The Lord’s Prayer is the most widely used prayer in the Christian community. Almost all Christian traditions accept and practice the Lord’s Prayer. This universality reasons that this prayer is of great religious importance. The appeal of the Lord’s Prayer is that it functions as the “perfect” prayer. Taught by Jesus himself, this prayer was thought to replace the Jewish prayers that existed at the time. For the most part, people associate the Lord’s Prayer with Christianity, contrasting it with Jewish prayer. Many feel that the prayer Jesus taught was something completely new and revolutionary.
However, I feel that the Lord’s prayer is essentially a Jewish prayer, exhibiting the form and function of contemporary Jewish prayers. As with many other studies of any writings in the Gospels, it is important to discuss how these traditions have been brought to us, and what, if any modifications were made to the original text. Therefore it would be prudent, for the purpose of this paper to first look at the literary elements of the Lord’s Prayer. To illustrate why the Lord’s Prayer is essentially a Jewish prayer, we must first define and explore what Jewish prayers were like during the time of Jesus.
We will be discussing the two most popular prayer traditions of the time, the Shema and the Tephilla. We will then draw the relations between the Jewish prayers and the Lord’s Prayer, paying attention to the traditions that Jesus would have been involved in. Also, the context in which Jesus meant to Prayer to be used. We will touch briefly on the literary elements surrounding the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer appears in only twice in the gospel, once in Matt 6:9-13 and again in Luke 11:2-4. There has been much controversy as to why both the context and the contents of each version are different.
The shorter version appears in Luke, where the context is Jesus was seen praying, after which the disciples ask Jesus to “teach them how to pray”. In Matthew, the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer is grouped with a variety of other Jesus teachings. This group of teachings focuses around the shortfalls of the Pharisees and what the corrections would be. In the case of prayer, Jesus denounces the empty prayers of the Pharisees and teaches them the Lord’s Prayer instead. The composition is almost identical, such that the entirety of the Lucan version is included in Matthew’s account.
Therefore one school of thought is that the version in Luke is the original, and that Matthew later expanded it, adding phrases to clarify (Stevenson, 2000). Phrases such as “in heaven”, or “your will be done… ” both serve to clarify, the first to clarify that this prayer is for the God of heaven, and the second to clarify what it means for God’s kingdom to come. Others speculate that it was Matthew that contained the original, and that Luke later condensed it (Crosby, 2002). Luke does have other “condensed” passages from Matthew, for instance the beatitudes are only mentioned briefly and in a highly condensed version.
This theory is unlikely though because “no one would have dared to shorten a sacred text like the Lord’s Prayer… ” (Jeremias, 1967). The mainstream theory is that Matthew and Luke drew upon a common oral source that was passed through the early Christian community. This source may have been the “Q” source, which contains the material that is in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. It would suppose that Luke’s version is more closely resembling of the version in “Q”, and again, Matthew later expanded and clarified “Q”.
Another common may have simply been different oral traditions within the early Christian church (Lohmeyer, 1965). There is much evidence that during this time, there were many schools of Christian thought, each emphasizing particular teachings of Jesus. It is plausible that two different Christian communities used the Lord’s Prayer from its original form and changed it, through addition or modification to suit their particular worship needs (Crosby, 2002). However the Lord’s Prayer was transmitted, its importance is not diminished.
It is apparent that the Prayer in Matthew was eventually adopted by the entire church community. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, we will discuss the version in Matthew. One function of prayer in the Jewish community is to identify the community as being chosen by God. This identity comes in the form of the how they pray, and in what ways they address God. Prayers in the Hebrew bible develop a relationship between God and humanity. Not just in the sense that we are connected to God, but we are like God, and God is like us.
This intimate relationship is evident in the frequent metaphors used to describe God in prayers. Statements such as “Your ears… ” and “Your eyes… ” give the God of Judaism anthropomorphic properties. These qualities imply an intimate relationship between God and Humans, such that we are able to relate to God is a way that is personal and meaningful (Balentine, 1993). Another way in with prayer allows connection between God and humans is the way in which God will answer prayers. In the Hebrew bible, many prayers are prayer requesting help. There is identification with God during these prayers.
When the Israelites cried out for help, they are able to envision God leaning His ear out to hear their prayers, and also stretching out His hand to help them. This image not only functions to bring closeness with God, but also facilitates prayer, allowing the people to belief that God will honour their requests (Steinburg, 1947). It is understood that the Hebrew people were chosen by God, and thus are under His protection. This understanding gives the Hebrew people “elite” status in society, such that in times of need, the nation is able to call on their God and He will answer and intervene on their behalf (Balentine, 1993).
