I was asked recently to explore with some of the good people at Wellspring Church the background to the Lord’s Prayer. We had invited a good friend and colleague – a rabbi – to talk about various aspects of the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures. He began this class by talking about the Jewish roots to the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not at all surprising that the Lord’s Prayer would have Jewish roots. Everything Jesus said and did was Jewish. You could say Jesus was the ultimate Jew and be right in more ways than you might think.
Anyway, as a follow-up, I was asked to explore the question, Why these petitions? Why did Jesus pray this prayer? What was so significant about the lines he offered to his disciples and followers and lookers-on?
My focus is on what was going on in Jesus’ own day, in first century Palestine among first century Jews. My aim is not to unpack what the Lord’s Prayer means to 21st century American Christians, but what it might have meant to 1st century Jews. What did they hear? What did they understand?
Though the Lord’s Prayer appears in short form in Luke 11:2-4, I’ll be working with the prayer as it is presented in Matthew 6:9-13, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).
But before sorting through the text itself, it is important to look at background and context. Just what was the setting in which Jesus was speaking? We are several thousand miles and a couple thousand years removed from Jesus and his contemporaries. We must, as best we can, get back to Jesus’ context to try to hear what they may have been hearing.
I’ll briefly outline here a sketch of the first century milieu, but I’ll also direct you to a few handy resources for getting a grasp on the world at the turn of the ages. A good read through the relevant history related to the New Testament may be found in F.F. Bruce’s New Testament History. This is a concise volume that is easily accessible. Also helpful is Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, which is more useful as a reference tool. Its indices and layout make it easy to pick out specific topics for study. It also has pictures for those of us who need that sort of thing. Finally, N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God is a thorough study of the cultural backgrounds to the first century landscape. This has been an extremely helpful volume in stepping into the world of Jesus and the early church.
OK. Here’s what we’ve got to be thinking as we approach the Lord’s Prayer and, really, any other aspect of Jesus’ life and work.
In 587 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. I know, this is a long time before Jesus rolls around, but it begins an era of devastation and national despondency that’s important for the cultural mindset of Jews 600 years later. The destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple was devastating for the Jews. Imagine being forced out of your homeland, a land which your God had promised to your ancestors some 1500 years prior. On top of that, you witness the Temple, a national symbol, and the place where heaven and earth intersected, where Yahweh resided among His people, crumble at the hands of a pagan army.
So, the Jews spend 70 years in Babylon. Persia then dominated the Babylonian empire, and, though they allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and begin construction of a new Temple, the Jews remained under foreign rule. Alexander and the Greeks followed Persia, making the whole of the Mediterranean world Hellenistic in nature. The Egyptians owned the third century and then the Syrians controlled the second.
This Syrian period included everyone’s favorite emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, who, in 167 BC, set up in the Temple a statue of himself and made himself a god for the Jews to worship. This had been done to suppress the spirits of the Jews, but it had the exact opposite result. The Maccabaean revolt was a band of Jews who threw the Syrian presence out of the Temple and regained national control three years later. It’s of this Jewish victory that Hanukkah is celebrated.
At any rate, the Romans began their dominance of the region in 63 BC and ruled straight through Jesus’ time and the subsequent generation in which Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed again in AD 70. Throughout this time period, unrest was not kept far below the surface and frequently enough boiled over. Note Wright’s words on the era:
Revolution remained in the air during the early years of the new century, and, after the revolt led by Judas the Galilean in AD 6, Rome deemed it safer to make Judaea a province in its own right. From then on a succession of “prefects” or “procurators” governed with more or less crass folly. Pontius Pilate, the third of the Judaean prefects (AD 26-32), was one of a line, perhaps no worse but certainly no better than most of the others. Isolated protests were put down with sporadic violence, and the embers of potential rebellion smouldered on, ready to be fanned into flames of expectation and aspiration. Sooner or later the covenant god would act once more to vindicate his name, to restore the symbols (particularly the Temple) which expressed his covenant with Israel, and of course to liberate Israel herself (The New Testament and the People of God, 160-161).
Long before Jesus’ day, and right on through his ministry, there remained among the Jewish people a culture of revolt targeted against their foreign overlords, whether Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, or Roman. Whomever it was, it was not the Lord’s anointed. They may have been living in the Promised Land, but it certainly wasn’t the kingdom of heaven ruled by Yahweh. Eager were many for the national and heavenly reversal of fortunes.
This is the background we need for understanding what Jesus’ prayer might have meant for those listening to Jesus on that hillside. It will become all the more clear as we explore each phrase from here on out.