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A Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer

December 13, 2017

Pope Francis recently made news by indicating a preference for translating the phrase “lead us not into temptation” as “do not let us fall into temptation.” He did not say that the English rendering should be changed, only that He was supportive of a recent similar change made to the French translation. I have written on that issue here, but in this post I would like to explore another difficult element in the Our Father.

Within the Lord’s prayer is a mysterious word about which scholars (Greek and biblical) disagree. They don’t seem to have a common understanding of its precise meaning.  Most Christians who do not read Greek are unaware of the difficulties and debate surrounding the word; they simply accept the most common English translation of the Our Father as undisputed.

The mysterious word occurs as part of a phrase in the middle of the Lord’s prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion). This phrase is typically rendered “give us this day our daily bread.”

The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that it seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek; no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers, whose mother tongue was Greek, were unaware of its exact meaning. It occurs nowhere else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father (Luke 11:3)). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, Christian or Pagan. The early Church writer 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, original meaning of this word! It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think about it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.

To be sure, over the centuries there have been many hypotheses as to its meaning.

  1. Supersubstantial – The Greek word seems to be a compound word from epi+ousios. Epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Putting these words together gives us something amounting to supersubstantial, or “super-essential.”
  2. The Eucharist – Some of the Greek and Latin Fathers thought it clearly referred to the Eucharist and surely not to ordinary food or bread. Origen, for example, cited how Jesus rebuked the people in John 6 for seeking bread that perishes rather than the Bread that endures unto eternal life, which is Jesus’ flesh and which He will give us (cf Origen On Prayer 27.2). St. Cyprian, while admitting that “bread” can be understood simply, advanced the notion 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, favored the idea 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 said, 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 – However, in the same commentary St. Jerome also wrote, We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures (ibid). In this sense, Jerome 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,” as in that Bible the Vulgate Latin is rendered into English 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). The Catechism thus attempts no resolution to the problem but simply indicates that several interpretations are possible and do not necessarily exclude one another.

Having a Greek word that is used nowhere else and having no agreement from the Fathers as to its meaning, we are surely left at a loss. It seems clear that we have something of a mystery.

Reverencing the Mystery – Perhaps the Lord intended that we should ponder this text and see multiple meanings. 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 mysterious word in the middle of the Our Father. My own preference is to see that “epiousion” (supersubstantial) as a reference to the Eucharist. Jesus, who “super-abounds” in all we could ask or want, said this: “I am the Bread of life.” In his Eucharistic presence, He is surely 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). No one word can fully capture what is said here. The Lord has left us a mystery to ponder. I know that many of you who read my posts are learned in Greek, Latin, the Fathers, and scripture scholarship; I am most interested in your thoughts. This article has not covered every possible facet of the argument. I leave that you, all who wish to comment.

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Comments (16)

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  1. Fernando says:

    Hi father, there is a scholar of Galilean Aramaic (the specific dialect that Jesus spoke, that is a little different from Syriac) who studies the New Testament based on this linguistic knowledge.

    In this link he analyses part of the Lord’s Prayer by trying to make a back-translation from Greek to Galilean Aramaic. That is, if the original prayer was in Aramaic, what Aramaic words were the Greek ones trying to convey:
    http://aramaicnt.org/articles/the-lords-prayer-in-galilean-aramaic/

  2. for you says:

    I don’t know Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic, I only know that God examines the heart and searches the deepest longings and stirrings there… that which we are many times so unaware. And so the Holy Spirit speaks a language in our prayers that God should give us our daily bread. And what we need in body and mind, He hears our prayers and so provides, the Bread of Hope the Bread of Life to strengthen us through the hungry night which lacks the wheat, which lacks the Light.

  3. Francis Aloysius says:

    In the Writings of Luisa Piccarreta, the Bread, in addition to everything you’ve said, denotes the WILL OF GOD! I

    IT MAKES SENSE considering that if follows from FIAT VOLUNTAS TUA SICUT IN CAELO ET IN TERRA and the Impetrations that come after.

