Biblical Scholarship and The Lord's Prayer

On Sunday many churches will repeat the Lord’s Prayer in their worship services. Catholics will use the one we find in Matthew from the KJV, along with the last phrase not found in many of the earliest manuscripts, while Protestants will combine the two using Luke’s word “sins” instead of Matthew’s word “debts.” [Click on the image].

But in this simple example of what believers should pray we find many of the difficulties with which Biblical scholars wrestle. What prayer did Jesus actually teach his disciples to pray? The prayer itself is memorable, and not likely to have been forgotten, as evidenced by most believers today, and yet here we have two versions of it. Mark’s gospel is accepted by the overwhelming number of scholars to have been written first. Scholars wrestle with the authorship and dating of the books in the Bible, for they can provide a clue to interpreting them. But why didn’t Mark include this prayer? It seems to be a glaring omission on his part since the prayer itself is so memorable, not unlike the “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s later gospel. Such memorable things are hard to explain why only the later gospel writers remember them enough to write them down.

Look at the differences themselves. Christians will argue there are no contradictions here, and depending on how one defines a contradiction that’s probably true, except for the fact that we don’t know what Jesus actually said. If the gospel writers were supposed to tell us exactly what Jesus said then they did not do this. If inerrancy requires no errors then this is indeed an error. Now there are indeed Bible difficulties. There are so many that Gleason Archer wrote a 380 page book to deal with them, called the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and even then he didn’t deal with them all, by any means.

Translators debate among themselves whether or not they should translate the exact words, as the American Standard Version does, or translate the intent of the sentence. Do they translate the passage literally even though modern people may not understand it, (what is the “heart,” the “evil eye”) or do they translate it so that modern people can understand it, given their own present understandings? This is the known as the dynamic vs static translator debate. Given the fact that most linguists agree that the basic unit of meaning is the sentence, not the word, today’s translators translate passages more fluidly and loosely. So now the question is how loosely should these passages be translated? Pioneer Bible Translator missionaries have to wrestle with this. On one mission field an African tribe believed that the throat was the seat of life and thought. So should they translate the word “heart” as “throat,” or not?

Evangelical Christian scholars admit that we do not have the very words of Jesus. [Instead they argue that we have the “voice” of Jesus through the gospel writers, whatever that means]. There are several reasons for this admission: 1) There was a period of oral tradition where word of mouth passed on the stories and sayings of Jesus (30-40-60 years); 2) There is the acknowledged fact that the gospel writers wrote to the needs of the church at their time (known as the sitz im Leben, or “situation in life”); 3) Luke’s (1:1-4) own admission that there were several written accounts of Jesus which he used to construct his own account.; 4) Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so his words would have been first translated into Greek; 5) Since the verbal agreement among the gospels is very close in the Greek when they relate the same story, these stories were already in Greek before they reached the gospel writers. So again, what exactly are the words we should use when saying the Lord’s Prayer?

Look at the whole verse missing from Luke’s later gospel. The rest of the prayer is pretty much the same in the Greek, but why delete this verse? What exactly is there about the phrase, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” that didn’t fit with Luke’s gospel to the poor and downtrodden? Could it be that since ancient people believed God’s will is done through the rulers and kings of the earth (see Romans 13:1-2) that it would offend the very people Luke was writing for? Scholars ask these types of questions. And why did Luke replace the word “debts” with “sins?” Could it be that the poor had no debts to forgive? Scholars think Matthew wrote down “debts” because he was a tax collector, if it was actually Matthew who wrote the gospel. But how do we explain this “discrepancy? That Matthew got it wrong? That he “translated” what Jesus actually said into terms he could understand? That Jesus repeated this prayer several times but that on some occasions he used the word “debts” while on other occasions he used the word “sins”? How likely is that? When it comes to the words of Jesus, a complete harmonization of what he said and what others said in response to him cannot be done. It’s more likely that Luke changed the word “debts” to “sins” for his readers. What else did he change? Since Luke was not one of the apostles, why should we accept this change? Who or what guarantees that Luke’s gospel is inspired? He's not an apostle and he never claims his work is inspired.

Look finally at the manuscript footnoted differences, as well as the translation differences. Bart Ehman’s book, Misquoting Jesus will give you a good overview of the manuscript differences.

These sorts of scholarly questions can be duplicated for almost every story in the Synoptic Gospels, and it leads many to think we have a patchwork of sources to learn about Jesus. Some scholars conclude from this we know little about what Jesus actually said and did!

Look at the five stages of the gospel tradition:

STAGE ONE: Oral Traditions Stemming From Eyewitnesses: Stories about Jesus and what he taught circulated among early Christians. At some point they began to write these stories down and circulated them as independent units, probably as a way to teach and disciple others. Form Criticism tries to determine which stories were earlier by evaluating the stories themselves according to their form and style. The working assumption is that the earlier stories would be more accurate because of the tendency of people to lengthen their stories by adding details to them to fit the needs of the progressing Christian community, as we just saw in Luke.

STAGE TWO: Written Accounts of Jesus:Eventually Christians needed a written account containing these stories in an orderly whole, and according to Luke there were “many” of them. Source Criticism seeks to understand what written sources, if any, the evangelists used in compiling their gospels. In the first three gospels there are a number of passages that contain exact verbal agreement, but there are also many differences in verbal agreement. Likewise, there is a certain sequence of events usually adopted by the writers, but quite a divergence in sequence as well. So the goal is to seek an hypothesis that best accounts for both exact agreement and yet wide divergences in these gospels. According to most scholars the oral traditions were gathered together in the form of teaching material for new converts. This teaching was complied into a document dubbed “Q” (short for “Quelle or “source”). Early tradition says Matthew wrote the first gospel in the Aramaic language. Mark wrote his gospel from the content of Peter’s preaching, we're told. Matthew may have later transformed his Aramaic gospel into a Greek gospel using Mark and “Q.” Luke used several sources, including “Q” Mark, Matthew and perhaps a separate source. This is the “two-source” hypothesis and is widely accepted today. This is a fine way for God to inspire a book, eh?

STAGE THREE: The Final Composition of the Gospels: The gospel writers have written (or edited) these stories to form a whole Gospel account of Jesus with a different emphasis (or purpose) to meet the needs of the particular Christian community at the time they were written (known as the Sitz im Leben). In so doing each gospel writer relates different events in the life of Jesus with a differing chronology of the events they chose to include—events that help them stress their particular point of view. Redaction Criticism seeks to describe these purposes by analyzing the way they use their sources, and comparing the final product with the time and place and people to whom it was written. Luke, for instance, heavily emphasizes the poor, women, and the downtrodden in the life of Jesus, whereas John's gospel hardly says anything about them. So the question becomes this: What did Jesus actually emphasize in his ministry if it's filtered through the eys of the gospel writers? Even if they were all inspired we still cannot determine with a great deal of confidence what Jesus actually stressed.

STAGE FOUR: The Transmission of the Texts of the Gospels. Again see Bart Erhman’s book for details about this.

STAGE FIVE: The Canonization of the New Testament Itself and the variety of early Christianities.

This is enough for now. But as Ehrman argued, this looks entirely like a human not a divine process. It really does! Christians must believe that God guided this whole process from start to finish when it involved so many uninspired people (the original stories, Q, copyists, church canonical pronouncements, etc). The funny thing about this, to me anyway, is that while Christians believe God guided this whole process perfectly, they also deny God hinders the free will of man when it comes to the amount of suffering we experience at the hands of others. Why would God do one thing and not do another?

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