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The Jewish Origins of the Lord's Prayer

Leo Michel Abrami

The Lord’s prayer is the prayer which Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples.
It later became the prayer ‘par excellence’ of all Christians. There are two
versions of the Lord’s prayer in the New Testament; one is found in the
Gospel of Matthew (Mat. 6:9-13) and the other in the Gospel of Luke (Luke
11:1-4). It has been suggested that Luke’s version is probably an older
version of the prayer because it is shorter. Matthew’s version, which is more
elaborate, contains several additions that are not included in Luke’s version.
There is no mention of the prayer in the gospel of Mark or John.

The Lord's Prayer is also found in the Didache (8:2), an early 2nd century
document in Greek, which was discovered in Egypt in 1873. This early
manual of Christian teaching (Didache means teaching in Greek) says: “You
must not pray like the hypocrites, but you should pray as follows” and it
basically quotes the version of Matthew.

The Luke’s version goes as follows:

He said to them, "When you pray, say:


Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”1

Matthew’s version which will later be included in the liturgy of virtually all
Christian churches, contains four expressions (underlined) which were not
included in Luke’s version:

1 Luke 11:1-4, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1991, New York, Oxford University Press

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Pray then in this way:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
and we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one.2

It is usually assumed that the Lord’s prayer was composed in the Aramaic
language, which was the vernacular spoken in Judea and Galilee after the
Babylonians established their rule over the country in the 6th cent. BCE. It is
interesting to note that it is still recited in Syriac, a North Western dialect of
Aramaic, in the Maronite Church of Lebanon and Syria and the Assyrian
Church of Iraq.

As we examine Matthew’s version of the prayer, we immediately recognize


the similarity which exists between the first stanza and the first paragraph of
the Kaddish, one of the most solemn prayers of the Jewish liturgy. This
doxology was originally recited at the end of a study-session in a Talmudic
Academy or a House of Learning and recited in Aramaic, whereas most of
the other prayers of the Jewish liturgy are composed in Hebrew. It was later
included in the religious services of the synagogue and recited at the end of
the major parts of the service, probably in the 2nd or 1st century BCE.

Each of the petitions which follow the original doxology, corresponds also to
a passage of the Jewish liturgy, a fact which lead J.L. Houlden3 to say:“The
Lord’s Prayer is distinctly Jewish in character, with numerous parallels in
Jewish forms of prayer, e.g., ‘Bring me not into the power of sin, iniquity,
temptation or contempt, and let the good impulse have dominion over me.’ 4

2Matt. 6:9-13 (the underlined expressions are those which are not found in the gospel of Luke or are slightly
modified)
3 Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, New York, 1992, vol.4, p. 359

4 Talmud Babli, Berakhot 60b

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Indeed, the petition for forgiveness of sin (or debt) is almost identical to the
one included in the Amida (A), the silent prayer instituted by the rabbis and
recited three times a day, as is the blessing for the bread which is part of the
Grace after meal (G). If we then consider the prayer mentioned above which
begins with the words “May it be Your will, O God and God of our ancestors,
to protect me from the power of sin and temptation...” (P) and the Kaddish
(K), we obtain the following correspondences with the elements of Matthew’s
version of the Lord’s prayer (left):

Our Father in heaven Father in Heaven (K)

Hallowed be Thy name Exalted and hallowed be His great


in the world (K)

Thy kingdom come May He establish His kingdom in your


lifetime and the lifetime of the house of
Israel (K)

Thy will be done on earth as it is in In the world He created according to


heaven His will (K)

Give us this day our daily bread He gives bread to all flesh (G)

Forgive us our debts as we also Our Father, forgive us our sins (A)
have forgiven our debtors

Do not bring us to the test May it be Your will ...not to bring us


into the power of sin and temptation (P)

but save us from the evil one. Let not the evil impulse control our life
(P)

Let us now to consider the significance of these amazing similarities

Father in Heaven

This expression “Father in Heaven” is found in the reader’s Kaddish recited


at the end of all Jewish services, in the following sentence “May the prayers

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and petitions of the entire community of Israel be accepted by their Father in
Heaven (Abuhon di-vishmaya) and let us say, Amen.”

