days will make His name known to the whole world, and make His name sanctified by everyone.” He’ll bring his kingdom, bring his will to pass in the end. Thus, the first three petitions are ways of seeking God’s definite action in the world, and there is an obvious eschatological tinge to it—let it be done now (early Christian prayers were in fact Jewish prayers, but again, not going there).

The Last Three Requests and the Human Condition

Then, there are three “responses”[7], that is, three more petitions that deal with the human portion if you will, while God does his part in the first three. First is the bread request: I will come back to that–it is more complicated for the thesis. Instead, consider the trespass/debt petition.

Trespass-Matthew 25

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or debts. It’s written debts in Luke. Debts is more Jewish (and perhaps Mormon, and Book of Mormon) in the sense that for trespass, anyone who does evil to another trespasses against them, but they may not owe them a debt precisely. But if you’re a part of God’s covenant people you have committed yourself to behave properly toward a fellow member of the community, a fellow Israelite (something that has a very keen meaning for Mormons by the way–and especially early Mormons) it’s a debt you owe. If you act in hostility toward another member of the community, you’re not only trespassing, you’re violating your covenant. This is clearly reminiscent of the baptism of Alma, and that may be seen as playing to Old Testament themes—and for that matter, the LDS temple liturgy which has so many links to the past, the future, and even the heavenly, kingdom of Israel.

Christ said that in the last judgment (Matt. 25) things will be decided on the basis of “what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” And so this is very much in the sense of Jesus: that we’ll be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others.

Nature of the Gospels as it Applies to the Prayer

Chronology in the Gospels is rather fluid, and Matthew was composed as gathered traditions toward the end of the first century (and pastorally redacted like all the Gospels). It is not strange that one portion of this Gospel might reference another irrespective of chronology, and in fact the four canonical Gospels do place events in different spots, probably according to purpose (for example, “cleansing the temple”). Harmonization can be a terrible mistake with these texts, and of course, it is possible, even probable, that Jesus announced the same idea more than once, or even in a different order than the purposely laid out text of any particular Gospel we have in view.[8]

Temptation and Eschatological Happenings

“And lead us not into temptation”—actually the idea is, with some likelihood at least, don’t lead us into the [center of?] the trial. The Greek word here is often the word that is used for the trial of the last times (so I’m told), the final times that are supposed to be devastating times–this is the time when conservative Jews look for the Messiah: how bad must it be for the Messiah to return?–it’s so bad that it’s called “the birth pains of the Messiah.” The question is, would anyone be preserved and have faith through such a devastating thing—the prayer is: preserve us through that great test of the last times (nearly upon us is the idea), and deliver us from the evil ONE. Not from evil in general, but the evil one (to be fair, scholarship is divided here, but I think there is merit to this position–and for my thesis to come). So, the last times are going to be terribly troubled times–don’t dump us into the trial–deliver us from the evil one–forgive us because it is a looming–almost immediate–time of judgment–and forgive us in the end according to the principle Christ has given (Matt. 25). The very early concept of Mormon Zion is important here, but I’ll save that for part II. (I should note here that the last part, “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen” is considered to be a later addition to the text, hence I don’t mention it here–but not because it’s not interesting.)

Daily or SuperSubstantial Bread? Uniqueness of the Prayer.

Now to the bread. This may offer the most interesting bit with regard to the eschaton and the Lord’s Prayer. It may seem, to begin with, that it is difficult to fit the plea about bread into a last times orientation for the prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Greek word that is typically translated as “daily” at this point occurs just once in the whole available history of the Greek language. In all of the extant plays, histories, etc., only once does this word occur, epiousious (epee–ooo–see–us) and that single time is in the Lord’s Prayer (or in linguistic discussions of it). And since it doesn’t occur anywhere else in Greek, there’s no context to tell us what it means–we don’t know. If you break it up, EPI is “on” or “upon,” “super,” (a Greek preposition) and OUSIOS is related to OUSIA: nature, substance. If you know the debate over Christology in terms of OUSIA–Mormons tend to encounter this sometimes as missionaries, or when reading the missionary library — Nicea, Trinitarian theology and so forth, then you’ve heard of OUSIA.[9]

Christological debates weren’t settled forever by Nicea- “Scholaticism was also in its day regarded as the compendium of all heresies. For there was no part of patristic tradition that it did not modify and disfigure in the endeavour to squeeze the whole into the categories of the formerly anathemized Aristotle.” -George Tyrell (Image: Wikipedia)

