Our Daily Neologism

It is well known to New Testament scholars (and for the most part completely unknown to almost everyone else who prays the Lord’s Prayer) that the word translated “daily” is a Greek word the meaning of which is uncertain. It is certainly a strong piece of evidence for the connection between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that they share this word not otherwise attested.

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.

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  • steph

    Do we need to place such profound uncertainty on the prayer? We can see that Matthew and Luke shared the same source for the Lord’s Prayer (there are many reasons for thinking they used sources indepenently of each other). The neologism is due to the Greek translator of an Aramaic source translating an idiom as best he could. As Matthew Black demonstrates the most sensible reconstruction of the Aramaic original is ‘habh lana lahma (give us our bread), yoma den wyomahra’ (day by day). He has a fine little exposition on this pp. 203-7 “An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts” (sorry for bad transliteration). Maurice Casey writes further on this (forthcoming volume on The Life of the Historical Jesus)

  • You should look at Kenneth Bailey’s discussion of the Syriac Peshitta version in relation to this, which is also interesting.

  • steph

    I can have a look when I get back to Nottingham – Maurice has it. I actually prefer Maurice’s reconstruction and argument to Black’s. He writes at length and reconstructs the whole prayer, including “habh lanā yōmā dēn laḥmanā delimḥar” (Give us to-day our bread for to-morrow).

  • steph

    Kenneth Bailey seems quite comfortable to read not only the Syriac-speaking church but also modern Arab Christians back into first century Judaism which is highly problematic. He is highly thought of by evangelicals like Jimmy Dunn, because he does enthusiastic evangelical pseudo-scholarship which in particular persuaded Dunn of some ideas about perfectly accurate oral transmission of Gospel traditions, based on the study of modern Arab Christian communities, the sort of light, or rather darkness, in which Dunn likes to see first century Judaism. There is a large section (pp.91-131) on the Lord’s prayer, which does indeed see it in the light of the Peshitta, and Syriac piety, and the Middle East. Near the beginning he announces that ‘The Aramaic-speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic’ (p.95). It seems to be typical of him that he gives no reference for this sweeping statement, so he can follow it up with Jesus taking a ‘giant step’, which mysteriously opened the door for the NT to be written in Greek not Hebrew. By p.102, after fairly conventional adoration of Abba, ‘Jesus inaugurated a new age by praying in Aramaic’. For epiousios he heads for the Old Syriac, Lahmmo ameno diyomo hab lan, which he translates ‘Give us to-day the bread that doesn’t run out’ (p.121). I think its very sad that work of this kind gets taken seriously.