In the breviary we are currently reading St Cyprian’s commentary on the Lord’s prayer. It is a prayer shared by and prized by all Christians. Few if any have not committed to memory.
Yet within the Lord’s prayer is a mysterious word that both Greek and Biblical scholars have little agreement over or even a clear understanding of in terms of its precise meaning. Most Christians who do not read Greek are unaware of the difficulties and debate surrounding the word. They simply accept that the most common English translation of the Our Father as undisputed. To them the problem is largely unknown.
The mysterious word occurs right in the middle of the prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion) which is rendered most usually as “give us this day our daily bread.”
The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that the word seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek and that no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers who spoke and wrote Greek as their mother-tongue were unaware of its exact meaning. It occurs no where else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father in Luke 11:3). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, whether Christian or Pagan. The early Church Father Origen, a most learned and well read man, thought that Matthew and Luke, or the early Church had “made up” or coined the term.
So, frankly, we are at a loss as to the exact and original meaning of this word! It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think of it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.
Now, to be sure, over the centuries there have been many theories and positions as to what this word is getting at. Let’s look at a few.
- Grammatical Analysis- The Greek word seems to be a compound word from epi+ousios. Now epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Hence, to put these words together we have something amounting to supersubstantial, or super-essential.
- The Eucharist – Some of the Greek and Latin Fathers thought is clearly referred to the Eucharist and surely not to ordinary food or bread. Origien for example cites how Jesus rebuked the people in John 6 for seeking bread that perishes rather than the Bread which endures unto eternal life which is Jesus’ flesh and which he will give us. (cf Origen On Prayer 27.2) St. Cyprian too, while admitting that “bread” can be understood simply, goes on to advance that the bread referred to here is more certainly Christ himself in the Eucharist (cf. Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, 18).
- Ordinary and daily bread – St. John Chrysostom however favors a notion that the bread for which we pray is only “bread for today: Just enough for one day….Here Jesus condescends to the infirmity of our nature….[which] does not permit you to go without food….I require necessary food not a complete freedom from natural necessities….It is not for wastefulness or extravagant clothing that we pray, but only for bread and only for bread on a daily basis so as not to worry about tomorrow (Gospel of Matthew Homily 19.5)
- Bread for tomorrow – St. Jerome says, The word used by the Hebrews to denote supersubstantial bread is maar. I found that it means “for tomorrow” so that the meaning here is “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” that is, for the future (Commentary on Matthew 1.6.11). Many modern scholars favor this understanding as well.
- Supernatural bread – But St. Jerome also says in the same place: We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures (ibid). In this sense he also seems to see it linked to the Eucharist. When he translated the text into Latin as the Pope had asked him to do he rendered it rather literally: panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie (give us today our supersubstantial bread). If you look up the text of Matthew 6:11 in the Douay Rheims Bible you will see the word “supersubstantial” since that English text renders the Vulgate Latin quite literally.
- Every good thing necessary for subsistence – The Catechism of the Catholic Church adopts an inclusive approach: 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. (CCC # 2837) As such the Catechism attempts no resolution to the problem but simply indicates that several interpretations are possible and non-exclusive to one another.
So when we have a Greek word that is used no where else and when such important and determinative Fathers struggle to understand it and show forth rather significant disagreement, we are surely left at a loss. It seems clear that we have something of a mystery.
Reverencing the Mystery – But perhaps the Lord intended that we should ponder this text and see a kind of multiple meaning. Surely it is right that we should pray for our worldly food. Likewise we should pray for all that is needed for subsistence, whether just for today or for tomorrow as well. And surely we should ask for the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist which is the necessary Bread that draws us to eternal life and which (Who) is over and above all earthly substances.
So there it is, the hidden and mysterious word in the middle of the Our Father. My own preference is to see that “epiousion” (supersubstantial) is a reference to the Eucharist. Jesus who super-abounds in all we could ask or want, said, “I am the Bread of life.” He is surely, in his Eucharistic presence, our Bread which super abounds.
Most modern translations have settled on the word “daily.” For the record, the Latin Liturgy also uses the word daily (quotidianum). But in truth no one word can capture what is said here. The Lord has left us a mystery to ponder. I know many of you who read here are learned in Greek, Latin, the Fathers, and scripture scholarship and I am interested in your thoughts. This article is incomplete and has not covered every possible facet of the argument. I leave that you, all who wish to comment.