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Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

Bread Of Life

This is part of a series: The Lord’s Prayer in slow motion:

the first is Lord, Teach Us to Pray
the second is Our Father
the third is Our Father (part 2)
the fourth is Our Father (part 3)
the fifth is Hallowed be your Name
the sixth is Your Kingdom Come
the seventh is Your will be done.

Give us today our daily bread.

There is a central Jewish prayer called the Kaddish. The Kaddish has a variety of forms, but, in essence, it begins:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

It’s pretty clear that the first few lines of the Lord’s Prayer echo these words of the Kaddish.

Today we get to a line that’s not similar to that Jewish prayer:

Give us today our daily bread.

Actually we have no idea what Jesus meant by that sentence.

The Greek text is:
Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον

Give us today our epiousion bread.

Epiousion is a hapax legomenon – a word not used anywhere else.

I hope most of you know the famous Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass – the sequel to Alice in Wonderland:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
 Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
 And the mome raths outgrabe.

We don’t know what brillig, slithy, toves, gyre, and gimble mean – each word is a hapax legomenon.

Jesus is making up a word: “Give us today our [blank] bread.

Translating it as “daily” may be silly. There’s a perfectly good Greek words for daily: καθ’ ἡμέραν.

We can attempt pulling the Greek apart: epi – meaning ‘over’ – ousia meaning ‘substance’. The Vulgate Latin translation has supersubstantial – more than substantial.

Some even go so far as to translate it as bread for tomorrow: “Give us today our bread for tomorrow.” It seems very strange to have the Jesus, who tells us not to worry about bread, focusing so centrally on bread. And it seems even more of a problem to have the Jesus, who says don’t worry about tomorrow, have us pray for tomorrow’s bread.

Clearly, it is a prayer for nourishment. For the nourishment we need. And with that Mahatma Gandhi’s words spring to mind:

There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.

For some people the prayer for nourishment will mean literally daily bread. And that includes people in my country, in New Zealand.

In the list of 40 OECD/developed countries for children’s Health and wellbeing where do you think NZ ranks? Number 38, with just Bulgaria and Chile worse than we are. There is talk of 290,000 New Zealand children whose well-being and future is compromised by their meagre standard of living.

For others of us, we are nourished physically. Our nourishment may be the need for feeding at the deeper level of being human. Including nourishment spiritually. It’s no surprise that Jesus is called the bread of life. It’s no surprise that we use bread as a sacrament, an outward sign, of needing inner feeding.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, don’t forget it is in the plural. We are praying for us, all of us, poor and better off. We are in God’s presence expressing our hope for all of us. And if our hope is really our hope, we have to express that hope through our actions, through helping others have the bread, the nourishment they need.

It’s little wonder that Jesus made up a word for all this:

Give us today our [blank] bread. Give us today our epiousion bread.
Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον.

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9 thoughts on “Give Us Today Our Daily Bread”

  1. Thanks, Bosco. I have just memorised Matt. 6:11 in Greek and was pondering about ἐπιούσιον. I think your post provides an excellent way to think about it.

    If Jesus originally gave this prayer in Aramaic, I wonder what Aramaic word/phrase/coining led Matthew to think ἐπιούσιον was the best Greek equivalent.

    1. Thanks, Trevor. My Greek is fine – my Aramaic is nonexistent 🙂 If I get a chance to poke around about this question, I might add that here. If someone else has an idea, I hope they add that also. Blessings.

    1. Thanks, Linda. One interpretation of the meaning of the word “manna” is “what is it?” which fits this reflection perfectly. Blessings.

  2. Fascinating.

    Fitzmyer has an extensive discussion. Jerome says he found an Aramaic “tomorrow”.

    Luke Timothy Johnson suggests daily, future, necessary.

    It’s interesting that Luke follows this with a parable about bread with a tomorrow sense which can be read temporally and eschatologically. It suggests the coming of the kingdom, which is both now and future.

    Many blessings

    1. Thanks, Chris. I love the pointing to the adjacent Lukan parable. As one interested in the historical context, it also presents a picture of life in Jesus’ times. Blessings.

  3. “It’s pretty clear that the first few lines of the Lord’s Prayer echo these words of the Kaddish.”

    Well, it would be if we knew the Kaddish predated Matthew’s Gospel. But in fact the earliest version we have of the Kaddish dates from c. AD 900. How far it goes back is anybody’s guess.
    As for epiousa, I think it is unlikely that Jesus made up this (Greek!) word (or its Aramaic back translation). ‘he epiousa’ means ‘the coming day’ and this looks like the adjective for it. ‘Give us today our bread for the coming day’ may not sound elegant but I don’t think there is a real tension with Matthew 6.34.

    1. Thanks, Mike.

      Yes, the oldest written version of the Kaddish is in the Siddur (Jewish Prayer Book) of Rab Amram Gaon around 900 CE. But that tells us little as we have no prayer books from prior to that. R. Barry Freundel traces it back at least to the second century CE. The Kaddish also echoes Hebrew Bible texts.

      Jerome uses supersubstantialem (as I mention in my post) in Matthew 6:11. He does your morphological analysis as an alternative of the same word in Luke 11:3 quotidianum (daily).

      I cannot agree that Jesus is enjoining us here to pray solely for daily literal bread. But I respect that that interpretation can be drawn from the text.


  4. After posting my last comment I looked up online Dick France’s 2007 New International Commentary and I find that independently I agree with him (or vice versa) on epiousa and its uses in Acts etc, and on the likely meaning in Matt 6.11 / Luke 11.3. I agree also with France that there is no real conflict with Matt 6.25-34 – those who prayerfully ask God for tomorrow’s provision are spared anxiety.

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