“Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


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27 thoughts on ““Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer””

  1. As Jesus is a character depicted differently in the NT material, anything attributed to him is also the fabrication of the author, including his “prayer”.
    According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, It is a “combination or selection of formulas of prayer in circulation among the Hasidæan circles; and there is nothing in it expressive of the Christian belief that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Jesus. On the contrary, the first and principal part is a prayer for the coming of the kingdom of God, exactly as is the Ḳaddish, with which it must be compared in order to be thoroughly understood”
    “On closer analysis it becomes apparent that the closing verses, Matt. vi. 14-15, refer solely to the prayer for forgiveness. Consequently the original passage was identical with Mark xi. 25; and the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety is a later insertion in Matthew. Possibly the whole was taken over from the “Didache” (viii. 2), which in its original Jewish form may have contained the prayer exactly as “the disciples of John” were wont to recite it.” (LORD’S PRAYER, THE, Jewish Encyclopedia)

  2. Interesting stuff here.

    I am quite a stickler when it comes to observing biblical texts. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the disciples’ request is clear… Teach us to pray what or as John the Baptist taught his Jewish disciples to pray… Is it the Lord’s prayer or JB’s prayer… ???

    In any case the author’s of both prayers (Mt and Lk)..both different …make sure that their liturgical theology gets through despite whether it is historical or not….

    and as far as Ehrman’s comment. Well, Jesus is not the only apocalyptic preacher on the scene…JB is clearly an apocalyptic prophet too…!! I find Ehrman’s argument there to be a non-sequitur of a sorts

    btw JB also lies at the source of the baptism of the Holy Spirit oracle, not Jesus!! which I find quite striking and fascinating.. I have been doing a lot of work on that these days…. and it is not what modern Pentecostals and others think it is…. Moreover,, the Baptism with the HS was fulfilled in Jesus prophetic ministry in Mark where it first occurs and has links to Isaiah, Ezek. and other prophets….God’s holy breath baptized the Jews with prophetic judgement and cleansing…. to remove the unclean spirit in the land (cf. Mark 1 and Zech..texts)

    Ehrman’s reasoning that it goes back to Jesus because he was an apocalyptic preacher and fits with his message is similar to the Aramaic Jesus argument who uses Aramaic words,,,so the must go back to Jesus and thus authentic is problematic…

    Come on now!!!…. Jesus was not the only one who could speak Aramaic… why do we forget that…. ?

    Moreover, just like two different sets of the commandments so too different versions for different contexts.

    Just a few thoughts to offer.

    1. After reading the rest of the blog comments here I am wondering what happened to the original reason for the entry.. if there was one.

      We are simply trying here perhaps to work with how the language and significance of the Lord’s Prayer and its context..sitz im leben .. how it was utilized and was being utilized in its early reception… its reception history… and ????

      A very significant issue in all issues of historicity.!!!!

      Moreover,,, why did this disciple of the Matthean tradition use it in the first place and what about “the afterlife” of the prayer in Luke and then the interpretive history of the Church. . It was changed by Luke. Why? Surely Catholic reasons are present.

      And by the way,,,, Matthew and Luke, as Neil and others have already pointed out present two different traditions and and so two texts with missing pieces… why?/

      No one reason is always sufficient and so it helps all of us to explore further without fear of any retribution for going against any standing orthodoxy of a religious, sectarian, or even sometimes secular nature regarding the readings of these things.

      Heretics .. those who are of another persuasion must always have a place in the world. It is okay to offer alternatives,, but they better have some good stuff backing them up. There is no such thing as a free for all among real serious students and scholars of these ancient texts.

