Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lord's Prayer Mystery

I've written previously about how the mistranslation of the Greek word metanoia into the Latin paenitentia and from there into the English term repentence has had a profound effect on Christian theology. It turns out that metanoia is not the only problematic Greek word in the Gospels. Scholars have debated the meaning of another term that is found in the Lord's Prayer, epiousion, for centuries. This article from the Archdiocese of Washington explains the mystery.

The mysterious word occurs right in the middle of the prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion) which is rendered most usually as “give us this day our daily bread.”

The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that the word seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek and that no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers who spoke and wrote Greek as their mother-tongue were unaware of its exact meaning. It occurs no where else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father in Luke 11:3). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, whether Christian or Pagan. The early Church Father Origen, a most learned and well read man, thought that Matthew and Luke, or the early Church had “made up” or coined the term.

So, frankly, we are at a loss as to the exact and original meaning of this word! It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think of it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.

The article also includes a grammatical analysis of the word, which to my way of thinking shows a key similarity to metanoia:

The Greek word seems to be a compound word from epi + ousios. Now epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Hence, to put these words together we have something amounting to supersubstantial, or super-essential.

The prefix meta also can mean "beyond," though its meaning is more abstract than that of epi, which Wikipedia defines as "above, on, over, nearby, upon; outer; besides, in addition to; among; attached to; or toward." The key here is that the superlative form almost certainly is not referring to ordinary bread, and in no way means "daily." Plugging the definition in literally, the line becomes "Give us this day our supersubstantial/superessential bread." To conceptualize metanoia as, say, "superessential mind" doesn't strike me as very far off the mark.

The article goes on to explain that the usual interpretation of this is related to the Eucharist, which certainly would fit the description "supersubstantial bread." There's also an interesting connection here with Thelema, suggesting that Aleister Crowley was aware of this interpretation. In the Gnostic Creed, the line "In as much as meat and drink are transmuted in us daily into spiritual substance, I believe in the miracle of the Mass" conveys a concept that seems too similar to be accidental. Furthermore, Crowley recommended the performance of a Eucharistic rite to his students on a daily basis, perhaps another reference to it.

While a proper understanding of epiousion probably won't change theology very much, I can think of a few ways in which it poses a challenge to some forms of modern Christianity. The "Green Gospel" movement I criticized in yesterday's post, for example, is built around the theological notion that God provides physical stuff for his followers. If the Lord's Prayer truly were referring to ordinary bread, a case could be made that the prayer itself supports this interpretation. However, "supersubstantial" or "superessential" clearly implies stuff of a more spiritual nature than, say, luxury vehicles and large-screen televisions.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Anonymous said...

I'm sure in 2000 years of theological wrangling someone has thought of this, but my first thought was "Is this a calque from some Aramaic term?" It might be a direct word-part by word-part translation, but I don't know if Aramaic had any sort of morphological compounding.

Anonymous said...

pomomagic, that possibility was raised when we discussed this problem in seminary, and our Biblical languages teacher looked deep into his memory, and then sort of shrugged. "It's not a very likely sound in Aramaic," he said.

Add to that, "ousios" is the word that, in another form, appears in the Nicene Creed, homoousion, meaning, "of one being", as a way of describing the Son's divine relationship with the Father.

It's possible that this is another way of saying, "Grant us Today our Higher Self." and in that sense the Lord's Prayer could be understood as an invocation of the Supernatural Assistant or the Holy Guardian Angel. I think it was in that sense that I first really grokked the Lord's Prayer.

The use of the word Metanoia kind of, sort of, but not entirely, supports this interpretation; the rhetorical device of metanoia, of verbally changing one's mind before an audience, leads to the theological implications of changing one's heart, mind and soul through the use of the Lord's Prayer.

And, in the early, Early Church, when the Church was much more of a Mystery Cult, one underwent baptism with a directional change — renouncing Satan while facing north in the baptismal pool, then turning west to renounce evil, then turning south to accept God, then turning east to accept baptism. And then, when you came up out of the water, they taught you the Lord's Prayer and (possibly) the Apostles' Creed as the initiatory tools of being a Christian. Feels kinda Freemasonic, doesn't it? :-) In this context, a prayer that joins you to your higher self, and gives you the power to change your consciousness, seems to be much more occult and magical than it does today, two thousand years on. :-)

Cliff said...

Andrew, I have to say I had the same reaction you did. I take away two possibilities, both of similar natures. First, the idea of subsistence for our Higher Selves (e.g., the growth given by the HGA). Second, swiveling back 5 degrees to the Buddha, who, like Christ, instructed that people be fed before receiving the dharma. So, in this sense, there's the simple subsistence, and then what follows is spiritual subsistence, which, like the second course of a meal, would settle above it.

And thanks for the interesting fact about the early church!

Anonymous said...


I really like the idea of physical food that's provided with the teaching. We know, from a few surviving liturgical documents of the Early Church, and from things like Paul's letters to the Corinthians, that the Eucharist/Mass used to be an actual meal at which bread and wine were part and parcel of the food; and that the non-baptised were welcome to attend the instructional part, but that they had to leave before the eucharist. There's a holdover of this in the Orthodox rite where there's a call given for the unbaptized to depart, and there's also the Hector Berlioz hymn (which I love!), which in English is "Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence."