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The Lord's Prayer

Updated on November 17, 2009

Lord's Prayer, sometimes called the Our Father or the Pater Noster, is the brief prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. The familiar English version, which consists of the address, seven (or six) petitions, doxology, and concluding "Amen," goes back in its wording to an ordinance of Henry VIII in 1541. It is based on William Tyndale's 1534 edition of the New Testament. The biblical source is found in two parallel, but strikingly different, New Testament texts: Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.

Biblical Texts

Most later manuscripts of Matthew add a doxology styled after 1 Chronicles 29:11-13: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever" with a concluding "Amen." This doxology is in the Authorized (King James) Version but not in the Vulgate or the Catholic translations. The Revised Standard Version relegates it to a footnote. It probably is an early intrusion in the text due to liturgical usage. A shorter doxology ("Thine is the power and the glory") closes a text form found in the early Christian document of instruction for catechumens called the Didache (chapter 8, verse 2), which shows much affinity to Matthew. In Luke, whose rendering lacks the third and seventh petitions of Matthew, many manuscripts have expanded the text according to the Matthean version. Some manuscripts replace Luke's second petition with a prayer for the Holy Spirit ("Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us"), which may point to the use of the prayer in a baptismal context but is hardly original.

A comparison of the two versions shows that their coexistence cannot be explained by direct borrowing. Equally unsatisfactory is the assumption that Jesus taught the two prayers on different occasions. Most likely, both go back to one Aramaic prayer of Jesus, which, however, was known in more than one local rendering, according to general Jewish custom.

While it cannot be said that Matthew preserves the more original form, his Greek retains the Semitic flavor better than does Luke, who may have adapted the wording to Gentile readers. Matthew inserted the Lord's Prayer in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, where it interrupts general rules for almsgiving, praying, and fasting. He seems to quote it as a model against false hypocritical prayer, focusing attention on the sixth petition. Luke's context is a general request by Jesus' disciples for a model prayer in analogy to prayers of John the Baptist and the summary prayers of other rabbis.

With regard to content, Jewish parallels have been pointed out for every single element in the text, especially from the Kaddish Prayer, the most famous of Jewish doxologies, and the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), part of morning and evening prayer. However, while thoroughly Jewish, the Lord's Prayer also bears the marks of Jesus' personality. The address, probably Abba in Aramaic—that is, the child's intimate name for his father—invites the disciples to share in Jesus' own intimate relationship with his God, and the emphasis throughout on ultimate goals reflects the center of Jesus' message. The first three petitions have a similar scope, praying for the completion of God's final plan. With the fourth petition the style changes to "We," suggesting two-stanza arrangement in Matthew. A problem is the almost unparalleled usage of the Greek word epiousion, which is usually translated as "daily" bread. Its precise meaning is disputed. Perhaps it carries eschatological overtones and means: "sufficient for the Last Day." Forgiveness, temptation, and deliverance from evil (or the Evil One) again have their deepest meaning in relation to the Final Days.

Use of the Lord's Prayer

The rule in the Didache 8:2 to pray the Lord's Prayer "three times a day" hints at an early nonliturgical use as a private prayer. Regular use in public worship is attested relatively late, first in connection with baptism. The prayer was taught to the catechumens together with the Creed shortly before 'baptism. Possible use in a Eucharistic context may be reflected in Tertullian's interpretation of the "daily bread" as the Lord's body. In the Eucharistic liturgy of the East, Cyril of Jerusalem (about 315-387) first mentions it as having its place before communion. In most Eastern rites it is said by the people or sung by the choir. In the Roman Mass, its place was originally after the Breaking of the Bread, immediately before the Kiss of Peace and the Communion. Pope Gregory the Great (died 604) wanted to give it more prominence and moved it to the end of the Canon before the Breaking of the Bread. That is its present position. Since the revision of the Roman liturgy in the 1960s it has been usually said by the congregation. The Lord's Prayer is also part of the Divine Office in East and West.

In the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer appears up to four times during various services. In the Communion Service it follows communion since the revision of 1552, but in the American Prayer Book it comes before communion.

In the worship of many Protestant churches, the Lord's Prayer closes the public prayer offered by the pastor either prior to the sermon, or, as in Lutheran orders of service, after the sermon in the final part of the service. In the Liturgy of the Lord's Supper, it often precedes the Words of Institution.

Private devotional use of the Lord's Prayer is common. In the Middle Ages a popular practice was praying the Rosary, during which the Lord's Prayer is recited 15 times. Regular morning and evening prayer, prayer at meals, intercession for loved ones, and the like, often take the form of the Lord's Prayer. In ecumenical gatherings of Protestants and Catholics it has been the most important common liturgical bond. Tertullian already saw it as a "compend of the whole Gospel."


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    • killrats profile image

      killrats 7 years ago from Cape town South Africa

      Very good hub, which ever way one looks at the LORD'S pray it still gives us a foundation on which we can build our lives

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      What an interesting and informative hub, and a scholarly approach that is refreshing in it's detail without being wearisome.

      Thank you for a well-written hub on a familiar and beloved prayer.