Is ‘our daily bread’ daily? (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #8)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay / RhianaH
Photo courtesy of Pixabay / RhianaH

In Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we consider Gregory’s view on what was meant by ‘daily bread,’ and whether in adopting his view he was merely following the third-century theologian Origen, whom he much admired.

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 #4 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread”

When we think of the sixth line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,”[1] we tend to think of it as a reminder to ourselves to live simply — “Give us our daily bread,” not: “Give us today our iPhone,” or, “Give us today our Porsche 911 Carrera,” or, “Give us today our five-bedroomed house,” and so on.

“When we think of the sixth line of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we tend to think of it as a reminder to ourselves to live simply — ‘Give us our daily bread,’ not: ‘Give us today our iPhone,’ or, ‘Give us today our Porsche 911 Carrera,’ or, ‘Give us today our five-bedroomed house,’ and so on.”

And rightly so. The New Testament everywhere urges us to live lives of simplicity.

So, in its most abrupt form, Jesus says to those who loved money,

“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Luke 16:15[2]

Whilst he says to one man who desires to follow him,

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Matthew 8:20[3]

However, “our daily bread” has not always been interpreted as straightforwardly as this.

Origen (185—254 A.D.)

The most prominent and famous Christian theologian of the third century A.D. was Origen (185—254 A.D.).

He was an enormously influential figure who actually learnt Hebrew so that he could produce a six-column parallel Old Testament known as the Hexapla — featuring the Hebrew text; the same transposed into Greek letters; and four different existing Greek translations of the Hebrew text, with critical marks pointing out the significant differences.[4]

“Origen (185—254 A.D.) was also a prodigious commentator upon the Scriptures, many of whose commentaries have come down to us today.”

He was also a prodigious commentator upon the Scriptures — let those who think that the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century either made up or fundamentally altered our New Testament (as per Dan Brown’s claims) take note![5] — many of whose commentaries have come down to us today.

So you can read many of his commentaries today online — or at least such parts as have survived from his copious output.[6] You can read the surviving parts of his Commentary on John’s Gospel here, and of his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel here.

His commentaries are characterized by two phenomena: First, his assiduous attention to the text of Scripture — again, let the theorists note! — and second, his tendency to spiritualize every text, always find some ‘higher’ meaning in the text than what it presents at face value.

This latter phenomenon was all part of Origen’s ‘doctrine of Scripture,’ as I have discussed previously here.

Now we also have in our possession a series of Origen’s writings On Prayer, in which he discusses the Lord’s Prayer at considerable length.

What does Origen understand by “our daily bread”?

For Origen, the key to understanding the phrase “our daily bread,” lies in the etymology behind the word ‘daily.’

Matthew 6:11
τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιοὐσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον
ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion dos hēmin sēmeron
The epiousios bread of us give to us today

Luke 11:3
τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δίδου ἡμῖν τὸ καθ’ ἡμέραν
ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion didou hēmin to kath’ hēmeran
The epiousios bread of us give to us each day

As you can see, both versions of the Lord’s Prayer begin with the same five Greek words — “the epiousios bread of us” — before diverging slightly. Incidentally, this coincidence of words in a prayer which is otherwise quite different in form in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of it, is strong evidence of a firm oral tradition of the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, transmitted directly from his own lips.

“Origen took this to mean that we should not pray for the mean, physical bread which moulds and perishes — but for the bread which is supersubstantial, that is to say, the true and unrefined knowledge of God.”

The word ‘epiousios’ is not the easiest to translate, but its plain sense is ‘for tomorrow, necessary, sufficient’[7] — hence, ‘daily.’

Etymologically, however, it is derived from two other Greek words, epi = ‘upon’, and ousia = ‘being, substance.’[8] And so Origen — always looking for a ‘spiritual’ meaning out of any text of Scripture — took it in its etymological sense as ‘supersubstantial.’[9]

Origen took this etymological hint to mean that we should not pray for the mean, physical bread which moulds and perishes — but for the bread which is supersubstantial, that is to say, the true and unrefined knowledge of God.

What does Gregory make of all this?

Gregory of Nyssa — like so many Christian theologians of the fourth century — was an enormous admirer of Origen.[10]

He even appears to follow one of Origen’s wilder speculations when he claims that the person who has need of little becomes more like an angel in nature:—

A man, therefore, who gives but nature its due and does not let his vain thoughts stray after things outside his needs is not far below the angelic state: he imitates their need of nothing as far as in him lies by being content with little.[11]

You might therefore think that, in proceeding through the Lord’s Prayer line by line as Origen did, he would follow the interpretation of his professeur.

“So we say to God: Give us bread. Not delicacies or riches, nor magnificent purple robes, golden ornaments, precious stones, or silver dishes.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #4 on the Lord’s Prayer

But no! — Gregory takes epiousios in its plain sense, ‘daily.’

So we say to God [in our prayer]: Give us bread. Not delicacies or riches, nor magnificent purple robes, golden ornaments, precious stones, or silver dishes. Nor do we ask Him for landed estates, or military commands, or political leadership. We pray neither for herds of horses and oxen or other cattle in great numbers, nor for a host of slaves. We do not say, give us a prominent position in assemblies or monuments and statues raised to us, nor silken robes and musicians at meals, nor any other thing by which the soul is estranged from the thought of God and higher things; no—but only bread![12]

Surely, as Christians, that is a worthy sentiment for all of us to take into our daily lives — our lives cluttered with iPhones, Porsches and five-bedroomed houses; and how much do we simply ask, “Give us, Father, our daily bread — as you love to do?”

May we all, then, learn to live simply, and simply to ask of God, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

 

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 Fourth Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily4%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] The sixth line — that is, as it is divided by the translators of the English Standard Version of Matthew 6:9-13 (see here), and also by the translators of the New International Version (see here).

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+16%3A14-15&version=ESVUK

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8%3A20&version=ESVUK

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexapla; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexapla#Structure

[5] This claim is a total and demonstrable lie; nevertheless it forms the backbone of Dan Brown’s claims about early Christianity in The da Vinci Code, chapter 55 et al. See here for a refutation of his version of events.

[6] Thus, of his commentaries on John’s Gospel, we are told: “At the end of the thirty-second volume, which is the last we now possess, the writer has only reached John xiii. 33, but he tells us in his Commentary on Matthew that he has spoken of the two thieves in his work on John.  In the time of Eusebius only twenty-two books survived out of the whole number, which seems to have been thirty-nine.  We now possess books i., ii., vi., x., xiii., xix., xx., xxviii., xxxii., some of which, however, are not complete, and a few fragments.” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xv.i.html

[7] http://biblehub.com/greek/1967.htm

[8] Ibid.

[9] See John J. O’Meara, Origen (Ancient Christian Writers No. 19): Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom. © 1978 Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ. I regret that I am not able to give page numbers for this reference at this time.

[10] 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.10-12

[11] Ibid., p.63

[12] Ibid., pp.63-64

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