Did Jesus ever tell his disciples to pray, ‘May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us’? (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #7)

Woman praying. Courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

In the fourth of our reflections on Gregory of Nyssa’s third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, we see that Gregory — in the late fourth century A.D. — had a most curious reading of Luke 11:2, “May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” What are we to make of this, and could it be something that Jesus told his disciples to pray?

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians’ who made such a significant contribution to orthodox Trinitarian belief.

You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.

In our series of reflections on Gregory of Nyssa we have been working through his recorded sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.

Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come”

“Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer work through the prayer — indiscriminately as it’s found both in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s — line by line. And because of this, it’s very easy for us to ascertain what texts of the prayer Gregory had in front of him.”

Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer work through the prayer — indiscriminately as it’s found both in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s — line by line. And because of this, it’s very easy for us to ascertain what texts of the prayer Gregory had in front of him. And when he comes to Luke 11:2, he preserves a reading of the prayer that to our ears is most curious.

Firstly, here’s the prayer in full, from Luke’s Gospel, in a standard English translation, the English Standard Version:—

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Luke 11:2-4[1]

It will immediately be noticed by just about anybody, that the version here is significantly shorter than the version we learned at church as a child, or at Sunday school, or in school assembly (for those of us old enough to remember such rituals).

That’s because Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is significantly shorter than Matthew’s — which version has (largely) formed our standard liturgical ‘Lord’s Prayer’ as found in the Book of Common Prayer, the Alternative Service Book (1980), and so forth.

“Gregory reads the line, ‘Your kingdom come’ (Luke 11:2), as though it read, ‘May your Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.’”

There is a lesson for us in the fact that even the New Testament itself preserves two significantly differing versions of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray — although that is for another time and another article.

What interests us here, in Gregory’s sermon, is that he reads the line,

“Your kingdom come”

as though it read:—

“May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.”

To give his use of it in a bit of context — and to show that it definitely is his reading of Luke 11:2 — let’s quote the sentence or two around this:

Perhaps the same thought is expressed more clearly for us by Luke, who, when he desires the Kingdom to come, implores the help of the Holy Spirit. For so he says in his Gospel; instead of Thy Kingdom come [as in Matthew’s version] it reads “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.” What will the impertinent wrongdoers say to these words on the Holy Spirit?[2] [3] [4]

Where has this curious reading come from, and what are we to make of it?

Variations in the Gospel text

“There are variations in the Gospel text as we have it in ancient manuscripts — and some of these variations are significant. That is inevitable when you have so many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament text. We have approximately 5,800 complete or fragmentary manuscripts of the New Testament, making it the most preserved work of antiquity in manuscripts.”

Let us begin by laying before the reader plainly a plain fact.

There are variations in the Gospel text as we have it in ancient manuscripts — and some of these variations are significant.

That is inevitable when you have so many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament text. We have approximately 5,800 complete or fragmentary manuscripts of the New Testament, making it the most preserved work of antiquity in manuscripts.[5]

As with Socrates, early beliefs about the identity, nature and character of Jesus varied considerably. Even within the pages of the New Testament itself — which was entirely written by around 100 A.D. — we find clear evidence of widely variant beliefs about the identity of Jesus, some even suggesting that he wasn’t human![6]

The flourishing of divergent views about the identity of Jesus only intensified in the Graeco-Roman world in the second century — clear evidence for which is the orthodox Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons’ five-volume work Against Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

In view of all this, it should not surprise us if some of our New Testament manuscripts and fragments which are available today came from ‘heretical’ Christian groups, and present us with a different text to the ‘standard’ New Testament text, as made available by reputable scholars such as in the Nestle-Aland New Testament text.

There is even a so-called ‘Western text’ of the Acts of the Apostles, which frequently adds material to our version in order to smooth over perceived or real gaps in the narrative, and which as a consequence is nearly ten percent longer than the Acts of the Apostles in our Bibles![7]

“Thankfully for us, there is so much evidence of what the earliest Christians believed, that we can make a good case for what the original New Testament texts were, filtering out of the manuscripts what in modern parlance we would term second-century ‘crazy theorists.’”

One of the exercises of modern New Testament scholars is to work out, ‘What is the best New Testament text we have?’

Thankfully for faithful saints who have gone before such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, George Whitefield, John Wesley and Charles Simeon, that scholarly work of determining the best New Testament text has been going on since (at least) Erasmus in the early sixteenth century.

And thankfully for us, there is so much evidence of what the earliest Christians believed — in contradistinction to the claims of, e.g., popular author Dan Brown — that we can make a good case for what the original New Testament texts were, filtering out of the manuscripts what in modern parlance we would term second-century ‘crazy theorists.’

Is there any basis that Jesus told his disciples to pray, ‘May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us?’

Not really.

The best texts which we have, considered by reputable scholars, give us a text of Luke 11:2 reading:

And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.’”[8]

Gregory’s odd reading of this verse, as presented in his third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, appears to be a textual tradition started by the second-century Christian heretic Marcion.[9]

“Gregory’s odd reading of Luke 11:2, as presented in his third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, appears to be a textual tradition started by the second-century Christian heretic Marcion.”

Marcion was a native of Pontus in Asia Minor,[10] who arrived in Rome around 135 A.D.,[11] and began to teach a version of Christianity which stated that Jesus wasn’t human, but was a divine apparition preaching to humankind how to be rescued from the ‘evil’ God who created the world in the Old Testament.

As far as I can tell, Gregory is the first surviving writer to mention this curious reading of Luke 11:2 after Tertullian, some nearly 200 years earlier.

Tertullian — a North African presbyter who lived some fifty years after Marcion — wrote a five-volume tract, Against Marcion, explaining why Marcion’s conception of Jesus was not only wrong but completely at odds with the Gospel texts.

