Praying Like The Pagans – Matthew 6:5-8

In my first semester of Bible college an older student stood up to prayer in a chapel and began by addressing God as Father, Lord, el-shaddai, Jehovah Jirah, and every other name of God he could think of from the Bible (or from the latest Amy Grant song). This went on for several minutes and became more and more awkward as this student oiled on the names of God and showed off their preaching skills in their public prayer. Looking back on this, I wondered if the student realized they were drawing attention to themselves by praying in this way. I imagine they were genuinely trying to worship God in the prayer and would have been horrified to find out people were distracted from real worship by his overly-flowery prayer.

This first kind of prayer common Jesus addresses is the long, flowery public prayer which draws attention to the person praying. For many people, Jewish and Greco-Roman prayers were ritualized. While it is impossible to know the exact wording in the first century, there are some remarkable parallels between these prayers and the prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6. Roman public prayers were read exactly as they were written, “if one syllable or one ritual gesture was performed incorrectly, the prayer might well be invalid” (Stambaugh and Balch, cited in Keener, Matthew, 213).

Benediction 6 Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned against You. Blot out and remove our transgressions from before Your sight, for Your mercies are manifold. You are praised, O Lord, who abundantly pardons.

Benediction 9 Bless, O Lord our God, this year for us, and let it be good in all the varieties of its produce. Hasten the year of our redemptive End. Grant dew and rain upon the face of the earth, and satiate the world out of the treasuries of Your goodness; and grant a blessing to the work of our hands. Exalted and hallowed be His great Name in the world which He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time. And say, Amen. (From Petuchowski and Brocke, The Lord’s Prayer and Jewish Liturgy)

But the other extreme seems to also been a problem. For some (in Matthew, the Pharisees), long flowery prayers were common. Although we cannot know what they prayed, it is likely these hypocrites wanted to demonstrate how spiritual they really were. As with his comments on giving, Jesus uses hyperbole: the hypocrite loves to stand on the street corners or in the Synagogue to pray for all to see.

Not all Jewish prayers were like this. Rabbi Simeon advised caution in reciting the shema and in prayer. “Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer. And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine” (m.Abot 2.13).

A second problem Jesus addresses is the “pagan babbling.” Jesus is directly attacking memorized prayers which are repeated over and over again in order to gain favor from a god. This kind of prayer was likewise condemned in Sirach 7:14, “Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.”

Christians babble in their prayers as well. We waste lot of words, whether because we don’t know what to say or we run out of things to say. While it is good to thank God for everything, offering God a daily weather report is probably unnecessary Christians use certain words which have no meaning outside of a prayer. What does a Christian mean when they say “pray for this….” Are we asking God to pray for this, or are we abbreviating our prayer? Think about how many times some people say “just” and “really” during their prayers. Why do we close prayers with the quickly spoked word injesusnameamen? Is that a Latin word for, “open your eyes now”?

It is important to understand how the original Jewish audience would have understood Jesus’s words here. He is saying, when the Jewish person prays in public and focuses the attention on themselves, they are praying “like the pagans.” They might as well be pagan Roman priests reciting the prayers like a magic spell. This is shocking, and quite likely very insulting!

For Jesus, the solution for the problem of self-serving prayers is keep prayer private. Just as giving is a private spiritual discipline, prayer should be as well. Jesus says to go into your room, or closet, close the door, and pray in private. He recommends finding a hiding place, a small room where no one can hear you pray. If no one will hear your prayer there is no need to impress people. The problem is with the attitude behind the prayers. They want to be seen by men. Just as with giving, these people want everyone to know that they are praying and how spiritual their prayers are.

Yet there is often a need for public prayers. To lead a congregation in a corporate prayer is not necessarily a violation of the spirit of Jesus’s words here. But as is often the case in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the internal motivation for the public prayer that must be carefully examined.

  • If a politician participates in a “national day of prayer” and publically leads a group in prayers for our country, are they genuinely praying, or do they need to be seem as a “Christian Person” by their constituency?
  • When a Christian sits down to a meal in public, why do they bow their head and offer a short prayer for their meal? Are they genuinely thankful, or is there a Christian peer pressure to at least appear to prayer for a meal?

How can a careful examination of our motives re-invigorate our prayers?

The Prayer of Jacob

The Prayer of Jacob only appears in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM XXIIb), a fourth century collection. David Aune made the translation appearing in Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri (p. 261). The version in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha runs 20 lines, in Betz it is 26. Charlesworth states there is no reason to doubt the work was written in Greek, and it is reasonable to assume it was written in Egypt since it “shares ideas with many other Egyptian documents and papyri” (OTP 2:715). For a short introduction to Greek Magical Papyri, see this online lecture by James Davila from April, 1997 at the University of Saint Andrews Old Testament Pseudepigrapha collection.