      Sorry I sound a bit like Robert Ingersoll, whom I deeply respect as a real person in world history who did much for the ideas, ideals, and images of Freethought and his views about the Bible…

      The questions raised in these blogs are not insignificant questions. We try here as I gather,,, to retrieve any piece of data that can help us know a “historical” or different type of Jesus or any gospel Jesus’? And a lot of other questions? I don’t even like the libel of labels–agnostic-atheist in approach to life and learning…

      I have been trained in rational …empirical ..historical methods of investigation like many…and it is very frustrating to see so little respect for such due to theological and political and polemical reasons…

      And there is much more… Our hosts of this site are highly tuned into many things happening all over the world. We may not all agree but we become aware as well. I like that.

      So even in the so called authentic books of the NT there is supposed to be one Jesus over another Jesus within the diverse traditions… Even the liturgical elements are tainted with polemics.

      You can’t read Paul without seeing this,, and furthermore Matthew may well be aware of Pauline theology as many scholars think, and the Matthean scribe thinks that much of Pauline theology must be “exorcised” (ekballo) from the temple treasury or thesaurus of scribal texts re Torah… Matthew can clearly chuck out or exorcise what he thinks is not holy based on his own theology…

      Goulder was big time into scribal stuff re Matthew etc. and influenced many mythicists and historicists….so interesting… Goulder became an agnostic-atheist in approach at the end of his life long journey with Biblical texts…. I don’t think it fair to say what he really believed about this or that… He was clear… these are very human, brilliant, highly influential texts at many levels, and still may well have many things to say to us today… at least as I read him..

      and Mark Goodacre and others have much more to say than I could ever about Goulder… I have learned much from him…

      A true scribe according to Matt. has the right to cast out both old “revelations” ..that is OT texts and traditions and reinterpret them.. and cast out “new” revelations as well. Paul… anti-Torah stuff.. etc. and then present his own Jesus….Matthew’s Jesus…!!! In his own image!
      Schweitzer was right… Every Jesus in his own image… We just can’t get away from it!! Can we???!!

      Don’t you think.. ?? Look at this stuff for yourself and gain skills to ransack the primary resources..!! You will never regret it!!

      So dear bloggers..

      I hope we gain some good insights and methodological elements to help us

      make sense out of so much conflicting data… We need a lot of input without being insulted.

      No trolls allowed!

      1. • I suspect that many Vridar readers do not “bat an eyelash” in response to the assertion, “Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”; etc., but take it as a given that Luke copied Matthew and “Q” did not exist.

        Carrier (10 December 2018). “Adventures at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference, Part 3: Closing Out”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

        The famed Goodacre (of Duke University) presented a much-needed paper brilliantly refuting a recent attempt to revive the “Luke First” theory, i.e. the view that Matthew copied Luke, not the other way around (much less used any hypothetical “Q”). His paper was basically titled “Why Can’t Matthew Have Used Luke?” A question he decisively answered.
        Alan Taylor Farnes of Brigham Young University gave a masterful talk thoroughly refuting the all-to-common principle in textual and literary analysis of the Bible called lectio brevior potior, “the shorter version is more likely the original version.” You’ll hear this said in different ways, like, “Luke’s use of Q is more primitive, therefore Luke’s text is closer to Q than Matthew’s” (therefore “Luke didn’t use Matthew,” and “therefore there really was a Q,” as the argument then continues to its target conclusion). The alternative requires Luke to have frequently abbreviated Matthew. But the Q theorists say, “No way would anyone abbreviate, so surely Luke isn’t abbreviating Matthew, therefore there must have been a Q!”

        Farnes so thoroughly refuted this argument it was beautiful to behold. He showed with numerous examples and extensive comparative charts of shared pericopes and passages, that Luke frequently, in fact usually, abbreviated Mark. Thus already refuting the major premise (that authors didn’t abbreviate their sources, or that Luke specifically didn’t abbreviate his sources).

  3. Debt vs sin:

    The meanings of the translated Greek words (and between the likely Aramaic words)–are they pretty similar in meaning to the English words? Is the distinction similar in the Greek of the era and in the presumed Aramaic to the distinction in English?

    Did ‘debt’ vs ‘sin’ reflect a known sectarian or ideological difference at the very approximate time of the possible origin of the gospels?