Thus, prayer not only gives Judaism its identity with God, it also gives the community a sense of pride and power. During the time of Jesus, the Jewish community prayed extensively, following various teaching and rituals for their prayer philosophy. Rituals prayers can be divided into two general units, the Shema and the Tephilla. The Shema was a combination of prayer and creed. It was to be recited “twice a day, at its beginning and when the hour of sleep approaches, it is fitting to remember in gratitude before God the gifts with He gave… (Josephus).
The custom was to recite the Shema in the morning, between dawn and sunrise and again in the evening after sunset before sleep. Customary to Judaism, this was the minimum number of recitations that an individual was expected to do, if an individual failed to do their ritual prayers, they were in danger of being excluded from the community (Jeremias, 1967). In contrast to the ritual recitation of the Shema, the Tephilla was a specifically a prayer, done three times a day, morning, afternoon and in the evening.
The Tephilla was a string of 18 benedictions followed by personal penitence or petitions. Whereas the Shema was recited only by “free men” (excluded women and children), the Tephilla was expected to be done by all members of Judaism (Roth, 1972). Thus, a “pious” Jew during the time of Jesus was expected to have three times of prayer each day. The Shema and Tephilla in the morning, the Tephilla alone in the afternoon and the Shema and Tephilla again in the evening (Jeremias, 1967). It would be expected that Jesus, growing up in a Jewish community would have been involved in these times of prayer.
This is in fact true. There are references from the Shema and the Tephilla in the synoptic gospels. The commandment that we are the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37, Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27) was first written in Deut 6:5, and included in the opening lines of the Shema. This verbatim recitation of the Shema in the teachings of Jesus point conclusively that Jesus and his disciples would have participated in morning and evening prayers.
The opening of the Tephilla addresses God as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” which is repeated by Jesus in Mark 12:26. Jesus’ other address to God were not as wordy, simply calling using “Lord of heaven and earth” (Jeremias, 1967). Further evidence that would suggest the Jesus participated in Jewish traditions is his visits to synagogues and temples during His ministry. Even in the infancy narrative in the gospel of Luke, Jesus was brought to visit the Temple as a child, it is unlikely that He would not have been taught these traditions from His earthly parents.
Contrary to what many might think, Jesus never replaced the customary Jewish prayers with those later to be coined “Christian” prayers, nor did He teach His followers to. He may have merely wished them to increase their prayer potential, and give them additional traditions that could be followed. Furthermore, He was never known to teach them to pray less, only to pray more. It is “highly improbable that the early church would have kept the hours of prayer if Jesus had rejected them” (Jeremias, 1967). In fact, Jesus would have prayed the Shema and Tephilla and on top, He would consistently go for long periods of solitary prayer.
This practice was adopted by the early church, as illustrated in Acts 3:1, where the early church held multiple sessions of prayer. We have established that Jesus was familiar with the Jewish traditions of prayer, how would this Jewish influence run into His teachings on Prayer? It would be understandable that Jesus, being taught the Jewish traditions and for all purposes accepting them, would have taught them to His followers. This leads many draw the connections between the Lord’s Prayer and Hebrew scriptures.
Almost all phrases in the Lord’s Prayer have equivalent phrases in the Jewish Bible, while they are not verbatim, such as his repetition of parts of the Shema or Tephila, these equivalent phrases still show that the Prayer is not far removed from Jewish traditions. For instance, Lancelot Andrewes was able to paraphrase the entire prayer using Hebrew scriptures. Let thy name be called upon of us (Gen 4:26). Be thou our shield and our exceeding great reward (Gen 15:1). What word so ever proceedeth from thee, Let it not be in us to speak aught against it, whether good or bad (Num 24:13).
Give us bread to eat and raiment to put on (Gen 28:2). And now pardon the iniquity and the unrighteousness of thy servants (Num 14:19). And, O Lord, let us not think anxiously in our heart all the day long (Deut 28:32). And let not evil take hold of us (Deut 31:17). (Stevenson, 2000). This paraphrase was just one of six versions done by Andrewes, which leads to the conclusion that the material presented in the Lord’s Prayer has strong Jewish roots. Despite having very strong Jewish roots, the Prayer still has some minor, but important differences.