Ancient magical papyri, The Prayer of JacobIt is difficult to know the goal of this magical text, which is why Charlesworth includes it in his collection of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha despite its presence in Greek Magical Papyri. It does indeed appear to be Jewish. For example, line 17 may allude to Solomon’s request for wisdom: “Fill me with wisdom, empower me, Lord.” God rules over the archangels (line 7) and sits above Sinai (line 8).

The closest to a specific command in the text is line 14: “Make straight the one who has the prayer [fro]m the race of Israel and those who have received favor from you, God of gods.” The verb “make straight (διορθόω) has a medical connotation, as in the binding of broken bones (Hippocrates.Art.38). It is possible then the one who uses this prayer hoped or physical healing. The prayer concludes with the command to “say the prayer of Jacob seven times to the north and east.”

As is often the case, Hebrew words appear in this prayer as magical words. Hebrew was respected as having magical powers but usually not understood. Line nine reads “God Abōth, Abrathiaōth, [Sa]ba[ōth, A]dōnai, astra …the L[or]d of all (things).” In line 15 the word Sabaōth is the “secret name of the God of gods.” As Charlesworth comments, “appears often in the Nag Hammadi Codices; viz. it is in the Apocryphon of John, the Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, and the Testimony of Truth. It is also one of the most popular names in the magical papyri.” (OTP 2:722, note q).

 

Bibliography:

Charlesworth, J. H. “Prayer of Jacob OTP 2:715-23.

Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Rist, Martin. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: A Liturgical and Magical Formula.,” JBL 57 (1938): 289–303.

Schewe, Lena M. “Prayer of Jacob,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

 

 

The Prayer of Joseph

This prayer of repentance is only known through three fragments embedded in the writings of Origin. J. Z. Smith described the text as “a tantalizing fragment that has left no discernible impact on subsequent literature” (OTP 2:711).

Although the prayer originally ran some 1100 lines, only nine are now extant. Since the longest fragment appears in Origin’s Commentary on John, the prayer dates before A.D. 231. Origin introduced the text as “an apocrypha presently in use among the Hebrews.” J. Z. Smith thought the parallels with Hebrew and Aramaic prayers suggest a date in the first century (OTP 2:700). After observing the uncertainty associated with this text, Stephen Robinson suggests the prayer was written in the first century in either in Aramaic or Greek by a Jewish author (ABD 3:976). In his Lexham Bible Dictionary article, John Barry suggests the possibility the text may have “gnostic undertones” since Jacob is described as elevated figure with special abilities and knowledge.

Of interest to New Testament studies is the description of Jacob as “firstborn of every living being” in line three of the first fragment:

“I, Jacob, who is speaking to you, am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit. Abraham and Isaac were created before any work. But, I, Jacob, who men call Jacob but whose name is Israel am he who God called Israel which means, a man seeing God, because I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life.

This is remarkably similar to Colossians 1:15, although the Prayer of Joseph uses πρωτογενός rather than πρωτότοκος. But as Smith points out, both usages have their origin in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my firstborn” (πρωτότοκός μου Ισραηλ, cf., 4 Ezra 6:58; Sir 36:17; PssSol 18:4). In addition, this fragmentary text also stats Abraham and Isaac were created before anything else.  In John 8:58, Jesus claims “before Abraham was, I am.” In both Colossians and John, the issue is the pre-existence of Jesus, the Prayer of Joseph may be evidence of some interest among some first century Jews in the pre-existence of patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob.

One additional intriguing element of the first fragment is the re-interpretation of the struggle between Jacob and an angel in Genesis 32:22-32. In that canonical story, the identity of the man who wrestles with Jacob is not at all clear; he is never called an angel, but he seems more than human. When he blesses Jacob, the man says “you have striven with God.” Although this may imply the man was an angel (on an incarnation of God), that is not clear in the text. The Prayer of Joseph identifies the angel as Uriel:

And when I was coming up from Syrian Mesopotamia, Uriel, the angel of God, came forth and said that ‘I [Jacob-Israel] had descended to earth and I had tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name of Jacob.’ He envied me and fought with me and wrestled with me saying that his name and the name that is before every angel was to be above mine. 6I told him his name and what rank he held among the sons of God. ‘Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? and I, Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God?’ And I called upon my God by the inextinguishable name.”

This angel is one of the archangels, serving as a “chief captain among the sons of God,” but so too is Israel, the “first minister before the face of God.” Uriel appears in Uriel are those found in The Astronomical Book (1 Enoch 72–82) and guides Enoch in several other heavenly journeys (1 Enoch 19:1; 21:5, 9; 27:2; 33:3-4). 1 Enoch 20:2 identifies him as one of the angels ruling over Tartarus. Since Israel overcomes Uriel, Barry suggests this is an allegory for the elevation of Israel (the nation) over all people.