    Could the translators have legitimately translated ‘sin’ as ‘debt’ and vice versa? Was the use of two words possibly (as I have seen suggested by people outside Biblical studies) something of a compromise as a result of squabbles of the translators of the King James Version, some more orientated to protecting property than others? As one or more naive commentators wondered, is it possible that the same word was translated as ‘debt’ in one place and ‘sin’ in another as something of a compromise?

    (I have seen glancing reference to some of these issues in a discussion of a recent book on the history of debt on a political website.)

    1. My questions still stand, but I have a minor correction. After further reflection I think the brief discussion I read elsewhere speculating about KJV translators squabbling had to do with the use of the word ‘trespass’ and its implications for property rights.

      1. • Side note:

        In the context of traveling from legally permissible point A to B (with caveats per homestead invasion, privacy, loitering, crop trampling, etc..) the right of trespass is an ancient one, even today some countries mandate that private land owners provide stiles for trespassers to cross fences.

        Trespass —meaning “enter unlawfully” is first attested in forest laws of Scottish Parliament (c. 1455).

    2. Harrington, Daniel J. (1991). The Gospel of Matthew. Liturgical Press. pp. 97–98. ISBN 978-0-8146-5803-1.

      [Per The Gospel of Matthew] The metaphor of ‘‘debts’’ (6:12) as a way of talking about sins is characteristically Jewish. Whereas the Lukan version is sometimes described as the Lord’s Prayer for Gentiles, the Matthean version with its additions is clearly most appropriate for Jewish Christians. Indeed there is nothing in it that a pious Jew of the first century or today could not say.

      1. Amid all these discussions and comments it might be helpful , not so much to ask what Luke “means” or “meant” the terms used there, but HOW is he using… them …via social rhetoric, etc. What is Luke’s goal… he wants catechesis for his readership (Luke 1:1-4)

        Look at Luke’s apologetic purposes, even in this theology of prayer..full of apologetic agendas …

        and so take the pericopes and so on in the light of this over-arching goal or end that Luke has….

  4. It is a travesty how far from the simple explanation the so-called lord’s prayer has come. The man who taught how to heal would have given a simple explanation of where the light comes from that heals. It wouldn’t involved prayer because he knew how to connect to the primordial light. Matthew, Luke or Paul wouldn’t have had a clue what was being done with the light.

    The Romans completely screwed up the teaching by having Jesus say, “I am the light”. Instead, he would have taught people what the light was and how to use it.

    How many words does one need to describe “primordial light”, which is the “king of light”?

    The Aramaic language that John the Baptist spoke is a dead language. The only thing John would have used light for was to heal, and he definitely wouldn’t have prayed for it.

    The “king of light” was descriptive of “highest light”. The source of this light is from the “light worlds” and is mental. This light never dies.

    “King” is an adjective and is neither masculine or feminine. In Hawaii we have the king tides, or the highest tides. This descriptive term “king” comes from the old language, Hawaiians say.

    The Lord’s Prayer is all wrong. The Roman canon has Jesus praying for forgiveness, for bread, and to bring something that is in heaven or in the kingdom, to earth.

    The words’ meanings would have to be changed to mean something to a first century healer. One can kind of tell what “forgiveness” meant before it meant forgiveness of sins. It would have meant to give something that was already there, before it came into the physical world, and in this case they were bringing light into the world with their brain to transmute something. Next, one does not pray for bread. Next, “kingdom” is a modern word. Kingdom is a place where the king lives, but not in the sense of a kingdom with subjects and laws. “King” means the living light, the highest light, and it’s true coupling would have been “light”…the “king of light”.

  5. I’m still annoyed at the “daily bread” since the introduction does its best to emphasise that prayer isn’t supposed to be for worldly goods.

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    God knows if you’re starving; you don’t need to ask for regular bread.

