Tag Archives: bible study

Give us this day our ………. bread. — Matt 6:11

Fill in the gap.

The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most famous passage from the whole bible. Certainly in the UK where many folks grew up saying it every day in school. But the funny thing is we don’t really know what should fill the gap.

The greek word is ἐπιούσιος (epi-OO-sea-os). Which is a very odd word. It doesn’t appear in other greek literature, and it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the gospels except in the two versions of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4). So we have no absolute way of knowing what it might mean.

But it seems to be pretty obvious. The Greek splits into two parts: “ἐπι-” (epi) is a common prefix in Greek that means “upon”, or “over”, and by analogy “beyond”, “more-than”. We have it in our word “epidemic”1 where “-demic” is again related to a Greek root meaning people (c.f. words such as demographics or democracy). The second part of the word “-ούσιος” is a common morpheme in Greek with meanings of “substance”. Hence the debate in the early church between whether Jesus and God were “homo-ousios”: of the same substance.

So using this analysis, we get “Give us this day our super-substantial bread”. And this is exactly how it was translated in the Latin Vulgate (“supersubstantialem”), and in some of the earliest English bibles. But, of course, if you are a protestant, “super-substantial bread” is unacceptably reminiscent of “trans-substantial bread”. And Jesus praying a Catholic prayer? Unconscionable!

Instead you can kind-of make a contrived Greek derivation through a misspelling and odd contracted verb form of ἔπειμι (EP-eye-me) “to come upon”, which is often used along with the word for day (“ἡμέρα” herm-EH-ra) to mean “on the following day” (if you’ve read much of the gospels you’ll recognize that phrase, that’s what it is translating). So it could be that we are meant to read “give us this day our following day’s bread”2, with a spelling mistake and a missing word (the missing word isn’t uncommon, it must be said). From there with a squint we could end up with “daily”. Phew. We’ve avoided sounding Catholic! Hoorah! Let’s not mention the fact that there are perfectly reasonable ways of saying “daily” in NT Greek (such as “κατά ἡμέρα” and “πᾶς ἡμέρα” both using the word for day “ἡμέρα”), so that this construction would be an obtusely strange way to say “daily”.

So early protestant translators used “daily”, even though there is very poor evidence for it3. The King James Version, and practically every English version since has used “daily”. I can’t find who originally used this form of words. It is present in Luther’s 1545 version (“täglich Brot”), was written back into the lexicons, and has passed into most other languages from there (“pain quotidien” in the French Louis Segond, for example, and “日々の食物” in the Japanese Living Bible [specially for Sabio]).

So we’ve ended up with “daily” bread. More through historic accident and sectarianism than through good Greek.

So let’s use the obvious Greek parsing “super-substantial”, via a more common English phrase “supernatural” (which is further from the Greek, of course, I’m not suggesting the author meant supernatural, just that supernatural is the nearest reasonably common word in English). We get the Lords prayer (following Matt):

Our father in heaven:
May your name be holy;
May your kingdom come;
May your will be done,
As in the heavens4, so upon the earth.
Give us today our supernatural bread.
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive sinners5.
Do not bring us to temptation, but from hardships draw us to yourself.6
—Matt 6:9-13 (tr. mine)

So all together we have a prayer which is about the life in the new Kingdom. It doesn’t talk about prosaic things. And using “daily bread” stands out therefore, where “supernatural bread” works fine.

But of course, when you have such an iconic translation, the translation becomes more important than the ‘original’ (or even first 1500 years of) meaning of the text.

Notes:

[1] My first thought for an example was “epididymis” which is the coiled tube that pipes sperm out from the testicle. It has a more amusing derivation “epi-” meaning “beyond”, of course, but “-didymis” is also greek, and in fact you may know it from a character in the NT, Didymus Thomas. Didymus means “twins”. So the epididymis, is “beyond the *nudge-nudge-wink-wink* twins”.

