“Give us this day our daily bread” … what does that mean? On the surface, it’s a simple acknowledgment that the things we need to live all have their source in God, as well as a request that our needs for the day be provided. However, hiding under that simple word “daily” is many centuries’ worth of puzzlement and scholarly debate. The cause of the debate is a troublesome Greek word, the definition of which may open that line to a whole new layer of meaning. If you can stick with me, you’ll see why it matters.
St. Jerome Coins a WordThe word in question is epiousios (ἐπιούσιος, Matthew 6:11 SBLGNT; Luke 11:3 SBLGNT). The trouble is, the word had never been written before Matthew and Luke. If Jesus spoke to his disciples in either Hebrew or Aramaic, we have a further problem: we don’t have texts in either language predating the Greek. We have texts in Syriac, a close cousin to Aramaic, but the Syriac Matthew and Luke are most likely translations of the Greek. Greek had perfectly good words for “daily” — hēmera, kathēmerinos (closer in sense to “ordinary” or “usual”), and ephēmeros (“for the day”). In fact, hēmera is also in Luke 11:3. Why coin a new word?
We have one possible clue. Saint Jerome, the fourth-century scholar who translated Scripture into Latin, had received a copy of the Aramaic “Gospel of the Hebrews”, which now exists only in fragments (i.e., words and phrases found in other writings). In writing of the Lord’s Prayer in that Gospel, Jerome glosses the Aramaic word as meaning crastinus (“tomorrow’s”; that is, belonging to tomorrow). So perhaps Jesus is saying, “Give enough sustenance today to get through to tomorrow,” right? This would fit with the end of the chapter, where Jesus advises us not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-34).
But this won’t do. First, epiousios also appears in Luke’s version, which is shorter and occurs in a different context that doesn’t so neatly end in a “don’t worry” passage. Second, whatever St. Jerome thought of the Gospel of the Hebrews, instead of using crastinus he coined a Latin neologism of his own: supersubstantialis. To make matters more confusing, he translated the same word in Luke cotidianus (quotidianus, “daily”), giving us the redundancy, “Give us our daily bread every day.” Finally, Greek had plenty of words sufficient to translate such a thought without having to mint new Koine. So what was Jesus really saying?