One of the Church Fathers, Origen, in the 3rd century, thought that the Lord's
Prayer marked a radical departure from the practices of Judaism, because he
thought that to address God as "Father" indicated a directness of speech,
which was unknown in Judaism. This is, however, not correct. Many of the
prayers of Judaism begin with the invocation “Our Father in Heaven” (Avinu
she-bashamayim) or “Our Father, our King” (Avinu Malkenu) or
“Compassionate Father” (Av Harah’aman.)

The concept of God as Father is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible. “For you
are our Father” is found in Isaiah (Is. 63:16 and 64:8). A similar reference is
found in Malachi (2:10) “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God
created us...” The title “our Father” is included in a benediction attributed to
David and which was later included in the morning service of the synagogue.
“...Blessed are you, Lord, God of Israel, our Father, from eternity to eternity”
(1 Ch. 29:10).

Another reference to God as father is found in Moses’ poem which he


composed before his death: “Is not He your Father, who created you, who
made you and established you” (Deut. 32:6).

In addition, the people of Israel are often referred to as the ‘children of God’
as in Deuteronomy (14:1) “You are children of the Lord your God.” These
metaphoric expressions come to re-enforce the symbolic meaning of a filial
relationship with the divinity.

Hallowed be Thy name

The corresponding expression of the Kaddish states “sanctified be His great


name” (yitkadash shemeh rabbah). J.L.Houlden5 makes the following
comment: “The language is well-established in Judaism, with God’s “name”
signifying the reality and majesty of his presence, and “holiness” being his
essential attribute (2 Sam 6:2; Jer 7:11; Lev 11:45)”. Houlden also remarks

5 id. in Anchor Bible Dictionary

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that while the verb does not occur elsewhere in the gospel in relation to God,
Matthew makes use of the idea of God’s name.

We may note also that the word “hallow” is actually derived from the old
Saxon word “haelig”, which means “holy”. The original term in the Kaddish
is yitkadash in Aramaic or “sanctified”. It is preceded by the verb “yitgadal”
“may He be magnified”. These two expressions echo the statement found in
the book of Ezekiel 38:23 which says “Thus will I be magnified, sanctified
and acknowledged in the sight of many nations and they shall know that I am
the Lord”.6 The content of this prophecy is of an eschatological character, and
so are the Kaddish and the Lord’s prayer.

Thy Kingdom come

The Kaddish says “May He establish His kingdom during your life and in
your days and in the life of the whole house of Israel” (ve-yamlikh malkhute).
The kingdom of God will then be established on earth as it was announced by
the prophets Zechariah and Daniel:

“And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day, the Lord alone
[shall be worshiped and shall be invoked] by his true name.” (Zech.14:9)

“And in the time of those things, the God of heaven will establish a kingdom
that shall never be destroyed, a kingdom that shall not be transferred to
another people. It will crush and wipe out all these kingdoms, but shall itself
last forever.” (Daniel 2:44)

“The kingship and dominion and grandeur belonging to all the kingdoms
under heaven will be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High.
Their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve
and obey them.” (Daniel 7:27)

This everlasting kingdom will be established when humanity will


acknowledge God as the supreme ruler of the universe. The ‘kingdom’ as a
symbol of God’s dominion, represents the messianic hope of the believers in

6 Yitgadal ve-yitkadash (Kaddish) correspond to Vehitgadalti vehitkadishti (Ez. 38:23) “Thus will
I be magnified and sanctified.”

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pure monotheism. It has not yet arrived since the faithful are still praying for
it to come.

The imminence of the kingdom was attested in two passages of the New
Testament. In Matthew, Jesus is quoted for saying: “Repent, for the kingdom
of heaven has come near”7 and in Luke “But truly I tell you, there are some
standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”8
Thus Matthew and Luke stated that the establishment of the messianic era of
peace and good will, would coincide with the coming of the Messiah.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) suggested that Jesus actually expected the


world immediately to come to an end as God was establishing His kingdom
on earth.9

In the Sephardic liturgy of the synagogue, two expressions are added to


the statement “may He establish His kingdom”; they are “may He hasten his
redemption and soon cause the Messiah to come” (ve-yatsmah’ purkaney
viykarev meshih’ey), thus suggesting that the establishment of the kingdom
would be concomitant with the coming of the Messiah.