 

Bibliography: Barry, John D. “Prayer of Joseph” LBD; Newsom, Carol A. “Uriel (Angel),” ABD 6:769; Smith, J. Z. “Prayer of Joseph,” OTP 2:699-714.

 

 

The Prayer of Manasseh

This prayer of repentance is attributed to Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah who is credited with the wickedest reign in the history of Judah (687-642 B.C.) According to 2 Chronicles 33:1-20, late in Manasseh’s reign the king was taken captive by the Assyrians. While in captivity, he remembered his God and prayed to him. No prayer is recorded, but we are told the Lord listened to him and restored him to his kingdom.

There are no Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts of the prayer, leading most scholars to assume the Prayer was written originally in Greek. David Flusser is the exception to this, as Charlesworth comments in his introduction to the prayer (OTP 2:626, note 17). Flusser argues the Psalm was written in Hebrew and the Greek is a “loose translation.” There are a number of Syriac manuscripts with a number of differences to the Greek version.

Since the Prayer is based on Chronicles, it must be dated after the fourth century B.C., but it seems unlikely to have been the product of Christian writers. There are several scholars who think the book was written by the author of the Apostolic Constitution (OTP 2:627), making the date prior to the fourth century A.D. But as Charlesworth says the author “was obviously a Jew.”

The earliest reference to the Prayer is in the third century A.D. Didaskalia, a Christian retelling of 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33. Although this prayer was never part of the Septuagint nor did it appear in it does not appear in Vaticanus or Sinaiticus, it is often included in introductions to the Apocrypha.. The origin of the Prayer is almost impossible to determine in such a short book with no cultural or historical references.

Since the work is based on 2 Chronicles 33 and the psalms of repentance like Psalm 51, the value for New Testament studies is limited. Perhaps a “theology of repentance” could be developed based on this Prayer, Psalm 51 and other Pseudepigrapha books such as Joseph and Aseneth which might illustrate the New Testament idea of repentance and highlight difference between the Jewish idea and the developing Christian view of repentance (if any).

The book is very vivid in its description of repentance. The writer says that he will “bend the knee of my heart, imploring you for your kindness” (vs. 11).  The Prayer of Manasseh was collected by Christians along with a number of other biblical prayers and odes. This prayer collection is found in Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century) and Codex Turicensis (seventh century).

Because you are the Lord, long-suffering, merciful, and greatly compassionate; and you feel sorry over the evils of men. You, O Lord, according to your gentle grace, promised forgiveness to those who repent of their sins, and in your manifold mercies appointed repentance for sinners as the (way to) salvation.

You, therefore, O Lord, God of the righteous, did not appoint grace for the righteous, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those who did not sin against you; but you appointed grace for me, (I) who am a sinner. (translation Charlesworth).

Aquinas used the Prayer of Manasseh to argue the sacrament of Penanceis is a necessary condition for all who are in sin (Summa Theologiae, 3a.84.5). Martin Luther told the Duke of Braunschweig he should “in all sincerity genuinely repent,” using “words such as those that appear in the Prayer of Manasseh” (OTP 2:632).

 

 

Jesus’ Prayer of Thanksgiving (John 11:42-44)

Jesus prays a “prayer of thanksgiving” before commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This prayer has been discussed with respect to the possibility of historicity – is it the type of prayer that Jesus might have prayed in this context?  Some scholars dispense with the historicity of the prayer as an addition by the writer of the Gospel.  For example, R. H. Fuller, (Interpreting the Miracles) wrote that:

To the modern reader this prayer is irritating, if not offensive. The whole thing looks like a put-up show, anything but genuine prayer. Jesus knows he need not pray, but apparently stages a prayer to impress the bystanders.

Rather than an “irritating prayer”, this is actually a Prayer of Thanksgiving as prayed by Jews commonly in the context of first century Palestine. Following J. M. Robinson, Bingham Hunter has demonstrated that there are formal parallels to a Jewish thanksgiving prayer. As a Jewish Hodayoth, the prayer is intended to be heard by the audience for which it is prayed. The cited article lists many examples (including in the Pauline and Qumran literature) indicating that this sort of prayer was not only common enough in the first century, but expected in a religious context such as the one Jesus finds himself in John 11.

Because of its form the prayer seems to be genetically related to and a part of a tradition of piety exemplified by the Jewish personal thanksgiving psalm. Thanksgivings of this sort are characteristically prayers that both God and spectators are meant to hear.

With respect to the scholars that find offense in the prayer, Hunter points that the offense is entirely modern. Read in the context of the first-century, the prayer is exactly the sort of thanksgiving prayer we might have expected.

Bibliography:  R. H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); W. Bingham Hunter, “Contextual And Genre Implications For The  Historicity Of John 11:41b-42” JETS 28:1 (March 1985) 53-70.