    1. Think these ad hoc conjectures through:

      In Galilee Jesus instructed his disciples in the form of prayer they were required to learn and remember. So the disciples practised it and Jesus was happy that they got it right and prayed it regularly, so regularly that the words they had been taught were passed down generations to the time of Matthew.

      Then Jesus went to Judea but by this time the disciples, all of them, had somehow forgotten that prayer. So they asked him, Sorry, Jesus, we forgot. Can you teach us that prayer again?

      Jesus rolled his eyes and said, Oh dense idiots, why didn’t you practise it like I told you? Now, let’s see. . . Oh damn my soul, I can’t remember it either, now. How did it go again? It was something like this…. So he teaches them the Lucan version. Yes, Jesus said, that will do, close enough I think.

      So the disciples remembered the new prayer Jesus had taught them and that, too, they never forgot and prayed it every day and after Pentecost they taught others to pray it as well so that it eventually reached Luke who wrote it into his gospel.

      Why do scholars like the ones above not think through their hypotheses before soberly publishing them and nodding their heads in serious thought about each attempt to harmonize the gospels?

      Why not be consistent and say that every time there are gospel variants of Jesus’ miracles and actions that he did those things multiple times. Jairus daughter died twice and Jesus had to raise her from the dead twice, etc.

      1. Yup… not history …really… as you have indicated… which event… which saying ..was the real first one!!! Mark doesn’t have it… (why is that, if so important?)..Matt has it and Luke edits it….. for his own theologies,,, which carry a lot of cultural , political and religious capital…

        Luke-Acts… removes lots , and I have read enough of him to be suspicious of his own motives in writing what he does…. I don’t always trust Josephus and neither do I trust the Lukan history… it is more of his own Heilsgeschicte stuff, that no one else can see except him and his gospel sources…. Mark, Mt. etc. to present his Catholic picture of the early Jewish-Christian world…

  6. Well, since some are annoyed at this prayer’s request for ‘daily bread, I’ll say two things.
    First, if a person is going to pray at all, then praying not to starve to death seems as good a reason as any. I’d hardly call basic food a form of material possession!
    Second, (and more to the point) it doesn’t actually say ‘daily bread’. The Greek is more like ‘[completely unknown word] bread’. ‘Magic’ bread is more plausible than ‘daily bread’.

    On the origin of the prayer itself, the Marcionite version is also different. It seems like ‘Luke’ but with the additional second line “Your holy spirit come”. Nobody agreed on the words!

      1. Unless it means “Give us today our needs for what we are going to have to get by on each day indefinitely.” — one prayer takes it one day at a time and the other wants to prepare for the needs of the tomorrows. ??

        1. I’m only superficially familiar with the arguments, but the idea that it refers to the Eucharist sounds plausible. Not least in light of Tim’s recent post about the ritual probably being more important for the spread of the cult than any sort of philosophical framework.

  7. Apologies if this has been posted, but my eyes don’t see it.


    a version of the prayer is to be found in a curious early second century document called the Didache. In this tract (aka Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) we find a familiar refrain (chapter 8.2):

    ‘Neither pray ye as the hypocrites, but as the Lord hath commanded in his gospel so pray ye: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil: for thine is the power, and the glory, for ever.’

    1. D, Paul (21 October 2015). “The Development of the Lord’s Prayer”. Is That in the Bible?.

      [I]n Didache 8.1-3, we find a version of the prayer that is almost identical to Matthew’s, and indeed may have been copied from Matthew.
      • Alan Garrow, “Didache and Matthew”, viewed Oct. 21, 2015.
      • Alan Garrow, The Gospel of Matthew’s Dependence on the Didache, 2004.
      • Robert Leaney, “The Lucan Text of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk xi 2-4), Novum Testamentum 1.2, 1956
      • Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia), 1995.
      • Jason BeDuhn, The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, 2013.
      • Michael Goulder, “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer”, J Theol Studies 14.1, 1963.
      • B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, 1930.
      • J. A. Draper (ed.), The Didache in Modern Research, 1996.

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