Isaiah and Micah, on the other hand, had announced that universal peace
would be established one day without even mentioning the coming of a
messiah.10

Others claim that there would be a second coming of the Messiah at which
time he would realize the messianic hope of universal peace. There is no
mention, however, in the Hebrew Bible of a second coming of the Messiah.
Actually if we consider that the Christian messiah already came back at the
time of the Resurrection, the hope of many believers is concerned with a third
coming rather than a second coming.

7 Matthew 3:2; 4:17


8 Luke 9:27; 10:9
9 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London, 1910), pp. 249-395.
10 Is. 2:2-4 and Micah 4:2-6ui

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Matthew and Luke were convinced that the establishment of God’s
kingdom on earth would take place in Jesus lifetime and not later.

Thy will be done

“By His will, He created the world” says the Kaddish. Many prayers of the
Jewish liturgy also begin with the words “May it be Your will” (Yehi Ratzon),
followed by the expression of the specific wish that we obey Him and be
given the opportunity to perform some of the precepts of the Torah.
“Obey His will, so that he may fulfill your will – the desire of your heart.”
Mishnah Avot 2:4

The Lord’s prayer makes it quite explicit: “Thy will be done on earth as it is
in heaven” meaning that humans should strive to fulfill the will of God on
earth - and not in heaven. As W. Grundmann states: “In heaven, God’s will is
done: on earth, may it be done!”11 Indeed, the biblical prophets often state
that man is God’s earthly partner in the unfolding of history.

Give us our daily bread

This petition refers indirectly to the statement found in Genesis “By the sweat
of your brow, you shall eat bread.” (Gen. 3:19) And also “Man shall not live
by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God…”
Deut. 8:3

Bread was regarded as the mainstay of the individual’s sustenance. All other
food was usually placed inside the bread, as is still the custom in the Middle
East today where people eat their meal wrapped in a Syrian pita. As a
consequence, the term “leh’em” (bread) had come to mean food in general as
in this verse of Proverbs: “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share
their bread with the poor.” Pr. 22:9

The tradition of the synagogue requires that one recite a blessing over the
bread before partaking of a meal “Blessed You are O Lord our God, who
brought forth bread out of the earth.” And in the grace after meal, the pious

11Quoted by Alfons Deisler in “The Spirit of the Lord’s Prayer in the Faith and Worship of the Old Testament” in
The Lord’s Prayer and Jewish Liturgy, edited by J. Petukowski and M. Brooke, Seabury Press, N.Y. 1978 (p.10)

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person gives thanks to God “who provides bread to all flesh, for His mercy
lasts forever.”

Forgive us our sins (debts)

The sixth paragraph of the Amidah, the main prayer which is recited
three times a day, says: “Our Father, forgive us for we have sinned. Our
Sovereign, pardon us, for we have transgressed; for You kindly forgive and
pardon. Praised are You, Our Lord, who is gracious and forgiving.” Thus,
God grants forgiveness graciously to those who repent sincerely.

In approximately 170 B.C., the Jewish Sage Ben Sira emphasized the virtue
of forgiveness in the context of a true religious life.

“Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be
pardoned when you pray. Can a man harbor anger against another, and yet
seek for healing from the Lord? If he has no mercy toward a man like
himself, how can he pray for his own sins?” Ben Sira 28:2-4

The author thus suggests that one should forgive one’s neighbor before
requesting forgiveness from God.

