Letter to Dan J. Russ continued...
“Give us this day our daily bread.” This line starts with trouble. We’re not even quite sure what the word used for “daily” really means. The Greek word is “epiousion.” This exact word is not found anywhere else in the Bible. It isn’t even found in classical Greek literature. It is what we pseudo-scholars call a “hapax legomenon” (which means “found once.” Are you impressed by my erudition, whatever that may be?) The Greek phrase normally used in the New Testament for “daily” is “kath’hemeran” (literally, “according to the day”).
“Epiousion” was translated into Latin as “quotidianum” in the oldest Latin Bible translation, but St. Jerome, who could at times be tedious, translated it as literally as possible “supersubstantialem” in the his Latin Vulgate. People have waxed eloquent about this translation of the word epiousion as supersubstantialem. Epiousion and supersubstantialem both mean “upon being,” which is not something I say very much. Perhaps it means necessary for being. Supersubstantialem seems to imply “above being” in the sense that supernatural means “above nature.” This has led more poetic souls than I to say that supersubstantialem must refer to the Holy Eucharist. I suppose it does ultimately. That’s the nice thing about the Bible. It has layers of meaning and I can lay it on pretty thick.
The mystery seemed finally to be solved in the early twentieth century when Rev. Dr. Archibald Sayce, (whom I am not making up), a renowned Assyriologist (I am not making this up either) who was either careless or near sighted, discovered the word in a 5th-century AD shopping list along with other scraps of papyrus that had been found in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump. It was written on the little scrap of papyrus along with a few grocery items. This seemed to imply that the shopper had written down a few things that he or she was going to purchase for that day. The shopping list was subsequently misplaced and only resurfaced in 1998 at a Yale University library. It seems that Sayce was rather careless in his translating and transcribing ancient documents and the word he rendered as epiousion was really the Greek word “elaiou”, or oil, as in “Get bread, eggs, onions, etc. And, oh, don’t forget to pick up some olive oil.”
So we are right back where we started. The word that you and I say every time we say the Our Father appears only once in history, that is, in the Our Father, and no scholar can tell you what it really means. This leads us to an interesting conclusion. The Bible is not self-explaining. Why do we translate “epiousion” as “daily” if it means above being or upon existence.
The answer is quite simple. There is a very interesting and ancient book, considered by scholars to be the first non-Biblical Christian text we have. It is called the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It’s easy to find online. It is commonly thought to date from around 90–110AD. Some scholars are beginning to date it earlier, even as early as 40-60AD which would place it at the time of the first writings of New Testament Scripture. For Example, the oldest New Testament documents, St Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, are dated to 50 or 55AD. The Our Father is mentioned in the Didache. Here is the quote:
And do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in the Gospel: ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us enough bread day-by-day. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.’ Pray this three times each day.
The word translated here, day by day is of course “epiousion.” Not only is the Our Father mentioned, but it is expected that the Christian will say it three times a day! That would imply they were praying the Our Father before the New Testament was even written.
The Church was established in Rome sometime in the 40’s AD. The Emperor Claudius kicked the Jews out of Rome in 49 AD because of a riot over one “Chrestus,” which probably meant Christ. It is reasonable to think that the Jewish community of Rome was arguing about whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. This would imply that there were already Christians in Rome before Peter and Paul got there. If there were Christians in Rome at that time, they were praying the Our Father and some of them were praying it in Greek, some of them were praying it in Aramaic, and some of them, I imagine, were praying it in Latin. And I imagine, because the word appears in the earliest Latin biblical texts, before St. Jerome’s Vulgate, they were using the word quotidianum when they prayed because they understood the Greek word “epiousion” to mean quotidianum, and quotidianum means “daily” in Latin. This is evidence of a fact little realized.
The Church and the Liturgy are older than the Bible. The Church chose the biblical canon from the texts they were using in the liturgy and their life of prayer. The understanding of the word “epiousion” as “daily” is a reminder that the Church is the mother of the Bible and not the other way around. If you hold to Sola Scriptura, (Bible alone), you are saying unintelligible gibberish when you ask the Lord to give you “over substantial” bread. We ask for daily bread because that is the traditional interpretation of “epiousion” that we have received from a time before the Bible was written. If you try to get back behind the Church to the original Gospel you are just making things up. There is no Gospel without the Church. In a certain sense, the Church is the Gospel. People who pretend to get back to the Gospel before the Church are usually just trying to say that Jesus agrees with them when they disagree with the Church.
“Extra Ecclesiam nullum Evangelium.” “Beyond the Church there is no Gospel.” You heard it here first. We translate the word “epiousion” as daily because we have been translating it that way since it was first translated into Latin, ten or twenty years after the Lord’s death and resurrection. The word means daily. You may quote me.
(Give us this day our daily bread continues next week)