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There is an intriguing use of a Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that is found nowhere else in extant Greek literature. It is the adjective, ‘epiousis‘; traditionally translated as ‘daily’ in the phrase, ‘our daily bread.’
Of course, Jesus did not address his disciples in Greek. He would almost certainly have been speaking in Aramaic, the native dialect of Israel at that time. So ‘epiousis‘ is itself a translation: but of what? St Jerome, when creating the Latin Vulgate translation in the late 4th century, rendered it as ‘daily’ in Luke 11:3: but as ‘supersubstantial’ in Matthew 6:11. Scholars throughout the centuries have argued as to it’s real meaning: but most reject the translation of ‘daily’ as being both unnecessary (because the words, ‘this day’ are also present) and improbable (seeing that there are much less obscure words that could have been used).
However, the suggested renderings have been many and various. It appears to be a compound of ‘epi‘ and a form of either ‘eimi‘ (‘to exist’) or ‘heimi‘ (‘to go’). Since ‘epi‘ has a wide range of meanings, generally along the lines of being above or beyond in terms of time, position, etc., suggestions include such concepts as ‘essential for existence,’ ‘for the future’ or ‘for the coming day’, ‘in abundance,’ ‘that doesn’t run out,’ etc. Many of these renderings are ascribed both practical and spiritual or eschatological meanings. But most of them also suffer from the problem that, had this been the intended meaning, why didn’t the writer use a commoner, more easily understood word?
When translating between languages, word meanings often overlap; so that a word in one language has a range of meanings and associations that may not always be properly understood in the target language and culture. I would suggest that this is most probably what has happened here: the word Jesus used had multiple meanings and associations that would have forced the translator to use many words to convey a full sense of its meaning. But Jesus’ prayer was given as a model of simplicity and brevity: so the translator didn’t want to do that. His next best choice was to compound two words together in order to try to convey a sense of the depth of meaning in what Jesus had said. In effect, what I am saying is that there is probably truth in most, if not all, of the obvious inferences that may be drawn from a literal breakdown of the compound, ‘epi-ousis.’
But what was the original word Jesus used that caused the translator such a problem? I think that the suggestion advanced by Kenneth Bailey in ‘Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes’1 is the most plausible. He refers us to the 2nd-century ‘Old Syriac’ translation of the Greek; which is both the earliest known translation of the New Testament and is in a language that is extremely close to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. This uses the word ‘ameno,’ which in Syriac means ‘lasting, never-ceasing, never-ending or perpetual.’ It comes from the same root as the Hebrew word ‘Amen,‘ meaning ‘to be firm, confirmed, reliable, faithful, have faith, believe.’ It was often used by Jesus to introduce his own sayings: ‘Truly (‘amen‘) I say to you…’ (often doubled for additional emphasis according to John’s gospel). Its common use was as an affirmation at the end of a prayer, in the sense of, ‘It is settled.’ Used in these ways it was simply transliterated into Greek, where it appears numerous times in the gospels; and is even used to conclude this prayer in Matthew 6:13.
But if Jesus used this word as an adjective, to describe bread, he would be plainly inferring something more than the simple fact that he was asking for ‘real’ bread: which means that we have to consider the entire scope and cultural context of the words in order to appreciate their full meaning to Jesus and his disciples.
The meaning implied by the Old Syriac translation is clearly part of it. The prayer is affirming the absolute reliability of God’s supply, just as Jesus taught his disciples:
Therefore, I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? (Mat 6:25-26)
But there is more. Consider the discussion recorded in John, chapter 6, when the people came to Jesus just after the feeding of the 5,000, wanting to make him king:
Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him.”
They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
They said therefore to him, “What then do you do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’ “
Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”
They said therefore to him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:26-35)
The people came looking for a dependable supply of food, like the manna that the Israelites had during their journeys with Moses in the desert. But Jesus’ response was that this isn’t the true bread. He is; and the people needed to put their faith in Him. Notice how the root meaning of ‘Amen’ carries the concept of both truth and faith.
The concept of manna from heaven was deeply ingrained in Jewish culture, both in its historical concept and as a future hope at the coming of the Messiah. Kenneth Bailey mentions that St Jerome refers to a copy of a ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ that translates this phrase as ‘Give us our bread of tomorrow.’
And last, but by no means least, we have the fact that Jesus saw his own death as the ultimate Passover sacrifice, by which he would become the source of the true bread of life for the world:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews therefore contended with one another, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he who feeds on me, he will also live because of me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven-not as our fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:48-58)
Jesus longed for this moment to be accomplished (another meaning of ‘amen‘) and desired that they would never forget it:
He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I will no longer by any means eat of it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” He received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, “Take this, and share it among yourselves, for I tell you, I will not drink at all again from the fruit of the vine, until the Kingdom of God comes.” He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.” (Luk 22:15-19)
In the book of Revelation, John describes how Jesus actually called Himself the ‘Amen‘ of God:
To the angel of the assembly in Laodicea write: “The Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Head of God’s creation, says these things: … ” (Rev 3:14)
When Jesus taught this prayer, the gospels indicate that he already had a clear sense of his ultimate mission. So He would have had all of the above in view as he spoke. But his disciples and the listening crowds did not have his foresight: so their initial thinking would have been primarily about food and the possibility of heavenly manna. However, our unknown translator did have the benefit of hindsight – as did all Jesus’ followers in later years.
So, when we consider all the overtones implied by Jesus’ words, ‘Give us this day our ‘amen‘ bread,’ it is easy to see why an Aramaic-speaking Christian translator would struggle to find any word in Greek to convey a concept so pregnant with meaning. Is it any wonder that, when trying to find a word to describe this bread he resorted to inventing a new compound word capable of being variously understood as something like, ‘true and abundant provision beyond all reality and for all time?’
1. ‘Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes’ Kenneth E. Bailey, SPCK Publishing (21 Mar. 2008), pg. 121. (ISBN 978-0281059751)
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