We feel that these changes do not make the prayer non-Jewish. But rather are only additions built upon Jewish traditions. The first most notable feature of the Lord’s Prayer is that it is in Aramaic. The Shema and the Tephilla were both in Hebrew, which during the time of Jesus was the language of the scholars and the educated. Very little daily conversation was conducted in Hebrew, rather the language of choice was Aramaic. Thus, the significance of having the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic was that prayer shifted from “liturgical sphere of sacred language and placed it right in the midst of everyday life. (Jeremias, 1967).
This change in language may have shifted the placement of prayer, but I do not feel that simply changing the religious language undermines the Jewish roots. In fact, I feel that this change only added personal elements to the prayer traditions. The prayer that Jesus taught His disciples may not have been intended to substitute the prayers of the Shema and the Tephilla, but it is evident that the early Christian church quickly established the Lord’s Prayer and as the ritual prayer solely for the Christian community (Jeremias, 1967).
The Christian community, as Jesus did, went above and beyond the expectations of Judaism, but still remained within the Jewish traditions. They were not limited to certain times of prayer, or to a set liturgy. Jesus’ prayer allowed the early church to have an intimacy with God and flexibility. The only specifically “non-Jewish” element in the Lord’s Prayer was the initial address. Almost all other phrases can be found in the Old Testament (Stevenson, 2000), or atleast passages of equivalent meanings.
It is therefore imperative that we discuss the meanings behind Jesus’ address and the ramifications that it had on the early Christian community. The open line of the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Our Father in heaven. ” In all Jewish literature, never has anybody addressed God in this term. In fact, it was “inconceivable to address God with this familiar word” (Jeremias, 1967). By using the word Abba to address God, Jesus completely revolutionizes the relationship between God and man. The relationship was no longer that of a mighty God (ruler) and his people (subordinates), but was now be a relationship between a father and his child.
The relationship between a father and child is complicated, which is exactly what Jesus wanted his disciples to understand. First, there is an element of respect between a child and their father. Second, there exists an intimacy and familiarity between father and child. These two elements define the relationship between God and the Christian church. Jesus taught his followers that they must always respect God, since he is the Creator and the epitome of Power, but at the same time, we are privy to a relationship with this God that is both intimate and familiar.
There is an shift from common Jewish thought, for the Christians, not only were they in direct communication and contact with the Creator God, but they were also able to speak to God on a familiar, friendly level. It was no longer unacceptable to bring your everyday feelings and emotions to God, just as a child will tell their father everything, so were the Christians able to do the same. Also, by having a father/child relationship, they were able to approach God for guidance on a more informal level.
Christians would feel comfortable speaking to God about mundane problems and could expect a father-like response. The addition of the term “Our” in Matthew further enforces this idea of a divine relationship. Not only is God a father figure, but He is a direct and personal father to each believer. It would be incorrect to assume that there was no relationship between the Jews and God, however, their relationship is greatly different. Many times in the Old Testament, God is addressed as the “God of our forefathers” or “the God of Israel.
These titles, while denoting a special relationship between God and the Israelites is not an individual, personal relationship. God, in Judaism, was the God of the people, His relationship is for the group, and if an individual wanted to have part in that relationship, they would have to be included in the Jewish group. Contrasting, the Christian relationship is individual and corporate in nature, such that God has intimate relationships with each person, but also with the group. A Christian need not belong to a specific group to consider God as their father.
A single person is able to meaningfully pray the Lord’s Prayer, just as much as a group could. This allowed further freedom in worship and prayer, for the early Christian Church (Fox, 1938). Thus, this address serves to provide additional relationship between God and humans. Besides the simple relationship between God and the Israelites, the Lord’s Prayer further develops the relationship. Matthew further defines the relationship by adding “in heaven” to the address. This addition was used to indicate that the God to which they prayed was the heavenly Father, and not any earthly father.
This difference was of great importance to the early Christian community, such that worship of ancestors is a common practice amongst the pagans of antiquity. Any confusion within the Christian community would have been eliminated with this small addition. Also, it further enforces the divine nature of God. God in heaven implies more divine status than simply God, since not only is God situated in heaven, but he is also God there. That is He has supreme power over heaven, just as He does on earth. The Lord’s Prayer is essentially a Jewish prayer.
It is evident that the traditions of Jewish prayer are the base of the Christian Lord’s Prayer tradition. There is little doubt that Jesus was involved in Jewish traditions, including the prayer traditions, which leads to the idea that Jesus’ teachings on prayer would have been based on His personal experiences with prayer. While there are some minor changes, such as the language and the address, the Lord’s Prayer is not a non-Jewish Christian prayer, but can be thought of as the new version of Jewish prayer. It includes all components necessary for a Jewish prayer, only making additions to the relationship between God and man.