Pondering the Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer No One Can Agree how to Translate

062013In 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

11 Replies to “Pondering the Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer No One Can Agree how to Translate”

  1. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God”

    This comes from Matthew 4:4. I would understand that this is the “daily bread”…and that it is eaten mystically in our ceaseless prayer to Christ in saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and other such similar ceaseless prayers. St. Paul say to pray without ceasing and Christ says to “watch always” and in doing so we are fed the “daily bread”.

    I would think also that it could be understood simply as daily sustenance as St. John Chrysostom says but, also I could see how the Fathers of the Church would apply a spiritual application to this and such as what I quoted above. I don’t see that as a direct connect with the Body and Blood of Christ (but I don’t see anything wrong with referencing the “daily bread” as referring to the Eucharist; but most people don’t eat the Body and Blood of Christ everyday but many however will say the Lord’s prayer several times a day). I believe there is a connection here also with reading the scriptures as that provides “daily bread” for the one reading the scriptures in faith.

    Origen fell away from the truth by the way. Although many will read his writings in the Orthodox Church or throughout the Christian world today ,he was simply cut off (anathema) -his teaching being heretical. I say this because he’s labeled above as an “early Church Father”.

    1. “I say this because he’s labeled above as an “early Church Father”.”

      The fact that Origen was declared anathema by Church councils in the sixth century does not mean he cannot and should not carry the title “Church Father”. It also does not mean that we should completely ignore his works.

      The fact that much of what Origen said on such topics as salvation, Christology and grace is unorthodox does not diminish the fact that he was a brilliant and highly influential third century theologian – one of the most influential Christians of his time. That is why he is recognized as a Church Father and always will be.

  2. Prayer can be be understood as super-substantial bread. The Our Father is super-substantial bread, along with all the other stuff, already mentioned. Probably one of the interpretations already mentioned says that. Isaiah 26: 13 “. . . only in thee let us remember thy name.”

  3. By his own words, I defend Origen here, as he did the church and Christianity…..and he’s a personal favorite of mine as well!

    Origen, or more fully Origen Adamantius “[From Christiannet: “This third century “religious fanatic” gave up his job, slept on the floor, ate no meat, drank no wine, fasted twice a week, owned no shoes, and reportedly castrated himself for the faith. He was also the most prolific scholar of his age (with hundreds of works to his credit), a first-rate Christian philosopher, and a profound student of the Bible. .

    Child prodigy Origen Adamantius (“man of steel”) was born near Alexandria about A.D. 185. The oldest of seven children in a Christian home, he grew up learning the Bible and the meaning of commitment. In 202 when his father, Leonidas, was beheaded for his Christian beliefs, Origen wanted to die as a martyr, too. But his mother prevented him from even leaving the house—by hiding his clothes.

    To support his family, the 18-year-old Origen opened a grammar school, copied texts, and instructed catechumens (those seeking to become members of the church). He himself studied under the pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas in order to better defend his faith against pagan arguments. When a rich convert supplied him with secretaries, he began to write.

    Origen worked for 20 years on his Hexapla, a massive work of Old Testament analysis written to answer Jewish and Gnostic critics of Christianity. An examination of Biblical texts, it had six parallel columns: one in Hebrew, and the other five in various Greek translations, including one he found at Jericho in a jar. It became an important step in the development of the Christian canon and scriptural translation, but unfortunately it was destroyed. So massive was it that scholars doubt anyone ever copied it entirely.

    This first Bible scholar analyzed the Scriptures on three levels: the literal, the moral, and the allegorical. As he put it, “For just as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so in the same way does the Scripture.” Origen, in fact, preferred the allegorical not only because it allowed for more spiritual interpretations, but many passages he found impossible to read literally: “Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day … existed without the sun and moon and stars?” In any event, Origen’s method of interpretation became the standard in the Middle Ages. Origen’s main work, De Principiis (On First Principles), was the first systematic exposition of Christian theology ever written. In it he created a Christian philosophy, synthesizing Greek technique and biblical assumptions. Add to these massive works his homilies and commentaries, and it’s clear why he was reputed to have kept seven secretaries busy and caused Jerome (c.354–420) to say in frustrated admiration, “Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?”

    Origen has always been controversial. His reported self-mutilation, in response to Matthew 19:12 (“… there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven….”) was condemned as a drastic misinterpretation of the text. In Palestine he preached without being ordained and was so condemned by his bishop, Demetrius. When on a second trip, he was ordained by the same bishops who had invited him to speak the first time, Demetrius sent him into exile.

    While some of his writings are thought to have been hypothetical, Origen did teach that all spirits were created equal, existed before birth, and then fell from grace. Furthermore, “those rational beings who sinned and on account fell from the state in which they were, in proportion to their particular sins, were enslaved in bodies as punishment”—some demons, some men, and some angels. He also believed that all spirits, even Satan, could be saved. “The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all,” he wrote.
    Most notably, however, Origen described the Trinity as a hierarchy, not as an equality of Father, Son, and Spirit. And though he attacked Gnostic beliefs, like them, he rejected the goodness of material creation.

    Three centuries after his death, the Council of Constantinople (553) pronounced him a heretic: “Whoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and the wicked will not be eternal … let him be anathema.”
    Some contend that Origen was merely trying to frame the faith in the ideas of his day; still his works were suppressed following his condemnation, so modern judgment is impossible.

    Despite such condemnation, Origen said, “I want to be a man of the church … to be called … of Christ.” His Contra Celsum, in fact, is one of the finest defenses of Christianity produced in the early church. Answering the charge that Christians, by refusing military service, fail the test of good citizenship, he wrote, “We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting.”

