The Disciples’ Prayer

disciples prayerI’ve waited a long time for this book. Its arguments were gestating back in the early days of the Crosstalk mailing list, and according to the preface even years before. Those arguments are now marshaled, and scholars who are attached to traditional views of the “Lord’s Prayer” will need impressive rebuttals. Jeffrey Gibson’s reading is not only better but strangely obvious at points, as if we just needed someone to take a hard look at the people who first prayed it.

Which is why he calls it the Disciples’ Prayer. The disciples were those first people (not Jesus, who taught them the prayer), and they operated out of an austere remnant theology that had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. The prayer, as Gibson argues, was designed to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy.

Jesus, not John

But let’s start at the end, with the book’s appendix, since it represents Jesus’ starting point. Gibson asks if there is any merit to the claim that Jesus inherited the prayer from John the Baptist. I’ve long been sympathetic to this view since it avoids “great-man” fallacies, but also because Luke 11:1 shows the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples”. The Greek wording could mean the disciples are asking to be taught to pray “just as” or “exactly as” John’s disciples were taught, though not necessarily. Gibson thinks not, and his strongest reason is that some of Jesus’ disciples had been John’s, and thus unlikely to be part of a group-request to be taught a prayer that was already known among them (pp 169-170). I applaud Joan Taylor’s attempt to align Jesus closely with John (against Crossan’s ilk), but on the point of the Disciples’ Prayer I’m afraid Gibson is right. The text doesn’t lend the greatest support for John as its author.

Matthew, not Luke

Q-skeptics will be happy that Matthew’s version of the prayer is given primacy. Gibson never actually brings up Q, relying on arguments that don’t depend on the question of its existence. Jeremias’ confidence in Luke is shown to be empty (pp 15-20), for Luke betrays a heavy editorial hand. The parts he omitted are organic to the prayer, and his version reflects a general effort to divest it of Jewish themes and make it more Gentile-friendly (p 27). Farrer advocates could obviously make Gibson’s case stronger. Not taking a stand on Q might be shrewd tactics, but that’s a two-edged sword, since some Q-believers may charge that Gibson is sidestepping an important part of the debate. Q-skeptics like myself will be convinced in advance.

Then comes the deeper question: Does Matthew’s version go back to Jesus? Gibson thinks yes, but arguing anything about the historical Jesus these days is speculative business. He nicely refutes Goulder and Crossan (pp 20-25), but just because their arguments are weak doesn’t make a case for historicity strong. Gibson’s case is that Matthew’s writing style and characteristic vocabulary “might be be a reproduction, albeit in Greek, of the style and vocabulary of Jesus” (p 26) and that the Didache, which mirrors Matthew’s version, is likely independent of Matthew (p 27). The first is conjectural, the second questionable. I’ve no idea if the Disciples’ Prayer goes back to Jesus, but in the absence of a compelling case against it, I can go along with Gibson and assume so to see where it leads. And on this assumption, Matthew’s version is indeed the better candidate.

The Meaning of the Prayer

Gibson’s thesis is on whole compelling, though some of his supportive arguments are either problematic or unnecessary. He basically dismantles the eschatological reading under the influence of George Caird. The prayer, he says, isn’t about praying down blessings from the end-times. I think he’s right about this, though part of his reasoning depends on what I take to be an unwarranted skepticism about literal apocalyptic imagery:

“The whole scholarly notion, rampant in New Testament studies since Johannes Weiss’s (re)discovery of apocalyptic, that Jews expected any kind of cosmic catastrophe, let alone an imminent end of the world, as part of the outworking of any divinely grounded hope for Israel, may be a false one, since it may be based in an overly literal reading, and misunderstanding of the nature, of ‘apocalyptic’ texts.” (p 138)

I deny this, and explained why in Will the Stars Really Fall?. In a page-by-page decimation of Tom Wright, Edward Adams proved (beyond reasonable doubt) that Jewish apocalyptic pointed to the universe’s literal destruction, followed by either its re-creation or miraculous transformation. Wright’s insistence that cosmic disaster language was a metaphor for purely socio-political events is refuted by a thorough assessment of the literary evidence. Even worse is the way Wright abuses George Caird to support his pseudo-historical view. Caird at least maintained literal elements alongside the metaphorical, though I think Caird could also push the metaphorical envelope a bit far.

But that’s an aside. Just because I’m confident that Jesus was a literal apocalyptic doesn’t mean everything he said had to be about the apocalypse. That would be absurd. Some of his parables were apocalyptic, others not at all. He spoke directly about the kingdom, but he also said things that were kingdom-related without focusing on the issue — not least in the Disciples’ Prayer. Gibson makes a strong case that the prayer isn’t “about” the kingdom. It’s about resisting apostasy to make oneself worthy of it.

Paraphrasing the Prayer

Here is Gibson’s paraphrase of the prayer (p 28). Again, this isn’t a plea for God to make his kingdom arrive, but to help the disciples maintain an obedience which the kingdom demands.

“Our Father, the one in the heavens,
ensure that we hallow your name
ensure that your reign comes
ensure that your will is done on earth just as it is done in heaven;
do indeed give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
in the same manner in which we have forgiven our enemies
and keep us from subjecting you to testing
but rescue us from doing evil.”

