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The Lord’s Prayer

Frederick William Risser
Frederick William Risser

No portion of the Bible is more frequently quoted by Christians than the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. In churches of all denominations in all parts of the world, it remains a shared element in worship and private devotion—and one of the strongest cords binding Christians to their Jewish heritage. The wording of this prayer is not distinctively Christian but thoroughly Jewish.

Why are there two versions of the prayer?

The prayer appears twice in the New Testament. A longer version, Matt 6:9-13, is located at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1–7:29), in the context of Jesus’ instruction about piety appropriate for his followers (Matt 6:1-21). A shorter version, Luke 11:2-4, responds to his disciples’ request, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

Matt 6:9-13:                                Luke 11:2-4:

“Pray then in this way:                 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Our Father in heaven,                  Father,

hallowed be your name.               hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.                    Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,            And forgive us our sins,

as we also have forgiven              For we ourselves forgive everyone

our debtors.                                indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time    And do not bring us to the time

of trial,                                        of trial.”

but rescue us from the evil one.”

Many scholars believe Luke’s shorter version was earlier, expanded by Matthew. Others consider Matthew’s wording earlier, compressed by Luke. Another possibility is that the two versions represent different traditions handed down apart from each other.

Outside the New Testament this prayer’s earliest attestation is in the Didache (8.2), a late first-century manual of Christian instruction. It prescribes the prayer’s recitation three times a day, in a form nearly identical to that in Matthew but with a closing ascription: “for yours is the power and the glory forever.” By the ninth century, “the kingdom” was added (compare with 1Chr 29:11-13). Across the centuries this appendix became even more elaborate and conspicuously Christian: “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages” (The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, fifth century).

How is the Lord’s Prayer distinctly Jewish?

Both versions of this prayer contain two discernible parts. The first half (Matt 6:9-10/Luke 11:2) asks that God’s holiness be maintained and God’s sovereignty be extended. The address to God as “Father” and reference to God’s “kingdom” correspond to Old Testament phraseology (for example, Deut 32:6, Ps 145:13, Isa 64:8). In the Talmud (b. Ta‘anit 25b), Akiba, the second-century rabbi, is quoted as praying to “Our Father, our king,” characterizations of God anticipated in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q216 4.9), Philo (Conf. 170, 175), and the Mishnah (m. Yoma 8.9). In the Bible one’s name is no mere label but the repository of one’s peculiar essence (Gen 2:19, Gen 32:28). In Ezekiel, God “hallows” the divine name—sets it apart, consecrates it, sanctifies it—to demonstrate supreme divinity over all other gods and authorities: that “the nations shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 36:22-27; compare John 17:1-12).

Jesus was remembered as having customarily addressed God as father (Matt 5:48, Mark 14:36, Luke 6:36, John 6:32). “The kingdom” was Jesus’ preferred image for God’s dynamic reign throughout eternity, already yet secretly erupting in human history (Matt 13:18-23, Mark 4:21-32 Luke 17:20-21). Matt 6:10 amplifies the prayer’s previous petitions by asking that God’s will, unrestricted in heaven, rectify all things on earth (compare with the Kaddish, a tenth-century Jewish hymn of praise). In the first century B.C.E., Horace’s Letter to Augustus addresses the emperor as “god present.” Although Jesus orchestrated no assault against the Roman Empire (Matt 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25), his prayer insists that his disciples’ final allegiance is to God, not Caesar.

Like the Amidah, the ancient and still-central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, Jesus’ prayer begins with God’s exaltation and then turns to the community’s needs. The petition for bread (Matt 6:11/Luke 11:3) could be a simple plea for sustenance (compare with Exod 16:4, Ps 132:15), an allusion to an end-time banquet (compare with Luke 14:15), or a conflation of both (2 Bar. 29:8). In both Matthew and Luke this bread is modified by an adjective unattested elsewhere in Greek literature; one could translate it as bread “for today,” “for the following day,” “for the future,” or “necessary for existence.”

This section’s second petition (Matt 6:12/Luke 11:4) is for forgiveness of “debts” (Matthew) or “sins” (Luke). In ancient Aramaic, which was probably Jesus’ native tongue, the former term, referring to financial liabilities, is a metaphor for the second (compare with 11Q Tg. Job 34.4,  m. ’Avot 3.17). (The translation “trespasses,” familiar in Anglican liturgy, originated with William Tyndale in 1526.) The exchange implied here is that one who cannot offer forgiveness cannot receive it—but those who can forgive will be forgiven (see Matt 18:21-35, Luke 15:11-32): “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (Sir 28:2).

The final petition (Matt 6:13/Luke 11:4) is a vote of no confidence in one’s own strength to resist severe temptation, reminiscent of Paul’s encouragement in 1Cor 10:13 and anticipating talmudic pleas that the Lord not bring the faithful “into the power of sin, the power of guilt, the power of temptation, and the power of anything shameful” (b. Berakhot 60b).

The Bible does not speak with one voice on whether God puts mortals to the test: such is the case with Abraham (Gen 22:1-14), the Israelites (Exod 15:25), and (Job 1:6-2:6), yet the Letter of James asserts, “God … himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13). In the Gospels, Jesus urges his disciples to pray that they may not enter trials (Matt 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46), even though he himself is subject to diabolical testing (Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:1-13). The noun in the last clause of Matt 6:13 may be translated as either neuter (“evil”) or masculine (“the evil one,” Satan: compare with John 17:15). The second translation matches “the time of trial” in the preceding clause and fits the apocalyptic tenor of Jesus’ teaching in general (Matt 10:34-36, Luke 12:49-53, Mark 13:5-13).

  • C. Clifton Black

    C. Clifton Black is the Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church. His books include Anatomy of the New Testament (7th ed., Fortress, 2013), Mark (Abingdon, 2011), and Reading Scripture with the Saints (Wipf & Stock, 2014).