John 18 – The Arrest of Jesus

Judas leads a group of soldiers and guards to the garden to arrest Jesus (18:2-9). Judas’s role as betrayer is to lead the temple guard to the place where Jesus is camping. It is likely that there are a number of campsites on the Mount of Olives, the Passover crowds probably made finding the exact spot where Jesus was nearly impossible. In addition, it is possible that another person could substitute themselves for Jesus, Judas provides a positive identification of his master.

The solders include Temple guards (who make the actual arrest) and Roman soldiers. Two observations are important about these two groups of soldiers. First, it is historically plausible that the Romans would assign a few soldiers to accompany the Temple guards to arrest Jesus. Passover was a celebration of the Exodus, the time when Israel’s God redeemed his people from their slavery. That imagery was a vivid reminder that the Romans were now the power which “enslaved” God’s people.

Jesus was claiming to be the anointed one of God, he selected twelve disciples who form a new Israel, he rode a donkey into Jerusalem just as Solomon did when he was crowed king, the son of David. The Romans therefore were present to “keep the peace,” or at the very least they were there to keep Jesus from initiating a nationalistic riot.

Second, the two groups represent both Jews and Gentiles. Both come to arrest Jesus and both will have a hand in his execution.

When Jesus speaks, the crowd “drew back and fell to the ground” (18:4-7). Jesus asks the crowd who they are seeking, recalling the first words of Jesus in the book, spoken to two disciples who began to follow him: “What do you want?” When a group representing the whole world arrives, Jesus demands to know their intentions.

Jesus’ response is “I am,” and the guards and soldiers “fell to the ground.” The phrase is rare, the adverb χαμαί appears in Job 1:20, Job fell to the ground in worship; Dan 2:46 (Old Greek), Nebuchadnezzar fell to the ground to honor Daniel (cf. Ant. 20.89). It is hard to know what the solders expected when they went out to the garden, but it was not hearing the voice of God, so powerful that they are driven back in worship!

Jesus specifically asks for the disciples to be left alone, John tells us this fulfills Jesus’ own prayer that not one of his followers should be lost. Peter, however, attacks the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear with a short dagger (μάχαιρα). The servant is named in John’s Gospel, although he is unknown to us. (BDAG points out that the name appears in inscriptions, although almost exclusively for Gentiles, Nabatean Arabs (implying that the servant represents the Herodians).

Peter’s actions are sometimes dismissed as laughable, but the represent the actions of the most zealous of Jesus’ followers. Jesus wanted to protect them by giving himself up to the arresting guards, but Peter seizes the moment and “starts the revolution.” Even if this is a colossal failure, it is better than the response of the rest of the disciples!

John 11:42-44 – Jesus’ Prayer of Thanksgiving

Jesus prays a “prayer of thanksgiving” before commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This prayer has been discussed with respect to the possibility of historicity. Is it the type of prayer that Jesus might have prayed in this context? Some scholars dispense with the historicity of the prayer as an addition by the writer of the Gospel. For example, R. H. Fuller, (Interpreting the Miracles) wrote that:

To the modern reader this prayer is irritating, if not offensive. The whole thing looks like a put-up show, anything but genuine prayer. Jesus knows he need not pray, but apparently stages a prayer to impress the bystanders.

The Tomb of LazarusRather than an “irritating prayer”, this is actually a Prayer of Thanksgiving as prayed by Jews commonly in the context of first century Palestine. Following J. M. Robinson, Bingham Hunter argued there are formal parallels to a Jewish thanksgiving prayer. As a Jewish Hodayoth, the prayer is intended to be heard by the audience for which it is prayed. The cited article lists many examples (including in the Pauline and Qumran literature) indicating that this sort of prayer was not only common enough in the first century, but expected in a religious context such as the one Jesus finds himself in John 11.

Because of its form the prayer seems to be genetically related to and a part of a tradition of piety exemplified by the Jewish personal thanksgiving psalm. Thanksgivings of this sort are characteristically prayers that both God and spectators are meant to hear.

Interpreters may legitimately feel that the way Jesus is said to have prayed in John 11 offends their religious sensitivities. Yet such sensitivities do not seem to have characterized either Christians or Jews in the first century, and a correct approach to exegesis requires that determinations of whether Jesus’ thanksgiving is a real prayer be based on first-century Jewish, not modern, criteria. In the historical context that the evangelist gives it, the prayer seems authentically real and quite uniquely appropriate. (Hunter, “Contextual and Genre Implications,” 70)

With respect to the scholars that find offense in the prayer, Hunter points that the offense is entirely modern. Read in the context of the first-century, the prayer is exactly the sort of thanksgiving prayer we might have expected.

 

Bibliography:  R. H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); W. Bingham Hunter, “Contextual And Genre Implications For The Historicity Of John 11:41b-42” JETS 28 (1985): 53-70.