Our Daily Bread

Give us this day our daily bread. (Mt 6:11)

Give us each day our daily bread. (Lk 11:3)

Our text is from the Lord’s Prayer, easily the most famous and oft recited prayer in Christianity. Today, we will explore a single word from this verse: daily. Believe it or not, this word has been the subject of endless analysis and study since the earliest era of Christianity. To put the problem simply, we need only compare two translations of this text: the RSVCE noted above vs the 16th century Douay-Rheims:

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. (Mt 6:11)

Daily bread gives the impression that we are asking for sustenance, that we don’t go hungry. Supersubstantial bread, however, is something else; traditionally, exegetes say it points to the Eucharist.

I’ll start out by jumping to the conclusion: there is no agreement today on what this word really means, even among Catholic exegetes. This blog will not resolve the issue; I will say, though, that I favor a mystical sense, where supersubstantial bread is what should be in our minds when praying. That said, let’s see the Greek original:

Ton artos hemon ton epiousios dos hemin semeron. (Mt 6:11)

The word in question is epiousios. The use in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels is the first known use of this word in history. And it occurs nowhere else in the bible. As far as we know, it was invented by either Matthew or Luke. We do know something, though: Jesus did not speak Greek to his followers; He spoke Aramaic. Ancient language studies cannot find, however, any Aramaic or Hebrew word or phrase that would be translated into this word. So, we are stuck with etymologic analysis.

St. Jerome, the 4th century Father who translated the bible into Latin, used the following word breakdown: epiousios = epi-ousios. The word ousios is correctly translated as ‘substance.’ The prefix ‘epi’ is translated as above or super-. So he saw the word as supersubstantial or supernatural. He translated it into Latin as:

Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie. (Mt 6:11)

But that would be too easy. So he translated the Lucan text differently:

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie. (Lk 11:3)

Here St. Jerome uses quotidianum, which simply means daily. In Matthew he translates as ‘supersubstantial bread,’ while in Luke he translates as ‘daily bread.’ Why? I don’t know.

Throughout history, many, if not most, Catholic exegetes understood epiousios as supersubstantial. But some, even before the time of St. Jerome, understood it differently. A popular modern rendering is necessary bread or future bread. In these cases, the idea of ‘substance’ is not that of the bread, but of the consumer of the bread; it allows us substance, allows us to exist. This is the idea behind ‘our daily bread;’ it’s the nourishment we need to exist. Nevertheless, such attempts to find a more natural meaning of the word must ignore its very literal meaning: supersubstantial.

I believe that Sacred Scripture employs multiple meanings, even in words and word-plays. I can understand an ordinary meaning of physical bread we need for sustenance, plus an extraordinary meaning of bread which involves a supernatural substance. In the latter case, we can also look to scholastic theology, where this idea of substance is philosophically meaningful. Per the medieval scholastics, it is the substance of the bread which changes during the liturgy from bread-substance to God-substance, that is, the flesh of Jesus; meanwhile, the sensual characteristics (called accidents in scholastic philosophy) remain that of bread. This transformation of the substance only is called transubstantiation by scholastics. This idea and its philosophically technical word has been a hallmark of Eucharistic theology since the Middle Ages. It is supported by the use of the very unique Greek word epiousios in the Gospels.

Perhaps so many see this bread as supernatural rather than natural is the overall sense of Scripture, which speaks of the Eucharist constantly; even the OT references to bread, wheat and harvest have Eucharistic contexts for Christians. Bread is the sustenance that keeps us alive; but that very image is a remarkable analogy to the life of God which keeps us spiritually alive. Like bread, we need God everyday. The Eucharist is Christ’s way of making that clear connection.

Let’s conclude by looking at that great OT image of the Eucharist – the manna in the desert. It sustained the wandering Israelites from the time they left Egypt (Ex 16:4) until the day they entered the Promised Land (Jos 5:12) – this bread sustained them during their sojourn in the wilderness, exactly as it sustains us in our sojourn through this world.

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day. (Ex 16:4)

Note the “bread from heaven” was a daily bread, even as in the Lord’s Prayer. God told Moses it was “bread from heaven,” but Scripture further clarifies it was the “bread of angels.”

Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; 24 and he rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 25 Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance… 29 And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. (Ps 78:23-25, 29)

Instead of these things thou didst give thy people food of angels, and without their toil thou didst supply them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. 21 For thy sustenance manifested thy sweetness toward thy children; and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit every one's liking. (Wis 16:20-21)

Of course, angels do not eat physical bread; therefore these texts point to a supernatural element of the manna. This daily bread, though physical, was also a supernatural bread, as well. So we see an OT analogy to our NT text. It is no surprise, then, that during our sacred liturgy the Lord’s Prayer follows the Eucharistic prayer and precedes Holy Communion, because the bread we petition is, in fact, the Holy Eucharist.

Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." (Jn 6:49-51)