A Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer

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.