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Give Us This Day Our Supersubstantial Bread

February 11, AD2017

“Give us this day our daily bread” … what does that mean? On the surface, it’s a simple acknowledgment that the things we need to live all have their source in God, as well as a request that our needs for the day be provided. However, hiding under that simple word “daily” is many centuries’ worth of puzzlement and scholarly debate. The cause of the debate is a troublesome Greek word, the definition of which may open that line to a whole new layer of meaning. If you can stick with me, you’ll see why it matters.

St. Jerome Coins a Word

The word in question is epiousios (ἐπιούσιος, Matthew 6:11 SBLGNT; Luke 11:3 SBLGNT). The trouble is, the word had never been written before Matthew and Luke. If Jesus spoke to his disciples in either Hebrew or Aramaic, we have a further problem: we don’t have texts in either language predating the Greek. We have texts in Syriac, a close cousin to Aramaic, but the Syriac Matthew and Luke are most likely translations of the Greek. Greek had perfectly good words for “daily” — hēmera, kathēmerinos (closer in sense to “ordinary” or “usual”), and ephēmeros (“for the day”). In fact, hēmera is also in Luke 11:3. Why coin a new word?

We have one possible clue. Saint Jerome, the fourth-century scholar who translated Scripture into Latin, had received a copy of the Aramaic “Gospel of the Hebrews”, which now exists only in fragments (i.e., words and phrases found in other writings). In writing of the Lord’s Prayer in that Gospel, Jerome glosses the Aramaic word as meaning crastinus (“tomorrow’s”; that is, belonging to tomorrow). So perhaps Jesus is saying, “Give enough sustenance today to get through to tomorrow,” right? This would fit with the end of the chapter, where Jesus advises us not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-34).

But this won’t do. First, epiousios also appears in Luke’s version, which is shorter and occurs in a different context that doesn’t so neatly end in a “don’t worry” passage. Second, whatever St. Jerome thought of the Gospel of the Hebrews, instead of using crastinus he coined a Latin neologism of his own: supersubstantialis. To make matters more confusing, he translated the same word in Luke cotidianus (quotidianus, “daily”), giving us the redundancy, “Give us our daily bread every day.” Finally, Greek had plenty of words sufficient to translate such a thought without having to mint new Koine. So what was Jesus really saying?

Being and Superbeing

First, let’s break epiousios down. According to Dr. Brant Pitre, epiousios is a portmanteau word, or “frankenword”, created by joining the preposition epi (over, above, before) with an adjective formed from the feminine noun ousia. In the Greek Scriptures, ousia is usually translated as “what one has, substance, goods, property”. However, ousia was also used in Greek philosophy, most notably by Plato and Aristotle, to signify substance or essence — what a being truly is. To reflect this mashup, St. Jerome hooked the preposition super (= epi) to the adjective form of substantia (= ousia). This gives us supersubstantialis, which St. Thomas More brought into English as supersubstantial.

What do we mean by substance? Let’s take a chair. What kind of chair? A barstool, a La-Z-Boy, a drummer’s throne, a divan, a wicker swing? Each of these examples, though made in different shapes and with different materials, yet carries with it a quality in common with the others that we can call “chair-ness”. That “chair-ness” is their essence or substance. The substance is what gives beings — anything that “be-s” — their fundamental identity or nature, their reality. God’s declaration of His Name to Moses, “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14 DRA), also reveals His substance: God is the fullness of Being (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church § 212-213).

To say, then, that a being is supersubstantial is to say it’s more than just real; its being transcends ordinary being. The idea that there could be anything more real, more substantial, than those concrete beings we know of here — that’s a tough concept to grasp, even now. In Jewish beliefs of the time, things in the visible, material world were signs of the world that lay beyond immediate sight and touch. We call this other world and its beings immaterial, or spiritual; but in our modern mindset, these words have come to imply a lack of reality. This is the exact opposite of the truth: God and His angels are more real than we are. They are epiousios.

