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#108 - The Lord's Prayer that Jesus prayed and taught
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
(A) Is the expression "the Lord's Prayer" an accurate name for the prayer? (B) Did Jesus himself pray the prayer he taught his disciples? I have heard that Jesus did not pray the Lord's Prayer, because he was without sin -- and that the prayer really should be called "the disciples' prayer."
Your questions are a good ones. They actually are questions that biblical scholars have explored and argued for many hundreds of years. Quite a few different answers have been proposed. Some of those answers revolve around the fifth petition in Matthew's version ("forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors"), which is the fourth petition in Luke's version ("forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us"). Some of the different answers to these questions on the Lord's Prayer can be summarized as follows:
A. Is the expression "the Lord's Prayer" an accurate name for the prayer? B. Did Jesus himself pray the prayer he taught his disciples? Representatives of these views (Bibliography #) 1.A. Yes, "the Lord's Prayer" is an appropriate name, because the Lord Jesus taught it to his disciples. 1.B. Yes, Jesus himself did pray it, because praying for forgiveness of sins (as Luke's version literally reads and Matthew's version figuratively meant) was typical of the prayers of all righteous Jews and was consistent Jesus' theology.
1.A: Betz (16), Cramer (1), Eddy (15), Jeremias (14)
1.B: Betz (16), Cramer (1), Jeremias (14)
2.A. No, "the Lord's Prayer" is not the most appropriate name, because although the Lord Jesus did teach it to his disciples, he himself did not pray the prayer he taught his disciples. "The Disciple's Prayer" would be a more appropriate name.
2.B. No, Jesus himself did not pray it, because he was without sin, and the "forgive us" petition would not have been applicable to him. 2.A&B: Pfeiffer & Harrison (9), Reumann (16) 3.A. No, "the Lord's Prayer" is not an appropriate name. Jesus did not really pray a single unified prayer like the Lord's Prayer with all of its petitions, and he did not teach such a prayer -- even though that is what the canonical gospels tell us. Jesus was a traveling sage going from town to town, teaching by parables, and healing sick people. When visiting with a gathering of people, Jesus spontaneously prayed aloud different one-sentence prayers -- a different one-sentence prayer for each occasion. It was after the crucifixion that Jesus' followers took a variety of his one-sentence prayers and created a single, multi-sentence, comprehensive prayer and attributed it to Jesus. In this view, what is known as the Lord's Prayer would be better labeled as the disciples' prayer or the church's prayer, because it was they who both created it and prayed it. 3.B. Yes, Jesus himself did pray it, because praying for forgiveness of burdensome financial debts (as Matthew's version reads), including the whole debt system, was consistent with Jesus' life of poverty prior to and during his ministry. 3.A&B: Funk, Hoover, & The Jesus Seminar (4), Taussig (8)
Below are some commentaries with a variety of views in response to your question. The BibleTexts.com response is my current conclusion. I tend to concur with the views quoted below from Hans Betz and Joachim Jeremias. Though I believe that Hal Taussig, Robert Funk, and others representing The Jesus Seminar are often overly skeptical and too narrowly selective in their range of data they consider, I do believe that their conclusions provide useful food for thought in the continuing scholarly dialog. Even if I do not agree with many of their conclusions, I do find some of them informative, as is the case with the Taussig quotes below.
The Lord's Prayer is an appropriate name for the prayer, because Jesus did exemplify, teach, and pray the type of prayer known as the Lord's Prayer, including Matthew's fifth petition, "Forgive us..." Not only was forgiveness required in Matthew's and Luke's versions of the prayer, but the earliest canonical gospel Mark's instruction on prayer also included, "And when you stand and pray, forgive anything you may have against anyone, so that your Father in heaven will forgive the wrongs you have done." (Mar 11:25, TEV)
As was the case with Jesus' prayers, our prayers necessarily include not only our forgiveness of other individuals, other groups, other communities, or other nations for anything we may have against them, but our prayers necessarily include also our petition for forgiveness by God of all obligations or wrongs for which we and our family, our friends, our groups, our community, or our nation are indebted to other individuals, groups, communities, or nations. Jesus exemplified, taught, and very likely prayed such an inclusive petition for forgiveness and a prayer of inclusive forgiveness. (For more references on forgiveness, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/forgivingothers.htm) Such unconditional love is characteristic of that pure, authentic Christianity that teaches the following:
We love because God first loved us.
