Daily Archives: 2019-06-16 10:30:56 GMT+0000

“Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”

We read the Bible and see that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “the Lord’s Prayer” and we naturally think, “So, that’s what Jesus did and that’s how the prayer got started.” How could anyone devise complicated theories to arrive at any other viewpoint?

But here’s a catch.

If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. Jesus did not commit his teaching to writing because he believed that his disciples were, like St. Paul’s, his epistle written in fleshy tables of the heart, and that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. To teach something by heart is the same in principle as to write it down, and there is no statement in the gospels that Jesus ever taught his disciples by heart any other thing than the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus might have made an exception in favour of a single prayer, but there is no very obvious reason why he should so have done.

Goulder, 32

Trust scholars to make things complicated. But this one is just getting started. I’ll paraphrase.

If Jesus taught the Prayer then we can assume that the Twelve knew it by heart, and surely they taught their converts to learn it by heart, too. After all, this is the only thing Jesus told them to learn by heart, so they surely did so. Peter, James, John supervised the church in Jerusalem; Barnabas was their disciple in Jerusalem and apostle in Antioch. Paul, who worked with Barnabas, taught the same message, he insists, as the other apostles. At what point would variant versions of the prayer (as we have in two gospels) have arisen? Surely one of the apostles would have stepped in to fix things if he ever heard of the teaching being corrupted.

Matthew and Luke document different versions of the prayer but Mark, generally believed to be the earliest gospel, didn’t mention it. Strange, especially if it were the only thing, and presumably, therefore, the most important thing, that Jesus wanted them to learn to repeat. The absence of the Prayer in Mark becomes more problematic when we notice that three times Mark comes close to writing prayers that have distinct echoes of the Lord’s Prayer. So surely he could not have simply forgotten to mention Jesus’ teaching on this point. (In Mark 11:25-26 Jesus tells his disciples to forgive others when they pray or God won’t forgive them; in Mark 14:36 Jesus prays to his Father to remove a trial or temptation or test from him, and he then adds “thy will be done”.)

Since Luke’s version of the Prayer is shorter it is widely held that his version is the original. The reasoning is that liturgical scripts tend to expand over time. There are semantic and stylistic arguments to indicate that Matthew’s Prayer contains characteristic Matthean language and that Luke’s version contains characteristic Lucan language. It would appear to follow that each derived their versions of the Prayer from different sources. Matthew is thought to have taken his from Q (the “lost sayings source that is thought to have been known to both Matthew and Luke) and Luke to have taken his from his special or unique material, L. Both Q and L are then presumed to have derived from Jesus’ original teaching in Aramaic. But Q and L appear to be so different in places that they cannot have come from the same single source. So this scholarly theory gets into murky unknowns.

Nonetheless, Luke’s shorter version suggests that Matthew has expanded on an original prayer. Luke is at least evidence that Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer was unknown to him. Matthew has evidently expanded on an original idea.

But here is the coup de grâce:

The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. Are we truly to believe that any Christian had the effrontery to elaborate and improve the one piece of liturgy composed by the Lord himself, or that any church would have accepted his amendments, when the Prayer had been part of every Christian’s catechism, and had been used (on a conservative estimate) for forty-five years? To what purpose have credal scholars laboured to show how rapidly the newly composed creeds were accepted and reverenced verbatim in the fourth century? The assumption is incredible, and would never have been made but for a simple fallacy over the doxology. If, the argument runs, the scribes who added the doxology, and different versions of the doxology, to the Matthaean Prayer were at liberty to improve the Paternoster, and the author of the Didache likewise, why should not the same licence be accorded to the evangelist? It is not for the first time that reverence for tradition has inspired false argument. A sound argument must run : it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.

Goulder, 34 (my bolding)

I’ll be following up a question that has arisen on social media: How could Luke have possibly known Matthew’s gospel and revised it when we see what an inferior job he made of transcribing the Lord’s Prayer? There are several good reasons to believe Luke’s shorter version is in response to Matthew’s.

Matthew 6:9-13 Luke 11:2-4
9 “‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
2 “‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”


Goulder, M. D. 1963. “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer.” The Journal of Theological Studies XIV (1): 32–45. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/XIV.1.32.