I 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).
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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