One of Marcion’s unique heretical characteristics was that he came up with his own version of the New Testament canon, before there was even anything that could be described as a formal New Testament ‘canon’ among the orthodox.

“Marcion rejected all of the Gospels except the Gospel of Luke — and then only after he had taken the scissors to it, and expurgated it of any passages which narrated the birth, baptism or infancy of Jesus.”

Thus Marcion rejected all of the Gospels except the Gospel of Luke — and then only after he had taken the scissors to it, and expurgated it of any passages which narrated the birth, baptism or infancy of Jesus.[12] He also in some places not only excised the text but changed it to better suit his purposes.[13] In addition to his own version of the Gospel of Luke, Marcion also accepted ten of the Letters of Paul — but not the Pastoral Letters.[14]

Tertullian takes the genius approach of confuting Marcion’s doctrines from Marcion’s own version of Luke’s Gospel.

This means that we can frequently deduce the content of Marcion’s text from Tertullian’s counter-arguments and the ordering of them, since Tertullian works systematically through Marcion’s text from cover to cover.

Bearing this in mind, see how Tertullian handles the Lord’s Prayer from Luke chapter 11. I have inserted our modern verse numbers to show easily to which verse Tertullian is referring:—

In short, you may discover in the import of the prayer what God is addressed therein. To whom can I say, “Father?” [Luke 11:2a] To him who had nothing to do with making me, from whom I do not derive my origin? Or to Him, who, by making and fashioning me, became my parent? Of whom can I ask for His Holy Spirit? Of him who gives not even the mundane spirit; or of Him “who maketh His angels spirits,” and whose Spirit it was which in the beginning hovered upon the waters. Whose kingdom shall I wish to come [verse 2b]—his, of whom I never heard as the king of glory; or His, in whose hand are even the hearts of kings? Who shall give me my daily bread? [verse 3] Shall it be he who produces for me not a grain of millet-seed; or He who even from heaven gave to His people day by day the bread of angels? Who shall forgive me my trespasses? [verse 4a] [and so on…]
Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.26[15]

Given the sequence of Tertullian’s argument, clearly the sentence which I’ve underlined in the quotation above is a reference to Marcion’s version of Luke 11:2a, which must therefore have read something like, “Give us your Holy Spirit.” Or, very plausibly, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us” — as read by Gregory.

“Of whom can I ask for his Holy Spirit? — of him who gives not even the earthly spirit; or of him ‘who makes his angels spirits,’ and whose Spirit it was which in the beginning hovered upon the waters?”

Tertullian, commenting on Marcion’s version of Luke 11:2

Thus it would appear that the reading, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us,” is one of the aforementioned modifications to the text of Luke’s Gospel made by Marcion in the mid-second century.

Marcion’s special edition of Luke’s Gospel was never adopted by the orthodox Church, so it is curious to find Gregory, 200 years later, quoting it as if it were the genuine Gospel text.

We can only assume that Gregory had in front of him a manuscript of Luke’s Gospel that had been ‘coloured’ by Marcion’s version.

Before you think that far-fetched, it is worth considering that there must have been copies of Marcion’s ‘Gospel’ knocking around in various churches, monasteries and libraries throughout the Empire — after all, Tertullian himself at the beginning of the third century clearly had a copy in his possession.

This being the case, it seems most unlikely that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Not there is any reason that he shouldn’t have — it’s a perfectly theologically-sound sentiment according to the rest of the New Testament.[16] [17] It’s just that he didn’t.

And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Luke 11:2-4

 

The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Third Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily3%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+11%3A2-4&version=ESVUK

[2] Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ (henceforth referred to as ‘ACW 18’): pp.52-53

[3] The final sentence in this quotation is a reference to an heretical group, the Pneumatomachi, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

[4] Some modern Bible translations actually preserve this as a margin reading. See, for example, the NRSV (n.b., you will have to ensure footnotes are enabled to see the margin reading).

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_manuscript#New_Testament_manuscripts

[6] Two widely differing examples: Mark 6:1-6 (he was a nobody); 1 John 4:1-3 (he was divine but not human). It behoves us to point out that neither of these erroneous views is held by the New Testament writers themselves; the texts mentioned above are arguing against, not for, these views of Jesus.

[7] Nobody is quite certain what the exact relationship of the ‘Western text’ of Acts is to its shorter counterpart found in our Bibles, which is the so-called ‘Alexandrian’ text, although the ‘Alexandrian’ text is generally considered the superior one. For a good discussion of the various and widely differing theories about the relationship between these two texts, see Bruce Metzger’s comments here.

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+11%3A2&version=ESVUK

[9] ACW 18, n.69 to ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (p.187)

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope

[11] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/info/marcion-layman.html

[12] We learn this from Tertullian’s Against Marcion, especially Book IV, passim. Example: Against Marcion 4.2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.iv.v.ii.html).

[13] See https://sites.google.com/site/inglisonmarcion/Home/marcion/marcion-s-gospel-compared-verse-by-verse-with-luke, which is an extremely useful site presenting Luke’s Gospel alongside Marcion’s version (so far as we can reconstruct it) in parallel columns. For a good example of a significant textual change made by Marcion, see his treatment of Luke 7:23.

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcionism#Marcionite_canon

[15] The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted March 1994): p.392. This can be read online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.iv.v.xxvi.html.

[16] Provided that we don’t understand it to imply that Christians don’t already have the Holy Spirit — cf. Romans 8:9.

[17] It’s worth noting that this reading of Luke 11:2 may have been suggested by the similar-sounding verse 13 of the same chapter: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” — although note, no mention of ‘cleansing/purifying.’

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