Which version of the Lord’s Prayer do you pray? Do you petition God to forgive your sins? or your trespasses? Do you seek to be saved from the time of trial, or not to be led into temptation? Do you end with a doxology of praise, or simply conclude with “deliver us from evil”?
This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us the shortest of the three versions of this prayer which were known in the early decades of the movement that Jesus founded (Luke 11:1–4). That’s right—from the very earliest stages, there were already three versions of this central, foundational prayer!
The version that we are offered for this coming Sunday, in Luke 11, is (as I have noted) the shortest of the three; it ends with “deliver us from evil”. The version in Matthew 6 is closer to the version that we pray today, with the familiar closing doxology (except that this is omitted from most of the earliest manuscripts). Then, there is the version in the Didache (a late first century work which is not part of the New Testament) which includes all the familiar phrases, and ends with a shorter doxology (“yours is the power and the glory forever”).
Luke’s version, as well as being the shortest, is located in the journey section of this Gospel, as Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem. It comes after the story about the wounded traveller and the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and the meal in the house of Mary and Martha (10:38–42), and before an encounter with a demon and a discussion about the conflict that Jesus was having with Beelzebul (11:14–26). In short, the context is of minimal importance.
Matthew, by contrast, places this prayer as the centrepiece in a block of teaching about dikaiosune (translated as “piety”, NRSV; “righteousness”, NIV; “religion”, CEB; Matt 6:1–18). Here, Jesus considers the three key markers of Jewish faith: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each instance, Jesus contrasts the practice of “the hypocrites” (later identified as scribes and Pharisees; see Matt 23:13–36) with the instructions he provides )”do not [do that] … but rather, [do this]”). So the context indicates that this prayer sits at the heart of discipleship and faith, for those who follow Jesus.
The full text of the version in the Didache is: “You shall not pray like the hypocrites but like the Lord commanded in his gospel; in this manner you shall pray: Our Father, who is in heaven, your name shall be made holy, your kingdom shall come, your will shall come to be as in heaven and upon earth; you shall give to us our bread for our need today, and you shall forgive us our debt as also we are forgiving our debtors, and may you not bring us into a trial, but you shall rescue us from the wicked one, since it is your might and glory into the ages. You shall pray three times of the day in this manner.”
The context is one in which the worship life of the Christian community is in view; ch. 7 considers baptism, ch. 8. discusses fasting and prayer; chs. 9 and 10 concerns the Eucharist. The liturgical form of the prayer is important in this context—thus, the firm inclusion of an appropriate doxological benediction.
The significance of a number of the variations can be noted. As we do so, it is worth recalling that the synthesised, printed versions of our scripture are far from the experience of the followers of Jesus in the first few centuries. Oral traditions were the dominant way by which teachings were passed on; memorising and retelling stories, parables, ethical instructions, and prayers, was the modus operandi of everyone.
Furthermore, any tangible written resources were relatively rare; this was many centuries before the printing press and the mass distribution of standardised documents, and even a few centuries before the imperial weight of Constantine saw monks in many places copying manuscripts by hand. A scroll or codex would be valued as a rare and important document. The passing on of teachings—and, in this case, prayers—by word of mouth, was the dominant pathway for handing on the traditions. See https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/oral.html
So a variety of versions, across time and especially across different physical locations, was what existed. Variety was not only the spice of life but the essence of the movement that Jesus has started. See https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/diversity.html
Thus, as we consider the variations of The Lord’s Prayer that these three ancient documents offer us, let’s remember that they existed in the midst of a swirl of varieties of the early Christian faith.
Some variations, such as thine or yours, and sins or trespasses, are simply a function of our time. Language changes over time; the words preferred for particular items change, the customs prevalent at the time change. Thine was the common second-person singular possessive in the time of King James; yours is now the common term. You would only ever hear thine in a church sticking doggedly to the Authorised Version from the time of King James, these days.
But five variations in wording do contain significant theological differences.