    The Starting Point is to remind ourselves that this is the Lord’s Prayer.

  4. Pat Sanguinetti says:

    As usual I think The Catechism of The Catholic Church is the correct approach and shows us that its content was truly guided by the Holy Spirit.

  5. Donna Ruth says:

    In these rather unsettled times, where the terms nuclear and EMP are mentioned too often, one may take to musing about life if one of these tragedies occurred, where, without electricity, life as we know it would quickly grind to a halt. The access of food and water would become paramount, but faithful Catholics would suddenly realize they would have no access to the Holy Eucharist – our supersubstantial bread, that great gift from God. Many around the world, and throughout history have not had regular access (or any access) to the Holy Eucharist, and we who may be able to attend daily Mass have little concept of that severe deprivation. Put in that context, one realizes that the term “supersubstantial bread” makes the most sense because it is a most magnificent gift God has left us for our journey.

  6. alle says:

    AMEN:
    “My own preference is to see that “epiousion” (supersubstantial) as a reference to the Eucharist. Jesus, who “super-abounds” in all we could ask or want, said this: “I am the Bread of life.” In his Eucharistic presence, He is surely our Bread which “super-abounds.”

    AMEN, AMEN if we consider that our separation from being “one with God” occurred in the sanctified Garden,
    when we disobeyed HIS authority over our “appetite…”

    • Wraith~ says:

      the only phrase that fits for me is,
      “all that you designed us to require,”
      rather than limit it to physical or spiritual food.

      does your comment “we disobeyed HIS authority over our “appetite…” imply that original sin was due to physical hunger and not prideful disobediance?

  7. Roberrlifelongcatholic says:

    You can solve the dilemma easily. Why not just say, “Give us our daily epiousios and lead us not into temptation.” Some don’t think Pope Francis should have them change “lead us not into temptation” because it would alter the original intended meaning. No one is sure what “epiousios” means but it is obviously what we need to ask for because Jesus said so when he gave the apostles the prayer. The bishops put “consubstantial” in the Confetior in place of “One in being with the Father” and most people had to look up the definition of “consubstantial” only to find out it was more a matter of pure sophistry. They must of been trying to reduce the number of words in the church missalett to reduce print cost. I don’t see a problem putting “epiousios’ in place of “daily bread.” It would take peoples mind off of food and it would be more accurate to it’s original meaning what ever it is. It is obviously holy grace and like you said, some thing are just meant to be a mystery.

  8. Peter F says:

    Not a linguist, but the good discussion of “beyond”+”substance” suggests “surpassing”…
    “Give us this day your surpassing bread” is surely Eucharistic, as that Bread is the Bread of Life.

  9. Wes says:

    It appears to me that content analysis would suggest the validity of a spiritual rather than a material interpretation. Every other concept mentioned in the lord’s Prayer is of a spiritual nature. Implying that Christ is including our material daily needs suggests that “Kingdom”, “Will”, “Forgiveness”, “Temptation” and “Evil” are matched with a material substance “Food”. Just insert “Peanut Butter Sandwich” to realize how the list becomes distorted from abstract concepts to include a mundane concept.

  10. David Gordon says:

    I believe that the Bible should be read with the intended audience in mind. The disciples asked Jesus for a prayer and we have the Lord’s Prayer. If I were to ask Jesus for a prayer I’m not sure that I would get the same one. It is documented in the Bible that God, through the Spirit, drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Satan did the tempting but God set the circumstances. Jesus had the disciples pray that the same would not happen to them. Obviously, at the time, the disciples did not have the same relationship to God as did Jesus. Based on this I would not propose a change to the Prayer, just a better understanding of its scope.

  11. Mike Paul says:

    And also, regarding God leading into temptation, we forget that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. This temptation was a key part of his life, a preparation for his ministry. Christians can be strengthened and purified by temptation, whicih can be a test of faithfulness.

  12. DOLORES ORLANDO says:

    To me, Jesus learned this prayer from His Mother. He repeats it to her in The Finding, “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?