This is part VII of “Formed by Divine Teaching”, a 12-part series on the Lord’s prayer. Click here for the main page of the series for updated links for each installment.
“Give us this day our daily bread”
The original Gospels, originally written in Greek, present to us a strange word whose origins are so obscure that it confounds even the best scholars of the classics. In fact, the only source in any sacred or secular text for this word is the Lord’s Prayer as attested in Matthew and Luke.
That word is ἐπιούσιον (epiousion).
When it was translated into the various vernacular languages through Latin, we see the word “daily” in its place. But when St. Jerome, a great Church Father skilled in Latin and Greek endeavored to compile the Vulgate, he transliterated epiousion into supersubstantialem.
Linguistically, it is strange to see how “daily” was derived from this puzzling word. Everywhere else in the New Testament and in extra-biblical Greek sources, the term for daily is καθ’ ἡμέραν, which literally means “according to the day”. Epiousion, on the other hand, comes from the prefix epi- (above, super), and the word ousia, which we know from later Trinitarian and Incarnational theology means substance. The idea conveyed, as the prayer refers to this supersubstantial bread, concerns the bread that we need to survive. We physically need bread to sustain our substance, and to effectively survive, we should be able to eat every day. Such a roundabout translation, while certainly sensible, does no justice to the unique character of the original Greek. Why would Matthew and Luke use such a strange, essentially invented word when they could have used derivative forms of καθ’ ἡμέραν?
Of course, the Fathers like Jerome saw in the word epiousion a veiled reference to the Eucharist. Its verbiage prefigures developments in later Scholastic theology and the pronouncement of Lateran IV on transubstantiation. In its literal sense, the Lord’s Prayer does not ask for a portion of bread for each day; it asks for the bread which we need. If we remember the words of the Old Testament echoed by Christ during his temptations in the desert, we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. By using the word epiousion, or supersubstantial, the Evangelists are in fact referring to bread other than worldly bread; as Catholics, with the benefit of centuries of theological reflection, we know that Christ himself is the primal, original Word proceeding from the mouth of the Father. He is the Bread of Life which we need for true survival. “Take and eat,” he says, “for this is my body”. As Christ gives himself in this manner, we do not receive “bread alone”, but the true Word made flesh; humbly he appears as ordinary food, but the reality which we receive is in fact a supersubstance transcending all mere worldly categories, for it is truly Him, qui nos custodiet in vitam aeternam.