By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Lord’s Prayer has been called, by the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible, a ‘simple act of worship’. But there are a number of curious aspects of the Lord’s Prayer which are worth analysing closely, because they are less straightforward. There is also the not-inconsiderable issue that there are, in fact, two Lord’s Prayers – or, we should say, at least two.
But before we come to our analysis and address these questions, and explain what elevators and the word ‘patter’ have to do with the Lord’s Prayer, it might be worth summarising the meaning of the prayer.
The first thing to determine is which Lord’s Prayer we’re talking about. For the Bible provides two, and they are subtly different: the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in Luke 11:1-4 is probably the earlier of the two, on the basis that it’s much shorter than the other (found in Matthew 6:9-13), and the Gospel writers may well have embellished the existing words of the prayer, but would be unlikely to omit words spoken by Jesus.
The longer one contains much of the wording of the prayer as it is now known, so we will focus on this one, from the Gospel of Matthew. The Lord’s Prayer is spoken by Jesus as part of his Sermon on the Mount.
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Curiously, ‘Father’ is a translation of the Aramaic ‘Abba’, which was (Mark tells us: see 14:36) Jesus’ own address to God when praying. Jesus addresses God in heaven, calling his name ‘hallowed’ or holy. This (or similar words to the effect) was, the Dictionary of the Bible tells us, a common clause in Jewish prayer.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
‘Kingdom’ here refers to the Kingdom of Israel, and reminds us that (as Jesus himself says in the Sermon on the Mount) he came not to destroy the old Mosaic or Jewish Law but to fulfil it. Jesus is expressing the eschatological wish that God’s Kingdom of Israel will be established, which basically means that the old world will be swept away and God’s Kingdom will replace it. In short, let heaven be established on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Jesus asks God to provide his followers with their basic needs, such as something to eat.
The word ‘daily’ here is, curiously, a translation from the Latin Vulgate quotidianus, itself something of a ‘best guess’ as to the meaning of the Greek word epiousion which both Matthew and Luke use here. But it’s not found anywhere else. It appears to mean ‘succeeding’ or ‘coming upon’, but it may also be a translation of a lost Aramaic word. In any case, if it did mean ‘day succeeding’, i.e., ‘day succeeding day’, so one day after another, ‘daily’ perhaps covers it, as the Dictionary of the Bible observes.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Yes, that’s correct: although the more famous line now is ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’, this isn’t what Jesus actually says in the Gospel of Matthew. However, after the prayer is concluded he does go on to say: ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’
Note that this line echoes the earlier ‘thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’: there is the same two-part structure whereby the heavenly and the earthly, the divine and the temporal, complement each other. In keeping with Jesus’ entreaty to his disciples (in the Sermon on the Mount) that they should strive to be perfect, because God is, so the worshipper here begs forgiveness from God for their sins or ‘debts’ because the worshipper practises forgiveness towards others.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
‘Temptation’ may seem straightforward, but it’s the English translation of a Greek word which referred more broadly to any form of test or trial, rather then narrowly a temptation to sin. Jesus then asks God to deliver his followers from evil: i.e., spare them from life’s ills (sometimes ‘evil’ is assumed to refer specifically to the Devil here, but again, a broader definition of ‘evil’ encompassing all harm is probably intended).
The prayer ends with a return to the ‘kingdom’ of God, asserting the power and the glory of God.
The context in which the fullest and most famous version of the Lord’s Prayer appears in the Bible is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he specifically cautions against using pointless repetitions in prayer, just for the sake of making lots of words and noises for God.
God already knows what you’re going to ask of him, so be brief and to the point, Jesus says. This explains why the Lord’s Prayer is short, direct, and relatively straightforward in its language.
It reflects Jesus’ teachings, which – particularly in the Sermon on the Mount itself – emphasise the need for modesty, humility, and poverty, and the rejection of ostentation, hypocrisy, or wealth. The way to earn God’s love and a place in heaven is through being humble and placing oneself under the higher power of God.
Despite this warning, however, it has long been customary for worshippers to repeat the Lord’s Prayer at speed, especially the opening words – which, in Latin, are ‘pater noster’ (i.e., Our Father). Saying ‘paternoster’ really quickly gave rise to the word ‘patter’, which is still used today (e.g., in reference to a salesperson’s rapid sales pitch). The term ‘paternoster’ was also applied to lifts or elevators consisting of a set of linked doorless compartments which move continuously on an endless belt, because of the rosary beads used when reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
But it’s important to bear in mind the context in which the Lord’s Prayer appears, and Jesus’ emphasis on the simplicity and humility of worship. However, it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t just appear in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and that Luke also mentions it too, in a briefer form. Luke 11:1-4 has the following:
And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.
And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
Note that the ‘for thine is the kingdom’ section – which T. S. Eliot used to such power in ‘The Hollow Men’ – is absent from this version of the prayer.
The King James version quoted above does make reference to ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, but this is because the translators expanded the actual words of the prayer, incorporating those found in Matthew: many translations follow the original Greek more closely, stating: ‘Father, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’