Posted by: mattcolvin | May 1, 2013

Give us today tomorrow’s bread


Above: Henk Helmantel, Still Life with Bread and Brass Bowl, 2001

“Mother, I guess I was naughty last night. I said, ‘Give us tomorrow our daily bread,’ instead of today. It seemed more logical. Do you think God minded, Mother?”
– Lucy Maud Montgomery. “Anne of Ingleside” (1939)

Just how much more sense it makes, I doubt either Di Blythe or her creator, LM Montgomery, knew. But she has hit upon a key to the poetry of The Lord’s Prayer which is lost in the English translations.

First, some philology. Matthew 6:11 reads,

τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον· (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΤΘΑΙΟΝ 6:11 SBLG)

Now, it is widely recognized by everyone who knows Greek that the word ἐπιούσιον is not Greek for “daily”. There is a perfectly good word for “daily” (ἡμερινός), and ἐπιούσιον is not it. After all, “daily” is not a rare concept. But ἐπιούσιον is a very rare word, and appears to be a Hebraism coined by the gospel’s author. LSJ cite Origen’s De Oratione:

τί δὲ καὶ τὸ «ἐπιούσιον,» ἤδη κατανοητέον. πρῶτον δὲ τοῦτο ἰστέον, ὅτι ἡ λέξις ἡ «ἐπιούσιον» παρ’ οὐδενὶ τῶν Ἑλλήνων οὔτε τῶν σοφῶν ὠνόμασται οὔτε ἐν τῇ τῶν ἰδιωτῶν συνηθείᾳ τέτριπται, ἀλλ’ ἔοικε πεπλάσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν εὐαγγελιστῶν…

But one must first understand what “ἐπιούσιον” means. And the first thing one must recognize is that the word “ἐπιούσιον” does not occur in even one of the Greek authors, not the wise ones, nor does it appear in the usage of the unlearned, but it seems likely to have been coined (Gk. “molded”) by the gospel-writers.

What follows in the next section is about the most unhelpful stuff that Origen could possibly have written: he gives a mistaken etymology connecting the word with οὐσία, and starts to talk about invisible essences. Without delving into the evil consequences of this sort of philosophy (Could there be transsubstantiation without talk about “substance”, οὐσία?), it is sufficient for our purposes that the derivation is linguistically impossible.

There are two verbs spelled ειμι in Greek. One means “to be” and the other means “to go or come”. The verb of motion has an ι- at the beginning of all its verbals (participles, infinitive, etc). The verb of being does not. The former, ἰέναι, is related to Latin eo, ire; the latter, είναι, to Latin esse. Thus, ἐπ-ιούσιον, having the ι- at the beginning of its stem, must be from the verb meaning “to go or come”: “the bread of the coming day”, the eschatological bread.

As confirmation of this interpretation, note how the word order of the sentence is carefully framed to stress the contrast between “impending, coming” and “today”. To wit, Matthew’s Jesus has used a reiterated article to keep his adjective attributive rather than predicative: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον. He didn’t need to do that; it isn’t the simplest way to make an attributive position. He could have written τὸν ἐπιούσιον ἄρτον. He chose not to.

Why? Because he wanted to place ἐπιούσιον in a position of emphasis, and thus of contrast. It comes at the end of its phrase, and thus invites comparison with the other time-word at the end of the predicate, σήμερον. “The bread of ours that is to come, give us today.”

The result is that this is an eschatological petition. It is of a piece with the other great eschatological refrain in Revelation, Maranatha! – “Come, Lord!”

It also – and this is the conclusive proof for me that confirms the interpretation with a resounding ring of truth – is of a piece with the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, which is preeminently concerned with the present age and the age to come, the two ages of Jewish eschatological thinking. It is a prayer that beseeches God to make the obedience of the eschaton, the obedience of heaven, present on earth now. It is a prayer that asks God to forgive our debts (then) as we forgive (now) our debtors. It asks for deliverance from eschatological tribulation (that is what is meant by “temptation” here, not petty lack of self-control). It closes with reference to the Kingdom, that eschatological reality. Indeed, if we don’t translate ἄρτον ἐπιούσιον as “coming bread”, then 6:11 becomes the only petition that doesn’t have an eschatological aspect to it. Much better to be consistent.