(1Jo 4:19, TEV)
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And Love is reflected in love;
(Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, page 17, in Mary Baker Eddy's spiritual interpretation of the Lord's Prayer. Love is used as a synonym for God, and such 'reflection' is consistent with man as the "image" and "likeness" of God, as described in Gen 1:26,27, and elsewhere in the Bible. For more references on man and woman as the "image of God," browse http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/image.htm.)
In such prayers of forgiveness, one continually discovers and experiences more and more of God's redemption and salvation -- discovers and experiences 'the kingdom of God within one' (Gospel of Luke 17:21; Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3, 113; Gospel of Mary 4:4-5) and the recognition as being truly a child of God (Mat 5:43-45,48; Luk 6:35-36).
One of the questions that has received much attention in past scholarship was whether Jesus prayed the Lord's Prayer himself or made it up specificially for his disciples (vs 9a: "This is how you shall pray.") Some have argued that Jesus could not have spoken the fifth petition concerning the forgiveness of sins because he would thereby have admitted his own sinfulness and would have contradicted the church's dogma of his sinlessness. Yet this argument is a result of Christian christology, not the Jewish theology shared by Jesus. As a Jew, Jesus must certainly have acknowledged his sinfulness because such a confession belonged to the marks of the righteous man. [See footnote 337.] With God's forgiveness, which was assured to everyone who sincerely asked him for it, "sinlessness" in the Jewish sense was restored. The later Christian concept of Jesus' sinlessness, however, presupposes a concept of sin different from the Jewish one. For Judaism sinfulness is a part of human limitation and consists of transgressions, committed consciously and unconsciously, of God's commandments, whereas the Christian notion of sin presupposes that demonic forces of evil possess humanity, which is hence alienated from God. In the Christian sense, Jesus was thought to be without sin (cf. 2 Cor 5:21 Gal 3:13; John 8:46; etc.).
Footnote 337: Jeremias ... assumes that Jesus prayed the Lord's Prayer three time daily. [For details, see the commentary below from The Prayers of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias.]
The fifth petition concerns forgiveness of sins, a preeminent concern in Jewish and Christian worship and theology. What makes the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer stand out, however, is the peculiar interpretation given to sins as "obligations" (opheilemata). This interpretation takes its terminology from law and commerce, in order to apply it metaphorically to the religious topic of sins and forgiveness of sins. This interpretation also presupposes two doctrines concerning forgiveness. First, the interpretation of sins as obligations seems to imply a criticism of the other concept of sins as transgressions of legal codes or violations of taboos. Second, forgiveness of sins involves interrelated acts -- God's forgiveness is somehow bound up with the forgiveness of obligations others owe to us...
Applied to the relationship between God and humanity, this language is used metahorically. It states that we as human beings have outstanding debts that we have not repaid or cannot repay. Debts owed to whom? Owed to God or to other people? What do these debts consist of? Are they financial (loads or obligations) or more general (legal, social, etc.)?
Whatever the answers may be, two facts are presupposed: (1) the social concept that all human affairs are fundamentally those of mutual obligations and that this also includes our relationship with God; (2) the realization that these obligations, at least to a significant degree, remain unfulfilled...
One can deal with obligations in two ways: (1) by havein ghe debtor willingly or by force"pay the debt," or (2) by allowing the creditor to cancel the debt. In either case the debtor is released from the obligations.
Remarkably, the fifth petition employs this business language to interpret what othewise would be called "sins" and "forgiveness of sins." Accordingly, sins are not treated as transgressions of legal, moral, or ritual codes, the way sins are usually understood. Rather, sins are taken to be instances of injustice in the sense of obligations outstanding and not met. Since human life as a whole consists of an interconnected web of obligations, the totality of all unredeemed obligations constitutes human sinfulness.
We see that sunrise, afternoon (3 p.m.) and sunset were the three daily times of prayer for the Jews of the New Testament era... These three hours of prayer, together with the benediction said before and after meals, were Israel's great treasure, the skeleton framework for an education in prayer and for the practice of prayer for everyone from their youth upwards...