1. Father, or Father in heaven, is the first significant variant encountered. Scholars typically argue that the shorter version is more likely to have been the original, so the phrase in heaven was added under the influence of other places where that phrase appears (Mark 11:25; Luke 10:21; the phrase is particular common in Matthew, see Matt 5:16, 45; 6:1; 7:11, 21; 10:32–33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19). In other words, if we are looking for what could have been the original version, Jesus most likely simply said, “pray, ‘Father’”.
2. Next, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. This phrase appears after your kingdom come in both Matthew’s version, and in the Didache, but not in Luke’s shorter version. These two petitions clearly belong together; although, in a sense, I consider the second petition redundant. If God’s kingdom is to come, then God’s will shall surely be done! (The close connection of the two concepts can be seen in the parable of Matt 21:28–32 and the saying of Matt 21:43; and negatively, in Gal 5:16–21.)
Nevertheless, the longer version of Matthew and the Didache sees fit to duplicate the first request, for God’s kingdom to come, with a second petition, for God’s will to be done. The notion that what is done in heaven should also be done on earth can be found in sayings of Jesus at Matt 16:19; 18:18–19; and in the citation from Joel found at Acts 2:19.
3. Each day, or this day? The bread that is prayed for is described as “bread for today” (sēmeron) in Matthew and the Didache, but as “bread for the day” (to kath’ hēmeran) in Luke. What is signified by this subtle difference?
We should first note that this petition includes an unusual Greek word, epiousion, a word which Davies and Allison describe as “one of the great unsolved puzzles of NT lexicography” (Matthew, ICC vol. 1, 1988, p.607). It could refer to “what is needful for existence” (a generic sense ), or “for the current day” (an immediate sense), or even “for the coming (next) day” (a futurist sense). Davies and Allison opt for this latter sense, which means that the prayer is certainly for what lies immediately in front of the person praying, but also has an eschatological sense, referring to the messianic banquet in God’s kingdom on the day in the future, which is yet drawing near.
The difference between the two canonical versions, then, comes down to whether the emphasis is on the bread “for now, for today, for this very day” (Matthew) or the bread “for each and every day” (Luke). John Nolland (Luke, Word Commentary 35B, 1993) believes that Jesus would have been more likely to instruct the former—“a prayer for our mundane sustenance needs” as this would be “most at home in the Jewish context” (and he quotes Prov 30:8 in this regard).
4. Forgive us our sins (trespasses), or forgive us our debts? This difference is quite significant. The forgiveness of sins (in older language, trespasses) is a common theme in the Gospel narratives, and especially in Luke’s orderly account. When Jesus forgives the sin of the paralyzed man on a bed (5:17–20), he affirms that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24). Jesus discusses sin and forgiveness with Simon the Pharisee and the so-called sinful woman (7:36–50).
God’s gracious forgiveness is recounted in the three striking stories about the lost being found, the wayward being welcomed back home (Luke 15). Jesus instructs his followers to forgive the disciple who sins (17:1–3). Luke alone reports that Jesus, hanging on the cross, offers forgiveness to those crucifying him (23:24, although there are problematic textual variants about this verse); whilst alone in Luke’s account, once again, the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
The Lukan version thus, understandably, has Jesus instruct us that we pray for forgiveness of sins, and offer forgiveness to others. This is a strong Lukan theme. Paradoxically, however, the version in Matthew uses a word whose fundamental sense is debt—as in something tangible owed, like money, or a return favour. The Didache, which seems to share a common version of the prayer with Matthew, also uses this word, opheilēmata.
If the reference is to a financial debt, then the strong reference in the version of Matthew and the Didache must surely be to the Jubilee year, during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13). The irony is that Luke explicitly signals this theme in the opening speech of Jesus that he alone reports: “the Spirt of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (4:18–19). The reference to “the year of the Lord’s favour” is commonly taken to be an indication of the Jubilee.
Yet the matter is complicated by the fact that in the phrase that follows forgive us our sins, the Lukan version uses the word for debts; so in this Gospel, the petition is actually forgive us our sins, as we ourselves let go of everything that is owed to us. That’s a mixed message!