Thus, Diana Blythe is right: the logic is missing in the usual translation of the Prayer. The solution, however is to change our understanding of the bread, not ask for God to postpone the giving. With the right translation, we get better theology, better sense, better linguistics, and better poetry.

Of course, it is not clear at all to me how we will ever change the English translation of the Prayer. But there are many things like that in the liturgy and you can’t go through worship mentally footnoting everything.



  1. […] of His Will on earth as in heaven is an eschatological hope. The “coming bread” that I discussed earlier is an eschatological hope. The forgiveness of sins is an eschatological hope. The time of trial and […]

  2. Matt,

    I read your article with interest. Please, let me share my thoughts with you. I shall not be as categorical as you in your statements as I am aware there are many huge gaps in my knowledge and I have learned that even the best arguments can lead to wrong conclusions.

    1/ I find it quite significant that so many Christian fathers and translators in the early periods would not share your view on the translation. Old Latin texts as well as the writers of the 4th, 5th century, e.g., John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, et al., used the adjective ‘cottidianum’, ie. ‘daily’ in the Lord’s Prayer.

    You have accused Origen for mistaken etymology, yet it was Origen who pointed out that the word ‘epiousion’ may also be derived from ‘epeimi’ (‘for tomorrow’), yet he preferred the ‘substance’ interpretation.

    When Jerome, the Latin Vulgate main translator, was asked to revise the existing Latin translations of the Bible, he revised the word ‘epiousion’ in a similar manner Origen did and coined a word ‘supersubstantialis’ in Mt. 6.11. What I find interesting is that he retained the translation ‘cottidianum’ in Lk. 11.3. Jerome was quite aware of the possibility to translate the word ‘epiousion’ as ‘tomorrow’s’ and he may have even admitted such possibility for translation as he linked the word to Hebrew ‘mahar’. Yet, it was exactly this meaning he chose not to use in the translation, while both adjectives ‘cottidianum’ and ‘supersubstantialem’ are present in his work.

    The understanding of ‘epiousion’ as linked to ‘ousia’ (essence/substance) was more or less present in the works of Victorinus, Cassian, et. al., while many others using the ‘cottidianum’ translation did admit that ‘substantia’ as ‘ousia’ might be used for the translation as well (Ambrose, Cyprian, at al.).

    At that period, Latin and Koine Greek were dominant languages in the Roman Empire, both languages were in active daily use. On the other hand, to this day, much of ancient writings has been lost, meaning of words has shifted. Only a very few individuals today have any knowledge of Greek, Latin, not to mention Hebrew or Aramaic, and even less of these have reached any sufficient level of proficiency. Is it really reasonable to expect that today’s PhDs (no offense) are better at understanding the ancient languages especially in this specific case when all reasoning is based on the Greek grammar only with no new tangible findings?

    2/ You have reasoned that there is “a perfectly good word for ‘daily’” being ‘hemerinos’ thus no reason to coin a new word for the term. In fact, this argument works both ways as there is a word for ‘tomorrow’, ‘the following day’ in the scripture as well, the word ‘epaurion’ that Matthew uses eg. in Mt 27.62 (‘epi+aurion’, as is in ‘epi+ousion’) and is used elsewhere in many instances in the Bible. You have presented a good point on the use of the restrictive attributive adjective as being more emphatic. But would it be reasonable to put emphasis on a word nobody understands, a neologism, despite the existence of a perfectly good word for tomorrow or future that everybody knows? Or would it make more sense to assume that the new word has been coined to express something special – maybe a temporal and natural characteristics of the bread at the same time rather then the term ‘for tomorrow’?