A similar concept is found in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud (1st
and 2nd cent. CE). “The Day of Atonement atones for transgressions of a
person against God, but it does not atone for transgressions of a person
against his neighbor, unless he first asks for forgiveness from his neighbor.”
12 This concept of forgiveness has become the central motive of the liturgy of

the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

Why is it, then, that Matthew’s version says ‘forgive us our debts’ and Luke’s
version say ‘forgive us our sins’? One reason may simply due to the fact that
the original Aramaic or Hebrew word lent itself to these two interpretations.
Indeed, the word h’ovah in Aramaic or Hebrew, means three things; it can
either mean an obligation, a debt or a sin. That may explain why the
translators were unsure as to how to translate the word h’ovah13 especially

12 Mishnah Yoma 8:9


13 A Dictionary of the Targum, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, compiled by M. Jastrow, Pardes, NY, 1950

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on account of the fact that the same ambiguity exists in the Greek language.
If the Hebrew text of the Amidah can be regarded as a source, then “sin”
would probably be a correct translation.

Lead us not into temptation

Again, the Hebrew-Aramaic term nisayon or nisyona and the Greek term
πειρασµός (peirasmos) found in the Gospels, lend themselves to two possible
translations, test or temptation, and that is probably the reason why the
evangelists were not sure about the exact meaning of the term. The root
nasah in Hebrew and Aramaic - which is also present in the Syriac version -
means to lift up, to try or test and the substantive word nisayon means
therefore test, trial or temptation.14

This concern is based on several biblical verses like the following “Probe me,
O Lord, and try me, test my heart and mind ‘“ (Ps. 26:2). In other terms,
people have the ability to choose what is right and resist the inclination or
temptation to do that which is evil.

Rabbi Simeon ben Levi describes the evil inclination in these terms: “Man’s
evil inclination (yetser) waxes strong against him, and seeks to do away with
him; if God did not help him, man could not prevail against it; as it is written
“the evil one (taken to mean the ‘evil inclination’) watches for the righteous,
seeking to put him to death; but the Lord will not abandon him to his power;
He will not let him be condemned in judgement.” Psalm 37: 32-33 15

Save us from evil

This expression is found many times in Scriptures and especially in the book
of Psalms. The author of Psalm 34:15 states; “Shun evil and do good” and in
verse 13 and 14 : “Who is the man who is eager for life...Guard your tongue
from evil...” A personal prayer, composed by Mar, son of Rabina (4th cent.)
which concludes the Amidah, says “Oh my God! guard my tongue from evil
and my lips from speaking guile..” thus asking God to help us resist the
temptation to do evil.

15 Talmud Babli, Kid. 30b and Suk. 52b

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We must note that the Jewish prayer does not refer to the Evil one, that is the
Devil or Satan, as some exegetes have interpreted this passage of Matthew 6.
In a Jewish context, it means only ‘save us from doing that which is evil.’

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen

This closing doxology was added to some manuscripts of Matthew in the 4th
or 5th century. It is most certainly derived from a verse of the book of
Chronicles which is recited in the Jewish service when the Ark is opened
before a scroll of the Torah is taken out:

“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory and the
majesty, for all that is in the heaven and on the earth is yours; yours is the
kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.” 1 Chr. 29:11-13

The Lord’s prayer is recited at every religious service held in church - and
even at any meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous - but the author of the Didache
let us know that many Christians recited the prayer three times every day.
Augustine said that the Lord's Prayer should be said by every Christian at
least once a day. Presumably, this would mean reciting the prayer alone, to
oneself, either silently or out loud.

Conclusion

This brief examination of the sources of the Lord’s prayer shows that it is
inspired by the traditional forms of prayers of the synagogue in the early part
of the first century. The various renditions of certain words or expressions
must have resulted from the successive translations of the text from its
original language (Aramaic or Hebrew) to Greek (and later Latin), especially
when the original words lent themselves to different interpretations in the
first place. One can easily recognize the various elements of several prayers
of the Synagogue liturgy which were incorporated in the Lord’s prayer.

Whereas the first part seems to be primarily concerned with the


eschatological hope of the establishment of “God’s kingdom” on earth, the

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last part is reflecting the main concerns of the believer, asking God for
sustenance and forgiveness, as we find them in the main prayers of the Jewish
liturgy. We may therefore conclude that the Pater Noster or Lord’s prayer is
essentially a Jewish prayer.

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