[2] Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, mentions that the (now lost) Gospel of the Hebrews had “bread of the morrow” here, so the sense of the following day’s bread is not entirely new. But Jerome concludes the “of the morrow” translation doesn’t work in context and makes little sense. He wisely goes with the Greek. He doesn’t mention “daily” as a possible translation.

[3] Interestingly, the Syriac translation (Pesshita) of the NT uses “neccesary”, although it isn’t clear what parsing of the Greek they were using to arrive at that. This is sometimes pointed to as supporting evidence for the use of the “daily”, though that is a huge stretch even then, since the Syriac used is definitely not that for “daily” – as in the Greek, there is a perfectly normal way of saying “daily”, used elsewhere in the Pesshita, but it is not used here.

[4] I’ve taken a liberty here of pluralizing the Greek singular word ‘heaven’. The plural form is very common as well, both in Greek and Hebrew and doesn’t seem to have much of a semantic difference. Here it just reads more smoothly.

[5] My translation of ‘sin’ here is a bit sneaky. Sin would be correct in Luke’s version, but in Matt he uses the normal word for debts. It is pretty certain, however, that it is being used metaphorically, to mean spiritual debts, and this is the sense in which Luke obviously takes it. Not many folks would argue that the gospel writers want you to understand that Jesus is talking monetary debts here. Particularly since Matt 6:14 goes on to have Jesus explain that he was talking about sin. Of course, if Jesus were to be taken as asking you to pray for the forgiveness of your monetary debts, then it would dent my suggestion that the Lords prayer is all about the kingdom.

[6] The “For thine is the Kingdom” bit at the end is not considered authentic. It is only found in some text traditions and has numerous variations in other texts, so I have omitted it in accordance with the recommendation of Nestle-Aland. — I’m sure that would be yet another reason why conservatives hate the NA text.

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Peter: Feed My Sheep, A Group Bible Study — John 21:15-17

I’d like to try something new. I’m not sure if I’ve got nearly enough commenters on this blog, or if enough of them are former or current Christians. But hopefully we can get started. I want to think about the rather odd passage in John 21:15-17, where a ressurrected Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and each time, when Peter agrees that he does, Jesus tells him some variation on ‘feed my sheep’.

The passage is:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

— John 21:15-17 (NIV)

Christ 's Charge to Peter by Raphael

Christ's Charge to Peter by Raphael 1515-1516. Currently in the Victoria and Albert museum, London. This stunning piece is a combination of two scenes: Matthew 16:18-19 (giving Peter the keys to the kingdom), and our John 21:15-17 (pointing to a flock of sheep to feed).

I haven’t used my translation of this. I’m using the NIV translation because I don’t want to introduce my bias onto the text at this point (although I did select the translation to use, so I’m not entirely innocent).

So the question I want us to answer is this: what does this mean? What is Jesus saying, what are the significant elements to the story? Is there an explanation of why it is in this format (why three times, why sheep, why Peter emphasizes Jesus’s knowledge, why love, why ‘Simon son of John’, etc). No explanation will cover more than one or two of these features, but I’m interested to see the gamut of interpretations.

Please add in the comments, but can I ask you to state carefully whether your response is a personal intepretation, or one you’ve been taught (if the latter, can you say where: a sermon, a bible study, sunday school). You can add as many comments as you like with as many interpretations.

Anyone is welcome to contribute and your intepretations will not be ridiculed (not by me, anyway – comments are always free to disagree). There is no correct answer I’m looking for, and I don’t have any bombshell to undermine the text. You don’t need to know the original greek, or be a bible scholar or theologian. Simple explanations are as welcome as complicated ones. I am curious because I know of several different ways of reading this passage, and I suspect there may be many, many more. If you are a believer and lurk here, please contribute.

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What is the Best Bible Commentary?

I was asked this weekend what commentaries are worth using, for folks who don’t want to drink the Kool-aid of evangelical bible propaganda. Its a tricky question.

