The Lord's Prayer And Textual Criticism

This morning we looked at the Lord’s Prayer, found in Luke 11 and Matthew 6. The two versions are different: Luke omits certain phrases found in Matthew, and neither version includes the standard liturgical ending (For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever).

So which version is the “real” Lord’s Prayer – Matthew’s, Luke’s, or the standard liturgical version? How do we explain the differences? The science that answers these questions is called textual criticism (or lower criticism, in some cases). The current question poses a good test case for a basic overview of text-critical analysis. And hey, why not toss it around on the blog? It’s at least as interesting as Brent counseling a goose.

We start from a presupposition that Scripture is authoritative. Matthew and Luke are both inspired writers, and neither one “forgot” anything. They are at least as conscientious as writers of our day would be in checking their sources and getting their facts straight.

Hypothesis #1: One explanation is that Jesus taught the same prayer pattern multiple times. Luke recorded one instance of Jesus’ teaching, Matthew another. It is clear from the contexts that the writers may have two differing occasions in view: Matthew places the Lord’s Prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mount; Luke places it as a response to the disciples’ query “teach us to pray.” And if this truly was Jesus’ “pattern prayer,” he most certainly taught it on more than one occasion. But this hypothesis is weakened by the obvious fact that if every part of the prayer is important, it’s hard to understand why Jesus would leave stuff out on one occasion or add stuff on another.

Hypothesis #2: Many textual critics propose that Luke’s prayer is the “authentic” one, because textually speaking, it’s easier to explain the lengthening of material than the shortening of it (a process called conflation). The hypothesis goes like this: the Lord’s Prayer was being used in churches VERY early – before either gospel was even written. Luke recorded the prayer as Jesus actually taught it. But Matthew recorded it as it was being used in the worship life of the churches. The early Christians had taken the basic outline that Jesus taught (Luke’s prayer) and added to it in ways consistent with the rest of Jesus’ teaching (“Our Father” being lengthened to “Our Father who is in heaven,” for instance, in keeping with Mark 11:25). When Matthew wrote, he chose to use the version of the Lord’s Prayer that his readers knew instead of the more basic version Luke recorded.

This is a really sound proposal in light of the overwhelming evidence that both Matthew and Luke used source material – perhaps the gospel of Mark or the written testimony of Peter – in composing their gospels. So both writers had access to the same material, and certainly neither one was writing in a vacuum. Matthew knew he was writing down a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than Luke had written, and he did so intentionally.

We have thousands of manuscript copies of Scriptural writings. (Keep in mind, no copy machines back in the day). In some manuscripts, Matthew’s prayer is shortened to match Luke’s; in others, Luke’s prayer is lengthened to match Matthew’s. So it’s evident that the early Christian scribes knew of the differences and sought to harmonize them for the reader. This was their way of affirming that these two writers were teaching the same truth and of assuring the reader that there was no conflict between them.

Hopefully this little exercise helps you see how the gospel writers can preserve the same truth in different ways without conflicting with one another. The Scriptures are a complex, multi-layered portrait of God’s truth, and it takes careful thought and study to understand them well.

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  1. thanks bob – a church with an eye toward textual criticism is a beautiful thing. especially for those of us with a background in language and literature. keep it coming.

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