OUSIA–it’s relevant to the question: is there more than one substance among the Trinity? Do Father, Son, and Holy Ghost partake of the same “nature”? That was part of the Christological debate and it was important, given the cosmology of the time, and the resulting tradition without that early context makes it a bit strange to us now. In any case, EPIOUSIOS–upon substance, upon nature, super-nature, super-substance–what does it mean? There is a somewhat similar Greek word that supports “daily” on the principle that if you need it for your substance, you need it often, daily, and that’s what guided some early believers apparently, and it appears in old Latin–that is, early on it was translated as “daily.” They were guessing, apparently by logical analogy, that it had something to do with substance as support, say. So you probably need it all the time, and you get the Latin translation for it, QUOTIDIANIS, which means “daily.” But other Latin translations (for example, the Vulgate –Jerome) took it literally. Hence you get this really interesting word in the Jerome’s translation, “supersubstantialem.”[10] And there were groups of people who prayed for “supersubstantial bread.”[11] Precisely what “supersubstantial bread” might be is somewhat

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. (Image: Wikipedia)

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. (Image: Wikipedia)

mysterious but it’s a very literal translation and in the Catharian heresy much later, that use came back and that was one of the heretical tests, that they prayed for this “supersubstantial bread.” One might imagine that Cathar thought, (gnostic?) may see this as important perhaps. Swendenborg called this “the bread of the angels,” and the Manicheans had this–but all this is really beyond my pay grade.[12]

Jerome (ca. 340-420) evidently had an Aramaic Gospel[13], and he knew there were two different Latin translations of the text (“daily,” and “super substantial”) but in this Aramaic Gospel the prayer reads, “tomorrow’s” bread. That is in fact a Jewish expression (see for example, Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew). The manna fell six days a week. On Friday you collected not only today’s bread but tomorrow’s bread, so it meant the bread of the Sabbath. Some early Christian writers believed that this meant praying for the bread of the last times, that is, the bread of the heavenly feast (Matt 25 again?—this is mentioned in various ways in Mormon scripture, for example in D&C 27) and so in this light we may style all of the petitions in the Mathean Lord’s Prayer as being concerned with the eschaton (end times).

Summary and Pastoral Evolution of Meaning. The Interpretation of Scripture Through Time.

Thus, if God brings about his will, brings judgment, makes his name holy, then we ask for a share in the heavenly feast (Sabbath bread), we ask to be judged mercifully in the end, according to the mercy we show others, not to be put to the trial of the last times, but be delivered from the evil one at the end.[14]

In sum: the early context of the Lord’s prayer may have been very strongly attached to the eschaton.[15] Later, the prayer came to be read in a different way—no doubt from important pastoral motivations—and that’s very Nephite if you will—when the expectation of the last times grew less apparent. The bread became daily, the temptation became ordinary temptations of life, and it became forgiveness of sins all the time–every day–not just at the final judgment.

In the next part of this thing, unwritten as yet I’m afraid, there is a new Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll discuss that a little, along with some Mormon eschatology, and our periodic “the end is near” speech, and what that may mean.

[1] A useful analogy for Latter-day Saints might be this. Think of the so-called “Manuscript History of the Church” composed essentially between 1842 and 1856 or so. It is written from a faith perspective, one that sees Joseph Smith’s work as divine, and is generally silent about Joseph’s human traits and his private life to a large extent (there is no polygamy in evidence for example). Imagine that this was really all we had to go on in terms of events of early Mormonism, nothing else from that period survived and no other eyewitness material ever surfaced, save perhaps extremely meager general information from indifferent distant cultures. Joseph had relatively little to do with its composition, and he wrote none of it himself. A work like Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling could not exist in that world. There would be no church sponsored essays regarding various things like polygamy and Joseph Smith. What would exist would be discussions of that text, and discussions of discussions of that text, various hermeneutics applied to it and in general the historical landscape would be far different, almost impossible to imagine.

[2] 1 Cor. 16:22. The text of the (usually counted as seven authentic) letters in the Pauline corpus came before the Gospels in terms of composition.

[3] This time–not the sacrificial offering but the triumphant bringer of Israel’s glory.

[4] On Paul and the Abba prayer see for example, James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 193.

[5] Byron Stuhlman, who was rector as Grace Episcopal Church in Waterville, New York at the time, gave a nice summary of the Prayer in Christian worship: “The Lord’s Prayer in Worship,” Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 78-83. And it’s online.