We know that Jesus was brought up in a devout home (Luke 2, cf. 4:16); we know therefore that he participated in the liturgical heritage of his people, and consequently we know the prayers which the child Jesus was taught in his parental home and which accompanied the man Jesus throughout his life. The three hours of prayer in particular were so universally observed among the Jews of Jesus' time that we are justified in including them in the comment 'as his custome was', which is made in Luke with reference to Jesus' attendance at Sabbath worship (Luke 4.16)...
So we may conclude with all probability that no day in the life of Jesus passed without the three times of prayer: the morning prayer at sunrise, the afternoon prayer at the time when the afternoon sacrifice was offered in the Temple, and the evening prayer at night beforfe going to sleep. We can sense from this something of the hidden inner life of Jesus, something of the source from which he daily drew strength.
Only when we have appreciated the position of Jesus within the liturgical tradition and the way in which the three times of prayer were a daily habit with him can we see the other side as well, the extent to which Jesus' prayer shatters custom.
The first thing to be noticed is that Jesus is not content with the pious practice of liturgical prayer three times a day. [e.g., Mar 1:35; 6:46; Luk 6:12]...
In contrast with the Shema and the Tephilla, the Lord's Prayer is an Aramaic prayer... Moreover, the invocation of God as 'Abba', coined by Jesus, is also Aramaic, as is finally the cry from the cross (Mark 15.34). Thus Jesus not only prayed in his native tongue in his private prayers, he also gave his disciples a formal prayer couched in the vernacular when he taught them the Lord's Prayer. In so doing, he removes prayer from the liturgical sphere of sacred language and places it right in the midst of everyday life.
Jesus' prayer breaks the confines of religious custom not only in the times and in the language of prayer, but above all in its content... The Church regarded the Lord's Prayer as a substitute for the three daily Jewish prayers long before the gospels were composed. As we know from Didache 9-10, the Church also had its own grace before and after meals, and in so doing probably follows the example of Jesus... The Lord's Prayer is in fact a brief summary of the fundamentals of Jesus' proclamation, with the address 'Father', the prayer for the final redemption (the two petitions in the second person), the prayer for the present realization -- here and now -- of the saving gifts of God (the two petitions in the third person), and the last petition for preservation from apostasty in the last terrible hour of temptation...
It is hardly conceivable that this 'Abba' [the Lord's prayer] could have been absent from his daily prayers during the three hours of prayer.
One would want to think that Jesus prayed about the "more important" issues of sins being forgiven. This turns out not to be the case.
Indebtedness was one of the major social and economic problems of first century Israel. The peasant farmers and the merchants in the towns and villages were constantly in danger of falling into serious debt to the landed class and to the urban elite. Farmers, who by and large planted small sections of land, were subject to the whims of weather and the market. Merchants often fell behind in their accounts for very similar reasons.
Although these cycles of indebtedness were acute in the first century, the peasant class of Israel had rarely been out of danger of debt during the previous twelve hundred years. Even before the monachy in Israel, tribal peasants were threatened with foreclosure by the Canaanite cities. The Hebrew prophets regularly came to the defense of poor farmers, whose crops were often not sufficient to keep them out of debt. This long history of indebtedness among the peasants probably had its roots in the less than ideal growing conditions in Israel, coupled with economic pressures from urban centers of commerce.
So, to have prayed about indebtedness made a great deal of sense in first century Galilee. Our initial reaction to thet obscureness of a prayer for release from indebtedness was probably Luke's as well. Luke, more at home in much more gentile and urban surroundings, most likely changed the original prayer about indebtedness to one about forgiveness of sins, a more general human dilemma than debts.
Understanding all this makes Matthew's "Forgive us our debts to the extext to which we have forgiven those inidebted to us" much more evocative of both Q and the historical Jesus, whose common milieu was the peasant class in Galilee...
After Jesus was gone, his followers in Galilee formulated a general prayer in his name, combining fragments from Jesus' own prayers with other material to create an institutionalized prayer in Jesus' name. As the various versions of this Lord's Prayer from the second half of the first century were passed on, the meanings of the individual prayer sentences were generalized and taken out of context. The sentence prayer about forgiveness made a gradual transition from forgiving one another's debts to forgiveness of sins.
Copyright 1996-2003 Robert Nguyen Cramer