Nevertheless, when we pray, let’s bear in mind: do we have in view our responsibility to forgive the sins of others, or to let go the debts that others owe to us? That is a question to galvanise our thoughts and challenge our actions!
5. Lead us not into temptation, or save us from the time of trial? This difference is quite important. The options reflect, not differences in the Greek text, but different choices made by translators. The Greek word (peirasmon) is the same in all three versions, but it is capable of different English translations. On the one hand, it can refer to discrete actions which tempt us to stray from the path of righteousness; thus, lead us not into temptation; that is, keep us faithful, righteous, diligent, obedient.
On the other hand, the same word, peirasmon, can have an apocalyptic sense, referring to the coming Day of the Lord, the time of birth pangs (Mark 13:8) and testing (Rev 3:10) which is envisaged, when God’s eschatological intervention confronts humanity with the extent of our sinfulness. The prayer is thus for God, not to let us experience that time of trial, but in fact to intervene, declare us righteous, and realise the promise of life eternal. (Yes, I realise that I am mashing together multiple scriptural verses—but that’s what happens when theological argumentation develops!) Nolland summarises thus: “the primary image her is one of standing up under pressure that threatens to overwhelm” (Luke, p.619).
The additional petition in Matthew and the Didache, rescue us from the evil one, intensifies this eschatological sense; the evil one is Satan, who will sift wheat from chaff (Luke 22:31), whilst God is the one who will step in and “rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18). As the Didache’s expanded eucharistic prayer offers, “Remember, Lord, your church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for your kingdom which you have prepared for it” (Did 10:5).
There are other variations found in the textual variants that occur in the mass of manuscripts from the earliest centuries. One fascinating variant in the Lukan text, for instance, occurs in the phrase your kingdom come; some manuscripts read, at this point, your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us—reflecting the interest that Luke has in the activities of the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41, 67, 80; 2:25–26; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 14, 18; etc).
Other manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel quite deliberately follow the phrase your kingdom come with the addition, as in heaven, so on earth. The influence of the dominant tradition of the prayer—reflected in both Matthew 6 and Didache 8—has led various scribes, copying Luke’s Gospel, to harmonise what they have before them with what they know from their daily prayers and from Matthew’s Gospel.
After reporting the instruction of Jesus, to pray this way (11:2), Luke has Jesus continue with a short, somewhat comic, story of a friend, incessantly knocking on his friend’s door at midnight, asking for three loaves of bread—at once hilariously burlesque and exactingly precise. This leads to the instruction, “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (11:9; this is found also at Matt 7:7), and the didactic conclusion, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13; a variant form appears at Matt 7:11).
We might compare this with what happens in Matthew’s reporting of this prayer; he has Jesus continue with teaching relating to the forgiveness of sins (paraptōmata, Matt 6:14–15), which is curious, since the Matthean version of the prayer has a clause about forgiving debts (opheilēmata) rather than the sins (hamartias) in the Lukan account.
So, however you pray this prayer, do so remembering that the version you use is one of a range of options, chosen by translators, interpreters, and liturgical editors, which nevertheless provides a collection of clauses that focusses on the central teachings of Jesus and recalls us to the challenges of discipleship in the contemporary world.
Of course, all of this close scrutiny of the textual versions of the prayer in Greek (because that is the original language of the New Testament documents, and of the Didache) overlooks the simple historical fact that Jesus, as a first century Jew, would have been conversing with his followers (also first century Jews) in Aramaic, the ordinary language of Jews in Israel at that time.
So what did Jesus actually say? We need to translate back, from Greek, into Aramaic–and thus, already the interpreter’s bias and presupposition comes into play!! We won’t ever know the original version that Jesus taught; but we can still pray the prayer that he taught his disciples, with confidence, in faith.
For a good translation of the whole of the Didache, see https://uploads.weconnect.com/mce/e1c03d2c445ffd0b7d000b732c8108a2e9145245/RCIA/The%20Didache.pdf