I’m not a huge fan of commentaries generally, as many give the false impression that the bible means something, usually that it means something very similar to the religious prejudices of the reader’s church tradition. If you want to be told what to believe, or to be told how the bible backs up everything you already believe, then there are lots of resources for you, but I’m not going to be able to help you find them.

There are, however, various commentaries that are serious, scholarly, and address the text on its own terms. Unfortunately it isn’t easy to know which is which if you’re just looking for something to help with your study.

One more caveat, before I give you my top three. I do not read or use one-volume commentaries. The bible isn’t one book, and so I don’t see how you can write a commentary on the whole thing. Particularly not a critical commentary. You may as well get yourself a good study bible (such as the Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition). The commentaries below are serious works, and they are therefore large. I don’t have anywhere near the complete set (which would run to hundreds of volumes for all three), but it is worth buying a volume on a particular book, if you expect to be studying it in depth. It looks like my study group will be embarking on an analysis of Acts, for example, so I will use this opportunity to catch up on recent scholarship on those books, and these commentaries are useful to set the groundwork for reading papers or monographs.

So my list:

3. The International Critical Commentary (ICC – Books titles begin with “A critical and exegetical commentary on …”) has been around for over 100 years. The first set of books are now out of copyright and available on archive.org (here’s a search for scans from the University of Toronto library — tweak the search for other versions), but scholarship has moved on and many of the books in the series have been recommissioned. For a preview of the commentary on Acts, here it is on Google books. The series is currently published by Continuum Press (under the T & T Clark imprint). The series list is available on the Continuum site

2. The Continental Commentary Series, by Fortress Press is a smaller series that is intended to bring major masterworks of international commentary to the English language. It is here you’ll find Westermann’s seminal (and epic) commentary on Genesis in three English volumes. The coverage tends to be very, very deep, but not very wide. In other words, the series only covers a small part of the biblical text (no Acts for me, for example). The list of the 20 current titles are on the Augsburg Fortress site.

But my default go-to critical commentary series is:

1. Yale University Press’s Anchor Bible Commentary series. Okay there are reports of some duds here (I’ve not found one myself, but I only have a selection). But there are also highlights such as Ray Brown’s work on the Johannine community, and a rather good book on First Isaiah. You can buy these in epic library sets from Yale directly ($2660 for OT, NT and OT apocrypha), or book by book from Amazon. Again the books are thoroughly scholarly (though less linguistically complex than the ICC, I find), but they tend to be much more concise than the Continental series. The series listing is on Yale Press’s site.

Anyone else got any favorite scholarly commentaries?

[Edit 2010-03-30: So I’m not American, and I kinda gave that away writing Coolade for Kool-aid. Thanks for the spot, Sabio]

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Why I Study the Bible

I often get asked why I study the bible if I’m an atheist. Here’s a quick compilation of my reasons:

  • The bible is the most important document in western cultural history (since it was the scripture of the institution that wielded power in the west for at least 1200 years).
  • It is the best preserved, copied, attested and studied ancient text we have. Early copies are available in multiple languages, from multiple cultures and theologies. This makes it a fascinating and fruitful text to study (if you’re going to study any ancient text, of course).
  • It is a text with many unanswered questions that have a possibility of being answered. There are riddles to be solved, and it is taking a multidisciplinary effort to solve them.
  • It contains poetry and expression of extraordinary beauty, morality and sensitivity, alongside expressions of the most ugly, debased and depraved sentiments humanity can suffer. There is no better place to study the human condition than in the bible.
  • It is a book that is highly politically active. A sizable proprtion of our society wants to give their readings of its dark fantasies authority over our lives.

And here are some reasons for reading the bible I don’t have!

  • It is the only written communication of the creator of the universe to his creation.
  • It gives us the reliable history of the incarnation of God in human form.
  • It is a book with genuine spiritual or supernatural power.
  • It is the best guide to human morality and mutual responsibility.
  • It is the greatest story ever told!

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