“Our Daily Bread”

Translations of Scripture are marvels of scholarship, and the standard translations are as accurate as translations can be. But of course much is still ‘lost in the translation’. All translations of anything have this problem. To me a translation is like a black and white photo, where the original is ‘living color’.

One of the more dramatic examples for me personally is found in the middle of one of the most important passages in the entire Bible, namely the Lord’s Prayer.

“Give us this day our daily (EPIOUSIOS/ἐπιούσιος) bread.” (Matt 6:11)

This petition is found in both versions of the Lord’s Prayer recorded in the Gospels: the version we normally use (Matt. 6:9-13), and the shorter version in Luke 11:2-4.

The problem is that Jesus apparently made up the word ‘EPIOUSIOS’ (usually translated ‘daily’). It’s a brand-new word! The only place it occurs is in Matt 6:11 and Luke 11:3, and in the writings of early Church Fathers quoting these verses. It hasn’t been found anywhere else in all of extant Greek literature — from Homer (8th century BCE) through the Byzantine period (15th century CE). So we can’t see how the word is used in other contexts to get a handle on its meaning — because we have no other contexts to consider!

(Coining a new word is known as a ‘neologism’, and EPISIOUS is the only one in all of Jesus’ recorded words. The rest of the Lord’s Prayer is regular Greek — no other surprises like this.)

Greek has a standard phrase for ‘every day’ or ‘daily’ (namely KATh hĒMERAN) that Jesus could have used — so why did He coin a new word here? Wait, here is what we find in Luke 11:

Give us every day (KATh hĒMERAN) our EPIOUSIOS bread. (Lk 11:3)

Give us today (SĒMERON) our EPIOUSIOS bread. (Matt 6:11)

It’s common in Greek to put two words together to form a new one, so EPIOUSIOS may be EPI + OUSIOS: ‘EPI’ = ‘upon’, and ‘OUSIOS’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘to be’, so ‘being’? ‘substance’? Other approaches result in proposed meanings of ‘necessary for existence’, ‘for tomorrow’, ‘for the future’, ‘supernatural’, and others. Many barrels of Greek scholar ink have been consumed trying to understand EPIOUSIOS by etymological analysis like this, without a decisive conclusion.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world in the 3rd century BCE, he enforced the Greek language on all his conquered peoples (in addition to their local language). By the 1st century you could still go anywhere in the Mediterranean world, speak Greek and be understood. The ever practical Romans were fine with this, reserving Latin for governance. However, in 285 the Roman Empire split into east and west, and in 325 Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Latin became the official language of both Government and the western Church (joined at the hip as they became), and so in 382 Jerome (345?-420) — one of the leading Bible scholars of his day, was commissioned by the Church to create an official Latin translation of the Bible, now known as the Vulgate. At this point Greek, though waning, was still a living language. Jerome was certainly far closer to living New Testament Greek than WE are!

How Jerome translated EPIOUSIOS is particularly interesting: in Luke 11 he translated it ‘quotīdiānus’ or ‘daily’, but in Matt 6 he translated it as ‘supersubstantiālis’ — ‘super + substantial’?  Wait — translating the same word in the same phrase in the same context two very different ways? Really? It would appear that the meaning of EPIOUSIOS was uncertain even to Jerome. (Lots of Latin scholar ink consumed on this one!)

One last item, then we’ll see if we can’t pull this all together. In Hebrew poetry a common structure is called ‘chiasm’: nested patterns like “A B C D C B A”, where the climax or main point of the poem is found in the middle. Indeed, a common feature in the Psalms is that the middle (Hebrew) word or phrase summarizes the entire Psalm. So, for example, in Psalm 23, the middle Hebrew phrase is ‘for you are with me’. Jesus and the apostles were all Jews, presumably well versed in Hebrew poetry, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find chiastic structures in the New Testament. Which we do.

The Lord’s Prayer consists of seven petitions (plus the ‘doxology’ at the end: “For you are the kingdom…”). The middle petition of the seven is “Give us this day our EPIOUSIOS bread”. And what, pray tell, is the exact middle (Greek) word in the Lord’s Prayer? Wait for it — it’s EPIOUSIOS! Maybe that’s a coincidence, but if so, it’s a doozy!

So, in conclusion, we have Jesus coining a new word in the middle of His iconic prayer. Hard to see why He would do that if all He meant was plain vanilla ‘daily’. I for one marvel that in the fat middle of a passage as supposedly well understood as the Lord’s Prayer we still find Mystery. We like to kid ourselves that we have everything ‘all figured out’, but of course we don’t! It’s currently translated as ‘daily’, partly because that’s firmly established tradition, and partly because nobody has a convincing better idea.

I have my own working hypothesis if you will. Authors since time immemorial have deliberately used ambiguity when they wanted to communicate more than one possible meaning. So, what if Jesus meant something along the lines of “Give us today our ‘physical’ AND ‘spiritual’ bread” — food for our body as well as our soul? That, to me, is an eminently worthy prayer and meditation.