    3/ You have stated that the confirmation of ‘your’ interpretation can be found in the contrast between the ‘coming’ (tomorrow) and ‘today’. Yet, when I switch from Matthew and look into Luke’s wording of the Lord’s prayer, it no more says ‘today’ ie. ‘semeron’ but ‘kath semeran’ ie. ‘each day’. Should there be a contrast between ‘tomorrow’ and ‘today’ in Matthew, I do not see the same contrast between ‘tomorrow’ and ‘each day’ in Luke. If such contrast was to serve as an intentional confirmation, why would it be missing in Luke’s Lord’s prayer?

    4/ How can we align the verse of the tomorrow’s bread with the one few lines bellow in the same chapter Mt 6.34 ‘for tomorrow will care for itself’? Is it reasonable to ask God for tomorrow’s bread the very moment you were instructed not to worry about tomorrow?

    5/ Should the petition of bread be linked to Ex 16.4 , where God gave the people a ‘daily’ portion of bread ‘daily’, wouldn’t it be reasonable to see the sense, theology, translation also in the Lord’s prayer – ie. give us daily our daily bread?

    6/ In Ex 16.4, the verse states that the people were given bread ‘a daily portion daily’, the phrase being ‘debar-yom b’yomi’. Indeed the Hebrew word for the ‘portion’ ‘dabar’ is the same as for the ‘word’. This means ‘debar-yom’ could possibly be interpreted both as a daily portion of bread, or a daily word, ie. a linguistic nourishment from God. Would that be too bold to think that Matthew possibly intended to coin a word that would embed the same notion as in Hebrew language, combining the temporal (daily) portion and essence of the bread at the same time? Or would it sound more reasonable to assume that all the sense behind the neologism is just to express ‘for tomorrow’ or ‘coming’?


    • Who are you, please?

  3. Briefly:
    1. No, the church fathers are not a reliable guide to etymology.
    2. There is a Jewish eschatological sense of “coming” that goes beyond mere futurity; epaurion would thus not adequately capture the idea.
    3. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is not as close to the original as Matthew’s. Luke in general smooths out semitisms and produces more idiomatic Greek, often with loss of fine-grained detail and traces of Jewish background.
    4. It is perhaps the very fact that the concept of the future involved in worry is so very different from the eschatological future that keeps Matthew from using the same words. Other explanations could easily be devised.
    5. No, it should not be linked with Ex. 16.4
    6. No, the connection with dabar is not plausible.

    • Matt,

      thank you for your reply – didn’t expect that. My questions were more intended to be thought-provoking. Your stance seemed too categorical. Perhaps there is a solid support for your arguments but I could not see it in the article. Let me please shortly comment on your answers.

      Ad 1) It is misfortunate that you did not expand on why you did’t find them a reliable guide as the reliability should be questioned in reference to something. In general, works of the Church fathers are of considerable importance in terms of exegesis as well as etymology. Consider Origen that you’re mentioning in your article – his hardly credible amount of exegetical writings of critical interpretation of the Biblical text include many comments on the formation of words, word cross-references, some Greek-Hebrew cognates etc. Reference could be made to Homily XXVII on Numbers where he clearly presents etymology of the names of places of Israel’s journey, etymological notes are present in his extant commentaries, etc. His native grasp of Hebrew and Greek of the time, his thorough comprehension of Jewish traditions, culture and active contact with practicing Jews, access to now non-extant writings, the time period in which he lived not being considerably distant from the emergence of the gospels, etc. are significant factors adding up to the reliability in comparison to eg. today’s scholars.

      Ad 2) That argument does not really substantiate the coining of the new word in the forth petition. Should Matthew intend to express the notion of the ‘coming’ and the word ‘epaurion’ was not adequate for him to capture the eschatological sense as you advocate, I see no point of not using another extant word, e.g. ‘erchomai’ (come) – the word that Matthew employs in his eschatological expectation in Mt 24:30 in the coming of the Son of Man; as a temporal adjective ‘erchomenos’ or ‘epomenos’

      Ad 3) The fact is that we do not know which version of the Lord’s Prayer is closer to original. Nevertheless, it is Luke’s version that is often accepted as likely more original in line with the principle ‘lectio brevior potior’ in exegesis.

