Give Us This Day Our Supersubstantial Bread

In his weekly column for the Washington DC Archdiocesan website, Monsignor Charles Pope raises the question of the meaning of the word used by Saints Matthew and Luke in the petition for “our daily bread” in the Our Father prayer.

The Douay English translation of the text is literally faithful to the Latin Vulgate, which has “our daily bread” (panem nostrum quotidianum) in Luke’s version of the Our Father (11:3) and “our supersubstantial bread” (panem nostrum supersubstantialem) in Matthew’s Gospel. (6:11)

Here is the mystery. The New Testament was inspired in Greek and the Greek word, used in both Gospels, is epiousion, which literally means “supersubstantial,” or “above substantial.” However, this term is found nowhere else in the New Testament or in the Greek translation of the Old. And, although most of the early fathers of the Church spoke Greek as a native tongue, there is not a unanimous consent as to the meaning of the term epiousion. The more common interpretation (Monsignor cites Origen and Saint Cyprian) is that the word refers to the Bread of Life, the Eucharist. But Monsignor notes that other fathers, Saint John Chrysostom, for example, held that the adjective denotes sufficiency, as in ‘give us this day bread sufficient for this day only.’ Saint Jerome, on the other hand, offered two viewpoints: one, that the term “supersubstantial bread” refers to the Blessed Eucharist, the “bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures” and two, that the Hebrew word that best matches epiousion is maar, which means “for tomorrow,” hence “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” that is, for the future.” (Commentary on Saint Matthew, c. 6, vs 11)

I offered my own two cents-worth as one of many commentators whom the Monsignor invited to contribute their thoughts. I kept my points brief:

I have always wondered why in the Vulgate St. Jerome rendered epiousion “daily” in Luke and “supersubstantial” in Matthew, since the same word is used in both Gospels in the Greek. And it was in Greek after all that the New Testament was inspired. The word “substance” is used by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews in its philosophical meaning of “complete being,” or that which “exists in itself,” as opposed to “accidents,” which inhere in a substance and do not exist on their own: “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the figure of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the right hand of the majesty on high.” (Heb 1:3) Therefore, it would seem that the Jews of Our Lord’s time, who were educated in Greek and far from illiterate (as some so-called scholars wrongly imagine today), were acquainted with this word. St. Paul certainly was. On the other hand, if the word was directly infused into the minds of Saints Matthew and Luke — a new word coined by the Holy Spirit let us say? — it is all the more evident that it refers to the Holy Eucharist, for, as you note, Monsignor, the word is a compound, meaning “over and above” (epi) substance (ousia). Add to that that Our Lord taught His disciples not to pray for such things as food and garments: “Be not solicitous therefore, saying, What shall we eat: or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:32). Give thanks for these things, most certainly, and for all the good things God provides daily, but it seems that we ought not to be anxious over these things, unless we be deprived of them by way of a chastisement, such as famine, then we offer prayers for mercy with penance.