[6] It’s hard to determine Luke’s audience, he doesn’t seem to fight issues like Matthew, or Mark, in some ways. On Matthew’s audience, see Edwin Keith Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 143. Broadhead styles the controversy as between Pharisees and followers of Jesus. But the dominance and later even existence of a group(s) that can be called Pharisees seems to be in question.

[7] And probably, in early Christian congregations, there were prayers/hymns (little difference) that were dialogic, like the shepards-angels counterpoint announcing the birth (peace on earth/peace in heaven). What was church like in the immediate years after Jesus? Probably something like this: you celebrated Sabbath (because you were likely a faithful Jew) and after sundown, or maybe the next day, you went to a fellow believer’s house to break bread and talk of the Lord and the stories about him maybe. Perhaps baptisms were done, or other liturgy, like prayers and such. You still went to the temple, you didn’t discount the temple priesthood. You lived the law. The struggle to separate Judaism and Christianity was a very long one, and no one figured it out easily, it just wasn’t obvious. How could you possibly believe in Jesus without believing in Abraham and Moses? And how could you believe in them without circumcision, and sacrifice, etc.? (Even Mormons have had their issues here.) You get the picture. By 200AD, Jews and Christians had developed their dividing traditions: Mishnah for Jews, Gospel for Christians, sort of. That of course was not the end or even the middle of it. On Jewish and Christian worship gatherings, see Valeriy Alikin, Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development, and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries (Brill, 2009), 30-78.

[8] The underlying issue is the nature of revelation, inspiration, and scripture. I’m going to offer some thoughts on this at some point, perhaps in part II of this post, or in an intervening one. It’s an important matter.

[9] By the way, 3 Nephi 13 doesn’t mention the bread at all! This is interesting, and may even support what’s going on here, but tangential again. One thing I think it does NOT tell us: that the bread text was not present in the archetypal Mathean Gospel text (whatever that may mean).

[10] 6:11 panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie. Origen does a bit about this. See Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers (Paulist, 1954), 94-98. Other opinions abound. See for example Westerfield, Studia Liturgia 35 (2005): 208-10.

[11] Cf. “Gospel of the Nazareans.” Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia, 1982), 97-102. The Nazareans were, according to Jerome and Augustine, Jewish Christians who still tried to observe the Law. Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus, chap. 7.

[12] Anne Bradford Townsend, “The Cathars of Languedoc as Heretics: From the Perspectives of Five Contemporary Scholars,” (Ph.D. diss. Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007), 169-71. Also, Brown, Introduction (note 14 below). On Swedenborg, see his Apocalypse Revealed vol. 1, page 2.

[13] Helmut Koster, Introduction to New Testament, vol. 2 (Fortress, 1983), 61, 87. Also, see Jerome’s commentary (in the references in the following note for example).

[14] Raymond E. Brown, “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,Theological Studies, 22 (1961), 175-208. Koster, 2:70, 86. Broadhead, 140, note 42. Much of what I’m talking about here is based on my appreciation of Brown’s thought here and his later Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor/Doubleday, 1998), a very fine book and accessible to beginners–I think a highly useful book for Latter-day Saints interested in the New Testament. Brown’s untimely death was unfortunate.

[15] Scholarship on the origin of the prayer and its relation to Matthew’s Gospel is not settled. For a reasonably current discussion beyond the scope of my feeble attempt, see Broadhead, and my guess is that those people over at FPR have said something cogent.


4 Responses to The Lord’s Prayer and Early Christian Eschatology

  1. ricke says:

    Very interesting analysis. Thanks. I look forward to the new version of the prayer, so don’t wait too long to write part 2. BTW, I also appreciate Fr. Brown’s cogent insights.

    • WVS says:

      Love Brown, N. T. Wright, and so on and so forth.

      • ricke says:

        Not on topic, I know, but for interesting and unique perspectives on Jesus and the early Christians, I think it’s hard to beat James Tabor. His strength is as a professor of NT archaeology at UNC and he uses it to make an interesting case for the identity of a mortal father for Jesus, the Christian dynasty of descendants of Mary, the heresy of Paul, and many other novel takes on the NT. He has several books in print, but most of his material can also be found scattered around his blog at Reading Tabor never leaves me bored.

  2. WVS says:

    Agreed. Tabor’s work on the early history of Christianity is fascinating.

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