      Ad 4) As the Scripture says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’. In line with my previous note, asking explicitly for tomorrow’s bread would not fit in smoothly for me, especially having considered Luke’s wording (How would it make sense to read: give us each day our tomorrow’s bread?)

      Ad 5) The idea behind the link to Ex 16.4 is:
      a) temporal: the temporal wording ‘daily for each day’ in Ex 16.4 reflects in Luke’s Lord’s Prayer, Luke 11.3 ( daily each day vs. daily each day)
      b) via bread: When Jesus likened himself to the bread, he made it after the reference to the Ex 16.4 – see John 6.31 and the following. (bread vs. Bread of life)
      c) via word: Not only bread allowed the survival, so did the word ( Ex 16.4, Deut 8.3, Matt 4.4). Jesus as the Word in the John’s gospel. (word vs. Word)

      Ad 6) Still interesting that the temporal, qualitative and quantitative characteristics found in the word ‘debar-yom’ correspond to how the Church Fathers translated the word ‘epiousion’. The likely fact is that the word Jesus originally used in the forth petition either didn’t exist in Greek or could be a polysemic and had to be coined for that reason. I cannot see how this could apply to the word ‘tomorrow’ 😦

      That’s all from me on the topic 🙂

      Cura, ut valeas!


      • Ad 1 – The question is not whether the church fathers preserve valuable information about the meanings of words. They clearly do. The question is rather whether their conjectures are to be valued as much as scientific linguistic etymologies. Jerome’s derivation of ἐπιουσιον from ἐπι and οὐσια is linguistically impossible because the iota of the prefix will be dropped.

        Ad 2 – Daube addresses this objection. “But why, it may be asked, did they not choose the far commoner designation erchomenos? It should be observed, at the outset, that, apart from this matter of frequency of usage, either aphikomenos or ephikomenos is perfect suitable to denote ‘The Coming One.’ The former verb often signifies the arrival of a welcome guest. Both verbs have eschatological or apocalyptic potentialities. The Septuagint employs ephikneomai in a line from Proverbs, ‘when your fear cometh as desolation,’ and interestingly, pareimi and erchomai are paired off with it as synonyms… The answer to the question, then, is that Aphiqoman is an apt designation. And as for erchomenos being commoner—we have no right to expect the commoner word, not in general and most certainly not in the province of sectarian, arcane wisdom.” (Daube, “He That Cometh”)

        Ad 3 – Your “we do not know” is too hasty. It is not possible that the Gospel of the Hebrews by its rendering of epiousion with mahar should have introduced eschatological expectation where none existed in the original. Furthermore, as Jeremias cogently argues, there is every reason to expect that it here reproduces the ipsissima verba of Jesus in Aramaic, since of all his logia, the pater noster would have been memorized, and no Aramaic translator would have needed to grapple with the Greek de novo, but would have plugged in the Aramaic which he already knew.

        Ad 4 – Your “give us each day our tomorrow’s bread” is not what I or Daube suggests. “Each day” is not “this day.” The Greek σήμερον is not ἑκάστην ἡμέραν.

        Ad 5 – I’m open to the connection you suggest with Manna, but I deny that it eliminates the eschatological aspect. On this, see B. Malina, The Palestinian Manna Tradition, which documents the way early Judaism connected the Manna to eschatology.

  4. You might want to consult my book, where I discuss this in considerably more depth.

    And before I dialogue with you any further, you need to tell me who you are.

  5. “ (How would it make sense to read: give us each day our tomorrow’s bread?)”

    It wouldn’t. And that isn’t what Jesus tells us to pray. He says “this day” or “today”, not “each day.”

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