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The Poetry of the Lord’s Prayer

Sermon on the mount by BlochI have previously written about the poetic structure of Jesus’ teaching, drawing on examples from the Beatitudes and Jesus’ eschatological teaching at the end of Matthew. In particular, I highlighted David Wenham’s study of the Lord’s Prayer, where he identifies the careful structuring of the prayer as a poem in two parts:

6 words Opening address
4 words        First invocation in relation to God
4 words        Second invocation in relation to God
4 + 6 words Third invocation in relation to God with second clause
8 words invocation for our needs
6 + 7 words First invocation in relation to ourselves with second clause
6 words        Second invocation in relation to ourselves
6 words        Third invocation in relation to ourselves

This month’s Journal of Biblical Literature includes an article by Michael Martin of Lubbock Christian University that looks in more detail at the poetic devices in the prayer—something which previous studies have passed over (JBL 134, no. 2 (2015): 347–372). Martin identifies nine classical devices, gives examples of their occurrence in the Hebrew and Greek OT, and where they occur in the Lord’s Prayer.

1. Homoeoteleuton is similarity of sound at the conclusion of affiliated cola, usually in the concluding syllable(s) of the concluding word(s).

2. Homoeokatarkton is similarity of sound at the beginning of affiliated cola, usually in the concluding syllable(s) of the opening word(s).

3. Antistrophe (also, epiphora) is the repetition of precisely the same word(s) at the conclusion of affiliated cola.

4. Epanaphora (also, anaphora) is the repetition of precisely the same word(s) at the beginning of affiliated cola.

5. Anadiplosis (also, palillogia, epanadiplosis) is the repetition of a preceding colon’s concluding word(s) at or near the beginning of a subsequent colon.

6. Polyptoton is the repetition in affiliated cola of the same noun or pronoun in different inflections, including case, gender, and number alterations.

7. Antithesis is the juxtaposing of opposite terms, opposite meanings, or (most com­ monly) both in two affiliated cola.

8. Parisosis (also, parison, isocolon) is a parallelism of structure across affiliated cola and consisting minimally of a roughly equal number of syllables30—but prefer­ ably of additional parallel features (semantic parallels, grammatical parallels, paral­ lelisms of sound and sense).

9. Paronomasia (also, parachesis) is a play on words seen either in the intentional juxtaposition of two words separated by slight phonetic modification, or in double entendre.

As a result of identifying these features, Martin draws conclusions about the prayer and about Jesus’ composition of it:

It is clear that Lord’s Prayer displays a highly poetic form characterized by the recurring use throughout of multiple coordinated figures of speech and thought. This usage, together with the prayer’s religious and liturgical themes and historical origins, suggests that the prayer belongs to the tradition of ancient Jewish liturgical poetry.

He offers some possibilities of translation to reflect these poetic devices, some of which parallel Wenham’s suggestions. In his conclusion he sets out a ‘minimalist’ and a ‘maximalist’ version (I include them as graphics to preserve the layout).

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 08.29.26Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 08.29.41

 

All this has some interesting implications for our use of the prayer, and our understanding of how it has come to us.


First, if Martin and Wenham are right, then it would appear that the prayer was formed very carefully as something to be memorised and repeated. Although each invocation can be reflected on and used as a focus for prayer in itself, it appears as though Jesus really did expect his followers to memorise it and use it as a liturgical, structured, poetic prayer themselves. This would suggest that the Anglican habit of memorising structured prayers (‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known…’) does have a clear biblical warrant.

Secondly, it raises the interesting question of whether Jesus taught in Greek as well as Aramaic. Martin mentions those who have argued in different directions, though does not comment on this explicitly in this article. (I understand he has a forthcoming monograph on the subject, so it might be explored there.)

Thirdly, as I highlighted previously, the poetic structure of Jesus’ teaching, particularly here and particularly in Matthew, might imply that Jesus taught in a way to be remembered, and that lends weight to the reliability of the gospel records even if passed on orally for some period.

Finally, this also raises the question of Jesus’ literacy. This is a hot topic in some quarters just now, and of course (as Martin mentioned to me in correspondence about this article) there is a difference between ‘literacy’ understood as being theologically competent and able to construct a poetic prayer like this, and ‘literacy’ understood as being trained either as a scribe able to read and write manuscripts, or as someone adhering to the formal traditions of scriptural exegesis as accepted by the religious authorities.

This all confirms what a rich resource the Lord’s Prayer is, and why it was a key part of Jesus’ answer to the request ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11.1)


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2 Responses to The Poetry of the Lord’s Prayer

  1. James Byron July 3, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

    A welcome break from the sex wars! 😀

    On Jesus’ literacy, I’d say it’s likely he was. His teaching’s packed with abstract concepts, he clearly knew the Jewish scriptures back-to-front, and he was known as a shrewd and inventive debater. Literacy also varied by culture: while it may, generally, have been low in antiquity, Judaism was (and is) a religion of the book.

    Likewise, it’s likely that he had at least conversational Greek. It was the common language of the region, and as Jesus was likely from an artisan family, he surely needed some proficiency in Greek to conduct business. Whether he taught in Greek is open to question, but it’s a fascinating subject, and I look forward to reading the paper.

  2. nicky moses November 23, 2015 at 6:51 am #

    hi ian it’s mad nicky from poole! i loved these 2 articles on the lords prayer. regrading the banning of the cinema advert, i don’t know what to think. if the cinema company was trying to be politically correct it may have been a good thing because it could have paved the way for scientology or even wicca adverts being aired then and people from all walks of life go to the cinema even the very vulnerable,(my aetheistic husband would say that about the church, mind you!), however, there is freedom of speech to be considred which jesus practiced totally and let other people practice even they were seemingly culturally opposed to him i.e. the syro- phoenecian woman.also pople being offended by the lords prayer is nothing new, i can’t remeber but wasn’t it cliff richards millenium prayer song version of the lords prayer which led to him being banned from most radio stations as well as his music being very cheesey of course!
    i agree the lords prayer is poetry and it is so beautiful. i love poetry and used to write it i find. the poetry of the c. of e. communion service beautiful, absolving,intimate and inspiring and i don’t even count myself as c.of.e.! i belive all poetry writing is a “spiritual” act as one connects the intellect with the emotions and inspiration( this maybe personal but i’ve always found true creativity and inspiration does come from outside oneself and one’s realm of normal empirical living). i believe prayer wwas meant to be recorded and repeated as i find even when i am on my own unless i am reading set prayers i get lost for direction and ramble on like the hypocites who have got their own rewards as jesus states, sorry about the paraphrase.as for jesus having literacy. well it’s pretty obvious he wasn’t illiterate isn’t it or was not the argument? however , i do believe his literacy was god given as he said he was doing his fathers will and work so wouldn’t that mean his words as well, also in john’s gospel we are told in the beginning there was the word etc.i don’t know what you think of all this i am only a pseudo-intellectual and not an academic,or theologian.

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