    The authorities, however, were not convinced: in 250 the emperor Decius had Origen imprisoned and tortured. He was deliberately kept alive in the hope that he would renounce his faith. But Decius died first and Origen went free. His health broken, Origen died shortly after his release.

    Origen’s views on the ultimate salvation of all beings and other topics eventually caused him to be labeled a heretic, yet his teachings were highly influential and today he is regarded as one of the most important early theologians.

  4. Interesting article. I have never heard this mystery word pointed out before. Thanks.

    I would just like to note a further observation about the two parts of this word: epi+ousios.

    OUSIUS can also mean ‘Being’. Both Scriptural writings and Early Church doctrine confirm this.

    A Scriptural example is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel where he uses the word PAROUSIA. This translates ‘With (PARA) Being (OUSIA)’ or ‘coming’. Christ’s Coming (or With-Being) in Glory.

    An Early Church example of OUSIUS is remarkably found at Nicea where Arianism was struck down. The Trinitarian Doctrine was hence born in the Greek word: HOMOUSIUS, or ‘One in Being’. The Three Persons of God are One-in-Being, not separate.

    This is interesting because that One Being consummates Spirit and Flesh. So, OUSIUS can certainly be Spirit, it can be Physical, and it can be both at the same time and place.

    EPI, meaning ‘over’, ‘above’, or ‘beyond’ combined with its conjunctive OUSIUS (‘Being’), seems to make the meaning of the word in its Daily Bread context a fulfillment of Christ’s High and Mighty declarations and promise:
    – Salvation (Christ is the only Way to God);
    – Gospel (I am the Word);
    – Comforter (sending of the Holy Ghost);
    – Reigning at the Right Hand of God (Acts 2).

    These are all examples (both physical and spiritual) of ‘Above-Being’ or EPIOUSIUS.

    Blessings … In Christ Jesus.

  5. Nobody has linked to the manna from Heaven in the desert which was gathered daily and was a prefiguring of the feeding of the multitudes and of course the Eucharist.

    1. Very good point! For more on this as well as the meaning of the word, epiousius, listen the the LightHouse Catholic media CD’s: JESUS AND THE JEWISH ROOTS OF THE EUCHARIST by Dr Brant Pitre, as well
      as THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST by Dr. Scott Hahn.

  6. I think epiousion is an onomatopoeia for the Word of God. You can hear it in the sound of silence.

  7. Perhaps “epiousion” is the full and insubstantial prescence of God; which may make it, more appropriately, “Epiousion”
    God, presumably as The Father (I dare assume here for specuative sake) has appeared to some, such as Adam, Eve, Moses, others – once Moses only saw His back and not His face.
    Christ was God in human aspect. Were both of them both super-substantial and substantial, perhaps in ways which we do not understand?
    The Third Divine Person seems portrayed as having only a super-substantial prescence. Difficult to express for One who is not an aspect of but, a Divine Person who is the full presence of God. In Luke 11, right after the introduction of the “Our Father” we are told about asking for The Holy Spirit. Is this a part of the instruction of the “Our Father”? A request which is to be repeated daily and, when understood as such, has more (metaphorical?) substance? So many questions here but, I did comment that it was speculative and, may hope that it’s not just more data in a way that could lead to a sort of “tail chasing” distraction.
    I’ll presume to use this in mention another aspect of The Trinity which came to me a few days ago. Sometimes The Trinity is illustrated as a triangle, which is a shape that does not do what the construction industry calls “racking” or, does not “rack”
    In this terminology the reference is to a square (and incompleter) framework, such as a wall section made up of verticle “studs” and horizontal “plates” This is at its strongest when the verticles are “plumb” or fully upright, when the horizontal are fully level and the angles between studs are 90 degrees – or a quarter measure out of the roundness (360 degrees) Could be interesting to note 2 Kings 21:13 Isaiah 28:17 Isaiah 34:11 Amos 7:1-8 where up-rightness seems to be stressed.
    If the structure is pushed sideways (in the direction which the horizontal plates run) then the plates will move to the side, while remaining roughly level and the studs will lean out of plumb as the 90 degree angles will become greater than 90 in two opposite corners and lesser than the 90 in the other two opposite corners. This is commonly called “racking” and is contrary to proper building procedure.
    This tendency to rack can be prevented by installing at least one “sway brace” which runs from one, or more stud(s) to one of the plates; thereby forming a triangle in one of the corners. In a large wall several sway braces may be temporarily installed.
    Once exterior and/or interior sheathing is partly, but well, applied the structural shape becomes locked in and, as many potential triangles exist in the sheathing, the triangle forming sway braces can be removed in order to complete the act of sheathing. Both the right angle sway brace and the equilateral triangle (used to illustrate The Trinity) offer support to help prevent failure in the incomplete wall or, in imperfect people. Interesting co-relation between incomplete and imperfect exists.
    A sway brace can let go, under severe load, and fail to give support but, not because the shape was inadequate but, because the sub-stantial (lesser than…) pieces of material, of which the brace was made failed.
    God, Who is complete and perfect in The Trinity and, what we can only perceive as parts of, The Trinity is complete and perfect and will never fail us.

    1. We say in the Creed, God and the Son, the Holy Spirit, are *consubstantial* in the new translation. Care to comment regarding your analogy?

  8. I live in the country & this morning prayed the Lord’s Prayer facing across a broad valley almost empty of structures but full of trees, birds & secretive mammals – raccoons, deer, mice, chipmunks. It seems to me one of the meanings is the whole world of life that we breath in and co- exist with.

    One of the things that surprised me when I moved out here is that the animals do not disregard us. They pay attention to us, even our habits (the deer come out more after one of us drives out away from the farm; chipmunks hide when they are seen; they don’t run away & they come back out when we are again out of sight).

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