Background Information

      Back

One of the most familiar and best loved New Testament passages is the prayer, cited by Matthew and Luke as that given by Jesus as a pattern for prayer; it is commonly known as the 'Lord's Prayer'. Although it is probably one of the most frequently recited/quoted passages of the Bible, it may come as a surprise to know that it contains a word which is something of a mystery. 

 

We have three ancient and authoritative versions of the Lord's Prayer. Two occur in the canonical Gospels (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) and one in an ancient church instructional document called the Didache (8:2) which, it is generally agreed, was written toward the beginning of the second century. All three (the version in the Didache follows Matthew's form) contain the word epiousios in relation to the bread.

 

Epiousios is what is called a hapax legomenon which literally means 'something said once' and refers to words which occur only once in a document or body of literature. As might be expected, this can create problems regarding its meaning. Look at the sentence below.

He maridly threw the ball.

In the absence of a context and without any other instances in which 'maridly' is used, it is very difficult to judge its precise meaning. Incidentally, the book of Job contains the most instances of hapax legomena in the Bible which makes it one of the most challenging books to translate. This is exactly the problem we face with the word epiousios in this verse. Its form, with the definite article (ton epiousion) indicates that it has an attributive relationship to the noun ton arton (the bread), so we know it is an adjective - it is actually the only adjective in the Lord's Prayer. However, beyond that, there is an element of doubt.

Click here for ways in which we can approach this problem.

It is assumed that the first Christians had some sort of understanding of this word. Although the forms of the prayer differ in Matthew and Luke's Gospels, they both appear to make no attempt to replace the word. The Didache also shows that this form of prayer was accepted and used within the church liturgy around 100 CE. Nevertheless, by the time of Origen in the third century, its meaning had been lost, or had at least become doubtful enough for him to propose its possible meaning.