Thus, the “Our Father” segment is a confession of God’s sovereignty and pledge of disciple-loyalty, whatever the cost. “Hallow your name” asks that the disciples not dishonor God through disobedience, even at the cost of their lives (pp 114-120). “Your kingdom/reign come” asks that God shape the faithful remnant of believers and enable them to do his will (pp 109-114). “Forgiveness” has in view the principle of non-retaliation and constraint to love one’s enemies, and is the condition upon which God forgives the disciples (pp 126-132). “Lead us not into testing” asks God to keep the disciples from putting him to the test, not the other way around (pp 135-160). That last needs special attention — Gibson devotes an entire chapter to the “testing” segment — and I’ll return to it shortly.

All other prayers which Jesus urged on his disciples (Mt 9:38/Lk 10:2; Mt 24:20; Lk 21:36; Mk 14:38/Mt 26:41/Lk 22:40,46) were aimed to keep them on the right path (see pp 90-96), and so Gibson’s reading of the Disciples’ Prayer naturally follows suit. He also discredits comparisons to the Amidah, Kadish, and the Morning Prayer — the eschatological Jewish prayers from which the Disciples’ Prayer supposedly derives. The datings of these prayers are uncertain (later is more likely), and they were doubtfully prayed in synagogues before the liturgical introductions of the second century (see pp 54-58). First-century synagogues were places of Torah recitation and instruction (per Horsley and Sanders), and any prayers uttered in them were private and spontaneous. Taken together, the evidence reinforces Gibson’s reading of a prayer that aligns more with the stringent demands of remnant theology, and less with the liturgical hopes of later catechisms.

Who Puts Whom to the Test?

The final chapter on the “temptation” petition is the book’s strongest. For starters, the word is a poor translation. The Greek word πειραζειν peirazein, like the Aramaic nisan (which likely stands behind it), wasn’t thought to convey what “temptation” conveys to us today; “testing” is the better translation (p 33). But the real question is who is testing whom? Most assume that the petition means something like “Please God, don’t tempt (or test) us too harshly”, but Gibson argues that the disciples are asking God to keep them from putting him to the test.

It’s ironic that the apocalyptic crowd (of which I’m a vocal member) views this part of the prayer as lending strong support to the standard reading. The assumption that devout Christians would be assigned a prayer that begs to be spared temptation, testing, suffering and/or persecution makes nonsense of NT theology. Gibson grinds this point home (see pp 141-146), and cites Moule:

“Why should anyone pray to escape testing — even if it is testing by the Devil and constitutes temptation [enticement to evil]? If one knows that testing and temptation are inevitable; if one knows that, before the glorious climax of God’s final triumph, there will be inescapable testing of an exceptionally severe kind; if, moreover, one knows that testing can be salutary and that the Lord himself has pioneered the way through it to spiritual effectiveness — then what is the logic of praying for exemption?”

To which Gibson answers in agreement, none at all (p 144). The faithful elect expected to be put through the grind; they wouldn’t pray to be spared the badge of honor. As a brief aside, this is a similar point made by some of the more sane fundamentalists when they refute pre-tribulationist doctrine: the NT is replete with the idea that believers will be persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — have their faith put to the test in horrendous ways, especially during the tribulation. (Certainly the “rapture” spoken of by Paul in I Thess 4 was never understood to avoid this, against pre-tribbers). Christians were committed to suffering for their cause. Disciples invited martyrdom as proof of their allegiance. They faltered and got terrified and had doubts like anyone, but the remedy for this wasn’t a petition to get out of jail free.

The prayer should read, as Gibson says, “Lead us not into testing you”, which basically says, “Please God, keep us from doubting you and renouncing all that you have deemed fit for us to follow” (p 150) — in particular, the constraints of non-retaliation and loving one’s enemies in the face of lethal hardships (p 159). That’s a difficult thing to do in any time and place, but especially in the honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean.


Gibson’s book is more than an argument. It’s an aesthetic, especially for the way it evokes seminal moments in Israel’s history: the wilderness generation, who hardened their hearts and put God to the test (Exod 17; Num 14; Psalm 95); the bread from heaven they received (Exod 16); Moses’ command to hallow God’s name, do his will, and not put him to the test (Deut 6:10-19). All of this lends more support to the apocalyptic model than Gibson realizes (I don’t think it’s possible to have a “new exodus” without literal end-times, unless your name is Tom Wright), but that’s a small matter when his thesis doesn’t suffer for it. This famous prayer, as he shows, doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now. It wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. If Jesus believed the world was about to end (as I think he did; Gibson less so), he also insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation. He was like any millenial leader, but he crafted a special prayer to reinforce allegiance.

For modern Christians, the book almost functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Not all religious martyrs are pacifist, and the path of non-violence is a hard one. Violence is in our nature, and a perennial question is whether our savagery is fueled or reined in by religion. Muhammad fueled it. Jesus reined it in, and for him, “to profess God as Father,” says Gibson, “entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world” (p 164). Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s exactly what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

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