December 13, 2021
Is the Lord’s Prayer the Lord’s prayer? Did Jesus himself compose the Lord’s Prayer?
If asked those questions, I would respond, “Well yes, Jesus did compose the Lord’s Prayer, but not from scratch. Instead, he repurposed and rearranged some common, well-known prayers that his Jewish audience had memorized and regularly recited.” I might go on to say, “Moreover, even today those common, well-known prayers are still liturgically and regularly recited by Jewish congregations. Yes indeed, these old, old prayers are routinely recited even today. Practicing Jews refer to these liturgical prayers as the Kaddish, or, if spelled with a Q, the Qaddish— same pronunciation, just spelled differently, with a K or a Q.”
And this is where I stop quoting myself answering a hypothetical question or two.
Now, if my answer to the origin and the originality of the Lord’s Prayer is correct, it has several interesting implications. First, it means we can compare the Lord’s Prayer with the variations of the Kaddish received through Jewish liturgical tradition. Second, it probably means we can extract some useful insights regarding how Jesus’ original Jewish audience heard and understood the Lord’s Prayer — that is, as Jesus’ own edited update to the traditional Kaddish. Third, it means we might apply such insights to our own prayers, on the presumption that you are a praying person.
Hopefully, by writing this post, I am contributing something somewhat original and corrective to ongoing New Testament scholarship on the Lord’s Prayer. If nothing else, though, I hope to make more readers and listeners aware of the almost certain historical and lexical connections between the Lord’s Prayer and the Jewish Kaddish liturgical tradition. After learning of them, it now seems quite surprising to me that the numerous connections between the Jewish and Jesus liturgical prayer traditions are not common knowledge among Christian scholars and preachers. It is time to correct that.
As an example of where the Kaddish-Lord’s Prayer connection goes curiously unmentioned, I will point here to an influential book published as recently as 2018, a book entitled Jesus the Priest, by Dr. Nicholas Perrin, currently the president of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.
In the first chapter of Jesus the Priest, the learned (and thought-provoking) President Perrin delves immediately into the Lord’s Prayer. Perrin does so because he believes that the title Father, which is the opening word of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2), gives “substantive insight into what made [Jesus] tick” (p. 20). I certainly agree with Dr. Perrin about that.
Yes, Jesus’ very frequent use of the title Father can give us insight into what made him tick. But nonetheless, it comes as a surprise that — with the Lord’s Prayer open before us and in consideration — President Perrin does not discuss the most likely immediate source of the title Father: the Kaddish liturgies, which Jesus’ original Jewish listeners (almost certainly) routinely recited. Jesus’ first listeners would not have missed the connection between the Kaddish’s repetitive use of the title Father and the Lord’s Prayer use of the same.
Here is one relevant sentence from a translation of the Full Kaddish (i.e., the Kadesh Shalem):
May the prayers and supplications of the whole House of Israel be accepted by their Father Who is in Heaven.Excerpt from The Full Kaddish
Those who are familiar with (the Matthean and King James’ version of) the Lord’s Prayer should immediately hear the very close lexical similarity of “their Father who is in Heaven” and “our Father who art in Heaven.” But the lexical connections by no means end there.
Before I go on to discuss more such connections, I want to point out that Dr. Perrin expends much time, ink, and effort discussing why Jesus starts the Lord’s Prayer (or as he refers to it, by its Latin name, the Pater Noster) with the title Father. Perrin correctly links the title Father to specific scriptural passages, especially Exodus 4:21-23 (see Jesus the Priest, p. 36); but he still misses or intentionally overlooks the most immediate relevant liturgical and lexical connection: the Kaddish. Although Perrin claims that the tribulation of Israel’s Exodus was foremost in Jesus’ thinking when he gave the Lord’s Prayer, it is much more likely that Jesus had the expectations and the requests of the Kaddish more immediately in mind. When he gave the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus wanted to both appropriate the best of Jewish liturgical tradition and recast it at the same time. Jesus was editing the Kaddish and along with it, the many requests and expectations expressed therein. Jesus revised the Kaddish to fit the reality of his messianic arrival and the inauguration of his kingdom. Jesus gave his disciples their own updated Kaddish, one that fit their new situation, since many of requests of the original Kaddish had been answered and fulfilled in the arrival and person of Jesus himself.
With those claims in mind, please recall the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer as you read this translation of the full Kaddish:
May His great name be exalted and sanctified (hallowed) in the world which He created according to His will.
May He establish His Kingdom and may His salvation blossom and may His Anointed [the Moshiach/Messiah] come soon during your lifetime and during your days — and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon. And let us say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and for all eternity! Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded, be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, above and beyond all blessings, that are uttered in the world. And let us say, Amen.
[The Half Kaddish ends here; the Full Kaddish continues:]
May the prayers and supplications of the whole House of Israel be accepted by their Father Who is in heaven. And let us say, Amen.
[The following section is said only in Kaddish d’Rabbanan, i.e., the Rabbis’ or Scholars’ Kaddish:]
For Israel, for the Rabbis and their disciples, for the disciples of their disciples, and for all those who engage in the study of Torah in this (holy) place or in any other place, may there be abundant peace, grace, loving kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance and salvation from the Father Who is in heaven (and earth). And let us say, Amen.
[All versions except the Half Kaddish continue:]
May there be abundant peace from heaven and good life, satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, relief and salvation for us and for all His people Israel. And let us say, Amen.
May He Who makes peace in His high places grant (in His mercy) peace for us and for all his people Israel. And let us say, Amen.The Full Kaddish/Kadesh Shalem
To say that Jesus edits and amends the Kaddish liturgies is an accurate claim. He reorders many of the petitions. He omits some of the petitions, most notably the prayer for the Messiah to arrive soon (because Jesus the Messiah had already come). He revises and expands at least one of the petitions. And yet, as for what he retains and includes, he essentially quotes much of the original wording. He cuts and pastes the Kaddish to fit his disciples’ new situation and new community.
Finally, a historically critical note: I anticipate that someone will look into my claims and counter that we cannot be sure that the Kaddish that has been passed down in Jewish tradition is the same as the Kaddish that existed when Jesus gave the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Well, granted. We cannot be sure we have exactly the same Kaddish. Nonetheless, we almost certainly have an accurate and reliable version of it. Further, in rebuttal of that skeptical argument, I will point out two things: First, the wording between the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer is astonishingly close at a number of points. The closeness in wording begs the question of whom is borrowing from who. It is much more likely that Jesus is borrowing from an established Jewish liturgical tradition than vice versa. There would be very little incentive for later Jews to copy and incorporate Christian materials in their liturgies. But Jesus and the writers of the four gospels would not have hesitated to appropriate previously established Jewish liturgical material.
Second, many of the elements of the Kaddish liturgies clearly derive from and depend directly upon the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament). We do know for certain that those scriptures predate Jesus’ earthly ministry and the writing of the New Testament.
Finally, this all makes for a logically tight, historically apt scenerio. In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus simply drew on what they already had memorized. Jesus just simplified it and adjusted it to fit their new situation and new community.