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 […]

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