Our Supernatural Bread

If St. Jerome’s reading in Matthew is correct, then, what we ask for is not simply today’s bread, or bread sufficient until tomorrow, but for bread that has transcendent substance — bread that’s not of this world. Give us this day our supernatural bread. Or even our heavenly bread.

What about Luke’s version? Most textual variants in the extant handwritten copies we have are very similar in meaning or appearance to one another. The most reasonable explanation, I think, is that St. Jerome had a copy of Luke (now lost) which used a variant similar in spelling to epiousios that would lead more naturally to “daily”.

But how sure can we be of this reading? After all, the Catholic Church has formally approved of the word “daily” as part of the liturgy. In fact, the Latin texts for both Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, on which all translations are based, use the word quotidianus rather than supersubstantialis. What we pray is what we believe, right?

Well, St. Cyril of Jerusalem picked up on it in his Catechetical Lectures (op. cit., 23:15). So did St. Cyprian in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer (Treatises IV:18). So too St. John Cassian (Conferences 9:21) and St. John Damascene (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4:13). Tertullian (On Prayer, 6) and St. Augustine of Hippo (Enchiridion, 116) argued that the phrase could be understood either way. Saint Thomas Aquinas, interestingly, also felt that either meaning was useful in helping us to merit the good (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 83 A. 9 Resp.).

“Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally …, it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day. (CCC § 2837)

“As Often As You Eat the Bread”

The Jews of the time would have immediately understood “supernatural bread” to be a reference to the manna from heaven with which God fed the Israelites on their journey to Canaan (Exodus 16; Joshua 5:10-12), and which they expected the Messiah to bring with him (see Pitre, ch. 4). However, as we’ve seen, the Church Fathers also saw it pointing forward to the Bread of the Eucharist. Small surprise that many Scripture scholars resist such a translation! “Oh, no! Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant that! The bread of the Eucharist is only a symbol!

Now, even if the Eucharist were only bread and wine shared in a symbolic communal meal, what of it? Bread is a staple in the diets of every grain-growing culture on Earth, while wine is and was a staple of the Mediterranean cultures. Put another way, they weren’t merely treats or even regular but special meals like a Sunday pot roast dinner. They were things people ate every single day.

If we follow the logic of the symbolism, we see that the Eucharistic meal isn’t something we can indulge in sporadically and do without the rest of the year. If it’s our daily bread, then daily we must eat it; at least frequently and regularly, like the Sunday pot roast dinner.

When Jesus taught the words of the Institution to St. Paul, he said, “Do this, as often as you [do] it, in remembrance of me;” St. Paul added, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We must proclaim the death of the Lord, not merely mention it in passing. We aren’t dependent on God only now and again; our very existence, both material and spiritual, depends on His continued action. Consequently, the Bread of the Eucharist must be a staple of our spiritual diet.

Bread in Abundance

So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:30-35)

From the very beginning, the Christian Church had to invent a new language with which to convey the fullness of Jesus’ teachings. All too often, they had to pour new wine into old wineskins, as it were. But St. Jerome left us a valuable key to unlocking the enigma of epiousios: we have been granted our own manna for our journey to our promised land in the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, the Messiah and new Moses. And we can have it every day.

Both meanings, daily and supernatural, are profitable for our spiritual lives. But if it’s not always practical for all of us to eat the supernatural bread of the Eucharist daily, we can remember that we are one people and that we depend on God for all things, including the natural bread we eat. Nevertheless, the bread “for the day” (ephēmeros) reminds us that our own lives and our own world are ephemeral; that is, only for now. The supersubstantial bread — Jesus, the Bread of Life — is for eternity.

Let us pray that we may have that bread in abundance (cf. John 10:10).

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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  • Mark McCann

    Tony, I LOVE meaty articles! I love when someone does surgery on the Word and truly considers the meaning, the context, and the intent of the author under the guidance of the Holy Spirit! I’ve struggled with Protestant brothers over the Eucharist as symbol vs. Eucharist as sacrament and it was so meaningful to have one more affirmation of God’s breath in the Bible. Every word has significance, and I delight in discovering little bits of beauty and meaning like this. Thank you for a great piece!