I found my thoughts turning to this word as I read a passage on neologisms in Jocelyn Small’s book Wax Tablets of the Mind: Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity (p.69). Modern people need to be reminded that there were no dictionaries in the ancient world. There was no place one could turn in order to find out if a word “exists”. There were simply sounds that could be used for communication with greater or lesser degrees of clarity and effectiveness.
Was this word coined by an author, perhaps a translator of an Aramaic version of the prayer? Was it a word invented by one of the Synoptic evangelists and copied by the other? Was it a word that was well known in the dialect of a particular area where the Greek form of sayings attributed to Jesus and the prayer life of the earliest Greek-speaking Christian communities took shape? The word could have been widely used in spoken Greek in Galilee, for instance, and neither our lack of written attestation nor the failure of Origen and other readers from other areas to be familiar with it would discount this possibility. But the truth is that we do not know.
Our uncertainty about both the meaning of the word, and its significance for our understanding of the authorship and interrelationship of the Gospels, ought to be more widely known. Instead, we have people uttering a prayer in English that may mean something significantly different than anything Jesus may have taught his disciples to pray, and yet the tradition continues, with most calling it the Lord’s Prayer and believing that the meaning it has for them in English is authorized by and derives from Jesus.
It is not surprising that many religious believers are troubled by Biblical scholarship. It can place a profound uncertainty even at the heart of a prayer that gives them daily comfort and confidence. But the problem is not on the side of scholarship, but on the false confidence and deceitful certainty that many popular forms of religion offer to people, instead of offering them the honest truth with all its rough edges and unanswered questions.